• In Japan, search and rescue efforts continue after an assault by typhoon Hagibis
  • In Ethiopia, the capital city of Addis Ababa is hoping to fortify itself against climate change and population pressures with major water supply efforts.
  • In the United States, the federal government offers funding to help homeowners move out of areas that are vulnerable to flooding.
  • In England, activists disrupted daily routines in London last week to focus attention on the need to address climate change.
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.
In Japan, search and rescue efforts continue after an assault by typhoon Hagibis, which struck land south of Tokyo on Saturday evening, lashing the northern and central portions of the island with fierce rain and winds up to 130 miles an hour. Tens of thousands of residents evacuated to shelters, public transportation shut down and hundreds of thousands of buildings lost power and water. Dozens of rivers burst their banks in the flooding, and nearly 30 thousand soldiers rushed to transport stranded citizens to safety. At least 35 people have died because of the typhoon, and over a dozen are yet missing. Authorities warn of the continuing risk of mudslides.
Hagibis is the 19th typhoon to hit Japan this year, and it’s considered to be the largest to strike the country in about 60 years. Officials say it caused extensive damage in a wide area centering on eastern Japan. At about the same time as the storm, a magnitude 5.7 earthquake struck east of Tokyo. By Sunday, the typhoon had veered away from land and was downgraded to a tropical storm, leaving behind what the New York Times called “a humbling reminder of vulnerabilities for a country that prides itself on robust infrastructure and preparedness in the face of frequent natural disasters.”
In Ethiopia, the capital city of Addis Ababa is hoping to fortify itself against climate change and population pressures with major water supply efforts.
Although Ethiopia provides some 80% of the water in the River Nile, it has long struggled to give its residents the freshwater they need. In a country of some 100 million people, an estimated 42 million do not have access to safe drinking water, and thousands of young children die as a result. In the capital, thousands have been without dependable clean water for a decade or more. Addis Ababa’s water infrastructure is aging, and is not expanding to match population growth. Over 3 and a half million people live there now, and researchers say that in the next 20 years that could double, to seven million residents.
The implications for the capital’s water supplies are already apparent: In the last five years, demand for water has nearly doubled. The dams, reservoirs and wells that form the water supply do not even meet two-thirds of the city’s daily needs.
The pressures of population and urbanization in Ethiopia’s largest city are compounded by climate change. Bisrat Kifle is a researcher at the Ethiopian Civil Service University. He told Reuters News that Addis Ababa is already afflicted by bursts of heavy rainfall, which will worsen and take its toll on reservoirs. Flooding carries more topsoil into reservoirs, which then have less room to retain water.
Addis Ababa officials hope to change the city’s direction with a series of initiatives to pump, store, clean, and distribute more groundwater. Last April the government began a water project intended to expand the reach of municipal water. It includes 15 new reservoirs for storing pumped groundwater and about 100 miles of new pipelines to deliver it. The project is anticipated to be done by 2021 and is estimated to cost up to $137 million dollars.
Some experts say that Addis Ababa’s doesn’t need more reservoirs so much as more efficient use of the water at hand. Leaky pipes and undependable power supplies cut into the city’s efforts to expand water access. A 2012 study by the city’s Institute of Technology found that over a third of the water flowing in the capital’s pipes leaked away before arriving at homes. And because Ethiopia’s power grid is almost totally reliant on hydropower, unstable weather means unstable power. And unstable power means interruptions in pumping groundwater.
Many residents of Addis Ababa are already all too familiar with dry water taps. They line up for hours to buy supplies from private vendors. Researcher Bisrat Kifle told Reuters that policy can be a powerful – and prompt – tool. He recommended making water conservation a priority and suggested the use of a “seasonal tariff.” People would have to pay more for water during times of drought, and would face penalties for using more than their fair share. As he put it, “We have to know how to use our resources as a metropolitan city and think about climate change and water scarcity in every decision.”
