What’s Up With Water for December 10, 2018

I’m Eileen Wray-McCann, for Circle of Blue, and here’s What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water.


In a survey by the World Economic Forum, private sector executives in Egypt, Iran, Namibia and Pakistan ranked “water crises” as the top threat to their businesses.

Business leaders in some of the world’s most water-stressed countries say that water availability and pollution are the leading risks to their operations.

In a new survey by the World Economic Forum, private sector executives in Egypt, Iran, Namibia and Pakistan ranked “water crises” as the top threat to their businesses. In fifteen other countries, mostly in southern and northern Africa, southern Asia and the Middle East, water crises were among the top five concerns.

The World Economic Forum is known for its annual gathering of the world’s political and business elite in Davos, Switzerland. Every January, it publishes a global risks report. Water crises, and environmental issues in general, have climbed to the top of the pack. Aengus Collins, head of global risks and the geopolitical agenda at the World Economic Forum, told Circle of Blue these issues “have become prominent and dominant in survey results.”

This new business risk report has a narrower focus. It was filled out by private sector businesses only, not the political leaders, academics, or nongovernmental organizations who respond to the global risks report. It is a different way to assess how global challenges are playing out and it was based on responses from more than 12,500 business leaders in 138 countries.

The survey demonstrates that water issues are becoming more prominent in corporate decisions, ranking along traditional concerns such as unemployment, energy prices, trade and debt.

Business executives and investors are realizing what national security experts, generals, and diplomats have long known: that the lack of reliable, clean water, made worse by climate change, unsettles societies, politics, and economies.

Executives across the globe worry about having too little water or too much. They are concerned about damaging storms and droughts, and about the social and political fallout from these situations.

Peter Bakker, president and CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development said  “The planet is screaming at us, and the language it uses is water.”

In Thailand, the top risk was manmade environmental catastrophes. Natural catastrophes, were the top threat in five countries, including Chile and China. Extreme weather was the top risk in Jamaica, New Zealand and Norway. Mass migration, linked to drought and political instability, was in the top five risks for 14 European countries.

Globally, the farm sector is especially vulnerable to water uncertainty.  Agriculture uses more water than other industries, often claiming more than three-fourths of a country’s freshwater consumption. Groundwater depletion is threatening the productivity of the world’s breadbaskets, from Pakistan and India, to Australia and California’s Central Valley.

In Iran, water scarcity and mismanagement is both a rural and an urban problem as water bodies dwindle under growing demands in a warming climate. The head of the Iranian Environment Department warned that excessive water use could have terrible social consequences.

The potential for economic damage due to water shortages was highlighted this year in the Western Cape province of South Africa, where an historic drought brought Cape Town and the province to the brink of catastrophe. Stringent conservation measures averted “Day Zero,” the hypothetical day when water would stop for most homes and businesses.

Restrictions have been eased now that reservoirs have refilled, but, as Jane Reddick, a water sector analyst told Circle of Blue, the drought gave businesses in the Western Cape an awareness of their vulnerability to water shortages. She said “They realized how heavily dependent they are on water supply, and the significant risks that water shortages pose.” She added, “There has been a permanent shift in how businesses value water.”  



Scientists warn that an El Nino is very likely in the making, magnifying extreme weather already worsened by climate change.

An El Nino raises the chances that 2019 will be the hottest year in recorded human history.

The Climate Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is an 80 per cent chance that an El Nino has begun and will last through next February, at least.

El Nino is a phenomenon involving air pressure, trade winds and surface water temperatures in the Pacific, which in turn affects the weather worldwide.

The effects of El Nino have been more drastic in recent years due to global warming, and will worsen as temperatures rise, according to a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The most

recent El Nino was in 2016, the hottest year on record.

The last four years, in fact, have been the planet’s warmest on record, spurred by rising levels of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Its Deputy Secretary General said “Every fraction of a degree of warming makes a difference to human health and access to food and fresh water, to the extinction of animals and plants, to the survival of coral reefs and marine life.”

El Nino affects regions of the planet in different ways.

It usually means heavy precipitation in California, like the winter storm last week. Southern California was hit by several inches of snow and rain, which triggered mud and debris flows, shut down roads and caused flood warnings and evacuations in areas recently burned by wildfire.

While El Nino brings rain and cooler temperatures to the southern United States, western South America and eastern Africa, it brings heat and drought to south-eastern Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, northern Brazil and Australia.

Parts of Australia are already suffering from warm and dry conditions, with recent temperatures of over 111 F and massive wildfires in the eastern region.

Colombia’s environment minister said that El Nino could cut his country’s rainfall by 80 percent in the first months of next year.

The developing El Nino is not expected to be as powerful as that of 2016, said Maxx Dilley, director of World Meteorological Organization’s climate prediction and adaptation branch, “Even so,” he said, “it can still significantly affect rainfall and temperature patterns in many regions, with important consequences to agriculture and food security, and for management of water resources and public health. It may also combine with long-term climate change to boost 2019 global temperatures.”


The distress of the Rio Grande is apparent at Elephant Butte Reservoir, which stores water for farmers north of El Paso. It is down to 3 or 4 percent of its full capacity.

El Paso, Texas is one of the hottest cities in the United States. It’s in the middle of a desert, it gets about 9 inches of rainfall a year and is no stranger to temperatures over 100 F.

El Paso has depended on the Rio Grande for almost half its water, but that is changing along with the climate. There is less snowmelt to feed the river, and more evaporation from the heat. It’s the leading edge of a sobering trend across the Western U.S., as major rivers, including the Colorado, face critically low levels.

The distress of the Rio Grande is apparent at Elephant Butte Reservoir, which stores water for farmers north of El Paso. It is down to 3 or 4 percent of its full capacity. Those who depend on the Rio Grande must find alternatives.

Some 30 years ago, the Texas Water Development Board calculated that El Paso could run out of water by 2020 if it continued to rely on pumped groundwater. The head of El Paso’s water utility dedicated himself to stabilizing the aquifer, and diversifying the city’s water resources.

The utility leased water rights from farmers, and bought farmland attached to water rights. It secured funds from the federal government and built the world’s largest inland desalination plant. The plant now taps a huge source of brackish water that is three times the size of the freshwater aquifer above. Hydrologists estimate that Texas has vast amounts of salty groundwater that could be used, and today El Paso’s desalination plant can produce up to 27 million gallons of water a day. Next year, the city expects desalination to supply 7 to 9 percent of its water.

Community outreach has encouraged and enlightened the public about water conservation. The city paid residents to switch to desert-loving landscaping, and the El Paso newspaper called out local water gluttons by name.

CNN reported last week on El Paso’s latest step toward water resilience: building a closed loop system that takes sewage water and converts it to drinking water. The process is called “direct potable reuse” or “advanced purification.”

The utility considers it the logical next step in El Paso’s current practice, in which sewage water is treated and pumped back into the aquifer. After some years, the water filters down where is it pumped out again and treated to drinking water standards. This is also being done in Orange County, California and Scottsdale, Arizona.

What El Paso is setting up now is a completely closed system. Instead of pumping treated sewage water into the aquifer, it will be further filtered and then sent into the drinking water distribution pipes. The process includes multiple stages of filtration, such as ultra-violet and carbon, to scrub the water of pathogens and microbes. Studies have indicated that treated water is less likely to have contaminants than untreated river or lake water.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that about half the water supplied to large cities comes back as wastewater, offering a huge resource for water-stressed places like El Paso.

El Paso Water is counting on its customers to rally round the idea that their utility is doing everything possible to provide water in the desert. By 2030, it expects that 10% of its water supply will come from desalination, and 6% will come from direct potable reuse.  

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