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.
Cyclone Idai claimed over a thousand lives and is expected to cost more than two billion dollars to the economies of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. That’s according to an early estimate by the World Bank, which said last week that the strong cyclone had disrupted regional trade and supplies of fuel, wheat and other goods for about 3 million people. The charity organization Oxfam compared the cyclone’s path of destruction to a war zone. Oxfam also warned that aid agencies are unable to meet demand, and are running out of resources. The United Nations has asked for nearly 300 million dollars in emergency aid and the World Bank called for “global collaboration” in the face of climate and disaster risk.
As eastern Zimbabwe recovers from widespread flooding, the rest of the country faces drought. Lake levels are very low and two dams near the capital city are essentially dry, which has prompted officials to ration water.
In Kenya, the “long rains season,” which typically lasts from March until May, has been slow to start across the country. Kenya’s Meteorological Department said that Cyclone Idai blocked the movement of other rain storms. Thus, sunny and dry conditions continue over most of the country. The World Bank says that the medium-term growth outlook for Kenya is stable, but the recent threat of drought could put a drag on the economy. The Bank is one of Kenya’s leading financiers and it urged officials to be more realistic in forecasting income and more stringent in its taxation in order to stabilize its economy.
In Iraq, weeks of rain and snowmelt have filled dams to record-breaking levels. The government hopes to store excess water to help with dry months ahead, but there is immediate threat to the stability of the dams and the lives of people living near them. As the Tigris and Euphrates rivers continue to rise, Iraq’s four main reservoirs are nearly at capacity. Thousands of people have been told to evacuate. A dam in Mosul, for example, was built upon gypsum, a mineral that dissolves in water. If it fails when full, it could flood an area in five meters, or 16 feet, of water. Over a half million people live in Mosul, and an environmental scientist warned of irreversible damage and the potential for catastrophic consequences.
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro ordered an expansion of the civil militia to help defend his position in the crisis-afflicted South American nation. Although he has significant support among residents, Maduro is opposed by Juan Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s leader by some fifty countries, including the United States. Guaido is campaigning internationally to unseat Maduro, in a political climate beset by social chaos and weeks of power, water, and communication outages. While Maduro last week finally accepted humanitarian aid, assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank is on hold until they determine whom to recognize as Venezuela’s leader.
In Thailand, drought worries are rising. One-quarter of the country’s major reservoirs are below 30 percent capacity. Analysts say the dry spell will likely worsen the country’s already sluggish economy. Still, this year’s Songkran festival has attracted hundreds of thousands to celebrate the Buddhist New Year with what is known as the world’s largest water fight. Throwing water on each other is a symbolic way to wash away bad luck from the year before, and crowds are shooting water from giant soaker guns, tossing it from buckets and enlisting brightly decorated elephants to spray it from their trunks.
In Brazil, prosecutors announced that they will file criminal charges against mining company Vale SA, the owner of a tailings dam that collapsed in January, killing hundreds. Evidence has emerged that Vale knew the dam was unsafe, and subsequent charges against the company could include murder, manslaughter, environmental damage, and false representation.
In Europe, a study of 29 waterways revealed high levels of contaminants, including more than 100 pesticides and 21 drugs, some of which are banned. The research, which was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, found herbicides, fungicides and insecticides, as well as antimicrobial drugs used for livestock. Researchers say the contamination could be detrimental to wildlife and human health, and could foster the development of drug-resistant microbes. The Guardian reported that while the risk of antimicrobial drug resistance is well known, attention should also focus on fungicide immunity, especially given the recent struggles with fungal infections in hospitals.
A new study shows that glaciers in the European Alps face massive melt-offs due to rising temperatures. Research warns that by 2050, half the ice in the Alps will be gone due to global warming triggered by past carbon emissions. And even if carbon emissions have been completely eliminated by 2050, two-thirds of the ice will still be gone by the end of the century. If emissions continue to rise at the current rate, the glaciers will have nearly vanished by 2100. The loss of this water source will have extensive impacts on farming, hydroelectricity, and wildlife.
In the United States, floods in the Midwest last month which caused billions of dollars of damage to homes and to agriculture, have cut ethanol capacity by 13 percent. Some ethanol plants were flooded, but the major problem was the closure of rail lines used for corn and ethanol transportation. Ethanol is made from corn and is a required additive to U.S. gasoline. Dropping ethanol supplies spiked gas prices and gas stations closed in the West when there wasn’t enough ethanol to blend with the gasoline to meet government regulations. Gas prices exceeded $4 a gallon in at least one California county. As shortages raise ethanol prices on the coasts, Brazil is stepping up its exports. Brazil is the U.S.’s main ethanol competitor. Midwest producers were unable to cash in on the demand due to flooded rail lines, in what one trader called a “double whammy” for those in an industry already struggling with high inventories and slow demand growth.
In a related story, Clarksville, Missouri is among the river towns in the Midwest without protection from the waters of the Mississippi. With one major flood receding and the forecast warning of worse ones on the way, residents wonder how to reduce their exposure to high water without ruining their riverside charm, or breaking their bank accounts. A plan for a removable barrier would provide protection when waters rise, without permanently obscuring the scenic character that attracts tourists and feeds the economy. But the plan costs $4 million and that’s only half covered by aid from the state and federal governments. The remaining $2 million is four times the size of Clarksville’s annual budget. Several other river towns in the Midwestern U.S. are experiencing similar dilemmas, as they compete with larger communities for limited federal resources in an increasingly disrupted climate.
Flooding has even wider implications across the nation: Nearly half a million U.S. citizens are living in government-subsidized housing that is at high risk for flooding. Much of the housing, located in cities such as Houston, New York, and Miami, was built before flood dangers were well-researched. Now, many residents are stuck: faced with frequent flooding, but unable to use their housing vouchers elsewhere. In response, a group of Houston citizens is bringing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Circle of Blue’s feature story last week examined an increasingly popular tactic for getting clean water to small communities.
California lawmakers, in 2015, gave the State Water Board the authority to require utilities that are larger and better run to absorb smaller, poorer neighboring systems if those systems consistently fail to meet state and federal drinking water standards. This process, which is trending nationally, is known as consolidation.
Amid rising costs, stricter regulations, deteriorating water quality, and a lack of technical expertise, many small water systems are looking to join forces with larger systems, either through sharing operations staff, forming regional partnerships, or the full integration of the physical infrastructure, governance, and billing systems.
Two consolidations in the Bakersfield area are the first significant test of California’s mandatory authority. The state facilitated about a hundred voluntary consolidations in the last two years, but it has ordered only one mandatory consolidation since the law was passed.
Those who support California’s consolidation power represent an odd coalition: they include policy wonks, who look at the economic and demographic trends and note the stress on small communities; social justice advocates, who see a lifeline for low-income residents who have endured foul water for years; and private water companies, which are hungry for business growth, new customers, and the revenue that comes with them.
The voluntary consolidations that have taken place in California, Kentucky, and elsewhere provide several lessons for others looking to emulate the process.
One is proximity. The more remote a community is, the more expensive it is to connect.
The second lesson is that relationships matter. Consolidations can be a merger of unequals. Utilities fear the loss of local control over rates and rules. Social dynamics as seemingly trivial as high school football rivalries may bleed into consolidation discussions. Residents who live in unincorporated areas may not be accustomed to city watering restrictions and they may worry about the encroachment of other city rules unrelated to water service.
The third point is funding. Most full consolidations require an investment upfront that can be several million dollars. The tradeoff is that better water will be available down the road, but only after new debts are incurred and assets are built.
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.