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.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the latest Ebola outbreak has persisted for a year. Health workers are striving to contain the virus but they face a number of challenges. The outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives, is centered in isolated areas where armed violence, mistrust of outsiders, and a lack of water complicate the response. This is the tenth Ebola epidemic to strike the country.
The World Health Organization is concerned that the disease could expand its range. Health workers are keeping an eye on North Kivu, an eastern province, where the capital, Goma, saw four cases in July and August. This is new territory for Ebola.
Goma is highly populated and water stressed, thus increasing the risk for a disease that is spread through contact with bodily fluids. Ebola is not spread through water, but water is an important preventative tool. Personal hygiene, especially hand washing, is critical, and yet it is hard to maintain when many residents don’t have running water at home. The municipal system is outdated, and only serves a few neighborhoods, so people queue for hours to fill containers from a communal tap.
With the threat of Ebola, community hygiene efforts now include water stands in public places and at the border with Rwanda. Nearby Lake Kivu is a prime source of water, whether people fill their containers directly or get it through private sellers. Some of the water is treated with chlorine, and some is not.
Medical workers responding to the Ebola outbreak are relying on Lake Kivu to help them battle the disease. A team supervisor told AFP “The lake is crucial, because it helps poor people, vulnerable people, and it helps in the fight against Ebola. When water is abundant, we can help prevent the spread of the disease.”
In Indonesia, the nation’s capital will be moving, but the government has stressed it is not abandoning the sinking city of Jakarta. The Indonesian planning minister last week pledged $40 billion in revitalization funds – that’s more money than is anticipated for constructing a new capital city on Borneo.
The minister told Reuters news service that relocating the capital is intended to ease the population burden on Jakarta, which is one of the world’s most densely inhabited cities. Some 10 million live there, and only 60% of the city has municipal piped water. Those without infrastructure dig wells and continue to deplete groundwater. As the water table lowers, soils compact, and the land above settles down into those spaces, or subsides. This subsidence makes the city more vulnerable to flooding, especially as the adjoining sea rises due to global warming. Some areas of Jakarta are dropping as much as 11 inches a year, making it the world’s fastest sinking city of its size.
Officials insist that Jakarta is expected to remain a center of finance, business and trade, but they acknowledge that its challenges are many. Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro told Reuters “People assume Jakarta is doing fine. Jakarta is not doing fine at all. The water condition is a cause for concern.”
He said that part of the government’s investment in the city includes plans for more water infrastructure, to assure that all of Jakarta would have pipes, which would ease the stress on groundwater. A new sewage system is also planned.
Heri Andreas researches land subsidence at the Bandung Institute of Technology. He told Reuters that it is possible to save the city, with intense effort. “If 100% of Jakartans stop using groundwater,” he said, “we can build infrastructure massively and the ground will not subside.” But if things continue as usual, he advised, within the next 30 years, 95% of Jakarta will be below sea level.
Vanishing groundwater and land subsidence are also issues in the United States. A strategic water canal in the heart of California’s fertile Central Valley has been crippled by shifting land. Tulare County bills itself as the “top producer of agricultural commodities in the United States,” and the Friant-Kern Canal is an important water supplier. But the Business Journal reports that the canal’s capacity has been cut by 60% due to growing land subsidence, which is caused by years of groundwater pumping, primarily by farms. California’s Central Valley has been particularly hurt by the long droughts afflicting the state, which caused a keen thirst for groundwater, leading to increased land subsidence.
In one area under the Friant-Kern Canal, the land elevation dropped two feet between 2015 and 2016. The canal was designed with a gentle slope so that gravity would move the water. Subsidence has upset that balance. Canal managers say there’s no way to compensate for such changes in pitch. The Friant Water Authority, the water utility, has been looking into solutions. The favored workaround is building a new “side” canal that would run parallel to the existing canal for about 30 miles. The new stretch of canal would be engineered to avoid sinking and would bypass the section with severe subsidence. And a canal bypass is said to be better than using pumps to power water through the bottleneck.
The parallel canal could cost over $350 million, and a bi-partisan group of legislators are talking about cost-sharing between federal and state budgets. State Senator Melissa Hurtado has written a bill that may help the effort, and others are seeking buy-in from local farmers and residents. The canal supplies irrigation for farms and brings drinking water to communities.
The Friant Water Authority is conducting feasibility studies on the canal bypass and told the Business Journal that it wants to begin construction by next summer.
