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 southwestern United States, water officials in Las Vegas announced that they are abandoning a decades-long plan to extract water from a rural groundwater basin. The Southern Nevada Water Authority supplies the Las Vegas area. According to the Nevada Independent, the Authority said it will not appeal a district judge’s decision limiting the reach of its water rights. The water authority had proposed pumping water from groundwater basins some 300 miles to the north and then piping the water to Las Vegas. The project was pitched as an insurance policy against a dwindling Colorado River, which is the city’s primary water source. But the pipeline plan was opposed by ranchers, Native American tribes, and environmental groups who worried that it would parch spring-fed ecosystems and deplete groundwater. Instead of the pipeline project, the water authority says it will focus on conservation and on improving ties with other states that also rely on water from the Colorado River. The groups opposing the projects are maintaining a cautious eye, however. They note that the water authority still has applications open for other water rights and the right-of-way application with the federal government for the pipeline remains unsettled.
In China, the environment ministry said that last month’s spill of toxic pollutants from a dam that held mining waste was the the country’s largest such accident in the last two decades. That’s according to a report from Reuters news service. China’s environment ministry added that it has launched two investigations. One will look into the causes of the March 28 spill in Heilongjiang province, and a separate probe will examine the risks at tailings dams across the country. Tailings are a slurry of water and waste material that mining companies store behind dams. The incident in Heilongjiang sent more than two and a half million cubic meters of water and metal byproducts into the local river system. The spill reached more than 68 miles southwest of the mining site. No one was killed in the accident, but water quality readings in the river degraded to the point that they threatened aquatic life.
In Lebanon, the Associated Press reported that a Palestinian woman is the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in a refugee camp in that country. The woman, originally from Syria, was taken to a government-run hospital in Beirut, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
Wavel camp, where the woman lived, is in the Bekaa Valley region of eastern Lebanon. It shelters about 3,000 people. Relief workers fear the virus will spread through refugee camps, which so far have been spared large outbreaks. It is difficult to keep physical distance in the crowded spaces, or to maintain hygiene with limited supplies. An informal survey among the refugee population in Lebanon found that nearly three-quarters of respondents lacked soap and other hygiene items. Aid agencies have worked to increase access to water and soap during the coronavirus pandemic. UN and medical staff are expanding Covid-19 testing in Wavel camp following the confirmed case. Matias Meier is the Lebanon director for the International Rescue Committee, an organization that works with refugees. Meier said in a statement that many refugees in Lebanon are extremely concerned about their health, given the conditions in which they live.
This week Circle of Blue reports on how the coronavirus pandemic is changing the way that governments and aid agencies respond to weather-related disasters.
When Tropical Cyclone Harold collided with the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu in the first week of April, the destruction was extensive. Harold was a strong early-season Category 5 storm, and in Sanma, the country’s second-most populous province, ninety percent of residents lost their homes. Sixty percent of the schools and nearly a quarter of health centers reported damage. In subsequent weeks, farmers found their crops obliterated. According to preliminary assessments, some 160,000 people, more than half the country’s population, have been affected by the storm in one way or another.
Sanaka Samarasinha is the UN resident coordinator for the Pacific islands. He said that as emergency planners and aid agencies snapped into action, they began to consider Harold as a sort of trial run. The challenges of disaster response, in the Pacific and elsewhere, are being magnified by the global pandemic. Disaster experts said that emergency managers and governments will be severely tested this year.
Daniel Gilman, at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said “In terms of a major emergency, obviously it will be a huge challenge, and there’s going to have to be a lot of improvising.”
Weather-related disasters occur annually, displacing a global average of 20 million people every year. The difference in 2020 is the new coronavirus. The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is still paralyzing entire nations as the Northern Hemisphere enters its cyclone and monsoon seasons. The highly contagious virus is an unsettling and daunting obstacle to moving people to safety, ensuring their health, and helping them recover.
Even in calm times, securing a coastal city before a tropical storm or fleeing from a wildfire can be chaotic and stressful. In a pandemic, the familiar playbook for responding to these emergencies is being rewritten. The humanitarian community’s standard procedures for evacuation, sheltering, and tendering care are being swiftly recalibrated to a period of physical distancing and limited mobility.
Alex Randall is a program manager at the Climate and Migration Coalition who specializes in the links between climate change, conflict, and migration. He said that disaster preparations “will present difficult and complicated decisions for emergency planners, city authorities, and governments as they attempt to balance the need to get people out of harm’s way and contain the spread of the virus.”
On a conference call hosted by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, experts from the Asia-Pacific region said that coordination and early planning are essential this year. Not only should planners be thinking ahead, said Gilman, they should be thinking in scenarios. What happens if a storm hits when the country is on lockdown? What provisions might be in short supply before evacuation? Are commercial flights operating on reduced schedules and will chartered planes or military vehicles be needed to move emergency supplies? How can post-disaster assessments be carried out with fewer responders on the ground? Have the most vulnerable groups been identified? What is hospital capacity?
Without advance planning, Randall foresees the potential for confusion and violence as the dual objectives of evacuation and disease prevention collide. “Will authorities allow people to flee?” he asked. “Will they try to control people moving out of a particular city and into other locations? Will they continued to attempt to enforce a lockdown even as the weather-related event, like a flood or hurricane strike, means that people need to leave?”
One scenario that seems likely is that shelters will have capacity limits, due to physical distance requirements. In the United States, the American Meteorological Society warned that many city and county governments say they will not open public tornado shelters during the pandemic. A series of severe storms that tore through the southern states in April killed at least five dozen people.
Kamal Kishore of India’s National Disaster Management Authority said that if the capacity of individual shelters is reduced, more shelters will be needed. His agency, along with local communities, is now taking inventory of additional buildings – such as closed schools, or dormitories — that could be put into service. In India, the shelters are run by community groups, a delegation of authority that requires close collaboration to ensure adequate space.
Randall warned that these additional preparations mean that disaster response will demand more resources, measured in time, money, and physical goods and services. The poorest countries are most at risk and most in need of financial support during a period in which economies are also on the verge of crisis. Said Randall, “My feeling is that debt relief plus increased aid and development money from the richer countries of the world is absolutely essential in helping the world’s poorest countries deal with this incredible complex crisis they are now facing.”
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