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.
Central America’s Dry Corridor, which spans Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, is getting drier. After five years of recurring droughts and meagre maize and bean harvests, subsistence farmers are leaving their homes to search for other jobs. The United Nations interviewed families in the region about their struggle, and reported last week that 8 percent of the families said they intend to migrate due to lack of food. The UN said that nearly one and a half million people in that region need food aid, and that climate disruption, with both drought and extreme rain, is leaving residents with little choice but to leave. Poverty and violence are other factors.
Rosella Bottone is a regional officer of the World Food Programme. She told Reuters that the first coping strategy for farmers is to move to cities for work. If that fails, then they leave the country. She said that in the past year, more women have been traveling with their children north to the United States. She added that it is more important than ever to help rural residents adapt to climate change. The UN is collaborating with communities to improve irrigation systems and reforestation efforts.
In Australia, some one and a half million people in Sydney are getting water from the Kurnell desalination plant, which returned to operation this past January. Officials in New South Wales say that the plant is a significant boost to water supplies during what’s been called “one of the worst droughts in living memory.”
Water minister Melinda Pavey said that the Sydney desalination plant reached full production in July, two months ahead of schedule. It’s providing about 15% of Sydney’s supply. The Guardian says that officials are planning to increase production at the plant, to be ready should the drought worsen.
In the United States, scientists warn that snow droughts could become the new normal in the western region by 2050. Researchers say that right now there is a 7 percent chance that the region will see consecutive seasons with very poor snowpack. If climate change proceeds as expected, by the middle of the century, the odds of back-to-back “snow droughts” could rise to 40 percent.
From 2012 to 2015, the Sierra Nevada mountains endured the worst snow drought in at least 500 years. In the study, researchers from the University of Idaho and University of California, Berkeley sought to determine the future frequency of consecutive snow droughts. They used climate modeling to study past snowfall patterns in the US West and then projected them forward, based on climate trends. They found that the likelihood of a four-year drought, such as the one that crippled California a few years ago, increased from 0.25 percent of years in the past, to 25 percent in the future – from being extremely rare to much more normal.
Snow is vital for life in the West. It reflects the sun and keeps the landscape cool. It melts to provide water through the warm months, nourishes wildlife, forests and soils, and wards off wildfires. But as the world warms, much of the Western U.S. has less snowfall and shorter snowfall seasons. The rising risk of consecutive snow droughts is a serious prospect. While one bad winter can be weathered, two or more in a row can critically stress resources.
Some residents of Newark, New Jersey, are using bottled water for drinking and cooking as city officials try to address high levels of lead in the municipal water system. Roughly 15,000 homes have been supplied with bottled water, after federal officials issued a blunt warning about the safety of the city’s water and pressed local authorities to take strong action. A federal judge is in the process of ruling on whether or not supplies should be provided to additional Newark residents.
New Jersey’s largest city has a population close to 300,000 and many are increasingly frustrated and fearful about the safety of their municipal water. It’s a challenge facing cities throughout the United States, as decaying infrastructure and mismanagement threaten water quality and availability.
Federal officials were surprised and alarmed by recent tests showing that some of the faucet filters distributed to residents to remove lead weren’t doing the job. The Environmental Protection Agency said it could not vouch for the safety of Newark’s water, even after filtration, and it urged authorities to provide bottled water to affected communities without delay.
Municipal officials fumbled their response. There were long lines to pick up water, confusion over who qualified for bottled water, and the discovery that some of the supplies were past their best-by date.
The lead problem in Newark has a history: in 2016, elevated levels were found in nearly half the city’s public schools, and over 30 switched to bottled water. For more than a year, Newark officials insisted that the problem was not widespread, and that the water was “absolutely safe to drink.” In 2017, however, a new and broader testing system proved otherwise. It found, over the following year and a half, that almost 10% of Newark’s homes had water with high lead levels – levels about twice as high as the federal standard. A state study pointed to poor water treatment at one of the two plants supplying Newark’s water. The study found that the water was not being properly calibrated for the lead pipes, leading to corrosion and lead leaching into the water.
Last October, the city started handing out PUR water filters, which had been used to address drinking water lead in Flint during its crisis. Suspicion over Newark’s public water system continues to rise, and some have drawn parallels to Flint, where state and local officials have faced criminal charges for decisions tied to the lead scandal. An investigation into Newark’s lead contamination is ongoing. The city is offering free water tests for lead and free blood tests for children. Experts say there is no safe level of lead exposure. Those most vulnerable to lead include pregnant women and children. Lead’s hazardous effects include damage to organs and brain function.
