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 United States, the Canadian energy company Enbridge is suing the state of Michigan over what the company calls “illegal actions” by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The lawsuit was filed in federal court, and it comes two weeks after Whitmer announced that she would shut down Enbridge’s controversial Line 5 petroleum pipeline. The pipeline runs along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron converge. Whitmer ordered the pipeline to close by May of next year. Enbridge claims that Whitmer’s order violates federal law and that the state of Michigan does not have the power to shut down the pipeline, since it is managed by federal agencies. A spokesperson for Whitmer said in a statement that the governor’s administration stands by the decision. They said that the lawsuit “will put the Great Lakes and Michigan’s economy at grave risk.”
Enbridge is at the center of another oil pipeline decision in the Upper Midwest. Reuters reports that last week the company got a permit from federal regulators to replace its Line 3 pipeline, which runs from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Midwest. Line 3 will cross more than 300 miles of northern Minnesota, where conservation groups and Native American tribes are opposing the nearly $3 billion project. Opponents say that the pipeline replacement will worsen global climate change and that the risk of oil spills in local waters is too high. Enbridge is waiting on an additional state permit before it begins construction. Once that is secured, the company says that the project could be completed in six to nine months.
The United Nations launched a new fund last week, hoping to raise $2 billion over the next five years to address sanitation-related health crises around the world. The fund will focus on expanding household sanitation, ensuring menstrual health and hygiene, providing sanitation and hygiene in schools and healthcare facilities, and supporting innovative sanitation solutions. In its announcement, the UN said that globally, over four billion people lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene technology.
In a separate report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization highlighted the risk of water scarcity for the world’s farmers. The report estimates that over a billion people live in agricultural areas with major constraints on water resources. Half of those people live in southern Asia, where countries like India face severe groundwater depletion in their main food-growing regions. A warming climate and rising demands due to changes in diets are causing water supplies to tighten globally. According to the report, in the last two decades the amount of freshwater available per person declined by 20 percent. To respond to these trends, the UN recommends several actions. Farmers can use ponds to store rainfall during wet periods, and they can fix leaky irrigation systems. Governments, meanwhile, can revise policies so as to promote more efficient water use, and to encourage farmers to  grow crops that are better suited to local climates.
This week Circle of Blue reports on how the U.S. government’s foreign aid agency is responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.
So many who were at the cusp of a better life have been beset by an extraordinary reversal of fortune. Until this year, extreme poverty had been steadily falling across the globe over the recent decades. At the same time, hundreds of millions of people had gained access to proper water and sanitation services.
The spread of the new coronavirus has twisted those trajectories. The World Bank estimates that an additional 88 million to 115 million people will enter extreme poverty this year because of the pandemic. It’s the first time in two decades that progress has reversed. The bank estimates that as many as 150 million people could be affected through next year if the virus is not reigned in.
Those numbers are alarming to international development experts. The U.S. Agency for International Development expects what it calls “significant backsliding” for a host of indicators, from nutrition and food security to health and childhood education. For advocates of water, sanitation, and hygiene, there is fear that an increase in poverty will also undo recent gains in access to those life-changing services.
Liz Marcey is the director of policy and advocacy for the nonprofit group WaterAid America. She told Circle of Blue “The reality of this is you don’t have 150 million people drop into extreme poverty within a year without significant global consequences.” Marcey compared Covid-19 to HIV/AIDS, meaning that the disease and its effects need to factor into international aid work for the foreseeable future.
International development agencies like USAID are beginning to grapple with that conundrum. How do they adapt their poverty-reducing mission to a world in upheaval? USAID offered a glimpse of its plans in late October, when the agency released a “snapshot” of a strategy it’s calling Over the Horizon.
The seven-page document outlines three overarching goals: build stable, resilient civic and governmental systems in countries that have been shaken by the virus; respond to increases in poverty and declines in other indicators of wellbeing; and strengthen healthcare delivery. Water is included under the second objective: responding to poverty, although sanitation and hygiene are not mentioned.
Jim Barnhart is the assistant to the administrator in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security, which oversees the agency’s water work.
He was adamant that water, sanitation, and hygiene, known collectively by the acronym WASH, will be fully accounted for in the strategy’s implementation. He told Circle of Blue “I see WASH as the fundamental, the existential requirement for any place in which we work.”
USAID and the State Department have already given $1.6 billion in emergency pandemic funding, providing items like ventilators, protective gear, and handwashing stations, as well as hygiene education. Barnhart said the Over the Horizon strategy takes a longer view, looking months and years ahead.
There are many questions about how the plan’s aims will translate into actions.  Marcey of WaterAid America wonders how it will be integrated into existing country-level frameworks. She worries that the sheer scale of the pandemic’s disruption could be overwhelming. Instead of strategic focus, the plan could unravel into a piecemeal approach.
The rippling harm from the pandemic can be measured at both the household and community level. For households, closed businesses and government-imposed lockdowns have constricted incomes. This leads to difficult choices, Marcey said. Between food and water. Between food and soap. WaterAid launched hygiene campaigns to encourage people to prioritize soap when shopping. But Marcey acknowledges that even when that messaging succeeds, it does add to financial stress.
In evaluating the strain, USAID surveyed five African countries. The agency called the trajectories it found “extremely alarming.” Barnhart said as many as 300 million people may already be facing difficulties in water access. As he put it, “As income drops, households and businesses are struggling to afford water that is essential to everyday life and they’re missing payments.”
Those individual struggles add up. At the community level, water utilities are financially stressed because fewer customers are paying their bills. The government of Kenya ordered utilities to continue water service and provide water for free to informal settlements, even though revenue was declining and operating costs increased. A trade group for Kenyan water providers estimated that revenue collection dropped to 30 percent between March and July.
Barnhart offered a hopeful perspective in girding for the challenges ahead. He said that the crisis has created openings for reform. In conversations with colleagues in Jordan, where he served for five years as the mission director, Barnhart sensed an opportunity for legal, regulatory, and operational changes that would put utilities in a better position for the future.
Others see opportunity in this crisis, as well. Marcey said that the pandemic is a reminder that healthcare cannot be separated from water, sanitation, and hygiene. That WASH not only prevents disease, but is also a foundation for economic recovery.
She said “My hope is that USAID takes this opportunity to expand its concept of global health security to include WASH and WASH infrastructure. That, to me, is one of the biggest lessons.”
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