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.
We begin with a quick survey of water stories around the globe.
The United Nations warns that millions of people could die prematurely if environmental protections are not improved. Last week, the UN released an extensive report on the state of the global environment. It said that poor regulations could lead to millions of early deaths in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa by 2050. It added that freshwater pollution could lead to a rise in anti-microbial resistance and associated deaths. The report urged the public, businesses, and political leaders to protect the environment through sustainable development.
In Venezuela, power has been restored to much of the country after a blackout described as the worst in its history. The weeklong blackout choked water supplies, cut off communications services for millions of people, and resulted in looting, violence and the breakdown of public services. Water pumping systems are now back on line in many regions. A report says the blackout was caused by a brush fire that disabled a crucial section of Venezuela’s power grid. The extent of the damage is still being assessed. If the transmission network is affected, repairs could take two months. If the damage is to the Guri hydroelectric dam, which powers most of the country’s grid, repairs could take up to three years and demand a herculean effort from an embattled government and feeble electric infrastructure.
In Malaysia over 500 people fell ill in Pasir Gudang after hazardous waste was dumped into a nearby river. Many of those affected were students, overcome by toxic fumes from the unknown material. The local government has temporarily closed over a hundred schools in the industrial area until the issue is resolved. Three men were arrested in association with the dumping.
Also in Malaysia, a moratorium on mining bauxite is set to expire at the end of this month, but the government says mining will not be allowed to start until miners conduct environmental impact studies.
In 2016, Malaysia halted bauxite mining after unregulated operations contaminated water sources in the eastern state of Pahang.
In Iraq, wetter weather is leading to a larger-than-expected wheat crop. This year’s crop could be nearly twice as large as last year’s, due to more rain, which prompted farmers to plant more wheat.
In the Philippines, water interruptions have worsened in the capital, Manila, prompting a government investigation. The shortages began earlier this month and have left some areas without water for several days. The Philippine Senate announced an investigation into the shortages, with one senator saying “the public is already thirsty for the truth, now that they don’t have water to drink and clean with.”
In Australia, cases of motor neuron diseases have spiked, and experts say contaminants in water may be the culprits.
In the past 25 years, diagnoses of motor neuron disease have risen 250 percent. In some rural areas of New South Wales, the rate is seven times the national average, and scientists say the dramatic increase may be due to pesticides, metals, and blue-green algae toxins in water.
In the United States, the Trump administration intends to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program by raising premiums for homes in the country’s most flood-prone areas. Revisions to the program will be introduced in the coming weeks. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wants to include private-sector data for determining flood risk, which will then affect premium adjustments.
California finalized its Colorado River drought contingency plan last week after the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California assumed a majority of the state’s future conservation cuts. California was the last of seven Colorado Basin states to approve the plan. It was delayed because an irrigation district in Imperial County refused to sign on unless the federal government allocated $200 million to help the suffering Salton Sea. With another federal deadline looming, the Metropolitan Water District board agreed to assume Imperial’s share of the water delivery cuts. This effectively bars Imperial from the plan, although it holds senior rights to the largest allocation of the Colorado River. The multi-state plan will now move to Congress for approval.
In the Great Lakes region, the Trump administration’s proposed budget would reduce restoration funding for the Great Lakes by 90 percent. This is the third year in a row that Trump has proposed major cuts to the $300 million initiative, which the Environmental Protection Agency describes as “the largest investment in the Great Lakes in two decades.” The Initiative was launched in 2010 to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world. Because of the initiative’s considerable success and bipartisan support, observers expect Congress to maintain funding, as it did in the previous two years.
And that’s the world water roundup. We focus this week on another great body of water – this one in Russia, where Siberian authorities have suspended construction of a controversial bottling plant on Lake Baikal, following public pushback and pressure from the Kremlin.
In January, the Chinese company AquaSib started to build a water-bottling plant on Russia’s Lake Baikal, which holds the largest volume of freshwater on Earth. It’s considered one of the clearest lakes on the planet, and is a world heritage site rich in biodiversity.
AquaSib’s plant, valued at nearly $23 million, is scheduled to bottle nearly 200 million liters of water a year for export to China, where Baikal is a familiar tourist attraction. The factory promised to generate jobs in the town nearby, and local authorities promoted water bottling as a “green” way to monetize Siberia’s natural resources.
However, in recent months a movement has arisen to stop the bottling project. The Moscow Times said that a grassroots social media campaign organized a petition calling for Russian “patriots” to unite in opposition to the plant. The campaign gathered nearly a million signatures.
When residents complained about the plant, the governor started an investigation. It foun d that AquaSib had failed to get required permits and had spilled petroleum and industrial waste at the site. Last week, a court suspended operations until the violations are remedied. It also cited concerns about the lack of consideration for the natural features of the site and insufficient assessment of its environmental impact. The press service of the party United Russia reported last week that the court granted a lawsuit filed by the environmental prosecutor’s office in West Baikal. Prior to that, the Chairman of Russian Government, Dmitry Medvedev, promised to audit the plant for environmental compliance.
Opposition to the water bottling factory seems to stem from a combination of concerns: environmental risk, economic inequity, and national identity.
Scientists warn that the new plant could damage the ecosystem supporting 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water. Lake Baikal has a unique microclimate that supports many species found nowhere else. AquaSib is building the factory in wetlands that are an important migration stop for protected birds such as the whooper swan and black stork. Some 50 rare bird species appear there, more than anywhere else in the Irkutsk region. A biologist told the Telegraph that the addition of pipes and human activity would destroy the marsh’s bird habitat.
