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.
In drought-stricken Pakistan, the Red Cross reports “alarmingly high” levels of hunger and disease. The organization says a lack of safe drinking water is the main cause of illness, as citizens are forced to drink salty or contaminated water.
In Thailand, water levels in dams and waterways across the country are dropping, prompting the prime minister to seek drought management plans. The government asked farmers to reduce water use, and it is analyzing water needs in the non-irrigation zones. Cloud-seeding operations are under way in hopes of promoting rainfall.
Over eight million Ethiopians are in need of food aid due to drought and violence. Ethiopia’s commissioner of national disaster risk management blamed climate change for the dry conditions and said that violence in many parts of the country has added to the stress. The government appealed for $1.3 billion to help with food shortages.
Turkish President, Tayyip Erdogan announced that the country will begin filling the Ilisu dam in June. Turkey began temporarily filling the $1.6 billion dam last summer, but stopped amid protests from Iraq, which says the dam will create water shortages downstream.
A suicide bombing in Kashmir caused another setback in India-Pakistan water relations. The attack came just weeks after a Pakistani delegation inspected two Indian hydropower projects during a cross-border visit that was deemed a breakthrough. Last month’s attack in the disputed region killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary troops. A Pakistani-linked militant group claimed responsibility for the bombing, and India threatened retaliation against Pakistan. Officials in Pakistan, however, say the country was not involved in the attack. The Indian transport minister responded that his government has decided to stop its share of water that used to flow to Pakistan. India is granted control of these waters by a treaty with Pakistan.
Elsewhere in India, the Rajasthan State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) is demanding information from the state government about reports of food adulteration. State media has reported a variety of unsafe food practices, including the use of sewage water to clean produce. The Human Rights Commission set a deadline of April 9th for the government to respond.
In Afghanistan, flooding has killed dozens and displaced thousands, according to aid groups. Officials say the current devastation is “just an early warning” of what could come in April and May, when more heavy rains are predicted.
The United Arab Emirates is allocating $1.6 billion to new water and energy projects, according to a tweet by the vice president and prime minister. The funds will go toward new dams, a water network between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, a desalination plant, and other projects.
In Brazil, the chief executive of the Vale mining company and eight other top executives have agreed to temporarily step down during an investigation of a waste dam collapse that killed hundreds in January. Federal and state prosecutors say they are building a case of criminal negligence. They say evidence is emerging that Vale ignored warnings about the dam’s safety, and fired an inspection team that would not certify the dam as safe several months before the collapse.
In the United States, 91 percent of the nation’s coal plants have reported dangerous levels of toxic metals in the groundwater near their coal ash dumps. That’s according to a study led by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice. Sixty percent of the sites reported elevated lithium levels in surrounding groundwater, and 52 percent noted unsafe arsenic contamination. Citing possible threats to drinking water, the groups called for stricter coal ash regulations.
In California, agriculture is sapping aquifers in rural parts of the state, leading to water shortages and increasing concentrations of naturally-occurring elements, such as arsenic, in groundwater. Many small towns have been without steady or safe water sources for years, and the problem is set to worsen as big agriculture expands.
Also involving California, a second federal deadline has passed for the seven Colorado Basin states to complete drought contingency plans. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation originally requested that all states submit plans by January 31, or else face federal intervention in the allocation of the Colorado River. Arizona and California failed to meet the deadline, which was then moved to March 4th, and then missed again. The Bureau is moving forward with its own contingency plan, but says it can call off the process if all seven states finalize their plans.
Across the U.S., population growth and climate change are threatening the long-term sustainability of water basins. That’s according to preliminary government-backed research. A study estimates that nearly half the water basins in the United States could fail to meet demand by 2071.
In Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer proposed $120 million for improvements to state drinking water infrastructure in the 2019 fiscal year. If approved, the funding would be used for projects such as replacing lead water lines, addressing PFAS contamination, and improving watershed management.
Lead contamination continues to pollute drinking water in schools across the United States. A recent Harvard University study looked at lead testing data from nearly 11 thousand schools, and found that nearly half had at least one water sample showing lead. At thousands of other U.S. schools, the drinking water remains untested. The World Health Organization warns that “there is no known level of lead exposure that is considered safe” and even low levels have been linked to learning problems in children because of how it affects brain and nervous system development.
