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. 
Bali is running out of water. Drought and diversion are creating shortages that threaten food supplies, traditional culture and the quality of life on Indonesia’s storied island.
Across Indonesia, 50 million people are suffering from drought, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross. That number includes hundreds of thousands on Bali, where, in recent years, authorities say, well over half the island’s rivers have gone dry. More recent mapping shows that Bali’s water table has fallen so far that saltwater from the surrounding ocean is now seeping in and spoiling the fresh water.
At the same time, Bali’s ancient and elegant irrigation system is being disrupted by the diversion of water to cities in the south. The groundwater is also being taxed by the demands of tourists. Last year, some 16 million people visited the island, using 65% of its water.
Bali’s irrigation system, known as  “subak,” is designed to divert water from a channel to rice paddies and then back again. It’s been in operation since the ninth century, and it is the embodiment of the Balinese Hindu philosophy of balance and harmony between people, the natural world and the spiritual plane. The subak system supports all Bali villages, but it must now keep up with the tourist industry. As a result, many rice paddies are vanishing.
Anton Muhajir is a journalist who has covered Bali’s water crisis over many years. He told Al Jazeera that he believes the island is in real danger. “Some of my friends,” he said, “have had to move from their ancestral homes in Denpasar because the water in their wells has turned salty. At Jatiluwih, where thousands of tourists go each day to see the most beautiful rice terraces of Bali, farmers are using plastic pipes to pump in water they have to buy in the south because the springs in the mountains are drying up.”
A representative of a local water aid group told Al Jazeera that officials in Bali had made the drought situation worse. She blamed corruption and insufficient funding, and accused the government of ignoring the basic needs of the public while selling the island’s water to major water bottling companies. She also charged that tourists use massive amounts of water for lodging, swimming pools, gardens and golf courses.
New data reveals that Bali’s groundwater depletion is even worse than anticipated, said Sayu Komang, at the Indonesian sustainable development organization IDEP.
The IDEP has two approaches for addressing Bali’s water crisis: wisdom and wells. It hopes to teach the public in urban and rural areas to use water wisely. It also plans to build “recharge wells” that are fed by gravity. India has used this type of well to help revive water tables within the span of 3 to 5 years.
 Sayu said the IDEP has built ten recharge wells and intends to add over a hundred more. She noted that the government is also building some, but said this was only a pilot project and that thousands of recharge wells are needed to rescue Bali’s water table.
Recharge wells depend on rainwater, and the picture is not promising. This year’s El Nino weather phenomenon has created a longer, hotter dry season. Indonesia’s meteorological agency advises that the wet season, which normally starts about now, will be late. The rains will probably not reach some of the poorest and least developed regions in Bali’s north and west until early next year.
In the meantime, dozens of villages on the island’s east coast are parched, with insufficient clean water for basic daily needs. Many people supplement meager service by paying exorbitant rates to private water tankers. Farther north, in the hills, it’s even drier, and there is no municipal infrastructure. Farmers there depend on a series of thousands of rain catchment tanks. But there has been no rain since April, and the tanks only have water when – and if – the government water trucks visit.
There are some signs that authorities in Bali are getting serious about the water crisis. The government is looking for guidance on sustainable development and has directed agencies to focus on surface water with an eye to benefitting groundwater as well. Over 40 recharge wells have been created, and two additional dams are being built.
However, some experts say that Bali’s water future depends on how the island manages its tourism.
Stroma Cole, a senior lecturer in tourism geography, told Al Jazeera that the government can choose where to direct its water supply, and right now it’s being directed toward tourist areas.
She said “Bali’s freshwater scarcity problem is only expected to get worse unless there is a paradigm shift in the mass tourism model and they embrace quality sustainable tourism. It’s ludicrous that a tropical island is running short of water.”
Australia has seen its driest spring season in recorded history. It’s also the second-hottest spring on record. Across the country, the heat was accompanied by punishing drought and catastrophic bushfires.
Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology reported that the nation’s spring rainfall has averaged only about 27 millimeters, or about an inch for the entire season thus far.
The dry spring is the latest in a string of record-breaking weather measurements in the country. Last summer was the hottest on record, and January 2019 was the single hottest month on record.
The combination of fierce heat, deeply dry conditions and high winds led the government last month to declare a catastrophic fire danger for parts of New South Wales, Western Australia, South Australia and, for the first time, the Greater Sydney region. A catastrophic danger indicates the highest level of fire risk, equivalent to the conditions in 2009 that lead to Australia’s deadliest bushfires.
Australia endured hundreds of bushfires this spring. And in the latter half of November, five states broke records for the highest median spring temperature.
The forecast is for higher than average temperatures, drier than average conditions and more severe fire danger. Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology, reported the Guardian, blames the bad outlook on a combination of short-term weather patterns and long-term changes related to global warming.
