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.
Major cities in the Global South are growing quickly, and so is the threat of water failure – that’s according to a new report by the World Resources Institute. The report finds that cities in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia are falling further behind in their efforts to supply reliable and affordable clean water, and it is ever more dangerous for public health and economic stability.
The study looked at data from 15 major cities in the global south, ranging in population from 250 thousand to 23 million. Those cities included Lagos, Mumbai, São Paulo and Caracas. Analysis showed that, in those cities, 42% of the households had no access to in-house piped water. In the vast majority of the cities, those who did have access to piped water did not have reliable service. The problem is growing: within the last 30 years, over 200 million more people in the global south are without access to piped water. Alternatives such as surface water and self-made wells are often less healthy, while bottled water options are much more expensive.
Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia University Water Center. He told National Public Radio that many of the cities in the WRI report have insufficient infrastructure. The pipes are simply too old, and too few. Replacing failing pipes and and expanding to meet a growing population is terribly expensive. Structurally, cities are falling farther and farther behind. “Then you get a little drought,” said Lall, “and the population is out of luck.”
The most vulnerable cities were the African cities, including Nairobi, Kenya, Kampala, Uganda, Mozambique and Malawi. On average, more than three-quarters of those households were without access to piped water, relying instead on groundwater wells, harvested rainwater or public taps. The report analyzed data from the United Nations, which showed that among residents of Africa’s cities, another 10% have lost access to municipal water in the last 30 years. In 1990, 57% lacked piped water, and now 67% are without it.
Victoria Beard, is professor of urban planning at Cornell University, and contributed to the WRI report. She told NPR that that things will get worse as cities swell and climate change increases the threat of “Day Zero” scenarios, when urban water runs out. A separate WRI report declared that 33 cities around the world are struggling with extremely high water stress. Those cities currently represent 250 million people. In the next decade or so, says the report, that number could nearly double.
The latest WRI report doesn’t try to predict which urban areas are closest to Day Zero. It purpose was to assess the severity of water stress that many cities are already facing because they can’t rely on municipal water, but doing so in terms of shortages and high prices . The study is a counterpoint to a report by the United Nations in June that presented a more optimistic assessment. UNICEF handles global water and sanitation issues and is a respected data source. This June, it reported that 97% of the global urban population had access to what it called “basic” water services. But the World Resources Institute report suggests that UNICEF might be overstating global water access because it didn’t consider mitigating factors such as reliability and cost. It also suggested that some sources that UNICEF counts as “accessible” may be vulnerable to contamination or price gouging. A water specialist at UNICEF said it relied on national data and acknowledged that this may not give the best picture of life on the city level. NPR says that UNICEF is working on ways to fine-tune its assessments. It also noted that Beard and her colleagues have kept track of ways that cities find alternatives to piped water. Some, like Nairobi, use water “ATMs” that act like vending machines. In others, like Karachi, residents of informal communities illegally siphon water from public pipes. “Water mafias” deal in black-market supplies, and stake out neighborhood territories. In some cities, individually-packaged water supplies create a waste problem.
Beard told NPR that the most direct solution is to eliminate waste in municipal water systems, be it through leaks or theft. The WRI report found that in many cities, up to 60% of the water that is sent out from distribution centers is lost before it gets to customers. Water that leaks away or is stolen is water that was processed, but never paid for. Lost municipal revenue means less money for upgrading and expanding water systems. And decaying water systems mean less water stability, both in terms of access and affordability. The report says that “Households without access to municipal water self-provide or purchase water from private sources, which costs up to 52 times as much as piped utility water.” As Beard told NPR, “The fact that people are willing to pay very high prices for smaller and smaller amounts of water shows how extreme the issue is.”
In the Philippines, saltwater is moving inland, threatening groundwater in one of its most populous cities.  The island City of Cebu is known as “The Queen City of the South.” It’s the Philippine’s oldest city, and its metropolitan area is highly significant in terms of population, economy and land mass. Last week, a water district official disclosed that the city’s water production dropped five percent in the previous two weeks, in part because saltwater is seeping into some supply wells. She said that production was also down because of lower yields in other groundwater wells. The official added that if current levels of water extraction continue over the next decade, saltwater will move five kilometers inland, contaminating groundwater all the way to the foothills in the northern district of Talamban.
Charmaine Rodriguez-Kara represents the Metropolitan Cebu Water District. She said that nearly half the production loss came when her agency dropped their contract with a private supplier whose well tested too high for saltwater. “Saltwater intrusion is the biggest threat to water sources because it is irreversible,” Kara told SunStar Cebu. “Once the saltwater enters, you can no longer use that well. You’ll have to shut it down.” The cut to water supplies meant that some residents of Cebu no longer had complete water service. Instead of constant access, their water would be available 20 hours a day.
Over-extraction of groundwater can increase the salinity of water in wells because of a change in natural hydraulics. Pumping freshwater out of the ground lowers the freshwater table, reducing its pressure against coastal saltwater sources, which are denser, and allowing the saltwater to seep further inland. Prevention of saline intrusion requires strategic water withdrawals, and a close eye on the salinity of wells.
Monitoring the salinity of Cebu City’s water is problematic, because of who controls the water sources. The demand for fresh water in the metro service area is well over twice what the municipal system is able to supply. So over half is supplied by private well owners, and the National Water Board does not have the authority to demand test samples from them.