In New Zealand’s, the Environment Ministry says that two-thirds of the country’s rivers are now unfit for swimming due to contamination, and it warns that three-quarters of its native freshwater fish species are threatened with extinction. New Zealand is the world’s largest dairy exporter, and as the industry has grown, water quality has declined. Farm fertilizers and livestock sewage are leading contributors to inland waterway pollution. Other major factors include widespread deforestation and intense clearing of wetlands. New Zealanders named water pollution as a top concern in a recent poll.
Serbia is rethinking wastewater processing in a bid to join the European Union. Currently, Serbia treats less than 10 percent of its wastewater. Many cities, including the country’s two largest, deposit raw sewage directly into waterways. Serbia hopes to join the European Union by 2025, but first, it must meet EU environmental and emissions standards, which could cost upwards of 15 billion euros. Improving wastewater treatment will be a large part of that process.
And that’s the world water roundup.
We turn to more news on the European Union and water quality with a look at Greece, which is under pressure from the European Commission to stop delaying and address the nitrate pollution in its waters.
Last week, the Commission asked the European Union’s highest court to fine Greece for its continued failure to protect its waters from agricultural nitrate contamination.
EU law requires member states to monitor their waters and identify those at risk of nitrate contamination from agricultural runoff. They must also designate land areas that drain into these waters as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, and set up ways to reduce or prevent pollution.
By 2011, Greece had not designated some Nitrate Vulnerable Zones and had not created the mandated “action programs” for these areas. The European Commission formally notified the Greek Authorities, and began infringement proceedings. In 2015, the EU Court of Justice ruled that Greece had violated EU law. Since then, Greece has designated 12 new Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, but has not established action programs for them, nor provided any indication of when it will. As the Commission put it, “Four years later, the problem is still not fully resolved.”
Now the Commission has referred the case back to the Court of Justice. It asks the court to impose financial sanctions on Greece, in accordance with EU policy. It asks for a fine of roughly 2,600 Euros a day for each day since the 2015 ruling that Greece has failed to honor it, provided Greece does comply before the court rules again on the case. Should Greece not comply before the next Court of Justice ruling, the Commission wants the fine raised nearly tenfold, to roughly 23,700 thousand Euros a day.
From Circle of Blue this week, the brutal Camp Fire in California has caused severe drinking water contamination in the town of Paradise, where residents face poisons in their water pipes.
Last November 86 people died and more than 90 percent of the town’s buildings burned down in California’s most destructive fire. Today the central tension for Paradise is how to rid the water distribution system of benzene and other volatile organic chemicals that were unleashed by the flames. And they must do this with a decimated staff and little revenue.
In this way the Camp Fire breaks new ground. Never before has a town water system lost nearly all of its customers, which are its source of revenue, and attempted such a feat of investigation, outreach, and rehabilitation from fire…with so few resources. It is a new chapter in the history of disaster recovery in America. It’s one that could be easily repeated as fire seasons lengthen in the West, more acres are consumed, and communities expand into wildland areas that are susceptible to burning.
Dan Newton of the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water told Circle of Blue. “What they’re facing is, it’s hard to put into words, frankly…It is a tremendous effort that is going to be needed to get that town back up on its feet.”
The next step for Paradise Irrigation District, the town’s water provider, is to identify contaminated pipes. That will require as many as 50,000 water samples. So far the district has taken just over 200.
After pinpointing the chemicals, the district will need to isolate contaminated pipes and then either flush them or remove and replace them.
The entire process will resemble a military operation in its scale and logistical complexity, says Andrew Whelton, a Purdue University engineer who is assisting the district.
Residents are frustrated by more than four months of exile. Slowly they are starting to return to Paradise. Some are buying in-home treatment units to remove benzene. But returning residents pose a number of risks, according to Whelton.
Home water treatment systems may not perform as advertised or may not be designed to remove the levels of contaminants that are in the town’s system. Residents also may not know how to properly sample and test their water when checking for contaminants.
A third risk is to the Paradise water system itself. The more demands that are placed on the system from returning residents, the harder it is to isolate the chemicals and mend the pipes.
District manager Kevin Phillips said “This is going to be a long, long process for people to come back up… It’s going to take a lot of patience and a lot of time and a lot of understanding that this is not going to happen tomorrow or the next day or the next year, that it’s going to be a long, long process.”
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.