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.
Across southern Africa, some 1.7 million people have suffered from Cyclone Idai. In places where flooding washed away homes and destroyed roads, there is no electricity or running water. Thousands are still trapped by high waters, and many of Mozambique’s relief centers have only just started to receive food supplies. The death toll from the cyclone, which struck over a week ago, rose over the weekend. So far, some 700 people are reported dead across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. A representative for the Red Cross called the disaster the worst humanitarian crisis in Mozambique’s history.
In related news, The United Nations estimates that the population of Africa will double by 2050, and an increasingly large proportion of people will live in urban areas. Many of Africa’s rapidly-growing cities–including the capitals of Ghana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and the Ivory Coast–already struggle to provide water to residents. In Accra, Ghana, some residents have been without running water for two years.
The price of bottled water continues to rise in crisis-stricken Venezuela. A 5-liter bottle of water costs $2 in Caracas, where the monthly minimum wage is $6. As the country grapples with water cuts and power blackouts, the cost of clean water is soaring. Many families have resorted to taking water from streams and reusing it several times for household tasks.
In India, a government water conservation program is failing to fend off drought. The state of Maharashtra implemented a water conservation scheme meant to store water in rainy years for combating water scarcity in dry years. The ambitious project, which has cost millions of rupees so far, is faltering. Critics say the plan is failing because many areas of Maharashtra were already facing water shortages, and there has been too little rain to store.
In the Philippines, water shortages in Manila have escalated to the worst levels in nearly a decade. Manila Water Company provides half the city’s water. It has taken responsibility for the crisis, which it says was caused by rising demand, below-average dam levels, and delays in new water infrastructure. Although some service has been restored to 90 percent of affected customers, intermittent shortages are expected to last until the end of May.
Iraq’s Fao peninsula once hosted 425 henna farms, producing leaves which are ground into a type of dye. Today, the number of farms is closer to 50 and production has fallen by over 80 percent. The region’s henna crop, as well as thousands of palm trees, have been devastated by dry conditions and salty irrigation water.
The United Kingdom government warns that England will face water shortfalls by 2050 unless consumption patterns change. The head of the UK Environment Agency described the point at which the lines of demand and supply cross as the “jaws of death,” where England will not have enough water to supply its needs. The Agency says the crisis could be avoided if water users cut consumption by a third, and if water companies fix leaks and invest in new infrastructure.
In the United States,
Floodwaters are receding in the Midwest, but experts warn that the relief many only be temporary because there is plenty of snow yet to melt in upstream states. Rainfall and some snowmelt caused flooding in recent weeks that is blamed in three deaths. Thousands were forced from their homes in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, as water broke through or poured over levees in the region. The damage so far estimated at $3 billion. With spring warming, snowmelt in the Dakotas and Minnesota will send more water down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their tributaries. Officials are urging people near rivers to be vigilant, and warn that the floodwaters have saturated homes with contaminants from farm fields, industrial operations and sewage plants. Two flood-hit communities in Iowa are relying on trucks for water after a shutdown of their water treatment plants.
Last week, representatives from the seven Colorado Basin states signed a letter asking Congress to approve their drought contingency plan. The states finalized their plan after months of delays and threats that the federal government would have to take control of the process. The final plan excluded California’s Imperial Irrigation District, a major Colorado River water user. Imperial refused to sign on unless the federal government allocated $200 million toward cleaning up the polluted Salton Sea.
In related news, California is largely free of drought for the first time since December 2011, according to the latest update from the U.S. Drought Monitor. It was a quick reversal of fortune. On January 1, drought affected 75 percent of the state, but an unusually wet winter has dramatically eased conditions since then.
In a recent interview, Andrew Wheeler, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, downplayed the importance of climate change and named unsafe drinking water as the biggest environmental threat currently facing the planet. Wheeler said the threats posed by climate change are “50 to 75 years out” and shouldn’t be overly emphasized by 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.
And that’s the world water roundup. We focus this week on the recent World Water Development report. This global assessment finds that peace and prosperity depend on better management of water and sanitation for all, ensuring that no one is left behind on the way to sustainable development.
Prepared by UN agencies, the World Water Development report is a leading annual assessment of the planet’s freshwater resources.
This year’s report focuses on those who are being left behind. In the Sustainable Development Goals, finalized four years ago, governments pledged to provide access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene for everyone by the year 2030. While the report proclaims this target as “entirely achievable,” it says this is only possible through policies and practices that abolish exclusion and inequality. And the stakes are getting higher.
