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.
South Asia continues to endure deadly monsoon flooding, which has affected millions of people and killed over 200. Northern India was hit particularly hard, with some 6 million people displaced in the state of Assam alone. Torrential rains are also afflicting neighboring Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which officials say is one-third underwater. The government and aid agencies are rushing to deliver food, water, and other aid, but they have been impeded by rising rivers.
The monsoon season in South Asia runs from June to September. The rains are vital for agriculture, but they bring risks . Flash floods and landslides have destroyed homes, stressed relief resources, and threatened outbreaks of waterborne disease. To the southeast, the situation is dramatically different. Thailand is facing its worst drought in a decade. In parts of the country, the average rainfall for the last five months has been below normal.
In Zimbabwe, over 2 million people in and around the capital of Harare are without municipal water. After many years of drought, two of the city’s four dams are dry, and much of Harare’s remaining water supply is tainted by sewage and industrial waste. Meteorologists do not expect rains in the capital until October at the earliest, and residents have been warned to expect municipal water only once a week. Harare is one of a number of major cities facing water crises brought about largely by climate change, drought, and population growth, and exacerbated by insufficient infrastructure and mismanagement. India’s Chennai, with almost 10 million residents, is virtually dry today and depends on trainloads of water from outlying areas that are themselves at risk of water shortage. For more coverage of cities on the brink of municipal water failure, visit the “Zeropolis” series at circleofblue.org.
In South Africa, as land ownership laws shift, the country is considering legislation to cut corruption and improve equality in water allocation. The water department will propose a bill to remedy what it calls “glaring inequalities” in the industry. South Africa’s minister for Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation, said “95% of the licensed water volume is still in the hands of white commercial farmers, leaving 5% currently allocated to emerging black farmers. As we talk about transformation of land ownership,” he continued, “we should understand that land ownership with no access to water will take us nowhere.”
In North Korea, illness and hunger are soaring alongside a drought. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says it is already seeing rising malnutrition and water-borne diseases like diarrhea and colitis. North Korea suffered several months of dry weather early in the season, which led to crop losses. Production estimates were cut by half.
Central Chile’s Valparaiso region, along with Santiago, the country’s capital, are enduring the worst drought in 60 years. Experts fear the ten-year dry spell could continue indefinitely due to warming temperatures and water exploitation, potentially leaving some areas without water by 2030. The Andes Mountains, whose snowmelt feeds the region’s rivers, have seen very little precipitation. Al Jazeera reports that possible solutions include dams to prevent rivers from flowing directly into the Pacific Ocean, and more reservoirs. Desalinization facilities are another option. The government says it will build 20 new reservoirs, but a Chilean water expert expressed concerns about a lack of water infrastructure and advised that a reservoir takes 17 to 20 years to complete.
British environmental groups say Southern Water, one of the nation’s largest utilities, should pay for environmental restoration following countless pollution spills in recent years. Evidence has emerged that Southern Water covered up thousands of spills, and a fine of £126M ($158M) was recently levied against the company. However, green groups argue that a key part of the fine was reduced by more than 90 percent. They argue that the company should contribute more toward restoration of habitats and wildlife.
Over ten countries in Europe sweltered in the hottest June ever recorded. In the wake of the heatwave, a drought is sweeping through the continent, affecting water availability for households and farms. In France, about two-thirds of the country had water restrictions imposed last week, with some areas prohibited from all but essential uses. In Germany, low water levels on rivers reduced boat travel, and Spanish farmland baked in the third driest year of the century. Across Europe, wildlife and forests are also suffering. Several governments pointed to global warming for the situation. AFP reported that “A single degree of warming since the industrial revolution has already boosted the frequency and intensity of heat waves and droughts.” The BBC says that, starting this week, heat will spread across Spain and Portugal and then France. In the coming days, parts of western Europe may face temperatures above 40°C, or 104°F.
As Lebanese citizens face the peak of summer, many are cooling off with a swim in the Mediterranean – but the pastime could have detrimental health impacts. There are few public beaches in Lebanon, and the available options are strewn with trash and are often located near sewage outlets. While some coastal waters in southern and central Lebanon are considered safe, many others are not, especially in highly populated areas like Beirut. Residents must often choose to devote precious time and money for travel to a cleaner beach, or resort to taking their chances with their family’s health.
In Canada, the Eabametoong First Nation of Ontario declared a state of emergency over tainted drinking water. The northern Ontario community has endured dysfunctional water and wastewater systems for decades, and has been under a boil water advisory for 18 years. It is now grappling with elevated levels of trihalomethanes, which form when chlorine used for disinfection interacts with organic matter in the water. At higher levels, trihalomethanes have been tied to cancer and reproductive health issues. Chief Harvey Yesno says the community is particularly concerned about the threats to the vulnerable, such as the very young, the elderly and the infirm. The First Nation says the problem is in the water distribution system and is calling for immediate action from the Canadian government.
In the United States, climate change can make places such as the southern plains and southwestern states particularly vulnerable to drought. That’s according to a new study by the University of Arkansas, where researchers found a connection between low soil moisture and higher temperatures which form a “feedback loop.” As climate change makes places hotter, they get drier, and the drier they get, the hotter they get.
Ongoing flooding of the Mississippi River, combined with rainfall from Tropical Storm Barry, is sending unusually high volumes of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico. The freshwater is disturbing the balance of coastal ecosystems, and officials say the flow is also sweeping an increased amount of pesticides, fertilizers, and waste into the Gulf. Crab, oyster and shrimp populations have been decimated, algae blooms have closed beaches and caused growing de-oxygenated “dead zones,” and over 300 dolphins in the region have died – which is already three times the average for a whole year.
In California, the Los Angeles Times reported that a salmon study may undercut a federal plan to divert more water to farmers. The Trump administration wants to divert more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to California’s Central Valley farmers, but an environmental review of the plan warns that it could hurt the region’s endangered Chinook salmon. The Obama administration tightened the delta’s water export laws due to the endangerment of Chinook and other native fish. Farmers have long protested, and in tweets last year, President Trump ordered federal agencies to suspend or revise regulations limiting water diversions. The agencies, however, found that the proposed water pumping threatened the survival of vulnerable salmon species, as well as endangered killer whales that feed on the salmon. The Times said that not only would a so-called “jeopardy opinion” make it difficult to abandon the current diversion limits, it might impose new ones. The Times says that two days after this opinion was given, a regional federal official said there would be a new review effort to improve the documents based on “different issues” and “new information.” Critics accuse the government of seeking to find facts to support its agenda. Whatever opinion prevails, it will doubtless be challenged in court.
A large algae bloom in the Great Lakes is threatening drinking water in Michigan and Ohio. The large, green mass was visible from the air on July 14, shortly after an algae forecast predicted that this year’s bloom would be twice as large as last year’s and the worst since 2015. Recent data shows the bloom contains low levels of toxins, which could become problematic if the toxins get close to the water intakes for cities along the lake. Nutrients in agricultural runoff are prime factors in algae formation, and experts warn that until this is addressed, there will be a threat to the region’s people, ecosystem and economy. Nearly 11 million people depend on the lake for their drinking water. Officials warn people and pets to avoid contact with green, scummy water, as drinking the contaminated water can cause digestive distress, liver and kidney damage and breathing problems. Contact with the skin can cause rashes, hives and blisters.
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.