What’s Up With Water – India’s Groundwater Crisis is Intensifying

I’m Eileen Wray-McCann, for Circle of Blue, and here’s What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water.

In Mozambique, nearly a month after Cyclone Idai, damage to water, sanitation and infrastructure continues to impede recovery. Conditions are ripe for disease, especially in slums and displaced persons camps in and around the city of  Beira, where many thousands forage for water. There are over 3,000 confirmed cases of cholera, and six reported deaths. Health workers began distributing oral vaccines last week, encouraged by the restoration of running water, even though the water reaches only 60 percent of the city’s residents. A representative of Doctors Without Borders said the organization is prepared for the worst, but that at present, the cholera epidemic is under control and an anticipated spike in cases has been lower than expected. In the coming weeks, the dry season should arrive, and with it, hopes for containing the spread of the disease.

Venezuela has struggled with recurrent power blackouts since March 7th. While power is currently restored to many areas, water shutoffs remain an issue. On Saturday, tens of thousands of residents gathered to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s policies, and to advocate for opposition leader Juan Guaido. Venezuelans have endured hyperinflation and shortages of food, medicine and social services. The crisis is worsened by vast power outages that last for days and cut off water and cell phone service. Maduro blames the blackouts on attacks supported by the US government, which opposes him. Power experts, however, say the outages are a result of incompetence and corruption.

In southern Iran, scores of communities have been evacuated as officials warn of new flooding near the Iraq border, where rivers and dams are rising. Over the weekend, Iraq officially closed a border crossing due to the danger. Iran has suffered continuous flooding for weeks, and some 70 people have died as a result. Thousands have been displaced and the heavy rains have caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to agriculture and infrastructure.

India’s groundwater crisis is intensifying as disrupted weather patterns and drought force increasing reliance on a stressed water source. India depends on groundwater for 80% of its domestic water supply. But contamination is a nationwide problem, and people no longer trust municipal water systems. Many are skeptical of the government’s pledge to provide safe water for all by 2022. Bottled water sales are up, but this is an expensive option for many. In the last decade, startups and social entrepreneurs have risen to fill the gap. Water ATMs act like vending machines, dispensing clean water into customers’ containers. Home tap-water filters are another third- party solution, but though these methods are cheaper than bottled water in the long run, the poor are still paying much more for water than if the municipal systems were safe. A new report by UNICEF highlights woeful conditions in many hospitals and healthcare facilities across the world. The report found that 1 in 8 healthcare facilities is without water service and 1 in 5 has no sanitation service. These conditions affect over 1 billion people. The organization calls the report “the first comprehensive global assessment of water, sanitation and hygiene in health care facilities” and it says that many health centers lack basic facilities for handwashing and disposing of medical waste. “These services,” it warns, “are crucial to preventing infections, reducing the spread of antimicrobial resistance and providing quality care, particularly for safe childbirth.”

In Portugal, over 11,000 firefighters and support staff are preparing for the summer wildfire season. It’s the largest crew the country has ever assembled. Portuguese officials fear this year’s wildfires could be especially severe after an abnormally dry winter, with sweltering temperatures ahead. The crew will be deployed in the peak wildfire months, from July through September.

In the United States, after devastating floods last month, the governors of Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri called for refocusing flood control efforts. They criticized the current management of the Missouri River, which is carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The governors said they would work together for change, demanding more state authority over how the system is managed. They blamed the federal agency for not prioritizing flood containment, but the Army Corps said much of the record rain and snowmelt was simply beyond its control. In related news, farmers who lost stored crops in the flooding will receive no compensation, according to the U.S. government. An estimated 5 to 10 million bushels of corn and soybeans, worth up to $35 million, could have been damaged in the floods, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no mechanism to pay the farmers for their losses.