In the United States, the federal government offers funding to help homeowners move out of areas that are vulnerable to flooding. A recent analysis finds that such home buy-out programs tend to be more accessible to those in wealthier and more densely populated communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency works with local governments to help residents relocate out of flood zones. By buying residents out of threatened properties, the program enables people to avoid danger and property loss. This is a growing concern as climate change raises sea levels and the risk of extreme rain and flooding.
But residents can seek a buyout only if local officials have arranged the program through FEMA. The study, said National Public Radio, found that not all vulnerable communities are able to manage that.
The study analyzed over 40 thousand records for flood-zone homes that local governments have bought with FEMA’s help since the late 1980s. It found that counties running buy-out programs have, on average, higher incomes and higher population densities. It’s not the first study to show this tendency, and an NPR investigation earlier this year concluded that “federally funded home buyouts have disproportionately gone to whiter communities.”
NPR suggests that more prosperous counties may be getting more buyouts because of the burden the program places on poorer communities. It takes administrative and financial resources to apply for funds, and to manage their distribution. FEMA pays about 75% of a home buyout, leaving the state and local government to cover the rest.
A.R. Siders at the University of Delaware is one of the study’s authors. She told NPR: “Homeowners who want to relocate cannot apply to FEMA directly. They rely on their local government to apply on their behalf. If their local government doesn’t have those resources, you’re going to have people who are trapped in these at-risk places.”
The study added that communities with more means and higher populations tend to have more options besides relocation. A stronger tax base offers local funding for other ways to cope with flooding, such as infrastructure and ecosystem improvement.
The study also identified a shift in where buyouts are happening. In the 1990s, most of the government purchases were in the Midwest, along major rivers. These days, flooding is increasingly seen along the coasts, due to rise in sea levels caused by climate change.
The study’s authors say that it raises questions about how federal buy-out policies affect people’s lives and economies. They say that there are yet no comprehensive answers as to who benefits from the buyouts, and how they are benefitting. As they look into this further, says NPR, they are appealing to the larger scientific and governmental community to carefully examine policies aimed at relocating people from flood-risk areas. Siders says that while she’s encouraged about the attention paid to the threat of floods and storms, talk of more buyout programs might be premature because, she said “we don’t know what has worked and what hasn’t in the past buyouts.”
In England, activists disrupted daily routines in London last week to focus attention on the need to address climate change. Demonstrations included a multi-day occupation of Trafalgar Square, a roadblock in Westminster, protests at Shell Energy headquarters, and a march by healthcare professionals to Parliament Square. The protestors belong to a group called Extinction Rebellion, which describes itself as an international “non-violent civil disobedience activist movement.” As of Saturday morning, Metropolitan police said that over 12 hundred activists had been arrested in the London protests.
Supporters of Extinction Rebellion took climate protests to the streets around the world last week, with demonstrations and civil disobedience in Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Sydney, New York, Montreal and Berlin. Activists blocked traffic and occupied public spaces to draw attention to the urgent threat of climate change, which they say is ignored by government and business.
Extinction Rebellion organized last year with the goal of moving governments to act swiftly on climate change. In the United Kingdom, the group made three main demands, according to the BBC. One, the government must declare a climate and ecological emergency. Two, the UK must commit to virtually eliminating carbon emissions by 2025, and three, a citizens’ assembly must oversee the policy changes. The demands are ambitious, but, says Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of the movement, the stakes are equally high. She told the BBC, “We have left it so late that we have to step up in a semi-miraculous way to deal with this situation.”
Extinction Rebellion’s web site warns that climate and ecological disruption can have cascading catastrophic effects including biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, wildfires, crop failure, extreme weather, desertification and water shortages. The International Union for Conservation of Nature notes that these threats share a common denominator: water, which, it says, is how climate change is largely manifest. The United Nations released a policy brief this July which described the links between climate change and water. Those links include more variability in the water cycle, more extreme weather events, less predictable water supplies, and diminished water quality. The UN said that these changes threaten sustainable development and global biodiversity.
A year ago, scientists from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a dire forecast for the imminent effects of climate disruption. They said that averting the crisis requires transformative economic changes that have “no documented historic precedent.” The panel began its report with a quote from the author Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “It is important not merely to foresee the future, but to create it.”
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.