Welcome to “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water from Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann.
In China, the vice premier has called for greater environmental protections along the Yellow River, the country’s second-longest waterway. Reuters reports that the call came after state media and the environmental ministry made unannounced visits to cities and prefectures in the watershed and secretly shot footage. The recordings took place over three months and revealed a number of ecological issues, including water scarcity and pollution. The Yellow River crosses nine provinces and regions, running over 3 thousand miles across northern China.
In the United States, in Tennessee, a controversial oil pipeline that would run through Black communities in the Memphis area will not be built. Amid pressure from conservation groups, Byhalia Connection said it will cancel plans to construct a 49-mile oil pipeline that would have run directly over an aquifer that provides drinking water for a million people in Tennessee and Mississippi. The Associated Press reports that environmentalists and activists are celebrating the pipeline’s demise. The company is blaming cancellation on what it calls “lower U.S. oil production resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.”
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the physical and mental strain of natural hazards that turn into constant disasters.
Ken Austin, the emergency services manager in Fresno County, California, had started to discuss the challenges government agencies face in responding to drought, when he stopped, then apologized for being distracted. “Would you ask that question again?” he said, “I’m getting a request about a fire that’s going on and I missed it.”
Distractions, especially at this time of year, are part of the job for emergency managers like Austin. Calamitous fires in California or other western states can erupt at any moment when the vegetation is so dry. Even regions farther north are baking. On June 30, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, was ambushed by flames after the temperature soared to 121 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the capstone to a merciless week in which Lytton broke Canada’s national high-temperature record on three consecutive days. Nearly the entire town was destroyed in the fire.
The problem for Austin and his colleagues, though, is that the interval between emergencies is shortening, or in some cases disappearing altogether. It’s not just one fire. It’s several — at the same time. Or, it’s a fire and power shutoffs happening during a drought in a region that still has not recovered from the last dry cycle.
The acceleration of disaster is repeating worldwide, in part because vulnerable people and developments are moving into terrain that is hazardous. Landslides in the unstable Himalaya mountains in recent years have demolished newly built hydropower stations and killed hundreds. Over 200 were dead or missing this February from the Chamoli disaster there.
But the acceleration is also occurring because a supercharged climate is churning up more powerful hurricanes, more punishing droughts, more oppressive heat waves, and altogether more environmental and water-related risk. António Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, emphasized that point last week at a special UN session on water and disasters. He said “Last year, cyclones lashed the shores of many countries that were already grappling with serious liquidity crises and debt burdens, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
The scenario that Guterres described — cyclone plus debt plus pandemic — is an example of what researchers call “compounding” or “cascading” disasters. These are disasters that build upon one another, their effects rippling across society.
Susan Cutter is the director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. She says that any hazard has the potential to compound, but the danger is especially acute in a society whose physical systems are expansive and interdependent: from corporate supply chains that cross national borders to water utilities and hospitals that rely on a steady supply of power from the public grid.
Cutter explained “The more complexity you have in a system — unless there are tremendous redundancies, which isn’t always the case with water — you will have secondary and tertiary effects.” Those secondary effects can be devastating. If a utility does not have have sufficient generators when the power goes out, then raw sewage spills into waterways. Even if there are enough generators, if those generators are flooded or if fuel isn’t able to reach them, as was the case during Hurricane Sandy, in New York and New Jersey, the system stumbles.
Alessandra Jerolleman is an assistant professor of emergency management at Jacksonville State University. She said one of the strengths of the U.S. emergency management system is the tradition of sharing resources, both within and outside of formal disaster declarations. For water and wastewater utilities, state and regional networks called WARNs send operators and work crews to areas hit by hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, or tornadoes. The crews help to repair pipes and restart the flow of drinking water. Fire crews also move across county and state lines.
But even the durable bonds of the mutual aid system can break down, as Jerolleman said: “It works really well when you have some percentage in the nation having disaster impacts and some percentage not. But when everybody’s impacted, that becomes a lot harder.”
In those conditions, a series of disasters prevents people from regaining their footing. Jerolleman pointed to southwestern Louisiana, which endured a year of catastrophe. Residents of Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish were hit by Hurricane Laura in August 2020 and, six weeks later, by Hurricane Delta. Dozens of drinking water systems went offline for weeks after the first storm landed, and essential infrastructure was destroyed. Then last winter an ice storm swept through the area, causing water and power outages that extended from Texas through Mississippi. And in May, parts of Calcasieu Parish flooded once again after more than 20 inches of rain.
Dick Gremillion, the director of the Calcasieu Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, saw the unprecedented damage first hand. He told Circle of Blue “It’s like everything we’ve had in the past year is the worst of that thing.”
The goal for emergency response is not to be overstretched. But overstretched, says Gremillion, is exactly how the people of Calcasieu Parish feel. He said “We’re not finished repairing our damage from last time and her it is hurricane season again.”
There have already been five named tropical storms in the Atlantic, threatening what Gremillion calls “hurricane fatigue.” People are not prepared for the emotional stress of another storm season. Nor are they physically prepared. Houses don’t have secure roofs. Buildings are not as stabilized against wind and water as they could be. According to FEMA, at the beginning of July over two thousand households in the parish were living in temporary housing units.
These problems were foreseen. In 2012, Susan Cutter chaired a report on disaster resilience for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. That report concluded that it was time to get to work, to make the nation’s physical and social networks more adaptable, without delay. It’s been nine years since that “now” imperative, and Cutter says that efforts for resilience have been uneven.
The situation is worsened by the fact that people keep putting themselves in harm’s way. Homes built in floodplains, along coasts, and in flammable forests increase exposure to hazards at the same time that a warming climate is amplifying the intensity of those hazards. As Jerolleman put it, “We are creating risk even faster than we can mitigate it. Even if we didn’t have climate as a compounding factor.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at circleofblue.org
. This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.