Earth’s fresh water supply, already stressed, faces increasing pressure. Water use worldwide has been rising by about 1 percent a year since the 1980s. The demand reflects growing populations and increased economic activity. Over 2 billion people today live in countries with high water stress, and twice that number experience severe water scarcity at some point in the year. Climate change further disrupts the water demand and availability equation.
At present, three of every 10 people do not have access to safe drinking water, but that statistic does not show important imbalances between and within regions, countries, and communities.
In all these places, people are being left behind. While there are many areas of discrimination, the report highlights poverty as a prominent factor. Women and girls are regularly affected, as are ethnic minorities, including indigenous peoples, migrants and refugees. Caste, religion, and language play a part in water access, as do age, physical ability, and mental health.
Those on the margins not only have less access to clean water, but they also pay more. The poor and the vulnerable are more likely to live in slums, which are often excluded from water and sewer systems. In cities, the better-off benefit from convenient and cost-saving infrastructure; in the slums, residents often rely on trucks or other vendors. The poor pay 10 to 20 times more for their water, and it may not be as clean.
Rural poverty is another factor in water inequality. The report says that in many countries, small family farmers account for over half the agricultural production. However, in poor rural areas, water infrastructure is limited. The UN urges greater recognition of the role that small farmers play in their nations’ security. It says that water allocations to large-scale water users should respect the legitimate needs of family farmers, regardless of their ability to prove formal water rights.
The report also highlights water stress suffered by refugees and people displaced by conflict, climate change, poverty or persecution. It notes the tensions over resources between refugee camps and host communities, and encourages policies for integrating refugees into urban and rural communities rather than creating separate camps.
The report adds that water, sanitation and hygiene services offer significantly more social and economic benefits compared to their costs. Ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation in homes and workplaces improves worker health and productivity. At school, it enhances educational achievement, especially among girls.
Though there are significant benefits, who will pay the cost? International donors, while critical, cannot be the main funding source, according to the report. While official development assistance can help with other types of investment, including from the private sector, the report stresses that it is up to national governments to step up funding for expansion of services.
But funding alone does not guarantee that water will reach those on the margins, the report notes. Good governance is also essential for ensuring fair access to sustainable water supplies. Governments can’t always manage water issues on their own, especially when money is low. They rely on cooperative efforts with independent agencies, corporations, and non-governmental organizations. Good water governance holds decision-makers accountable, and requires careful scrutiny from those they serve. It also depends on transparency, integrity, and information.
Community-based action is also vital to equitable water access, according to the authors, who describe a shift from centralized power toward accountability, legitimacy, inclusion, justice and efficiency.
The task will be difficult. The world is already behind on the water targets in the Sustainable Development Goals. Nonetheless the report authors say it is not an insurmountable task. “These goals,” they conclude, “are entirely achievable, provided there is a collective will to do so.”
From Circle of Blue this week, a look at how New Mexico is addressing the huge flows of wastewater from its Permian basin oil fields.
Fossil fuel production in New Mexico is soaring. Oil production climbed 46 percent in 2018, to 250 million barrels. The state ranks third in U.S. output, behind Texas and North Dakota.
With the oil comes even more water. More than 1 billion barrels of salty, chemical-laden water, called “produced” water, flowed from the state’s oil wells last year, according to regulators. That is 30 percent more water than the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority supplied last year to the state’s largest metropolitan area.
Produced water is a combination of two sources: the mixture of water, chemicals, and sand that is pumped into an oil well during the hydraulic fracturing process and water that is naturally present deep underground.
Most produced water is dumped underground, but some people in New Mexico want to treat the water and use it for other purposes. But first, lawmakers had to clarify the laws and rules that govern produced water.
The New Mexico House and Senate passed HB 546 earlier this month, a bill with broad, bipartisan support that defines ownership and liability for produced water. The Legislature’s aim is to set the ground rules for reusing produced water, which, in an arid region, is a source of growing interest from lawmakers, regulators, oil companies, and investors.
Rep. Nathan Small, a Democrat from Las Cruces was the original sponsor of the legislation. He says the bill has three goals: Facilitating recycling, strengthening regulatory oversight, and conserving scarce fresh water. He told Circle of Blue: “There are compelling needs from every angle.”
The bill, called the Produced Water Act for short, authorizes a state commission to set standards for reusing produced water outside the oil fields. The potential areas for reuse include irrigation, construction, industrial, or environmental purposes. The bill sets rules for when to use produced water instead of fresh water in oilfield operations. And it also reinstates the power of state oil and gas regulators to levy penalties for spills and leaks. Small said he expects the governor to sign the bill.
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 hash tag 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.