I’m Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. 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.
In southeast China, massive landslides are being triggered by days of heavy rain and flooding. Extreme storms in the central and southern part of the country have killed up to 61 people. Widespread flooding forced 300,000 residents to evacuate and has caused an estimated 10 billion yuan ($1.4 billion) in direct economic losses.
Cyclone Vayu, which was on track to hit western India, ended up skirting the coast, and the state of Gujarat avoided a direct hit from the powerful storm. Vayu is expected to reverse course and make landfall early this week as a much weaker storm. Such a turn will bring much needed moisture to a region that is still waiting on monsoon rains.
Suffocating heat and drought have gripped parts of India, with temperatures in the capital Delhi reaching 48° C (118° F), a record-high for June. The grievous conditions have forced many villagers to flee due to water shortages. In an area south of Mumbai, an estimated 90 percent of the population had abandoned their homes.
In a related story, cane sugar production in India could drop by as much as 15 percent, compared to a year ago. The shortfall is due to water shortages in India’s key sugarcane regions, including Maharashtra. India is the second-largest sugar producer in the world. Some hope the smaller harvest will help to balance out bumper production from past years, which kept prices too low for profitable farming. But the arid conditions threaten other food production, and some farmers are selling their sugar cane as fodder for livestock which has suffered dwindling forage.
In Uganda, a proposal to build a power plant on the Nile River is getting pushback. A South African utility applied to study the feasibility of a power project on Murchison Falls. These falls are within one of Uganda’s largest national parks, popular for its lions, hippos, elephants, buffalos, and giraffes. Critics warn that a power plant there could devastate tourism and damage wildlife habitats. Those critics include tourist businesses, nature advocates and the Ugandan government’s wildlife protection agency. The national energy regulators say there’s been no final decision on the proposal, and that public comment is being considered.
In Australia, the Queensland government approved a groundwater management plan for the controversial Carmichael coal mine and cleared the Adani mining company to begin work at the site. The approval, however, does not apply to the North Galilee pipeline, which would supply the mine with water. Earlier this year, the Australian Conservation Foundation argued in federal court that the government had failed to adequately assess the environmental impacts of the pipeline. The government, conceding to the charges, says it will reassess the proposal and reopen public comment.
Doctors in Norway are investigating the deaths of two people after water contamination sickened residents on the island of Askoy. Some 2,000 people have suffered from diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain. Sixty-three people from the island have been hospitalized, 15 of them children, since the symptoms arose over a week ago. The cause of the illness is believed to be Campylobacter bacterium, which was identified in patients and in several places in the local water system. Officials are instructing locals to boil their water. Genetic testing suggests that the campylobacter strains came from the same source of infection. The World Health Organization says that campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of human gastroenteritis in the world. Infections are generally mild, but they can be fatal for the very young, the very old, and those with weak immune systems.
Tokyo’s myriad waterways, once a hallmark of the city, have been largely neglected for the last half century, according to the Guardian, which writes that the 1964 Toyko Olympics marked a transformation in the city, as highways appeared over river channels. This added to the pollution and stagnation of waterways that, in turn, further damaged the water environment and the economics of commercial use. Some streams were given up as hopeless, filled with construction debris and sealed with concrete. Others were converted to roads. The Guardian reports that some leaders see the next Olympics as a chance to turn back. In hosting the 2020 games, they hope that Tokyo’s 37 million people might be inspired to reconnect with water’s role in their historic, economic and cultural identity.
Europe’s rivers and streams, meanwhile, are increasingly loaded with harmful levels of pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals, according to several recent studies. Scientists caution that the widespread contamination could poison fish and become a breeding ground for drug-resistant microbes. Some of effects of these chemicals are well-known: for instance, that heavy metals accumulate in fish. But much more remains unknown. The struggle to evaluate risk increases because industry produces chemicals and medicines faster than researchers can study them.
In the United Kingdom, flood defenses are showing a dividend. A new study estimates they are preventing $1.4 billion in damages each year. The Association of British Insurers calculated the savings by modeling thousands of flooding scenarios with and without flood barriers. They say it’s the first time the financial benefits of river defenses have been quantified. One of the group’s directors told The Guardian that given the threat of climate change, the barriers, walls and natural defenses currently mitigating extreme weather make economic sense. But, he added, “they must keep pace with the threat if they are to continue being effective.”
In the United States, middle America has been overwhelmed by floods in recent months, which have devastated homes, farms, livelihoods and industries. A less obvious casualty of the high waters is commerce. Thousands of barges are trapped at various points along the Midwest’s largest rivers. Months of above-average rainfall have made rivers too deep and fast-moving to safely navigate, severely restricting normal shipping activities. The Arkansas River has been closed to traffic. So has the Illinois River, a critical conduit to Chicago and the Great Lakes. Near St. Louis, the Mississippi recently hit its second-highest level on record, which has major implications for trade. A majority of America’s exported grain moves along the Mississippi and its branches. At home, the stymied shipping is hurting farmers, who are already financially underwater due to flooded fields and depressed commodity prices. They cannot get last year’s harvest to market and they cannot get fertilizer shipments to prepare for the next crop. Farmers have had to improvise. Barges are the cheapest way to move large loads, but instead farmers are spending more money on alternative forms of delivery. The New York Times reported that even if the rivers reopen to traffic in the coming weeks, which is uncertain, the impact on the economy could last. The disruption to supply chains, inventories and transportation could mean higher prices and limited supplies for consumers this summer and fall.
Nitrate pollution in U.S. drinking water could be linked to more than 12,000 cancer cases annually, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Research. The study is by the Environmental Working Group, and it estimated the number of cancer cases in each state that could be attributed to nitrates in public water systems. Nitrates, by and large, are tied to fertilizer and manure runoff. The vast majority of the estimated cases were colorectal cancer. The rest were ovarian, thyroid, kidney and bladder cancer. The organization says the cost of treating these cases could top $1.5 billion annually. The current federal standard for nitrates in drinking water is 10 parts per million. The EPA had initiated a scientific evaluation of the toxicity of nitrate in 2017, but it suspended that evaluation last December.
The Michigan Department of the Attorney General unexpectedly dismissed criminal charges in eight cases linked to the Flint water crisis. Many Flint residents, feeling betrayed by a system that supplied them with lead-tainted water, were stunned and dismayed by the development. Prosecutors for the new administration dropped all remaining charges against officials who were accused of mismanaging the city’s water and mishandling the crisis that followed. The cases were dropped without prejudice, meaning that charges can be refiled or added. The Flint Water Prosecution team says a more thorough investigation will now be conducted, adding that “all available evidence was not pursued” by the previous team of prosecutors. Dana Nessel, Michigan’s attorney general, supported the decision to drop the charges. But she said, “I want to remind the people of Flint that justice delayed is not always justice denied.”
In the Great Lakes basin, the latest outlook for Lake Erie foresees a large buildup of harmful cyanobacteria in the months ahead. A wet spring, such as this year’s, encouraged algae growth, and experts predict this summer will see one of the largest blooms in the beleaguered lake since 2002.
Lake Erie’s degradation is emblematic of an era. In the last decade, such blooms have plagued waterways across the country, from Florida’s estuaries and inland lakes to the Ohio River and the foothills of the Oregon Cascades. The blooms have resulted in beach closures and drinking water advisories. Researchers note that a bigger algae bloom, does not necessarily mean a more toxic bloom, but toxicity is much harder to predict than size. The final Lake Erie algae forecast is scheduled for July 11, and the bloom itself should peak in August or September. Throughout the summer, officials in cities that use Lake Erie as a drinking water source will be keeping close watch on the algae, ready to alert residents.
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