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.
Water is a defining issue of the century, and last year saw plenty of challenging events and trends. We’d like to begin the new year with a longer look at a few of last year’s stories that offer promise for the days to come.
In Sudan’s North Darfur state, cultivating life in an arid land has always been a struggle.
North Darfur is located in the Sahel, a belt of northern Africa that sees a mere 20 centimeters, or about 8 inches, of rain a year. That rain is increasingly unreliable in the era of climate change. Meanwhile, the Sahara presses southward, turning fertile land into desert. The narrowing margins of survival have tightened tensions, which have been longstanding and deadly. But this time water is not the source of conflict, but a catalyst for peace. The Wadi El Ku is a seasonal river that flows past the capital of North Darfur. Its precious waters are now being stewarded by people who were enemies during a decade of war. Farmers and nomadic herders have found a way to turn conflict into cooperation, transforming their shared river through a simple engineering structure called a weir.
Weirs help to collect rain when it does fall. They slow the river and allow water to spread out and seep in. Thanks to one weir, 4,000 farmers are working an area of land where before only 150 who could make a life. They grow millet, sorghum, lentils, and melons, and hope to expand into valuable cash crops like cucumbers, okra, lemons, and sunflowers. Enaam Ismail Abdalla is director general at the ministry of production in North Darfur. She told the Guardian that the weirs are a “pioneer project.” They offer a chance for people to return home and she hopes that the model can be replicated across Sudan and beyond. As the Guardian wrote “The collaborative climate-proofing provided by the Wadi El Ku project shows a way to tackle the complex mix of climate impacts, conflict and migration that are thought to be rising around the world.”
Violence in Darfur killed up to 400,000 people during a decade of conflict starting in 2003. Millions of people fled, and many are still in refugee camps. The prospect of green fields is encouraging people to stay. It is also raising the profile of women, who do much of the farming but have less say in decision-making. With better access to water, women spend less time carrying it to their homes, while more farming income allows more girls to go to school.
The timing of rains in North Sudan has completely altered due to climate change. In fact, some consider the violence in Darfur “the first climate change war.” In 2007, UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said
“Amid the diverse social and political causes, it began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.” Research shows that climate effects such as drought and heat add tinder to societal divisions.
Healing those divisions can, in turn, help to ease the burden of climate change. The [waddi-el-COO] Wadi El Ku weir project began in September with a six-day peace conference. Forty-four farming villages and seven pastoralist groups attended.
Atila Uras is head of the United Nations Environment Program in Sudan which oversees the 16 million euro project. He said that the crux of the problem was finding ways to share resources. The nomads needed room for herd migrations. Their routes were compromised by farmers who were desperate for arable land. The farmers needed milk, meat and security for their livelihoods.
“There are layers and layers of conflict,” Uras told the Guardian, “so we started with what they could agree on, and everyone agrees there is a problem with the environment, with water by far the biggest priority.”
In the process, torn relationships began to mend. For the first time in years, farmers were invited to a wedding in the nomadic community. Hundreds attended, including many young people who had never met.
The Wadi El Ku project has had its troubles. In 2018, one of the weirs was sabotaged, and failed to irrigate some areas. The main suspects were linked to the deposed regime. But new leaders are pledging to repair the damage and protect existing and future projects. A groundwater official in North Darfur underscored their importance, saying “Water is the key to our life – if we are breathing, we need water. If it is not equally shared, then again we will have more war and more killing.”
Until recently, staff members for the Wadi El Ku project could not venture into regions north of the capital without an armed convoy. Now, they can go on their own. Farmer [ahb-del-RAH-man ha-MAHD] Abdelrahman Hamad, who raises potatoes, radishes and onions with the waters of the Wadi El Ku has experienced the same change. He told the Guardian that he has lost people to violence in the past. “But,” he said, “the project has brought us together. Now I can go to the pastoralists’ area no problem. There were a lot of problems to overcome, of course, but everybody needs peace.”
The European Investment Bank is the world’s largest multilateral financial institution, and it aims to become the world’s first “climate bank.” The Guardian reports that in the next two years the EU’s lending arm plans to phase out billions of dollars in financing for fossil-fuel projects that pump climate-warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The bank said it was making a “quantum leap” with its new policy to end financing for oil, gas, and coal projects after 2021.
Werner Hoyer is president of the European Investment Bank. He told the Guardian “Climate is the top issue on the political agenda of our time. We will stop financing fossil fuels and launch the most ambitious climate investment strategy of any public financial institution anywhere.”
The policy directs the bank to stop lending to fossil fuel projects within two years. It will use the Paris climate accord as a guide for its lending decisions. To qualify for funding, energy projects will have to prove they can be much more efficient at energy generation. For every kilowatt hour of energy they must produce less than 250 grams of carbon dioxide.
The move toward clean and efficient energy reflects a pledge made by the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Upon assuming the post, she advocated making the European Investment Bank a “climate bank,” with potential for a trillion dollars to encourage cleaner energy. Von der Leyen is also supporting plans to make the EU the first carbon-neutral continent by the year 2050.
The bank’s policy also applies to projects before 2021. The only fossil-fuel projects that can be approved in the next two years are those that are already being appraised by the bank. This, said the Guardian, could trouble the gas industry, which has over 200 billion dollars in liquefied natural gas projects planned for the next five years.
Environmental groups hailed the European Investment Bank’s initiative as a shift in recognition of public interest. The bank has a history of substantial investment in fossil fuel companies. It gave one of Europe’s largest loans to the Trans Adriatic Pipeline and funded gas-fired power plants owned by the Polish utility PGE.
