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.
Water, sanitation and hygiene – known collectively as WASH, are in the news globally. A leaked memo showed that the United Kingdom plans to cut funding for WASH projects in developing nations by more than 80 percent. The Guardian reports that this has sparked outrage among WASH experts, who point to sanitation and handwashing as key defenses against the coronavirus pandemic. Worldwide, more than 4 billion people lack safe sanitation and 1 in 3 people do not have access to safe drinking water. Still, over the last 50 years more than $400 billion has been poured into projects that are improving WASH around the world. After interviewing more than 40 thought leaders and frontline professionals on five continents, Circle of Blue found that the WASH world is at a rare inflection point. In recent years the fog has cleared and the more certain path appears to actually lead to universal access to clean water, safe sanitation and hygiene. Circle of Blue and the Wilson Center will host a special online event May 11, titled “WASH Within Reach” – that public session, along with more on this story, is at
In Turkey, some of the country’s largest banks are reluctant to finance a hotly debated canal due to environmental concerns and investment risks. The 28-mile canal would provide a second link between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, which leads to the Mediterranean. Reuters news service said that city political leaders, engineers and citizens worry that the canal could harm resources that supply nearly a third of Istanbul’s fresh water. The Turkish government estimates it will take 75 billion lira, or $13 billion to build the canal. Turkey’s president wants to break ground on the project this summer, but if national banks fail to support it, the lion’s share of financing would have to come from the government or from foreign investors.
In South Asia, pandemic lockdowns gave an environmental boost to the region’s water supplies. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara studied satellite images and found that limits on economic activity last year cut soot emissions and other pollutants in the Indus River basin. When the dark soot falls on snow, it absorbs heat more quickly and hastens snowmelt. Cleaner snow takes longer to melt, extending water supplies farther into the summer in a parched and populated region. More than 300 million people in South Asia rely on the Indus River for drinking water.
In Tibet, an unstable glacial lake on the Yarlung Zangbo River could jeopardize China’s plan to build a major hydropower dam on the river. That’s according to he Hindustan Times reports. The hydropower plant is projected to generate nearly three times as much electricity as the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River and its construction has been included in China’s 14th five-year plan. The mountain lake was formed in 2018 after a melting glacier caused a landslide, and is near the planned site for the massive hydropower plant.  It holds about 600 million cubic meters of water and is considered unstable. A South China Morning Post report said that “With the river spilling over the top at present, the dam could collapse at any time.” adding “With so much water hanging overhead, no construction workers can move in to clear the ground”. The Hindustan Times said that scientists and experts are trying to find a solution to the problem, and that the climate crisis makes the region prone to similar disasters. It added that given the potential impact on water security in India’s northeastern states, New Delhi would be closely following developments.
In the United States, California warns of broader water restrictions as the state prepares for historic drought. CBS Los Angeles reports that after mandatory water restrictions were ordered in Marin County last week and a drought emergency was declared in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned that broader drought emergencies could be coming. The declarations and restrictions come as California prepares for what could be an historic drought. Karla Nemeth is director of the California Department of Water Resources. She said “If you’re in a different part of the state, you probably need to know that this will one day happen to you.” California residents will not be alone, as this season the American West may be facing what some describe as a “mega drought.”
This week, Circle of Blue reports on the status of federal assistance for household water debts.
In December, when Congress completed the 2021 budget, lawmakers added more funding to help low- and middle-income Americans withstand the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to a second round of stimulus payments, lawmakers included over $600 million for households that were behind on their water bills. It was the first time that Congress had set aside federal funding for that purpose. Little more than two months later, Congress doubled down on the approach, adding another $500 million to what is now officially called the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program. In total, over a billion dollars will be available to relieve households of water debts.
That’s where the process has slowed. As of late April, none of those funds has been allocated to the states, let alone distributed to families in need. State allocations, to be set by the Department of Health and Human Services, are based on poverty levels and high housing costs. Recently, the department’s Office of Community Services said that they expect the initial funding to be disbursed to states, tribes, and territories by late May. The office is coordinating the federal part of the program. As for the second funding allocation, the additional $500 million, the Department of Health and Human Services said there’s no definite timeline for distributing that. But the department said that the money will go more quickly because the administrative foundation is already in place.
Sending the money to states, tribes, and territories is only the first step in the process. Those governments function as intermediaries for the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program. They must then decide how to distribute their share of the funds to households in need.
How to do that equitably and swiftly will be a challenge, according to David Bradley. He’s the chief executive officer of the National Community Action Foundation, a group that lobbies for local social services and anti-poverty agencies. Bradley is concerned that the program could be hindered by the sheer number of water providers in this country — numbering close to 50,000. He told Circle of Blue “I worry about that mom-and-pop water authority not having the foggiest idea how to do this.”
The Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging states to use existing procedures to speed up distribution of the money. For the most part, that means operating like a federal energy-bill assistance program that is already in place.
The thousands of community action agencies that Bradley represents are key to making the energy-bill program work. But even that long-established program serves only about one in six people who are eligible.
Part of the tension for water bill-assistance is the design of the program. Is it an emergency response to Covid-19? Or is it the beginning of a permanent program like the energy assistance program?  The Department of Health and Human Services is giving states until December of 2023 to expend their funds. But Office of Community Services officials emphasized the urgency of assisting people in a pandemic as quickly as possible. For that reason, the money cannot be spent on problems that might be causing high water bills, like plumbing repairs. As the director of energy assistance put it, “We’re trying to save lives. We’re trying to keep people healthy and in their homes.”
Bradley said he’s heard from several members of congressional appropriations committees that they see the Water Assistance Program as temporary. He said “Not everyone is comfortable with making this a permanent program.”  On the other hand, social justice advocates and groups in the water sector want the water program to stay on like the energy assistance program, which began in 1981.
As those conversations play out in the background, there is front-line work still to accomplish. After the Department of Health and Human Services distributes the funds, local agencies will determine how much each household will receive for water-bill assistance. But before states, tribes, and territories receive their allocations they must designate a lead agency to oversee the program. Even that has been delayed. The Department of Health and Human Services initially asked for lead agencies to be submitted by March 8, a deadline later extended to April 27. The department told Circle of Blue that a number of governments missed that cut off and have requested extensions to May 4.
Bradley said that another development to watch is the speed with which states use their funding. He noted that some states were quite slow to expend funds from the CARES Act, which was approved in March of 2020. He said some states waited until this February to hand out funds from the Community Services Block Grant. Bradley said that that experience haunts him about the water program. He wonders if the Department of Health and Human Services will, as he put it “shovel it out the door and say, ‘Good luck’?”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis await you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.