Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. This is Eileen Wray-McCann.
In the Middle East, water scarcity could cause an international legal confrontation. Iraqi water officials say they want to sue their neighbor, Iran. They allege that Iran is reducing water flows to a tributary of the Tigris River. The Tigris cuts through Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, and is one of the country’s main waterways. The lawsuit would be filed in international court. It also claims that Iran is endangering Iraq’s agricultural sector and its drinking water supply. Dams built upstream in Iran and other neighboring countries have limited Iraq’s water supply, which is further constricted by severe drought. The lawsuit is not universally supported. One of Iraq’s leading environmentalists says the legal threat is a distraction from Iraq’s own political mismanagement of water. In an interview with Rudaw news service, Azzam Alwash called the potential lawsuit “nothing but PR.” He said Iraq should focus its efforts on mending antiquated irrigation systems and preventing water waste. The Iraq Ministry of Foreign Affairs will determine whether or not the lawsuit will be filed.
In the United States, government agencies in Hawaii are dealing with a water contamination crisis. Hundreds of military service members and their families were moved into hotels after officials confirmed that petroleum products have contaminated the water system that serves Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam. Last month, the Navy revealed that a mixture of water and jet fuel had leaked from a fuel storage facility. The leak contaminated at least one of the base’s water supply wells. So far, 14,000 gallons of the liquid has been removed from the facility, according to Honolulu Civil Beat. Consequences of the leak extend beyond the base. The city of Honolulu shut down one of its water supply wells that’s about a mile from the contamination site, fearing that pumping from the well would pull in contaminated water. State officials in Hawaii are expressing concern. Gov. David Ige said he would require the Navy to drain their Red Hill fuel storage facility. Navy officials, however, said they plan to challenge the order.
This week, Circle of Blue reviews the year’s water news, and the dominant themes are extreme weather, disaster response, and adaptation.
Too much. Too little. Too polluted.
For years these compact phrases, like a refrain, have written the theme song of the world’s water woes.
Add now, a fourth dimension: too frequent.
If nothing else, the last 12 months of floods, fires, droughts, and other meteorological torments delivered an uncomfortable message. Extreme events are happening more often. And they are happening almost everywhere.
Communities rich and poor bore witness to horrific devastation in 2021. In July, floods in China’s Henan province trapped commuters in subway tunnels in the city of Zhengzhou, which received a year’s worth of rain in a mere three days. That same month, raging waters in Germany’s Ahr Valley scoured farmland into canyons and submerged riverside towns. At the other extreme and at present, herders in northern Kenya seeing their livestock decimated as, yet again, seasonal rains have failed to nourish the ochre earth.
One positive trend is that severe weather is not as deadly as it was generations ago. The initial blow from a flood or drought is less lethal now thanks to superior weather forecasting, early warning systems, insurance schemes, and an established network of international aid agencies. And so death tolls are typically measured in the hundreds instead of the tens of thousands.
The pain is distributed in other ways. Homes are washed away. Wells go dry. Hunger persists from failed harvests, with a growing reliance on food aid. Rebuilding over and over and over again is wearying. From the Gulf Coast of Louisiana Gulf Coast to the Sahel, in central Africa, people have come to see their homelands as places of danger. Some want to move. Others already have.
In northern Kenya, dead cattle bake in the sun, casualties of the region’s unforgiving drought. Last month in British Columbia, a convoy of moisture-rich storms encircled the region with landslides and floods, cutting off major transportation corridors that will take months to repair.
Across the American West, intense heat and meager precipitation made the region a tinderbox. Water systems were at the center of the story. Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California, dropped to a record low, too depleted to generate hydropower. Across the region, wells dried up, fish and birds perished, marinas closed, algae outbreaks intensified, and wildfires scorched forests and homes.
This year the Colorado River basin’s unforgiving math began to hit home. The allocations of its water outstrip the actual supply. Lakes Mead and Powell, the country’s largest reservoirs, hit record lows. The U.S. federal government declared a first-ever Tier 1 shortage, requiring mandatory water cuts for Arizona and Nevada. Though residents are trying to use less water, they can’t live without it.
The events of 2021 are likely to be a prelude for tougher tests ahead.  Each hazard this year, in its own way, showed how vulnerable water systems are to climate shocks. For example, in February, the Texas freeze, which reached Louisiana and Mississippi, caused pipes to burst and left millions without water for several days. In Jackson, Mississippi, the water system was so deeply damaged it had a boil-water advisory in place for a month.
These extreme events are also an economic risk. Countries whose electricity relies largely on hydropower can face shortages when rains fail. That happened this year in Brazil, where low reservoirs caused hydropower generation to plunge. Power companies turned instead to natural gas – but also displayed new interest in wind and solar.
The pace of such multifaceted disasters is unlikely to slow, and humanity is already failing to keep up. People continue to move into risky terrain, infrastructure decays and misguided development polices persist, such as draining and paving wetlands, which provide flood-buffering protection.
As the reality of a warming planet sharpens, communities find that they cannot duck every punch. Learning to absorb some blows and bounce back is part of a renewed emphasis on adaptation. Some adaptations are physical changes. A small town in Illinois revised its development patterns after being flooded one time too many. Cape Town, three years after skirting Day Zero, aims to avoid another water crisis by restoring native forests in the watersheds that feed its reservoirs. In the wastewater sector, transformation can come from technological changes — from equipment that captures the energy in sewage, to sensors that monitor sewer system capacity and reduce the risk of overflows.
Last month’s U.N. climate summit focused on limiting the damage from a fevered planet, and negotiators made incremental progress in Glasgow. But the world’s carbon trajectory is still not on track to keep the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above what it was two centuries ago.
Coming out of the summit, climate campaigners accused political leaders of being too timid, of not doing enough. Low-carbon energy plans could move faster. More money could flow to poorer countries to aid adaptation. Fossil fuel subsidies could be lowered. Carbon-trapping forests and wetlands could be protected from development.
Without a greater sense of urgency this decade, the hill to climb becomes much steeper. Future leaders don’t want to find themselves with another sad refrain: too little, too late.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies more than ever on your support. Right now, your tax-deductible gift goes twice as far, thanks to NewsMatch –  a challenge grant matching your one-time or monthly donation dollar for dollar. It’s a very limited time offer – so find out more – and make a difference at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here for us.