This February, Newark began a multi-year program aimed at replacing all lead pipes in the water system with copper pipes. This May, it set up a new approach to control corrosion within the existing pipes. Officials said the results have been promising, and they anticipate lower lead levels by the end of the year.
In the meantime, residents served by the Pequannock treatment plant are advised to use bottled water for cooking and drinking, and to run the water in their homes to speed the effect of the new corrosion control treatments. Residents served by Newark’s Wanaque plant are not being provided with bottled water, because the city doesn’t think it’s necessary. The National Resources Defense Council disagrees.
Erik Olson is a director at NRDC, which filed suit against New Jersey and Newark last year, for violating federal safe drinking water laws. He told News12 New Jersey that “The city has argued that it’s like crying ‘fire’ in a crowded room, that if we start distributing bottled water to people in the eastern part of the city, people won’t trust their water. We think that horse is out of the barn, that people are not trusting their water. What we really need to do is to make sure that the health of the most vulnerable citizens here in Newark is protected.”
Like Flint, many communities in Newark who fear for their water safety are African-American or low-income. Newark’s ongoing financial stress has made municipal upgrades a struggle, and management has been slow in assessing and addressing the problem that caused lead pipes to leach into the water. The New York Times reported that “Residents who had been reassured for months by the mayor, Ras Baraka, the head of the water department and other city leaders that the problem was being addressed were left reeling and some have called for Mr. Baraka to step down.” Baraka has said that Newark’s situation is not the same as Flint’s. In 2018, he told Time Magazine “In Flint they purposely did not put a corrosion control inhibitor in their water. Ours stopped working. That’s a marked and clear difference.” This January, Baraka appealed to President Trump to bolster Newark’s water infrastructure instead of funding his border project. In an open letter, Baraka wrote “spending $5 billion to make water safe is a much better way to protect Americans than building the wall.”
Last week Circle of Blue reported on the difficulty of forecasting urban water crises.
Which city will be the next to face an extreme water supply shortfall? Where is the next Cape Town, Chennai, or Harare? Water risk researchers say this question is harder to answer than it seems.
The current tools are good at identifying the geographic contours of risk: spotting where rainfall is low, groundwater is declining, and withdrawals from rivers exceeding nature’s contribution. But the tools fall short in providing a more nuanced accounting of urban water risk, and the stakes for accurate assessments could not be higher.
Betsy Otto is director of the World Resources Institute’s Global Water Program, and she says “It’s an existential question for cities.” Otto thinks about water risk as being chronic or acute. She likens the distinction to an ill person. Acute risks, like a heart attack that sends someone to the hospital, cause an event that requires immediate attention. For a city’s water supply, low reservoirs can be a triggering event.
Chronic risks are ongoing or underlying conditions that can ultimately give rise to a crisis situation. Basic hydrology is one such factor. Cities in dry areas have a fundamental water supply risk. In other areas, incremental changes in water availability may be a slow-developing vulnerability. Depending on how a city responds to its environment, a chronic risk may not turn into an acute crisis, Otto said. But the risk is present.
The World Resources Institute has developed a risk tool called Aqueduct, which is designed to identify areas that are exposed to chronic water stress. It is helpful as “an initial screening tool” for chronic risk, Otto said. The latest update, released last week, showed that a quarter of the world’s population, mainly in India, the Middle East, and North Africa, lives in areas of extremely high water stress. Worthy as these assessment tools are, say some researchers, they have a number of deficiencies that limit their usefulness. They are not designed to foresee the acute threats: predicting a particular drought in a specific basin, for example. Short-term weather forecasting is not good at predicting conditions months down the road.
Current risk tools also do not take into account a city’s infrastructure. Some cities tap into water from outside their home region. Others have water recycling facilities or desalination plants that add a layer of resilience to drought. Data on water demand is also lacking, according to Upmanu Lall of Columbia University.
Risk forecasts are also inadequate in ways that go beyond scientific observation and data collection. They do not consider the laws and policies that govern who has access to water
and who has priority in times of shortage.
Individual cities might do some of these risk analyses on their own. But they are not common, and there is no tool that incorporates all of this information for global monitoring in real-time. Aaron Salzberg, the former top water policy official in the U.S. State Department, stresses that even if the perfect tool did exist, the work for diligent urban water management will never cease. For water, as for all things social and political, constant vigilance is required. As he put it, “The important thing is that everybody from national governments down to local municipalities, even to regional settings, you need to be working together in a process that’s never ending. This is not a problem that we will ever solve.”
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