I’m Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. 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.
June 2019 was the world’s hottest month on record. It ended with a sweltering heat wave across Europe that raised the average recorded temperature for the month to the highest ever, for both the continent and the planet. That’s according to data from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. Eight countries saw their highest-ever June temperatures, with France reaching 114.6 °F. At least ten people died in Europe as a result of the heat, which was also a factor in wildfires in Spain and France. European Union researchers said that even though it is hard to tie such heatwaves directly to climate change, “such extreme weather events are expected to become more common as the planet continues to warm under increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.”
The month of July promises to break records of its own. On July 4th, Anchorage Alaska reached 90 °F, five degrees hotter than its previous record.
In India, at least 30 people have died in Mumbai’s worst flooding in over ten years. Another 17 are still missing. Mumbai is a financial center in India, and the heavy rains disrupted life for its 18 million residents, affecting rail and air traffic. South of Mumbai, heavy rains breached a small dam and washed away dozens of homes, killing at least eleven people. According to India’s meteorological department, the accumulated rainfall in Mumbai was the most it has seen in 14 years.
Mumbai is on the western coast of India. On the southeastern coast, conditions are a stark contrast, where residents outside of drought-stricken Chennai say the city is confiscating their water supply. Chennai is India’s sixth-largest metropolis, and its manufacturing capital. Between poor water management and deficient rainfall, all of its major reservoirs are depleted. Schools have closed, employees are being urged to work from home and hotels are rationing water. So far, the factories are still operating.
Water is increasingly scarce, and expensive, and state authorities are bringing in water from outlying areas, using wells intended for farming and villages. Some residents of the rural areas have confronted the tankers and chased them away, amid fears that their groundwater will disappear to satisfy a greedy city. Locals have petitioned the government to protect their water, but officials insist that it is only being taken from areas that have a sufficient supply. Data from India’s state public works department shows that groundwater levels in some of Chennai’s neighboring districts fell at a faster rate in May than the state average. Groundwater data for Chennai’s district has not been made public.
Japan is preparing for more rain after last week’s downpours caused landslides and flooding. Rainfall broke records in several areas, and over a million residents were ordered to evacuate from the southernmost island of Kyushu. Across southern Japan, flooding and mudslides have damaged scores of homes and left nearly 2 thousand without power. Two people died when their homes were engulfed in mudslides. Authorities advise that even as the weather dries, people should remember that the soil is saturated and extremely unstable.
Lithuania declared an “emergency situation” last week, amid intense drought in the country. Dry conditions are causing river levels to plummet, wildfires to erupt and crops to wilt. Farmers say they may lose up to 50 percent of their harvests. The drought also threatens fish stocks and shipping activity.
Lithuania marked its hottest-ever June, and experts predict that the entire country will experience drought, with 80% encountering “exceptional to extreme drought.” Lithuania’s environment minister said there was no doubt that the longer, harsher heat waves and droughts were caused by global climate change.
In Libya, eight years of conflict has taken its toll on the country’s water supplies. In western Libya, the power grid and water control system have been damaged by neglect, looting, and exploitation by armed groups. Reuters news reports that in May, armed men forced water workers to shut off Tripoli’s water for two days, in a bid to force the release of a detainee. Even the local bottled water has become contaminated. The United Nations warned that, without repair, Libya’s municipal water faces a systemic collapse that is “sudden, unexpected, uncontrollable and un-prepared for.” “The consequences” it said, “will be catastrophic as there is no viable alternative water supply system.”
In Australia, a recent report by Environmental Justice Australia alleged that much of the 400 million tons of coal ash stored throughout the country is poorly managed and has caused widespread contamination. The non-profit legal organization says 10 to 20 million tons of coal ash gets added to waste storage each year. Its report links the waste to asthma, cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and stroke. And the report notes a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that ash dams can pose a public exposure risk for decades. The Environmental Justice Australia report says that ash dams have caused problems across the country, such as groundwater and river contamination in Victoria and unlined waste pits leaching into the Hunter Valley. Report author Bronya Lipski says the coal ash dumps are a “ticking bomb” below the public radar. The report calls for the state government to evaluate and communicate coal ash health and safety risks, and to require dump owners and operators to follow a best practices approach. Coal industry representatives questioned the report’s accuracy and suggested the report was part of a campaign against fossil fuels.
Scientists are using a common fungus to retrieve a precious metal from wastewater. White rot fungus, is known for breaking down dead wood, but researchers have found it also has the ability to pull palladium from industrial wastewater, where it appears as a byproduct from platinum and nickel mining. Because of its rarity and the growing demand, palladium is now more expensive than gold. Most palladium is used in the exhaust systems of gasoline-burning cars, to help reduce the toxicity of emissions. It’s also used in dentistry, jewelry and electronics. Reuters news reports that in a complex process, the fungus absorbs industrial wastewater and produces palladium nanoparticles. Scientists are hopeful for possible applications in industry, including pharmaceuticals.
In the United States, residents of the tiny town of Trona lined up for water after Southern California’s largest earthquake in nearly twenty years. Trona, close to the quake’s epicenter, has a couple thousand residents. As of the weekend, water service was still down, and roads were undergoing repair. Friday’s earthquake damaged other infrastructure, shutting off power, and breaking gas lines. Several homes caught fire and some flooded when water lines gave way. California officials say there were no deaths or major injuries after Friday’s earthquake, which measured at 7.1 in magnitude. It followed a 6.4 magnitude temblor of the day before. The larger quake affected an area from Sacramento to Mexico. California governor Gavin Newsom called it “a wake-up call for the rest of the state and other parts of the nation.”
