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.
Scientists have confirmed that 2018 was the world’s fourth-warmest year on record, behind 2016, 2017, and 2015.
In Brazil, the death toll from last month’s mining dam collapse is at least 157, with 182 people still missing. The New York Times says the ruptured structure, owned by the Brazilian mining giant Vale, was a “bare-bones reservoir of mining waste held back by little more than walls of sand and silt,” with no separate concrete or metal to retain its contents. The dam, it said, relied on the sludge to stay solid enough to contain itself. The Times warned that there are 88 mining dams in Brazil just like the one that failed. 28 of those dams are directly uphill from cities or towns.
Also in Brazil, extreme winds in Rio de Janeiro accompanied a severe storm that lashed the city last week and killed six people. Heavy rainfall caused flooding, landslides, and road closures, even sweeping away buses.
Wine production in South Africa’s Cape region is expected to be the lowest in years due to low rainfall. Last year’s wine grape harvest was down by 14 percent from 2017. Wine production this year is expected to be even lower as the industry struggles to recover from a 3-year drought.
In the United States, the City of Phoenix is faced with minimal rainfall and a dwindling Colorado River, and so is working to boost its drought resiliency. The city has strategically built dams, developed underground storage reservoirs, and set up wastewater recycling systems. City officials say Phoenix is prepared even if severe drought fully depletes the Colorado River.
In Washington State, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has halted state efforts to regulate water temperatures in the Columbia and Snake rivers. A combination of climate change and dams have warmed the rivers, endangering the region’s salmon. The Washington Department of Ecology had begun a public comment process on pollution-discharge permits that would enable it to enforce state water-quality standards at federal dams along the rivers. Last week, however, the EPA unexpectedly withdrew the draft permits, blocking the state’s efforts to improve water quality.
California is seeing an unusually wet winter after several dry years. If the rain and snow persist, accumulations could be higher than normal and fill reservoirs this spring. The Sierra Nevada mountains recently recorded up to 10 feet of snow in some areas.
Elsewhere in the state, the Trump administration is seeking to ease environmental regulations on waterways in California’s Central Valley. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife says it will take a hard look at the proposal by the Bureau of Reclamation, which advocates relaxing environmental rules and shifting water away from wildlife and cities and toward agriculture.
In Idaho, the town of Mountain Home has depleted its groundwater supply, largely due to farm use. Now, with household wells running dry, the town is hoping to recharge its aquifer using water flows from neighboring communities. As the Idaho Department of Water Resources weighs the request, some experts are asking whether recharging depleted aquifers is sustainable in the long-term.
In Australia, 2,000 homes in Townsville were deliberately flooded after eight days of rain inundated the Ross River Dam. Officials released water from the dam, which swamped homes and businesses. Flooding in the Queensland city also burst pipes at the water treatment plant, prompting calls for residents to conserve water. The amount of rainfall was described as being a one in 500 year event. In western Queensland, meanwhile, floods killed up to 300 thousand cattle, and losses are estimated at $300 million. Ranchers who endured years of drought were suddenly devastated by too much water.
Around the globe, researchers are struggling struggle to assess the origins and impacts of chemicals used in nonstick coatings and firefighting foams. With the help of high-resolution spectrometers, scientists have recently discovered almost 500 new kinds of PFAS in the environment, but the impacts of the chemicals on the human body are still largely unknown.
And that’s the world water roundup.
We focus this week is on Nigeria, where conflict and poverty are key factors in a national referendum on the future.
Nigeria’s presidential election is this week. Experts are urging the government to strengthen security in order to contain resource conflicts that have killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.
In the last few years, Nigeria has been fraught with conflict over access to water and productive soil between those who farm the land and those who graze their livestock. In 2018, over 1,500 people died in these struggles.
According to the International Crisis Group, violence over resources has eclipsed attacks by Boko Haram, a militant group that has terrorized Nigeria for the past decade.
But the threat of armed groups is intensifying the strain on a fragile situation. In recent weeks, militants killed dozens of people and displaced thousands in the country’s northeastern region. The attackers, most likely Boko Haram or Islamic State, have forced 80,000 Nigerians from their homes since last November. Many of these people abandoned everything in their flight, and have limited access to food and water.
The violence has been challenging for President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seeking a second four-year term on February 16. Buhari was the military ruler of Nigeria for nearly two years in the 1980s, and he was elected in 2015 in part because of his pledge to restore security. His prospects, like the election itself, seem less than certain.
