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 India, a new study finds that arsenic from irrigation water is entering the country’s food chain. The study looked at Bihar, a state in eastern India where the groundwater has naturally high levels of arsenic. The groundwater is used for farming. The Hindustan Times said the study marks the first time that the cancer-causing chemical has been found in locally grown food items. Researchers found arsenic in rice, wheat, and potatoes at levels higher than those in household drinking water. Local officials called the findings alarming.
In southern Africa, there are unanswered questions after a toxic wastewater spill from one of the world’s largest diamond mines. After a mine in Angola spilled toxic wastewater in early August, the environmental fallout was swift. Downstream, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kasai River turned red. There were local reports of dead fish and hippos. Thousands of people who use the river as a drinking water source fell ill with diarrhea and at least a dozen died. Six weeks later, there is little information about the spill, according to the science and conservation news site Mongabay. The mining company claims the spill was not toxic, while the Angolan government says it is still investigating the matter.
In the United States, conservation data released last week shows that California residents are barely conserving water at all. Statewide, residential water use dropped 1.8 percent in July compared to the same month last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Californians for a voluntary 15 percent reduction, but that goal was far from being met. Northern regions of the state cut their use the most, in a few cases exceeding the governor’s goal. On the other hand, water use in coastal Southern California, including Los Angeles and San Diego was about the same as a year ago, partly because local reservoirs are in better shape than in the north.
This week, Circle of Blue reports on key water questions ahead of a crucial UN climate conference.
On September 21, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that his country would no longer finance coal-fired power plants abroad. This high-profile commitment to shift away from some forms of fossil fuel infrastructure came less than six weeks before a pivotal global climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
Climate campaigners applauded the carbon-reducing benefits of fewer new coal plants. And the move has another, less obvious dividend: easing the strain on water. Coal power, from mining to generation, is among the thirstiest and most polluting ways to produce electricity.
Eliminating coal from the world’s energy mix is a no-brainer for climate policy and a win for water, as well as for human lungs. But as diplomats meet in Glasgow starting on October 31, with plans to keep the planet from dangerously overheating, water experts say they need to keep more than carbon in mind. Some carbon-reducing energy options can deplete rivers and pollute waterways if they’re not well designed.
Howard Bamsey is the chair of the Global Water Partnership, an advocacy and skills-building network working to integrate water with climate decisions. He told Circle of Blue “If you don’t get water right, your mitigation efforts are going to be less effective.”
Climate policy is full of potential pitfalls for water, especially if the world is to limit the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius than it was two centuries ago. It is already 1.1 degrees higher.
Two sturdy and growing sources of renewable energy, wind turbines and solar power, use negligible amounts of water. But other low-carbon technologies do not tread as lightly.
Nuclear plants demand enormous volumes of water for cooling, and they kill aquatic life and make rivers warmer in the process. Using hydrogen as a fuel without methane gas as a feedstock requires a reliable water source. Growing trees to store carbon or harvesting plants to convert into biofuel is a commitment of land, water, and fertilizer, which can pollute rivers and aquifers.
Then there are more difficult maneuvers like trapping carbon emissions from power plants or pulling carbon directly from the air. These technologies require even more energy. That affects water use because most thermal power plants need water for cooling. A study published last year found that capturing carbon directly from the air required a surprisingly large volume of water, primarily because of the energy needed to run the equipment. In the long term, electricity production will shift away from water-intensive thermal power, but in the near-term, the risk is real.
With forethought, some of these drawbacks can be averted, according to Lorenzo Rosa, a postdoctoral research associate at ETH Zürich who studies water, energy, and food systems. He says that carbon-capture facilities could be sited in areas that are not under water stress. Biofuel crops, whether they are switchgrass or sugarcane, could be grown in areas that are wetter.
Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for international water, told Circle of Blue that water is gaining recognition in national climate plans, but it’s not enough. He sees the Glasgow conference as a way to build momentum “as a stepping stone for more action.”
The role of water in adapting to a changing climate is beginning to gain wide acceptance. The recent severe droughts in Australia, East Africa, the Mediterranean, and the American West have underscored the fact that in a warming climate, dry areas will become drier. And at the other extreme, this summer’s horrific floods in southern China and Germany brought home the destructive power of too much water, too fast.  Water advocates believe that these disasters make a compelling case for the need to build societies that can live with climate disruptions.
There is a focus on water and adaptation. Is there the same focus on water’s role in reducing carbon emissions? “Absolutely not,” according to Ingrid Timboe, who is a policy director at the Alliance for Global Water Adaptation. “And there needs to be,” she continued. “That’s one of the things that we are pushing on a little bit more. To really highlight where water can contribute to reaching our mitigation goals, but also where there are potential risks.”
One of the risks Timboe mentioned is hydropower. If a country relies on flowing water to generate electricity, what will it do in a drought, like those currently diminishing hydropower production in Brazil and California? Does it have alternate sources? Or will it fall back upon more carbon-intensive fuels?
Water can be harmed by poorly-designed carbon remediation. But water can also be part of the solution. For example, restoring wetlands and peatlands for their ability to purify water and buffer floods also preserves their role as vital carbon sponges. And rivers act as natural air conditioners, with cooling effects for the land nearby.
Glasgow will offer a chance to learn more about the risks and opportunities of water in a warming world. Timboe is co-chair of a water “pavilion” intended to illuminate the links between water and climate. As negotiators sprint toward a net-zero carbon future, a water break might keep their race on the right track.
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.