Newark, New Jersey is responding to an accelerating health crisis with plans to hasten repairs to its aged water pipes. Newark officials last week announced $120 million in financing to address the cause of elevated lead levels in the city’s water. The intent is to replace 18,000 lead services lines in under three years – that’s much faster than the ten years that the city had estimated earlier. Mayor Ras Baraka said “We are going to do this as swiftly as humanly possible,” responding to the heightened frustration, fear and confusion in what the New York Times called “one of the largest environmental crises in an American city in years.” The paper blamed the drinking water situation on what it called   “years of neglect, mismanagement and denials,” which came into sharper focus last fall when drinking water tests prompted the city to distribute water filters.
Those filters were the same type used in Flint to remove lead that was leaching from old pipes. But just weeks ago, further testing suggested that some of the filters weren’t removing enough of the lead, and Newark had to supply bottled water. Confusion and lack of information have eroded public confidence. Baraka said that the bottled water supplies would continue while agencies evaluate the scope of the problem. City and county officials are expected to approve the plan soon, so that the contract bidding process can begin.
Replacing all the lead service lines in Newark in under three years would be a massive undertaking, and would be one of the first such accelerated initiatives in the nation. Erik Olson is a director at the National Resources Defense Council, which sued Newark over its lead contamination. He told the Times “I don’t know of any other city of this size that has tried to replace all their lead service lines in this kind of time frame.” The pipes are underground, and most of them lie under private property. Getting to them requires layers of bureaucracy, with requests for work, transferring access to contractors, and locating absent owners in a city where 70% of residents are renters. Officials are working with the state to legislate a way for work on the water pipes to proceed without having to get permission. So far this year Newark has replaced 800 of the 18,000 lead service lines.
Financing for the accelerated pipe replacement program is to come from bonds issued at the county level, since the county can borrow at a lower rate than the city. It also relieves financial pressure on homeowners. Under a plan implemented this spring, residents were required to pay up to $1,000 for replacing their service pipes. This was a heavy burden in a city where almost 30% are below the poverty threshold. Under this new plan, homeowners would not bear any financial responsibility for pipe replacement. The mayor said that the borrowed money would not lead to higher taxes.
State and local officials have been looking to the federal government for support, reaching out to the EPA and Washington. Some have expressed increased frustration for a lack of federal financial assistance in coping with the lead crisis.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on India’s ambitious plan to harvest energy from the sun – which has a potential dark side when it comes to water.
India’s drive to install millions of solar-powered irrigation pumps has worthy intentions but experts warn this could increase the risks to the country’s groundwater supplies. The solar pumps are designed to lift farm productivity and boost rural income while relieving the state of a budget-draining subsidy for electric power. But researchers say that if not carefully implemented, the solar pump program could backfire in a significant way: by accelerating the draining of India’s groundwater.
Mandvi Singh is with the Center for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based research and advocacy group. She co-authored a report that criticizes the government’s execution of the solar pump program, saying that free power encourages groundwater exploitation. She pointed to data from the northern state of Punjab, where grid power became nearly free for farmers in 1997. Since then, groundwater levels have plunged.
India’s central and state governments want to release farmers from unreliable, centralized power systems. Thus the solar irrigation pump program, known by its acronym [coo-SOOM] KUSUM. The [MOE-dee] Modi government has embraced solar power. It aims to install 1.75 million solar pumps that are independent of the electrical grid and a million pumps that are tied into the electrical infrastructure. The equipment is subsidized by 60 to 90 percent, depending on the state.
KUSUM is still in its early days — about 240,000 pumps have been installed, nearly all in the last five years — but the potential for solar irrigation growth is enormous. India is home to more than 21 million electric pumps and 9 million diesel pumps, according to the Center for Science and Environment.
India pumps more groundwater than any other country, mainly for irrigation, and it shows. Groundwater levels in the drier western states have declined by several feet a year. A government think tank calls India’s groundwater depletion the country’s worst water crisis. Leaders are beginning to recognize India’s unsustainable course for groundwater and acknowledge the urgency of the moment.
Thus, while CSE favors solar power in general, it objects to the manner in which the solar pump program is being carried out. Groundwater trends ought to be accounted for in government policy, Singh said. All solar pumps should be connected to the grid and a reasonable feed-in tariff should be established so that farmers can sell back the electricity they do not need. Otherwise, she said, surplus electricity could be used to pump more water.
Singh added that other water-saving policies should be linked to the solar pump initiative, such as subsidies for efficient irrigation equipment. She said that collecting and storing rainwater should be included as well.
 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 and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.