This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
India’s Supreme Court ruled that if state governments fail to provide clean air and water to their citizens, they will have to pay them compensation.
The judges said that people have a constitutional right to live free of pollution and they criticized state governments for ongoing failure to address the problem. They gave the governments six weeks to make a case for why they should not be held accountable.
Arun Mishra is one of India’s Supreme Court justices. He told the Guardian “We have become a laughing stock. The government cannot provide clean air and water to the citizens in its capital city. What is the point of all this development? What is the point of being a world power?”
The justices accused the federal and local governments of inaction, and pointed to Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi as examples. This past month, Delhi has suffered one of its fiercest bouts of air pollution on record, with blankets of toxic smog. The Guardian reported last week that the air quality index, measuring airborne particulates, has regularly hit levels that are ten times higher than the safety limit set by the World Health Organization. That group has said that a third of deaths from lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.
The Supreme Court declared that “the right to life of humans is being endangered.” And it is tired of being ignored. Recent rulings to force governments into action include orders to stop using fire to clear fields of crop stubble, which is a major factor in India’s air pollution. The justices were outraged that crop burning has not stopped but has increased. Said Justice Mishra, “Should this be tolerated? Is this not worse than internal war? Why are people in this gas chamber?”
Officials are being pressed to find – and pursue – solutions. The Delhi government and the Central Pollution Board, are tasked with designing and evaluating plans for two massive air purifying towers for the capital city. Last week, Delhi used anti-smog guns, which spray water to cleanse the air of particulates. Authorities are also considering a proposal on hydrogen-based technologies as a cleaner fuel alternative.
South Africa plans to invest billions of dollars to confront crippling water shortages. Last week, the government announced a national plan that will put $61 billion dollars over the next 10 years toward improving water supplies and storage.
Water has long been a challenge for South Africa. Its annual rainfall is about half the global average, and scientists warn that supplies will lessen as the world warms due to the effects of greenhouse gasses. Some parts of South Africa, including Eastern Cape province, are enduring the worst drought in a century. Two years ago, Cape Town saw its popularity as a tourist destination eclipsed by the threat of “Day Zero,” when it nearly ran out of water.
Lindiwe Sisulu is South Africa’s minister for Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. She told reporters, “There is not enough water for a country that is industrialized with a high population growth. The demand simply outweighs the supply (and) these shortcomings are impacting negatively on job creation, economic growth and on the well-being of everyone in South Africa.”
Sisulu introduced the new master plan for water as a way to address short, medium and long term water security needs. It sets out immediate steps to shore up infrastructure for reliable water and sanitation for residents and businesses. It also establishes priorities for the water sector in the next two decades. These include efficiency measures and ways to cure corruption and mismanagement.
Sisulu said that the national water plan has two main aims: improved water and sanitation management and environmental sustainability.
The water plan will create a separate unit to fund, and manage water infrastructure. Projects that are presently in development will be accelerated. Sisulu’s spokesperson described how mismanagement and a lack of money have plagued South Africa’s water services: over a third of available supplies are lost due to leaking pipes, crumbling infrastructure, vandalism and contamination. Repairs are delayed when funding runs out, or when users can no longer pay for their water.
The plan’s budgeted $61 billion is considered a start. Sisulu said that more money, and more partnerships are needed. While progress has been made in making water services more equitable, she said that the challenges there, coupled with deterioration of the services themselves, are threatening South Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals. She said that less than two-thirds of households have a reliable water supply.
The new plan aims to meet the growing need for water through timely infrastructure, policy interventions and a mix of development. It also considers the upkeep of aging infrastructure such as treatment plants, supply lines, and dams. The plan includes an emphasis on ethical leadership, and an approach that targets corruption and mismanagement.
In the United States, regulators in Kentucky say that drastic changes are needed to rescue faltering water districts in the state.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission urged legislators to overhaul management and regulation of systems that have consistently failed to provide clean drinking water.
The Commission asked for legislative action including the creation of regional water boards. It also wants to rescind the power of county officials to appoint the boards in charge of water districts.
The Commission says that if Kentucky’s General Assembly fails to address the problem, the rural districts will face increasing distress, saying that water expenses are already well beyond what customers in these districts can bear. Bringing all of the state’s water systems up to standard could cost more than $6 billion dollars in the next two decades. That’s according to a 2017 report from the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Those costs generally result in higher water bills.
Mike Schmitt is the chairman of the Public Service Commission. In his agency’s report, he said “We must work together to find solutions for the challenges these water utilities face. And the time to act is now.”
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that many water districts in Eastern Kentucky have customers who regularly report unreliable service, unclean water and unaffordable bills.
A water district serving Floyd and Knott counties raised rates by 42 percent this year after declaring a state of emergency. In Martin County last year, a service outage left customers without running water for days.
A spokesman for the Public Service Commission said “I don’t think you can underestimate the urgency with which the commission views this.” The Commission’s report will go to a legislative task force that was created earlier this year. The task force aims to study Kentucky’s water infrastructure woes and offer advice. Last month, it made its own recommendations, including the use of state funds to attract federal grants and creating loan programs for vulnerable water districts.
The Public Service Commission’s report was based on its analysis of 11 water utilities that had water loss rates over 35 percent. In other words, at least 35 percent of the drinking water that they process generates no income. It is never billed for because it leaks from pipes or isn’t measured by broken meters.
Of those 11 districts in the report, eight are in Eastern Kentucky. For a long time, many counties in the region were able to subsidize water costs using money from severance taxes levied on coal production. But as coal production sharply declined in recent years, severance taxes have shrunk significantly, and many districts didn’t raise their rates to compensate. Now, there’s not enough revenue to cover even basic upkeep. After years of artificially low rates, the amounts needed for water services have shocked customers.
State Sen. Phillip Wheeler was co-chairman of the state’s water task force. He told the Herald-Leader that lawmakers seek to achieve affordability for customers while still securing the revenue needed for maintaining water systems.
He said “We’ve got to try and find a solution that’s not only sustainable in the long run but that also recognizes that people’s economic situation has got drastically worse. That’s a tough balance to find right now.”
Wheeler said that Kentucky will probably need to tap the state’s General Fund to help struggling water districts. That, he said, means that legislators and county leaders will have to get wealthier areas of the state to invest in places that are strapped for money.
Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission’s report called for sweeping changes in the management and regulation of water districts. They include: allowing the commission to impose mergers on failing water utilities to shore them up, to establish qualifications for managers, and to create regional water boards appointed by the governor to oversee regional and local systems. The Commission also recommended a change in how water boards are appointed, to lessen the political influence on management decisions such as rate increases. It wants to remove the power of county officials to decide who sits on boards, and grant that power to the regional water boards.
Finally, the Commission also released a separate report revising the ways that districts calculate water loss. Its spokesperson said that a standardized method would offer a clearer understanding of the scope of the problem posed by crumbling infrstructure. He warned “If these changes are not made as quickly as possible the situation is just going to continue to deteriorate.”
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which depends on your support for independent water news and analysis. Please visit circleofblue.org and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.