There are currently no large industrial facilities near Lake Baikal. A paper mill was closed in 2013 after an environmental scandal and fierce opposition by activists due to the mill’s waste dumping. A water bottling plant opened on the site of the old mill in 2017, but it was closed for sanitary violations.
Environmental concerns are closely tied to what some Russians feel is a dangerous relationship with China. “Everything that’s connected with China ends badly,” Zorikto Matanov told the Telegraph. Matanov is a member of the local indigenous community who began the protest petition.
The connections between China and Russia grew when Vladimir Putin responded to Western sanctions in 2014 by turning to the east. By 2017, China replaced Germany as Russia’s leading foreign investor, and the relationship is based on Russia’s natural resources, including natural gas and timber.
Irkutsk is Russia’s leading region for logging, and two-thirds of the country’s timber goes to China. So much timber is cut illegally, says the Associated Press, that last fall the natural resources minister threatened to stop exporting to China if it didn’t help fund restoration efforts. Now, the news service said, “residents fear that Baikal will be similarly exploited, and the regional economy will have nothing to show for it.” This fear is not eased by the history of AquaSib’s general director, who was arrested on charges of selling contraband timber to China – or by a proposal a couple years ago for a pipeline to bring water from Baikal to thirsty provinces in the north of China.
Svetlana Pavlova is the chief editor of an Irkutsk-based news site. She told the international news agency AFP: “For Siberians, there are two things that are like a red rag to a bull and cause an immediate reaction. One is the Chinese which ‘have taken over everything and leave trash’ and the second is encroachment on the lake. And here it so happens that the company building the plant is 99%-owned by Chinese nationals.”
Siberian environmentalist Alexander Kolotov told AFP that that the “anti-China factor is very clear” in the campaign to stop the bottling plant, which has even inspired the Russian celebrity Sergei Zverev, a native of Baikal, to picket the Kremlin. Kolotov said the issue “hits the bullseye of the fears and stereotypes of modern Russians, that ‘China will gulp down our national heritage’.”
Other AquaSib opponents want to shift the focus from who is profiting from the plant to what it means for Lake Baikal. They fear the operation will set a precedent and they point to the land already being designated for more bottling factories. The Associated Press reports that the fisheries agency has plans to allow for 100 plants the size of the AquaSib factory. A Chinese company allied with Coca-Cola said it planned to invest in Baikal water, and other Chinese firms are said to be interested as well.
Some environmentalists fear that this trend could spell disaster for Lake Baikal, which has suffered from low water levels in the past and has lately seen algae blooms fed by sewage pollution. Vitaly Ryabtsev, a biologist who spent much of his working life at Baikal National Park told AFP that the lake is a strategic water reserve for Russia. “Locals will get salaries,” he said, “but the water will go to China, and sooner or later, there will be environmental damage.”
From Circle of Blue this week, a look at what researchers know, and don’t know about changes in U.S. groundwater quality.
After nearly three decades of groundwater monitoring, the federal government’s foremost Earth science agency has collected enough data to begin identifying long-term pollution trends in the country’s largest aquifers.
A few trends, that is, but not many. Not enough data has been collected to state for certain whether groundwater quality is getting better or worse.
Two clear patterns that the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment found are that concentrations of chloride and sodium are climbing nationally, while in farm regions in California and southern Georgia, nitrate levels have increased.
Congress ordered the agency in 1991 to track long-term changes in the nation’s groundwater quality — and for good reason. Some 155 million people today, nearly half of the country’s population, use groundwater for drinking water. A quarter of that number, roughly 42 million people, use household wells, which are not regulated.
There is no comparable long-term national assessment of groundwater quality, according to Bruce Lindsey, who oversees the monitoring program. But the program has limits. To start with, it tracks a relatively small number of contaminants: only 25, including pesticides, heavy metals, nutrients, and volatile organic compounds. New chemicals of concern, such as toxic PFAS compounds, which have drawn attention from Congress and are found in the drinking water of millions of Americans, are not included. Second, the monitoring program is designed to look broadly at the country’s largest, most important aquifers – the ones used for irrigation and drinking water by high numbers of people.
The wide-angle view captures the big picture, but that means that local changes, profoundly important on their own, can be obscured. The program, for example, does not target Superfund sites, Lindsey said.
Other researchers are gathering more evidence that individual sites, be they waste dumps, factories, chemical plants, dry cleaners, underground oil storage tanks, military bases, or airports, are spoiling local groundwater on a scale too small to register in the national evaluation but large enough to contaminate wells used by households, municipalities, and farmers.
A report released earlier this month from the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit watchdog group, found that out of 265 coal ash pits reporting data, more than 90 percent polluted nearby groundwater with at least one chemical at levels above federal drinking water standards.
The Defense Department, meanwhile, counts 401 bases where military officials suspect that PFAS compounds were released into groundwater.
A more extensive survey of contaminated sites by the National Academy of Sciences, in 2013, found more than 126 thousand locations across the country with groundwater requiring cleanup. Some 10 percent of those sites are so extensively polluted – and geologically and technically challenging – that restoration may take a century. Michael Kavanaugh, who chaired the report committee, told Circle of Blue that he does not think the number of contaminated groundwater sites has decreased substantially.
And that’s What’s Up With Water. We’d like to know what’s up where you are – Tweet us with your water news @circleofblue hashtag whatsupwithwater.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.