Officials in Nigeria say they are doing their best to organize a fair election. But with some 300 thousand people displaced by farmer-herder conflicts, there is confusion and concern about voter participation. Also, Islamic State and Boko Haram have threatened to disrupt the voting with attacks. Election observers worry that chaos could encourage voter fraud, which was widespread in displaced persons camps in the last presidential election. One official told Reuters “Where we don’t have security or peace, voting won’t prevail.”
The United Nations expressed concern about the increased security risks around the election, which could impair responses to what it termed “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”
Disruption is pervasive in Nigeria, which has Africa’s highest population at 190 million. It is also Africa’s largest oil producer, and largest economy. But it is also where over half the residents live in poverty. According to the World Bank, Nigeria has replaced India as the country with highest number of poor people. As one political candidate told the BBC, poverty is “staring us in the face.”
An analyst for Oxfam told the BBC that Nigeria has a “long history of mismanagement, corruption and disregard for due process” that has contributed to poverty, which is a deep fault line below an unstable political and ecological landscape.
Early this month, the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research focused on strategies for resolving conflicts between farmers and herders. It identified triggers for conflict, including scarcity of water and grazing land, damage to crops and vegetation, disruption of traditional migration patterns, and thefts of livestock. Large-scale forces are behind those triggers: factors such as population growth, climate change, and environmental damage.
Recommendations included fostering effective dialog between the competing groups and policy measures to address severe water shortages. The Institute urged the government to improve security with better early warning systems, to bolster the readiness of enforcement units in rural areas, and to collaborate with local officials.
The Institute also advocated for grazing reserves as a temporary measure to ease tensions between herders and farmers. Such reserves, it said, have demonstrated success around the world.
The report called for cooperation between Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin countries on border control, in order to suppress cattle rustlers, illegal weapons and other security threats.
And it urged the federal government to address environmental factors that have compelled herding populations to migrate to the south, where the farms are. The Institute’s senior research fellow said this means accelerating programs under the Green Wall initiative for Sahara and Sahel. The initiative is Africa’s leading program to stem the effects of climate change and desertification by creating a network of green and productive areas.
A senior Institute official said that resolving conflicts between farmers and herders is critical to the government, the nation, and the world. He told Nigeria’s news site “Today.NG” that unity is vital for the challenge ahead, saying “Both the herders and farmers are two economic groups within the same family, so they should not be fighting, thousands of lives have gone due to the crisis so there is urgent need to provide better strategies for the government.”
This week’s featured story from Circle of Blue looks at a new analysis of rising temperatures at the roof of the world.
The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is a high-altitude tabletop from which nearly all of Asia’s great rivers spring. This remote mountain land is also at the front lines of climate change.
An analysis by an international consortium of some 350 scientists shows that the eight-country region, known as the Third Pole because of its massive ice fields, will warm faster than the rest of the world in the coming decades, especially at higher elevations.
The Paris Agreement aims to limit climate change by keeping global temperatures from rising ever higher above pre-industrial levels. It also has the ambitious and elusive goal of holding the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), which requires net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Even if the Paris limits are met, the Hindu Kush and Himalayas will see an additional 0.3 degree Celsius of warming, according to the assessment.
The added heat is a death sentence for many of the region’s glaciers. At least one-third of the glacial ice will melt by 2100 even if global temperature increase is held to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If the world continues on its current emissions and economic trajectory, half of ice could be lost, the report found.
The resulting heat-driven shift in ice and rain will change the timing and availability of water for nearly two billion people from Afghanistan to China. It will affect 10 major rivers, including the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Mekong, and Yangtze. Those rivers are vital sources of water, food and energy for a quarter of the people on the planet.
Control of those rivers and access to their water are also delicate geopolitical concerns that could be upset by changes in river flow. China and downstream countries must negotiate shared use of the Mekong, for example, and India and Pakistan have joined in a decades-old – and often tense – diplomatic dance over the waters of the Indus.
Of the rivers, the Indus will be most affected by climate change, said Aditi Mukherji, co-author of the scientific report on warming in the Himalayan region. That is because the Indus river depends more on glaciers and snow melt than those in the eastern half of the region, where the annual monsoon provides the bulk of their flow.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, who led the report. He told the Guardian “In the best of possible worlds, if we get really ambitious, even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers and be in trouble. That for us was the shocking finding.” He added, “But we really do know enough now to take action, and action is urgently needed.”
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.