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.
A quick survey of water stories around the globe.
In Australia, drought continues to have dire environmental consequences.
The newest government report on recent fish kills in New South Wales blames the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fish on an extreme drop in temperature causing low oxygen levels in rivers. The report concludes that this phenomenon, combined with depleted flows in the Darling River, caused the unprecedented die-off.
Meanwhile, the city of Sydney is responding to low reservoir levels by preparing to start up its desalination plant.
In the United States, newly-elected Florida governor Ron DeSantis is calling for the resignation of a regional water management board after its leadership refused his request to delay a land lease extension in the Everglades. The extension will allow sugar company Florida Crystals to operate for another eight years in vulnerable wetlands.
In Arizona, a proposed Colorado River drought plan is drawing fire from urban dwellers, who say the plan gives too much funding and water to farmers. And the Gila River Indian Community has threatened to withdraw its support for the plan if a bill increasing farmers’ rights to the Gila River is considered.
In Zimbabwe, minimal and unpredictable rainfall is complicating water access for farmers. To help conserve water, officials are considering placing water flow regulators in homes.
Iraq’s new prime minister promised improved water and electricity services to residents of Basra during a weekend visit. Violent protests shook the country’s second-largest city last summer after polluted water sickened thousands.
In India, despite ambitious claims by the Water Resources minister, a 5-year plan to clean the Ganges River lags behind schedule. But several Indian states are working to protect groundwater by tightening extraction laws, and a countrywide Water Conservation Fee is set to be implemented this June.
And that’s the world water roundup.
We focus this week on Iran, where excessive groundwater pumping is causing land subsidence. After thirty years of drought and unsustainable groundwater pumping, land around the capital Tehran is cracking, collapsing, and vanishing into massive holes. The dramatic shifting of the earth threatens farmland, cities, roads, and pipelines for water, waste and utilities. This “land subsidence” further unsettles a political landscape riven by violent protests over water security.
Tehran is located on a plateau about a thousand meters above sea level. In the last century, it has grown in size and influence. It hosts over half of Iran’s basic industries, and over 8 million residents. The larger metropolitan area has a population of 14 million. This means incredible demand for water in a semi-arid location. In 2013, the World Resources Institute named Iran the 24th most water-stressed nation, with a high risk of future water scarcity. Last year, a mere 171 millimeters, or 6.7 inches, of rain fell, so the alternative has been pumping water from below.
But underground resources have their limits. In the last decade, Iran has suffered its longest and deepest dry spell in over 30 years. Iran’s Meteorological Organization says 97 per cent of the country has seen some level of drought. There is simply not enough rain or snow to replenish the aquifers, especially as demand increases. As the water goes down, so too, does the land. Sinkholes are developing and fissures are spreading around Tehran. Iranian officials report annual land subsidence measurements of up to 22 centimeters (or 8.6 inches) near the capital, about eight times the normal range expected.
Land subsidence due to the depletion of an aquifer is a structural change in geology with far-reaching consequences. An aquifer is composed of soil, sands, gravels, clays and silts interspersed with spaces that are filled with water. When enough of the water is removed and not replaced, the empty spaces collapse under the weight above, compressing the remaining layers into the places once occupied by the water. Thus the surface of the earth is depressed, or fractured by the movement below.
Scientists at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences used satellite images from 2003 to 2017 to estimate that the western Tehran plain is sinking by 25 centimeters (or 9.8 inches) a year. In neighborhoods, walls have cracked, water pipes have ruptured, and people fear that buildings are unsafe. The land subsidence is causing Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport to sink. It’s also affecting other important infrastructure such as an oil refinery, a major highway, manufacturing plants and railroads.
This visible damage, while drastic, is largely repairable. What is unseen, and more threatening, is the loss of underground water storage capacity. Some soils can rebound once they are rewetted. But others, especially clays, are crushed by the compaction of the earth, and they no longer hold water. The U.S. Geological Survey warns that “subsidence occurring today is a legacy for all tomorrows.”
Iran’s water crisis is complicated by the region’s geopolitics. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has emphasized self-reliance in order to reduce its vulnerability to international sanctions. It devotes over 90 per cent of its water to agriculture, and experts say that farms are inefficient with their share. In Tehran itself, per capita use is roughly one and a half times as much as that in the rest of the country. Over the past year, water stress has sparked incidents of unrest in Iran. Last July, protests near the border with Iraq became violent as residents drew attention to salty, muddy water coming from their taps. The tension is compounded by other international pressures, including the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and taunts from Israel, which opposes Iran’s government. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released an online video offering his country’s water technology, a barb aimed at Iran’s leadership during its water crisis.
Gabriel Collins, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, wrote that the crisis “stems from decades of sanctions and compounding political mismanagement that is likely to make it very difficult to alleviate the emerging crisis before it wreaks lasting damage upon the country.” Iranian officials are shutting down illegal water wells and considering desalination plants along the Persian Gulf, although they are energy- intensive. Experts are also advising changes to farming methods. Mohammad Darvish, an Iranian environmental activist, told the Associated Press that the water crisis, and the sinking landscape, called for a new approach and swift action. “We need to shift our development model so that it relies less on water and soil,” he said, “If we don’t act quickly to stop the subsidence, it can spread to other areas.”
This week’s featured story from Circle of Blue looks at one way that water utilities are hoping to address aging infrastructure: using the power of artificial intelligence. Doing surgery on San Francisco’s water system is expensive and disruptive. Replacing one mile of water main in the city costs 3.8 million dollars, while the construction snarls traffic and annoys businesses.
That’s why the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and a handful of other utilities are turning to analytics companies to help guide their pipe replacement decisions. They hope that artificial intelligence and machine learning, combined with data on repair histories and environmental factors such as flow rates, soil chemistry, and temperature, can predict which pipes need attention first. The need for precision has never been greater. For five consecutive years, water professionals have ranked replacement of aging infrastructure as the industry’s top challenge. That’s above long-term water availability, cybersecurity, watershed protection, financing, and other pressures. The American Water Works Association estimates that the replacement costs for America’s water pipes will run close to $1 trillion dollars over 25 years. Meanwhile, more water mains are breaking and maintenance expenses are rising at an increasing pace, demanding a larger share of utility budgets. Utilities have reason to be selective in their pipe replacement programs. They must factor these additional costs into water rates that are already rising, at a time when the affordability of drinking water service for the poor is an emerging public policy concern.
Industry observers see big value in Big Data, but so far it’s more promise than product. According to a survey by the American Water Works Association last year, only one in five utilities uses data mining to improve the operation and maintenance of their water and sewer systems. The data revolution is remaking other industries, but the report said that water officials “remain unconvinced” about the long- term potential for theirs. “It’s definitely still early days,” said Will Maize, a research director with Bluefield Research, which tracks the water sector.
Smaller utilities, meanwhile, might not have enough high-quality data on their pipe networks to take advantage of the AI tools. That’s what Sunil Sinha of Virginia Tech found in a nationwide assessment of pipe data from 500 utilities. Sinha and colleagues are creating a pipe performance database that utilities can use to gauge the health of their systems. Part of the project is determining which data are most crucial. “The majority of utilities do not collect good data,” Sinha said, noting that, “Like a child, AI can learn bad things if the data is not
good.” Read more about how AI and Big Data can help water utilities 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 #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.