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 South Africa, the largest reservoir for the Nelson Mandela Bay metro area dropped to an historic low. The Daily Maverick reported that the reservoir was down to six percent last week. Long-term forecasts are not favorable, as no significant rainfall is expected in the next couple of months. A supply pipeline from the Orange River is expected to be operating by September. But right now, water is in short supply for the one million people in the metro area, many of whom face restrictions and periodic outages.
In the United States, Louisiana is at the forefront of groundwater loss. Groundwater is the source of drinking water for two-thirds of Louisiana residents, and it is depleting faster than almost anywhere else in the country. An investigation by New Orleans Public Radio and partner station WRKF found that the problem stems from decades of overuse, unregulated pumping by industries and agriculture, and a lack of oversight or action from legislative committees. Agriculture uses more than 60 percent of Louisiana’s groundwater, while industries take another 14 percent. Experts warn that without action, the state could face the same kind of water crises as the western United States. In Louisiana, depleted groundwater could cause the land to compact and sink, worsening the effects of rising seal levels in the low-lying state. Insufficient groundwater could allow saltwater to move inland and spoil freshwater supplies.
In Michigan, lawyers who negotiated hundreds of millions of dollars for victims of the Flint water crisis would like to be compensated. The dozens of attorneys have asked a judge to set aside nearly a third of the $641 million settlement money to pay for their years of work on the case. The Associated Press reports that the lawyers are asking for up to $209 million to cover fees and expenses. Experts say the amount is typical for Michigan personal-injury cases.
This week Circle of Blue reports on slow progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals for water.
National governments are not on track to meet the ambitious, globally recognized goals for universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2030. Nor are they sufficiently shepherding their rivers, lakes, and aquifers through an era of climate change, water stress, and population growth. That’s according to a United Nations water agency report assessing progress toward Sustainable Development Goal 6, a global benchmark on water management and delivery. Goal 6 has eight targets for drinking water supply, sanitation, watershed management, pollution prevention, and water use.
Gilbert Houngbo is the chair of UN-Water, and says the report shows that more action is needed, and faster. If the goals are to be achieved in the next decade, it will mean an uphill sprint. Over 2 billion people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, do not have safely managed drinking water, and over 4 billion do not have the same level of sanitation service. Less than half of domestic wastewater is treated to safe standards. Floods and droughts are becoming more severe in some regions, and only a few rivers that are shared by multiple countries are managed under cooperative agreements.
Progress towards the goals is incomplete, and so is the effort to monitor that progress. The report notes that 38 UN member states are lacking data on more than half the monitoring indicators. Only 75 countries, most of them wealthy, reported data on wastewater treatment. There is not enough information to assess, at a global level, the status of wastewater treatment or water quality.
Tanvi Nagpal is the director of the international development program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She said that even though the data can be unreliable and incomplete, monitoring the commitments is important in identifying trends and steering money to areas of greatest need. She told Circle of Blue “It’s good that we’re tracking the outcomes so that we know where to focus. That we’re measuring the same things over time. That we’re becoming more careful in our terminology.”
Better data collection, says UN-Water, is one of five ways to accelerate progress toward the goals. Other actions include financing that targets the right problems, building the technical skills of local workers, scaling up innovative technologies, and improving governance.
The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by UN member states in 2015. They are a series of 17 benchmarks for improving human health, education, well-being, and the environment. The goal for water is intended to be comprehensive. The aim is to connect the provision of drinking water and sanitation to the natural and man-made systems that sustain the services.
For example, explained Nagpal, a new well is no good if it’s polluted by a nearby garbage dump. A household water tap without soap means less benefit from hand washing. A latrine located where the water table is high could be flooded. Such difficulties in securing adequate and sustainable water are further complicated by the uncertainties of a warming planet. Building more pumps and pipelines will be futile if groundwater levels drop or rivers dry up.
Sean Furey, director of the Rural Water Supply Network Secretariat, said the report echoes what members are saying  – that water stress is an increasing challenge in many areas. Furey mentioned four things that rural communities need to do for sustainable water access. The first is to develop skilled workers who can maintain their water systems. Second, to move away from dependency on foreign aid. Third, to expand the use of household wells. And finally, to unite the fields of water supply and water management, which is an aim of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Both Nagpal and Furey said that the coronavirus pandemic is a wildcard. It’s threatening the financial stability of water providers and it could undermine progress toward the water goal. Nagpal said that poverty and lack of access to water and sanitation go hand-in-hand. The World Bank estimates that as many as 150 million people could enter extreme poverty this year because of the pandemic. The fear is of the real danger of losing the hard-won gains that have been made so far.
The UN-Water report acknowledges that even before the pandemic, the world was falling short of the water goal. The report states that aid agencies can help in the push for universal access. But it makes clear that national governments have the primary responsibility for success or failure of the goals for water within their borders.
And that’s What’s Up With Water from Circle of Blue, which relies on your support for independent news that gives a voice to water. Please visit and make a difference through your tax-deductible donation.