Blogging on the new "Caring Economics" that takes into account the full spectrum of economic activities–from the life–sustaining activities of the household, to the life-enriching activities of caregivers and communities, to the life-supporting processes of nature.
So says a protester walking though the streets of Sao Paul as water service is being drastically cut due to a relentless drought in Brazils most populous state. The 20 million people that live in Sao Paulo, Brazil have run out of water and things are starting to get ugly really fast.
Secretly recorded, Paulo Massato, the metropolitan director of the São Paulo state-run water utility, said that people might have to flee the city. “There's not enough water, there won't be water to bathe, to clean,” says Massato. Fears of what comes next has begun and thousands took to the streets recently walking from the poor neighborhoods and marching past wealthy residential towers most of which have their own water tanks, to the Bandeirantes Palace in Morumbi, where the official residence of the governor (State of Sao Paolo Geraldo Alckmin) is located.
A demonstrator holds up a bucket with a sign reading “Water, Yes,” in reference to water rationing in Sao Paulo January 29, 2015. Residents of Brazil's largest city, Sao Paulo, could soon only have running water two days a week. (REUTERS/Nacho Doce)
São Paulo, along with 93 smaller localities around Brazil, is facing drastic water shortages that could mean up to five days a week without running water starting in April. The mega-city’s largest reservoir, which supplies about 30 percent of the 20 million people living in the metropolitan region, is currently at only 5.1 percent of its capacity. It’s all the result of a severe drought that has extended throughout Brazil’s Southeastern region, and could soon lead to water rationing for as much as 40 percent of the population.
Aside from practical residential concerns, the shortage has affected industry and agriculture across the region, including the production of hydroelectricity, a key component of Brazil’s power grid. Even the carnaval is threatened—celebrations have been cancelled in some dry municipalities and the Río samba groups are altering their choreography to eliminate traditionally prominent water us.
The latest must-have item in the city is a rainwater cistern. A local group created in October, Cisterna Já, teaches city residents how to make their own mini-cisterns, allowing them to cut back on increasingly expensive and scarce public water supplies.
Consumption in the metropolitan region has already been reduced by a quarter, according to the president of Sabesp, the city’s water utility. Yet the main water loss culprit isn’t long showers, but rather leaky pipes. In order to address the problem, he explained in a recent op-ed, about 64,000 kilometers of buried pipes would have to be replaced.
Experts say they are concerned there is little practical preparation for upcoming shortages and argue that few relevant policy measures are being put into place.
The roots of the water shortage can be traced back to deforestation and industrialization across the region, according to Marcos Sorrentino, a professor of education and environmental policy at the University of São Paulo. A lack of political will to address the problem has led São Paulo to maintain a system of wasteful water distribution and consumption, and the city has missed opportunities to implement water saving and reuse technologies, Sorrentino says.
Residential water use only accounts for an estimated 6 percent of water usage in the region, which means that even if Paulistas stopped bathing altogether they won’t be able to resolve the “crisis de agua,” as it’s called locally. “Agriculture and industry, the biggest consumers, are only now being mobilized to commit to reducing consumption,” says Sorrentino.
A recent study found that 95 percent of businesses, industries, hospitals and hotels in the state of São Paulo don’t have a water supply contingency plan. “Lack of water will certainly compromise the operations of places that depend on the public water system,” says Rodnei Domingues, the study’s coordinator.
Sorrentino is particularly concerned about the drought’s impact on food prices, and notes that there have already been several water shortage-related protests. “The discontent of the population of the cities in which rationing has started is very large and it is not difficult to predict effects on public health and the expansion of urban violence,” he says.
The drought began last austral summer (December to February), when São Paulo state received about one-third to half of its usual amount of rain during what should have been its wettest season. In the seven months since, rainfall has been about 40 percent of normal. Across southeastern Brazil, production of key crops like coffee and sugar are in steep decline, and citizens are facing periodic outages in the water supply—even as news agencies report that local water authorities have not instituted conservation measures.
“The climate of the region is seasonal, with a rainy summer and a dry winter, and the drought has extended through the current dry season and the past rainy season,” noted Marcos Heil Costa, climate scientist at the Universidade Federal de Viçosa. “To make things worse, the onset of the rainy season—which usually happens in late September or early October—has not happened yet.”
