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.
Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, is increasingly desperate for water. Two million people live in the metropolitan area, and the mayor said that over half of residents could get running water only once a week. Instead, they are lining up for hours at springs, streams, public wells, and boreholes – water sources that are themselves at risk of failure. As residents forego laundry and sanitation and focus on finding water, the crisis magnifies social and economic hardships in a country already grappling with inflation, currency devaluation, and the high cost of imported goods.
Annual drought is nothing new to Zimbabwe, but this year is particularly bad because of its timing, and its scope. It came earlier than usual, and affected more people. Zimbabwe’s Climate Change Management Department says that rainfall is about 25 percent below the annual average. Global warming is an acknowledged factor in amplifying the frequency and intensity of drought. But Zimbabwe’s water woes are also a product of poor water management.
Two of Harare’s four reservoirs are dry, but the mayor says about half of the water remaining is lost because of leaks, or theft. It’s a symptom of a larger management crisis, reports the New York Times, noting that after 37 years under President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe suffers from prolonged power blackouts, shortages of medicine and fuel, and inflation over 175 percent.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, who ousted Mugabe in 2017, says his government is working on reforms. He blamed water mismanagement on local officials belonging to parties which oppose him, including Harare’s mayor. He said Zimbabwe’s government is leveraging a $71 million loan from China to revitalize neglected water systems. The Times expressed skepticism, pointing to the continued delay of new dam construction, lack of attention to broken municipal borewells and the pressure of numerous unplanned and informal housing settlements.
Meanwhile, said the Times, Harare’s residents said they were “washing less, drinking less and relieving themselves less.” Many have to choose between working or getting enough water for their families. One mother said she limits her children to a daily ration of one cup of drinking water and one visit to the toilet. She told the Times “We’re seriously restricted from living our lives. Water is life.”
The Mekong River is at its lowest level in over a hundred years. Experts warn that the lack of water will greatly harm fisheries and the tens of millions of people who rely on the river.
The primary causes for the low flows are drought and dams. Monsoon rains were expected in late May, but were slowed by an El Niño weather system and further affected by climate change. The rains didn’t really take hold until later in July.
The Mekong springs from the Tibetan plateau and flows through six countries, including China, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. During the drought, hydropower dams upstream in China and Laos further stressed the river by holding back water.
Although the rains have finally arrived, experts fear that considerable damage has already been done, with significant potential for ecological and economic harm. The rise and fall of the Mekong, based on the monsoon, supports a delicate cycle of aquatic life and a vital supply of nutrients and water for agriculture. Timing is an important part of that cycle, and a late monsoon has disrupted both the spawning of fish and the planting of rice.
The Mekong is also suffering the effects of dams on its upper reaches. Dams trap sediment, interrupt fish migrations and suppress fishery productivity, according to biology experts. China, for example, has 11 dams along the river, which it operates without the oversight of the Mekong River
Commission, a consultative group formed by the lower basin countries.
For two weeks in July, China’s Jinghong Dam cut its water releases by half, for “grid maintenance.” That reduction in flow is considered an important factor in this year’s historically low water levels.
Sarah Null is a professor in Watershed Sciences at Utah State University. She told National Geographic that the influence of larger nations like China on river flow underscores the imbalances among those who depend upon it. She said “Richer nations reap more benefits of hydropower dams, including economic benefits and increased energy supply, while poorer nations are more affected by environmental degradation and reduced food security.”
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region. It’s planning a massive effort to rise up as “the battery of Southeast Asia” with a string of hydroelectric plants on the Mekong and its branches. Its intent to sell electricity to neighboring countries has environmentalists concerned that economic decisions are not factoring in ecosystem costs, or even considering the management of the water system as a whole. At the same time that China reduced water flows through its dam, Laos was testing a dam of its own, a giant hydropower project scheduled to go online this fall. This may have exacerbated the impact of the drought conditions.
The Mekong, legendary and life-giving, is vulnerable, according to Zeb Hogan, a fish biologist at the University of Nevada, Reno. He told National Geographic: “The accelerating pace of change, coupled with cumulative impacts of transboundary stressors, and the impending impacts of climate change, point to a fear that the river, which is the lifeblood of most of Southeast Asia, will gradually lose function until it no longer supports the huge diversity of wildlife and millions of people that depend on it.”
One hundred sixty-four farmers and land rights activists were killed in 2018, with the highest number of deaths occurring in the Philippines, Colombia, and India. That’s according to the Britain-based human rights group Global Witness, which compiled data from a survey of 19 countries. It found that water-related killings increased by four-fold, from four in 2017 to 17 last year. The group said the deaths were mostly related to corrupt water management and pushback against hydropower projects. The killings also reflected the growing dangers of heat, drought and diminishing groundwater, especially in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. A spokesperson for Global Witness told Reuters that given such pressures, “it is highly likely that we’ll begin to see a rise in conflicts over water sources involving whoever controls them.”
The European Commission has warned Germany that it faces severe fines if it fails to lower nitrate levels in its groundwater within the next eight weeks. All member states of the European group are legally bound to follow nitrate limits. The Commission ruled in 2018 that Germany’s nitrate levels were too high, and it is now applying pressure for compliance. The Irish Farmer’s Journal reported last week that in 2016, the European Court of Justice determined that Germany had breached the EU’s directive on water quality, notably for animal manure and fertilizer. While the German government attempted to rectify this, the European Commission found the actions inadequate. If Germany fails to meet the standards in the next two months, it could face fines up to 850,000 Euros a day.
In the United States, groundwater pollution at a South Carolina military base is being tied to a toxic chemical used in hand grenades. Fort Jackson is a large U.S. base, and about 100,000 grenades are thrown there each year for training purposes. The grenades contain RDX, a chemical linked to seizures and cancer. Over 16 percent of drinking water wells tested near Fort Jackson over the last six years show traces of RDX – in some cases, exceeding federal safety advisories. The base is providing bottled water and installing filtration systems to protect tap water. Fort Jackson officials say they have taken measures to prevent RDX from polluting private wells, and will test the wells of community members who request it. However, base officials say that RDX in wells outside its borders is due to training activities that took place decades ago. The Army once trained on some 18,000 acres south of the present base – an area now developed as residential. Fort Jackson authorities are looking into the possibility of connecting homes with the most severely polluted wells to the municipal system.
Matt Torkelson, is a former drill sergeant and explosives inspector at Fort Jackson. He told the Associated Press not to discount current activity on the base as an ongoing source of contamination. Although hand grenade training is necessary, he said, it does pose a risk to the water. “We are talking about chemicals that can seep through the ground and sit there for an extended period before it gets rolled into groundwater,” he said, “Every hand grenade that is thrown there is leaving a little residual RDX on the earth.”
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.
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.