In Zimbabwe, the latest drought is draining the country’s “cattle bank,” according to Reuters news service.  In this region of southern Africa, livestock represent the financial reserves of most families. The drought is evaporating income and threatening economic security as animals die from dehydration and starvation.
Zimbabwean farmers are trying to adjust to a warmer, drier world. But not all of their strategies have worked. This September and October, nearly 2,600 cattle died due to drought and parched pastures. That’s three and a half times more deaths than the same time last year.
The cattle die, in part, because farmers don’t have money to buy supplemental food for their animals when pastures are barren. That extra food is also increasingly expensive as demand pushes prices upward. Farm families are selling some animals in order to buy feed for the rest. Some farmers are even giving their animals their own food supplies in order to buy their livestock a little more time.
Other efforts to sustain herds have had variable success. In one village, cattle were collected into feeding pens during a drought. The practice started in 2015, when farmers fed the groups with commercial feed. The cost of the feed was offset by the much higher value of the fattened cattle, and the profits helped feed other animals.
But Zimbabwe’s currency was devalued in late 2016, and the money from cattle sales wouldn’t cover the feed for the remaining animals.
The price of goods and services is rising because of swelling inflation and shortages of foreign currency, water and electricity. Zimbabwe declared a drought disaster this August, and as farmers debate the decision to part with livestock, they are also struggling to save enough to buy seeds and fertilizer for the next growing season.
This week, Circle of Blue takes a new look at the phenomenon of Atmospheric Rivers.
In the American West, rain comes from many sources: from thunderstorms and monsoons, low pressure systems andThis week, Circle of Blue takes a new look at the phenomenon of Atmospheric Rivers.tropical storm remnants.
As dramatic as these can be, none is as destructive as the phenomenon known as the atmospheric river. That’s according to a new study that assesses flood damage caused by these conveyor belts of moisture.
Atmospheric Rivers are long, narrow bands of water vapor that act like rivers in the sky. They vary greatly in configuration, but the largest can bring extreme rains and flooding. These vapor columns carry about as much water as the average flow at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Previous studies have established the fundamental role that atmospheric rivers play in water supply. For example, the number of such storms in a given year determines whether California experiences severe drought or catastrophic floods. But much less was known about the economic costs of a weather pattern that can deliver an amount of rain equivalent to 25 Mississippi Rivers.
A team led by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography sought to change that. They combined data on weather events and insurance claims. The researchers were able to quantify the outsized influence of atmospheric rivers on flood damages. Their study was published online in the journal Science Advances.
The researchers looked at flood damage in 11 western states for the years between 1978 and 2017. The flood damages added up to about $51 billion. Over 80 percent of the total damages was attributed to atmospheric rivers. That amounts to about $1 billion each year in destroyed homes, roads, and property caused by these “sky rivers.”
Atmospheric rivers that hit the U.S. west coast carry water vapor from the tropics, an origin story that gives them the nickname Pineapple Express. The moisture they carry is released as rain or snow when the storms are pushed over mountain ranges that extend from Washington to Baja California. These storms last between three and 10 days. The most severe storms can dump two feet or more of rain.
Patterns from the data indicate regions of greatest impact. The damage attributed to atmospheric rivers is concentrated on the coast and steadily diminishes farther inland. In Sonoma, Napa, and other coastal counties in northern California, over 99 percent of all insured flood losses were caused by atmospheric rivers. The damage was equally high in coastal Oregon and Washington.
As with most other natural hazards, a few significant events were responsible for the bulk of the devastation. The researchers catalogued over 16 hundred atmospheric rivers in the last four decades. But only 11 storms caused damage over $1 billion. The most destructive storm hit central California in January 1995. It totaled nearly $4 billion in damages.
Like hurricanes, atmospheric rivers are rated on a five-point intensity scale. Each one-point increase corresponds to a 10-fold increase in economic damages, according to the study. The median damages from a category 1 or 2 storm were less than $1 million, while damages from a category 4 or 5 could be hundreds of millions of dollars.
Timing and location are also factors in the outcome. Storms that hit areas with few people and sparse infrastructure do less harm. And these smaller storms are beneficial for water supplies and snowpack.
But when heavy rains hit saturated soils, urban density, or valuable assets, calamity can ensue. California water managers learned that lesson in February 2017, when a category 4 atmospheric river made landfall in the vicinity of Oroville Dam.
The Oroville is the second-largest reservoir in California. The dam’s main spillway and emergency spillway were damaged as operators attempted to flush enough water to keep the dam from failing. Some 180,000 people downstream were evacuated. The cost of repairing the spillway topped $1 billion.
The study’s authors warn that while such damages are significant now, they could be even greater in the future. In a warming climate, atmospheric rivers are expected to grow larger and pack more precipitation. At the same time, population growth and development will put more people and property in their paths.
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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation. 

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