In other California news, lead levels have been detected in the water systems of one-fifth of California gradeschools. That’s according to data gathered by the Environmental Working Group. California state law required all kindergarten through 12th grade public schools built before 2010 to test their drinking water for lead contamination. So far this year, nearly 7 thousand California schools have submitted test results to the State Water Resources Control Board, and over a thousand of the schools had lead in at least one faucet. Experts warn that the lead contamination could harm childrens’ health. They are also concerned that most schools do not appear to be testing all their water sources.
Alaska shattered temperature records last week with 90 °F in Anchorage.
The previous all-time high for that area was 85 °F. The hot weather is causing glaciers to melt even faster, and Alaska’s rivers are swelling. The heat is also triggering wildfires. The Swan Lake Fire has burned some 95 thousand acres and it is only one of scores of wildfires burning in the state. Meteorologists predict that Alaska’s heat will last for the next few days, with temperatures threatening to enter the 90s in several locations. Highs are expected to average 10 to 20 degrees above what’s been normal for this time of year. It’s also expected to be dry in the coming days, raising the risk for further wildfires and for poor air quality.
Recent rains have brought drought relief to Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and much of Texas. While heavy rainfall swamped the Midwestern United States this spring, it was largely welcomed in the country’s Southern Plains, where it eased long-standing drought conditions. The director of the Texas Center for Climate Studies said the wetter-than-average weather in the southwest U.S. was due to an El Niño system caused by warming in the Pacific Ocean. He said the El Niño remains in place, increasing the chances for more rain and lower temperatures in the region through September. The central U.S. is expected to be wetter than normal throughout the summer, which should shave a degree or two off summertime highs.
In Colorado, the water utility serving the city of Denver wants to replace the last of its lead water lines, which serve over 90,000 homes. Switching to copper pipes would cost over $500 million and take about 15 years. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wants to do something sooner. They told Denver Water it had until March 2020 to add orthophosphate to the system. Orthophosphate coats the interior of the pipelines, which prevents lead from leaching into the water. But Denver Water says the chemical is harmful to watersheds, and it doesn’t solve the basic problem, which is the lead pipes themselves. The utility has proposed an alternative plan to the orthophosphate: adjusting the pH of the water, providing filters to customers and accelerating the replacement of the lead pipes. The Environmental Defense Fund praised Denver Water’s plan as one of the most comprehensive in the country. Although it’s costly, Denver Water believes it will pay off in the long run. The expenses would be covered by potential cost-sharing with other entities, federal grants and loans, and a possible water rate increase of one to two percent. The Environmental Protection Agency must sign off on the plan before it can be further considered.
In the Great Lakes basin, Lakes Erie and Ontario reached their highest levels since record-keeping began in 1918. The high waters are troubling shoreline residents, some of whom are pressing authorities to let more lake water pass through dams in the east. But shipping officials fear that further increases in the flow to the St. Lawrence Seaway would make stronger currents there, which could slow or stop shipping traffic. They criticized a proposal for lowering the lake levels by increasing the outflow for five weeks, saying it could cost the U.S. and Canada a billion dollars in lost revenue.
Last week, Circle of Blue looked at a new report from the World Bank, addressing the water issues that threaten Vietnam’s economic success.
In Vietnam, economic growth and social stability face increasing risk of disruption due to water scarcity, flooding, and pollution. That’s according to a new report from the World Bank.
Ample water supplies combined with open-market economic policies transformed Vietnam from an impoverished country to a rising middle-income nation within the span of two decades. Now the fruits of success are starting to sour. Though growth has developed new markets for fish, agricultural, and industrial products, it has also placed unrelenting pressures on water resources, which are now straining the economy. The report estimates that depletion and pollution of Vietnam’s water supplies could cause economic losses up to 6 percent by 2035.
The World Bank highlights a number of factors causing concern:
The first is a growing disparity between supply and demand in dry seasons. If demand is unchecked and there is no change in policy or practice, all but five river basins are expected to face water stress in the dry season by 2030. This includes the four main river basins that are the foundation of Vietnam’s economic productivity.
Another is the deterioration of water quality, specifically: more pollution, contaminating both surface and groundwater and resulting in health and environmental hazards.
Much of Vietnam’s wastewater is not treated before being discharged, and water pollution from agriculture and aquaculture is increasing.
Vietnam’s agriculture produces vast quantities of waste from fertilizers, pesticides, pathogens, and pharmaceuticals that are fed to animals. Some 95 percent of livestock waste generated each year enters the environment untreated, carrying nutrients, pathogens, and volatile compounds that pollute air and water, and damage soils. Only about half of fertilizer is used effectively; the rest is washed out in runoff, which goes on to damage water ecosystems.
The World Bank report suggests a number of solutions for Vietnam, such as improving the institutions that manage water, and getting government bodies to manage water basins through inclusive arrangements. The report also recommends increasing the value of water in terms of its role in agriculture, prioritizing pollution control, and improving risk management and disaster responsiveness, especially for marginalized communities. Finally, the World Bank advises Vietnam to develop and expand market-based financing and incentives for water programs.
The report acknowledges that Vietnam’s challenges demand more attention to policies and incentives, and tighter fiscal discipline. While the country’s water policies are sound, it says, they do not perform according to design. Implementation is uneven, incentives for compliance are inadequate, and the institutions at present are unequipped to handle the challenges. The World Bank developed their report in cooperation with the government of Vietnam, and said it will work closely with stakeholders to help implement the study’s recommendations.
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.