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.
We begin with a quick survey of water stories around the globe.
Desalination plants worldwide are producing more brine than expected, putting the environment at risk. That’s according to a new UN-backed study that finds that most of the brine, including toxins used in the desalination process, is pumped back into the ocean, endangering marine life.
An international team of scientists mapped global tree growth throughout the 20th century and found that shortages of water, not hotter temperatures, had the greatest impact on forest growth in a changing climate.
In Africa, an attack in northern Mali, where water and pasture are frequently contested, has left more than 30 people dead.
In the United States, Arizona lawmakers reviewed draft legislation as the deadline nears for a Colorado River drought contingency plan, and Michigan legislators reintroduced a bill to establish strict PFAS limits for drinking water.
Lead levels in water samples from Flint, Michigan, tested at their lowest since the city’s devastating lead crisis began. But in New Jersey, lead has been found in the drinking water systems of two counties.
Newly-elected California governor Gavin Newsom named clean drinking water as a top priority, saying that it is not accessible to over a million residents in his state.
In South America, heavy rains and flooding are expected to continue in northern Argentina.
Israel was also hit by the heaviest rain in years, and another round of rain and snow battered Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Experts warned that melting glaciers in Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, and the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges jeopardize the water supply of millions for the coming decades. However, many water-saving irrigation measures are too expensive for the region’s farmers.
That’s the world water roundup. We focus this week on Australia, where the management of the Murray-Darling river basin has become, quite literally, a heated debate.
Last week, Australian officials urgently called experts together to consider options for reviving the Murray-Darling river basin. The basin’s failing health gained worldwide attention recently when up to a million fish were found dead near Menindee, New South Wales. The fish suffocated from oxygen depletion caused by decomposing algae. It was the second die-off at this spot in the river within a month, and it happened during a record-breaking heatwave and a prolonged drought.
The Murray-Darling basin is Australia’s most vexing water policy issue. One-third of the country’s food is grown in the basin, where farmers and industry compete with ecosystems for water. A recovery plan signed in 2012 aimed to reallocate water to the basin’s environmental needs, but execution of the plan has been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. Australia’s growing aridity has only added to the political and environmental stress.
The fish kills are the latest manifestation. The New South Wales Minister for Regional Water, Niall Blair, announced plans to aid ailing fish populations by installing aerators in key locations on the river that will infuse the water with higher oxygen levels.
“They are a Band-Aid solution; we admit that,” Blair told reporters.
While Blair blamed the drought for the river crisis, local farmers and residents are skeptical, as some of the dead fish were over 70 years old and had weathered many a dry season before. Critics contend the disaster stems from mismanagement of the river system. As an example, they point to the decision to drain the Menindee Lakes, which lie adjacent to the river where the fish died.
The Menindee Lakes are a series of shallow freshwater bodies connected to the Darling River in New South Wales. They have served as a water storage and supply system and have also provided flood mitigation and wildlife habitat.
When the state had to meet its water conservation quota under the basin recovery plan, it considered two options: buying back water rights from irrigators, or releasing water from the lakes into the river and counting the water that would no longer evaporate from the lakes as water conserved. The Basin Authority’s scientific staff harshly criticized the “evaporation savings” plan, saying it could do more harm than good. But the government was reluctant to seek water from irrigators, and the Menindee Lakes project went forward.
The Basin Authority drew down the lakes twice in the past four years, and little water has flowed into them. The Guardian reported last weekend that the lakes have only 3 per cent of their water left. The lakes are expected to be dry by month’s end.
A report by the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, says that mismanagement by the New South Wales government is largely to blame for the crisis on the Lower Darling river. Maryanne Slattery, a senior researcher at the Institute, formerly worked with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, which oversees the recovery plan.
Ms. Slattery has studied the inflows and outflows of Menindee Lakes and how they have been managed. She said that releases from the lakes don’t seem to be focused on giving the river below a healthy supply of water.
Ms. Slattery said that draining the lakes to reduce evaporation cannot be considered wise policy when it causes an ecological disaster. Because there is no management rule that puts evaporation efficiency over environmental and community impact, Ms. Slattery speculated that the lakes may have been drained to justify other water management decisions, such as the Menindee water-saving project, changes to the basin plan and a new water pipeline.
She told the Guardian that these decisions are opposed locally, and that they have been made with minimal transparency where business, culture and environment are concerned. She added that unpopular choices are easier to justify if the lakes are dry and the neighboring community appears at risk of running out of water.
The Australia Institute has asked for a full inquiry and for far greater transparency from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
Senators from Australia’s Green Party have also demanded accountability. They accused the federal government of withholding information on the management of the Menindee Lakes. The issue, reported the Guardian, “is one of the critical questions in uncovering who is responsible for the environmental disaster.” According to some news reports, federal and state governments appear to be pointing at each other when it comes to the responsibility for managing the Menindee Lakes system.
Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, representing the Greens, requested information from the federal water minister on behalf of the Senate, and has waited over six weeks. The minister missed a deadline at the end of November, and his office said that the delay was due to the complexity of the material, promising to release it as soon as possible. Hanson-Young expressed concern that the minister might be withholding information as a way of favoring the agricultural sector over the ecosystem.
“We have spent $13bn on the Murray-Darling Basin plan, yet the river system is in collapse.” She said, adding, “This plan was put in place to fix the river, and cotton, corruption and climate change is killing it.” Next month, the Greens plan to introduce legislation calling for a royal commission into the mismanagement of the Basin. The Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations have expressed support for the investigation, but the legislation will likely receive a mixed response from Australia’s other political parties.
Australia’s cotton industry has pushed back on perceptions that it was getting more than its fair share of water. Last month, the general manager of Cotton Australia said “We are growing very tired of being the whipping boy for all the problems that are being brought on by this crippling drought.”
Farmers in general are struggling to cope with record-breaking heat as well. In order to recover from previous drought, they need a wetter than average start to the year. However, as New South Wales Farmers’ president James Jackson told the Sydney Morning Herald, “The prospects are not great, to be honest.” Mr. Jackson said the economic stress would be felt not only by farmers, but by the larger economy, with rising food prices as demand outstrips supply.
This month, New South Wales suffered days of extreme temperatures that remained in the 40s Celsius, or above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The senior climatologist at Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology said the current heat wave promises to be one of the most significant in the history of inland New South Wales. Officials report that nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing drought and 30 percent of the state is in extreme drought. Those conditions have increased 20 percent since last August, and the latest weather patterns suggest that the monsoon season will be disrupted. This the driest start to the wet season since 1992.
Last week, officials confirmed that last year was Australia’s third hottest on record, and the year before was the fourth hottest. Its State of the Climate report for 2018 linked climate change to a rise in extreme heat. According to the BBC, scientists warn that even if global temperatures are kept within the limits of the Paris accord, Australia faces a threatening “new normal.”
The images of venerable and iconic fish floating lifeless in a once-noble river illustrate a threat to the Murray-Darling that is capturing the attention of the world. It is a cautionary tale that Australia’s indigenous people have been telling for a long time now. After thousands of years of reverence for the Barka, as the Darling River is known to them, they have watched others bleed it dry.
The Barkindji see the critical strain on the ecosystem as a call for the preservation of “cultural water,” in recognition of the river’s sacred connection to indigenous people. They argue that water should be allocated to culture, just as it is to irrigators or the environment. It’s an emerging concept that could translate from land issues to water, as aboriginal peoples have regained control of some areas of their homeland.
In 2015, after 18 years of litigation, the Barkindji got their traditional rights recognized for a portion of the Darling River. Those rights, however, were absent from the government water-sharing plan a year later.
But the idea of allocating Indigenous water rights is gaining favor with ranchers, who would share the benefit of cultural waters, and with those who appreciate the value of such stewardship. Barkindji elder Kevin Knight told the Sydney Morning Herald that he hopes his people’s water rights will be recognized in a couple of years. Still, he warned, “a couple of years may be too late.”
The World Economic Forum, is convening its annual gathering in Davos this week, as world leaders address the need for global cooperation and ways to adapt to a changing planet. Circle of Blue’s coverage of the Forum begins with a summary of the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.
Drought, water scarcity, groundwater depletion, climate change, extreme weather — these and other environmental factors are among the greatest risks to society and industry, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report, an annual survey of nearly 1,000 leaders in business, government, academia, and international organizations.
The fourteenth edition of the report comes amid warnings that the planet’s convulsions are increasing — and that leaders may not be backing their expressions of concern with appropriate action. National governments are not on track to meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement nor the Sustainable Development Goals for drinking water and sanitation.
“Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking,” the report states. “Instead, divisions are hardening.”
The World Economic Forum asked its members and professional networks to rate 30 global risks based on two attributes: the likelihood that they will occur within the next decade and the damage they will cause. These risks include economic variables such as inflation or high national debt, geopolitical variables like war and terrorist attacks, and “societal” risks such as food crises, migration, and disease outbreaks.
For the third consecutive year, weapons of mass destruction ranked as the most damaging risk, but also the least likely.
The five environmental risks listed in the survey are extreme weather, failure to respond to climate change, biodiversity loss/ecosystem degradation, natural disasters, and manmade environmental disasters such as an oil spill. Each is rated as both highly likely and highly damaging.
Water crises, categorized as a societal risk because of their far-reaching consequences, also rated as highly likely and highly damaging. It is the eighth consecutive year that water crises were a top-five most damaging risk.
More information about the report and global water risks can be found at circleofblue.org.
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 hashtag whatsupwithwater.
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.