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.
The United Nations is requesting $331 million in aid for Zimbabwe, which is suffering from drought and an economy at its lowest ebb in a decade. Triggered by an El Niño weather system, the drought reduced Zimbabwe’s maize harvest by half. It also caused low water levels that are curtailing hydropower generation, leading to rolling power blackouts. Zimbabwe took a hit from a cyclone earlier this year, and the drought has further stressed the economy, with food staples doubling in price and inflation reaching 175 percent. The government estimates that by the end of the “lean” season, next March, more than half of Zimbabwe’s residents will need food aid. The executive director of the UN World Food Programme said “We are talking about people who truly are marching toward starvation if we are not here to help them…We are facing a drought unlike any that we have seen in a long time. We don’t have the luxury of fiddling while Rome burns.” Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week declared the drought a national disaster. Government officials said that electricity imports would begin from neighboring sources. They said the weather is not just affecting the vulnerable, but hurting manufacturing, agriculture, everything. Reuters news service reported last week that the economic revival and political reforms anticipated under President Mnangagwa have failed to materialize, and that public hope has gradually turned to despair, with rising political discontent.
In Australia, water ministers approved a new a way to enforce water management practices in one of the country’s leading agricultural areas. The states of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory have agreed to an independent inspector-general, who will police the management of the Murray-Darling Basin. David Littleproud, the federal water minister, said “The inspector general will be a tough, but fair cop to oversee all state and federal agencies delivering the basin plan. They will make sure all agencies live up to their responsibilities and can investigate allegations of water theft.”
Management of the Murray-Darling Basin plan, which began in 2012, has been fraught with mistrust, controversy and competition for water between irrigators, residents and the environment. The inspector-general position seeks to foster greater confidence and cooperation, and Littleproud noted that unanimous support for the role gave him hope. The inspector-general will be appointed by the Australian cabinet, but in the meantime, northern basin commissioner Mick Keelty will serve for three years in an interim capacity.
In India, especially severe monsoon rain in the western and southern states is overwhelming rivers, flooding communities and causing landslides. At least 100 people are confirmed dead and some 300,000 have been displaced. Deutsche Welle reported that the states of Kerala and Karnataka received the brunt of the damage, but flooding also affected the broader region. Officials said that rescue and relief efforts are underway, but they acknowledge that isolated districts have seen widespread fuel shortages and hundreds of communities in Maharashtra were without electricity and drinking water. Over a week of heavy rain in Kerala has caused landslides and collapsed bridges. Some consider it the state’s worst flooding in a century.
India’s monsoon rains run from June to September and provide 70 percent of the nation’s annual precipitation. They are also vital to refilling water reservoirs. But monsoons are deadly and destructive as well. When levels in dams and reservoirs get dangerously high, officials try to avoid a devastating breach by releasing more water into rivers, which are already at risk of bursting their banks. Deutsche Welle said that officials have opened the floodgates of 80 water reservoirs so far this season, which is unprecedented. The monsoon is expected to intensify in the coming days, and the government is warning people to stay alert. Experts have advised that factors contributing to India’s increased flooding include deforestation, urbanization and bad water management.
In a related story, India’s soybean and peanut crops have rebounded thanks to the country’s heavy monsoon. Last month, officials feared that the harvests would be severely limited by a lack of water during the early planting season. Rainfall in India’s soy and peanut-growing region was 31 percent below normal in June. But in July, rainfall was about 8 percent above normal. An industry representative told Bloomberg News that production of monsoon-sown oilseeds is expected to be roughly the same as last year. The crop planted during the monsoon represents over 60% of India’s total annual production.
In the United States, the Great Lakes continue to break records for high water levels. Lakes Superior, Erie and Ontario all reached record highs in July. Lake Superior was about an inch and a half above the July 1986 record and Lake Erie was over 4 inches higher. Lake Ontario was over 4 inches higher than in July 2017, the year that flooding made headlines and caused speculation about the effects of climate disruption on precipitation patterns.
Lakes Michigan and Huron have yet to break a monthly water level like the others, but they have not been far behind all summer. Since Michigan and Huron are connected at the Mackinac Straits, they are considered to be a single body of water when levels are measured. Last month, they missed the mark set in 1986 by just three-quarters of an inch. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told MLive Media Group that records aside, the Michigan-Huron levels are historically very high. In the last 100 years of measurements, there have only been five months when levels were higher.
The Great Lakes are entering their seasonal cycle of decline, which generally begins in August or September and continues through February. This year, water levels are expected to start falling in September, but that depends on the weather. A broad and lengthy bout of heavy rain in the fall could slow the decline, and extremely wet conditions could even reverse the usual pattern. The Army Corps of Engineers warned that high water could last for months and that low-lying areas remain vulnerable to flooding.
This week’s Circle of Blue story looks at affordable access to water services in Massachusetts, and what that shows about water management in the U.S. as a whole.
In Massachusetts, some cities shut off water to people when their water bills are not paid on time. Others place liens on the property that result in extra fees and can lead to foreclosure. Nearly all cities have water-bill programs to assist homeowners, the elderly, or the disabled, but not specifically those who are low-income.
Those details come from a new Northeastern University study that investigates water affordability policies in a dozen Massachusetts cities. The cities, which include the 10 largest in the state, range in population from 670,000 people in Boston to 40,000 in Chelsea.
There’s no national data readily available on water affordability policies. Because drinking water and sewer service is governed at the local and state level, studies like this one give the clearest picture of the laws and policies that affect how poor households get access to municipal water.
Martha Davis is a Northeastern University law professor, and the lead author of the report. She found that bill assistance policies and payment plans in Massachusetts cities favor homeowners. In a state with significant racial disparities in home ownership and low home ownership in general, those policies result in skewed access to public assistance. Only two of the cities in the survey had home ownership rates above 50 percent. A separate study found the white home ownership rate in Boston, Cambridge, and Newton was nearly twice the black home ownership rate.
Davis told Circle of Blue: “If these communities don’t anticipate the need to deal with inequality, they’ll be unprepared when the time comes. It’s better to have a system in place. When it’s not a crisis they can implement policies that will help in the future.”
The future in Massachusetts looks a lot like the rest of the nation: water rates that are rising to pay for overhauling outdated infrastructure. Communities which have high poverty rates and old water, sewer, and drainage systems are the most exposed to these higher costs. They also have the greatest difficulty in affording the expense at the household level.
Democratic members of Congress have taken up the cause. Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, and Rep. Dan Kildee, whose Michigan district includes Flint, introduced the Water Justice Act last month. A provision in the legislation authorizes $2 billion a year to help poor families pay water and sewer bills. Included in that aid is assistance with repairing leaks and installing water-efficient faucets and shower heads.
In February, Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, and Rep. Brenda Lawrence, of Michigan, introduced the WATER Act. The bill orders the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to draft a study on issues of water affordability, that will, among other things, gauge the availability of data on water shutoffs that are due to unpaid bills.
Past attempts in Congress to pass water affordability legislation have stalled. The current crop of bills also faces a long road. Neither the Water Justice Act nor the WATER Act has attracted more than a handful of sponsors, and neither has moved out of committee.
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.