In California last week, the State Water Resources Control Board approved funding for a plan to provide safe drinking water to California communities. The California Safe Drinking Water Act, signed last month by Governor Gavin Newsom, allocates $130 million a year through 2030. The money will come from a diversion of revenue from the states greenhouse gas “cap and trade” program. This year’s funding comes from the budget passed by the Legislature in June.
California’s drinking water law requires the state water board to come up with a plan for shoring up water systems that are failing. The board plans to run and maintain updated systems and join smaller water systems to larger ones, to improve efficiency and to  lower costs, especially in rural areas. This year’s funding will go to grants for alleviating immediate water needs.
Some areas, such as the central San Joaquin Valley, are especially vulnerable to drinking water insecurity, a problem heightened by contaminants such as arsenic, nitrates, and hazardous chemicals. Hundreds of thousands of California residents have at one time or another lacked reliable access to safe water. State Water Resources Control Board Chair E.  Joaquin Esquivel said the struggle has gone on too long. “With today’s action,” he said “we can begin to close this gap and ensure that the essential human right to safe and affordable water is provided to all Californians.”
Microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to threaten human health – that’s the provisional assessment from the World Health Organization. Last week, the UN health agency said that the tiny particles of plastic were “ubiquitous in the environment.”  They have appeared in both tap water and bottled water, probably through treatment and distribution systems. Bruce Gordon, a water co-ordinator at the agency, told the Associated Press “just because we’re ingesting them doesn’t mean we have a risk to human health.” He said the takeaway is that consumers “shouldn’t necessarily be concerned.” But, he admitted that the available data on microplastics is “weak” and the issue needs more study. He also advocated for better efforts to curb plastic pollution.
This report is the World Health Organization’s first review on the the possible health risks of microplastics, which are loosely defined as particles of plastic smaller than 5 millimeters. They are usually created by the breakdown of larger plastics released into the environment. While the WHO said people have been accidentally ingesting microplastics for decades without apparent harm, outside experts caution against complacency. They stress that the jury is still out on the full effects of microplastics, especially in the long term. They point to harms that have been documented, notably to small organisms, and warn that the tiny particles could be dangerous in ways that have not yet been measured.
The WHO has called for further study into the health and environmental impacts of microplastics, and Gordon said it would continue to monitor levels in water. But the agency puts a higher priority on current and clear risks to drinking water, such as the bacteria that cause typhoid and cholera. He said “These are things that cause immediate illness and can kill a million people.”
This week’s Circle of Blue story looks at the deadliest water disease in the United States: Legionnaires’ – and why experts warn that efforts to control it are failing.
A group of leading infectious disease experts says that that federal, state, and local laws, including the benchmark Safe Drinking Water Act, are inadequate for halting the spread of Legionella, the bacteria that are responsible for more deaths in the United States than any other water contaminant.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, convened a panel of  microbiologists, engineers, and health officials, and its committee produced a report on managing Legionella in water systems. It provides the most comprehensive picture to date of the science of Legionnaires’ disease and obstacles to its control.
Joan Rose, the chair of the group, said that preventing future cases of the pneumonia-like illness requires better coordination on many fronts: including all levels of government and building owners. It also demands stronger policies and further scientific studies.
The report was released on August 14, the day before the Sheraton Atlanta Hotel re-opened after the largest Legionnaires’ outbreak in Georgia history. The hotel had closed for a month following one death linked to the disease, and at least 79 people at risk of infection.
The committee advised on how to asses the rise of Legionella as the country’s foremost acute drinking water contaminant. It also recommended ways to inhibit the bacteria’s growth in water systems. The suggestions include: expanded monitoring of cooling towers, a factor in numerous disease outbreaks, and wider adoption of water management plans within buildings. Other recommendations include updating plumbing codes to minimize bacteria growth within water systems, and clarifying regulatory grey zones in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Legionnaires’ disease is contracted by inhaling contaminated water droplets. It was discovered four decades ago after an outbreak at Philadelphia’s Bellevue Stratford Hotel during an American Legion convention. Since then, the number of cases has grown rapidly, especially in the last 20 years.
Reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease have increased five-fold since 2000, but that number is widely assumed to be an underestimate. The committee, extrapolating from data on pneumonia, a related illness, reckons that between 52,000 and 70,000 cases occur in the United States each year, some 10 times higher than the reported rate. More than nine out of  10 are individual illnesses, not connected to an outbreak. All those cases add up. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in a 2012 paper that the hospitalization cost for Legionnaires’ disease was $433 million a year. That figure has surely grown.
Why the increase in cases? Experts point to a number of reasons, some or all of which may play a role in the spread of a disease that flourishes at the intersection of the built and natural environments. Water distribution pipes and plumbing systems are aging, which could allow bacteria to nest in corroded nooks and crannies. The U.S. population is aging as well, and people above age 65 and those with weaker immune systems are more susceptible to the disease. A warming climate may provide an environmental foothold. Water and energy conservation measures often mean less water is flowing through pipes and water temperatures are cooler, both of which can spur Legionella growth. Better diagnostic tests and more attentive doctors could also explain some of the rise.
The expert committee briefed federal government officials on its findings. An EPA spokesperson told Circle of Blue that the agency is still reviewing the report and identifying additional steps it can take to manage Legionella.
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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.