Kate Cahoon is a representative of 350.org, a climate-advocacy group. She told the Guardian “When the world’s biggest public lender decides to largely ditch fossil fuels, financial markets across the globe will take notice: this is the beginning of the end of climate-wrecking fossil fuel finance.”
Still, 350.org warns that the bank’s policy does include loopholes that could still support dependence on fossil fuels for decades. Projects considered to be “of common interest” can still get funds, and at present over 50 gas projects could qualify.
Alex Doukas is the Lead Analyst at Oil Change International, a research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. He told the Guardian that gas lobbyists were able to wrangle significant concessions from the European Investment Bank. However, he said “with people-powered movements for climate action stronger than ever, the gas industry will face an uphill battle in using these EIB loopholes to get new projects funded by 2021.”
From Australia, a story of how ordinary people are helping to rescue their fellow citizens from a water crisis.
As bushfires rage in southeastern Australia, the enduring and devastating drought in the country tends to slip to the background. But the lack of water helped to set the stage for these infernos. For several years, the drought has slowly choked communities, livelihoods, and the environment.
Russell Wantling is a truck driver, and he told the Guardian, “They talk about this Day Zero all the time, but it already is Day Zero.”
A few months ago, Wantling pulled over to talk to a family that he saw on the roadside in southern Queensland. They were lugging buckets of water from the town dam because they had no water and couldn’t afford to buy any. Wantling decided that he had to do something.
He’s now in charge of distributing hundreds of thousands of liters of water each week in Queensland’s granite belt. He’s one of several people who have taken it upon themselves to ease the desperation of their fellow Australians. Guardian reporter Ben Smee called the communal assistance “a familiar, hopeful story about the resilience of Australians and their communities, the sort condensed into our folklore at times of natural disaster and crisis.”
But he went on to write “it is also punctuated by anger and disbelief that the burden of supplying the most basic necessity to thousands of people in inland towns, on rural properties and in Indigenous communities has fallen mostly to community groups and charities.
The longer they wait for rain, the more acutely people learn they cannot rely on interventions from local councils or governments.”
In the town of Stanthorpe, people queue for a ration of free water from Granite Belt Water Relief. Some have had empty water tanks on their properties for most of the past year. Amy Doherty lives with her mother and two small children. Her tanks have been dry since March, but she didn’t look for help until she got sick and couldn’t work anymore. She told the Guardian “We had to have four horses put to sleep because we had no food, no water and our horses were just suffering. With less showering there were hygiene issues. It was hard. It was even hard to talk about it. But you have to swallow your pride, and that’s even harder.”
Many people are struggling to pay for water while also trying to care for families, for livestock. The pressures of the drought are economic as well as environmental, and losing one’s job can start a financial spiral that makes even water too expensive to afford.
And yet, said some at the Stanthorpe water shed, they felt no response to their plight from the Australian government. They said that if it weren’t for people like the relief volunteers, they don’t know what they would do.
Rural and indigenous people have long felt unnoticed. Luanna Legge lives in Tenterfield, and she started a local group to provide drinking water to her community. She told the Guardian “If people in Sydney had to live like this, millions of people were forced to live like this, it would be unacceptable. There would be protests, there would be riots. They would be calling for change after one week.”
Two rivers in the northwest region of New South Wales, the Barwon and the Namoi, are major sources of the withering Murray-Darling water system. The Barwon and the Namoi have been dry for over a year, and residents say this has never happened before. Alternative water sources, mostly bore wells, are often contaminated by salt, or other substances. Andy Mason, who works on water distribution for Fire, an Indigenous activist group based in Sydney, told the Guardian, “It tastes really foul and minerally and slimy. .” Mason says that Fire has installed water filters and worked on water supplies so that Aboriginal families don’t get left out. He said “A lot of people are amazed that anyone cares. We get that response quite often – it’s depressing in itself. They’re so used to being ignored, they’re amazed that we’re there at all.”
The Guardian reports that there is scarce data on how many people in Australia are unserved by formal water systems. The government has been focused on municipalities. A 1994 report on Indigenous water and sanitation by the Human Rights Commission estimated about 150 thousand people in small communities were “off the water grid” and another 280 thousand were on small systems with fewer than a thousand customers. And that, says the Guardian, does not include large numbers of people who live outside of towns and villages. While rural residents can fetch water from the local dam, many can’t afford the access fees required.
An official in Stanthorpe told the Guardian that water supplies have been a state issue, but that the federal government would consider stepping in if the states fail. But the federal government, he said, expected that the states will provide water now and in the future with better planning and infrastructure.
Many are advocating for better water management for what’s been called the “triple whammy” on water: drought, land clearing and climate change.
For now, people at the ground level of Day Zero are taking the lead. As Russell Wantling told the Guardian, “It’s not a small amount of people, it’s a lot of people. They’re just working class people who you’d think would get by. They’re not used to even using the system, so to ask for help is a really hard thing.”
Wantling is angry and frustrated, and heartbroken that the politicians don’t recognize the struggles of their constituents. His water shed has added a food pantry for those in the direst straits. Twice a week, 30 volunteers come to help. The reality, he says, is that it’s left up to people like him to rescue people like him. “If I don’t get the water, they don’t get the water.” he said, “If we shut down tomorrow, there would be people with no water. We’re doing all this work and a lot of people are going to bed at night not even worrying about this. They wouldn’t know what was going on.”
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.