Minnesota is tightening regulations on two PFAS chemicals that were found recently in water supplies near the Twin Cities. The state is enacting a health advisory of 15 parts per trillion for PFOS and 47 parts per trillion for PFHxS. It’s a minor change, but an official at the Minnesota health department said it will help in the evaluation of potential health risks from the chemicals. The US Environmental Protection Agency has set non-binding advisory levels for some of the PFAS chemicals, but some individual states, including Minnesota, have set stricter limits as they struggle to address concerns about drinking water supplies across the country. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection proposed strict safety limits on two PFAS contaminants in its drinking water. The proposal would set a PFOA limit of 14 parts per trillion, and a PFOS standard of 13 parts per trillion, as well as requiring quarterly monitoring of public water systems.

North Carolina’s environmental agency ordered Duke Energy Corporation to excavate the waste dumps at all six of its operational coal-burning plants in order to cut water contamination risks. Coal ash contains pollutants such mercury, lead, and arsenic, known to leach into groundwater.

A U.S. district judge ruled that residents of Flint, Michigan, can sue former Governor Rick Snyder over the Flint water crisis. This is a reversal of a prior decision. Judge Judith Levy said that residents are entitled to claim a violation of their right to bodily integrity because Snyder knew about lead contamination in Flint’s water system but failed to take action. Water levels in the Great Lakes Michigan and Huron may rise by almost a foot this summer.

Some 8 trillion gallons of water are expected to flow into Michigan and Huron in the coming months, and all of the Great Lakes should have above-average water levels this summer.

Our feature from Circle of Blue looks at a report on local water laws in Maryland and how they can impede drinking water access for poor families. Maryland towns and cities deploy a diverse arsenal of laws and policies against residents who fall behind on water bills. Some jurisdictions levy additional fees that make it harder for financially struggling households to catch up. As water rates climb in communities across the country, water affordability and the number of homes that lose water service due to a missed bill have come to the forefront in public policy. Utilities argue that the ability to shut off water to households is a necessary tool for ensuring that bills are paid on time. The report from the Center for Water Security and Cooperation, a legal research group, adds a shade of nuance to that claim. One of the authors, Alexandra Campbell-Ferrari, argues that while shutoffs may deter households unwilling to pay bills on time, they are more injurious than effective for those who are willing, but unable to pay because of financial distress. The report describes four fees that utilities charge residents after they fall behind: for late payment, to disconnect water service, to reconnect water service, and interest on overdue bills. Nearly two out of three municipalities and counties in Maryland that permit shutoffs charge at least one of these fees, which can be large and, as the report argues, punitive. To turn off or reconnect water service, utilities in Maryland charge residents between $10 and $100, the report found. Some utilities offer a helping hand through aid programs that reduce the cost of water for families below the poverty line. But few such programs exist. The report says that only one in three municipalities in Maryland has a financial assistance program. The Maryland report is the most comprehensive statewide assessment of the local laws and policies that control access to water after a missed bill and affect low-income households. The circumstances in Maryland mirror conditions nationally. A Circle of Blue investigation of  water shutoff policies in a dozen large cities found a dozen different ways to determine which late-paying customers would have water service turned off. For residents who fall behind in their water bills, aid is unlikely to arrive.  Federal aid programs exist for food and energy bills, but none for water. Efforts in Congress in recent years to establish such a program have garnered little support. The report does not make recommendations. This was by design, said Campbell-Ferrari, who also teaches water law at the University of Maryland. She and her colleagues wanted first to establish a baseline understanding. Though they scoured the state for local policies, much data — on the number of shutoffs, for example, and the connection to an inability to pay — is still unavailable. “We’re trying to get a sense as to what the challenges are and we’re trying to initiate a conversation about it,” said Campbell-Ferrari. “If there’s this disparity that is generated across the state, is that what we want? Is that our public policy for the state? Is this the result that we’re looking for and if not, what would we do instead?” And that’s What’s Up With Water…we’d like to know what’s up where you are – Tweet us with your water news @circleofblue #whatsupwithwater.

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