“For the last rainy season, the pattern [of reduced rainfall] has been observed in the past, though the intensity was unprecedented this year,” Costa added. “For the dry season, coincidence or not, it looks exactly like what has been predicted by IPCC for a warmer climate. And it is now clear that our policies on management of water resources are unsustainable. No city in southeast Brazil seems prepared to handle a drought like this one. It is a mix of a lack of preparation for low levels of rain and a lack of environmental education in the population. Most people continue to use water as if we were in a normal year.” More
Organiser: UN-Water Decade Programmeon Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC)
Achieving the Water for Life Decade’s goals has needed sustained commitment, engagement, cooperation and investment from all. As the Decade is officially drawing to a close in 2015, the UN-Water Decade Programme on Advocacy and Communication (UNW-DPAC)wants to show how people’s efforts have contributed to its success. To this end, the Water for Life Voices campaign has gathered the voices of those whose life has changed over the last 10 years due to water and sanitation. Selected contributions from the campaign will form the exhibition at the UN Headquarters from 9 March to 14 April 2015. It is hoped that the exhibition will bring the voices of beneficiaries of water programmes over the Decade and highlight the human aspect of water programmes, and thus help support the inclusion of such considerations into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As Josefina Maestu, Director of the Office to support the Water for Life Decade, explains: “This exhibit brings the lives and voices of the beneficiaries of water programmes right into the halls of the UN General Assembly. It serves as a reminder to the UN’s top decision makers of just how much impact their work has had on people over the last Decade. It should also show visitors how much has been done, and how much there is yet to do to ensure continued development and progress for all the world’s peoples.”
Climate change was a key driver of the Syrian uprising, according to research which warns that global warming is likely to unleash more wars in the coming decades, with Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Jordan and Lebanon particularly at risk.
Experts have long predicted that climate change will be a major source of conflict as drought and rising temperatures hurt agriculture, putting a further strain on resources in already unstable regimes.
But the Syria conflict is the first war that scientists have explicitly linked to climate change. Researchers say that global warming intensified the region’s worst-ever drought, pushing the country into civil war by destroying agriculture and forcing an exodus to cities already straining from poverty, an influx of refugees from war-torn Iraq next door and poor government, the report finds.
“Added to all the other stressors, climate change helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict,” said report co-author Richard Seager, of Columbia University in New York.
“I think this is scary and it’s only just beginning. It’s going to continue through the current century as part of the general drying of the Eastern Mediterranean – I don’t see how things are going to survive there,” Professor Seager added.
Turkey, Lebananon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Afghanistan are among those most at risk from drought because of the intensity of the drying and the history of conflict in the region, he says. Israel is much better equipped to withstand climate change than its neighbours because it is wealthy, politically stable and imports much of its food. Drought-ravaged East African countries such as Somalia and Sudan are also vulnerable along with parts of Central America – especially Mexico, which is afflicted by crime, is politically unstable, short of water and reliant on agriculture, Prof Seager said.
The conflict in Syria began in spring 2011 and has evolved into a complex multinational war that has killed at least 200,000 people and displaced millions more, according to the Columbia study, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was preceded by a record drought that ravaged Syria between 2006 and 2010.The paper says the timing is unlikely to be a coincidence, citing a recent interview with a 38-year old farmer in Mohasen, an agricultural village in the north east of Syria.
Asked if the conflict was about the drought, Faten – a female farmer who did not want to give her last name – said: “Of course. The drought and unemployment were important in pushing people towards revolution. When the drought happened, we could handle it for two years, and then we said, ‘It’s enough’,” the report said.
The study combined climate, social and economic data relating to the so-called Fertile Crescent, spanning parts of Turkey and much of Syria and Iraq, where agriculture and herding are thought to have started 12,000 years ago and continue to be crucial.
The region has warmed by between 1 and 1.2C since 1900, reducing rainfall in the wet season by an average of 10 per cent. In addition to the warming – which has found to be caused by human greenhouse gas emissions – Syria has had to contend with rapid population growth, from 4 million in the 1950s to 22 million now.
The ruling al-Assad family encouraged water-intensive export crops such as cotton, while illegal drilling of irrigation wells dramatically depleted groundwater that might have provided valuable reserves, the report said. The drought’s effects were immediate. Agriculture production, which typically makes up a quarter of Syria’s economy, plummeted by a third.
In the hard-hit northeast, livestock herds were practically obliterated, cereal prices doubled and nutrition-related diseases among children increased dramatically. As many as 1.5m people fled from the country to the city.
“Whether it was a primary or substantial factor is impossible to know, but drought can lead to devastating consequences when coupled with pre-existing acute vulnerability,” said lead author Colin Kelley, who did the work at Columbia but is now the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The pressure exerted by climate change is even more dangerous because it comes against a backdrop of rising populations and growing scarcity of resources, experts say.
With demand for basic commodities such as wheat and copper set to soar over the next two decades, relatively small shocks to supply risk causing sudden price rises and triggering “overreactions or even militarised responses”, the Chatham House think-tank has warned.
Furthermore, while the effects of rising population and global warming may be felt hardest among the poorer countries most affected by climate change, the impact will be felt worldwide.
Global trade is so interconnected that no importer of resources is insulated from the problems of key exporters – a fact of concern to the UK, which imports 40 per cent of its food and a high proportion of fossil fuels and metals, the think-tank warns. More
LAS VEGAS – The patroller stopped his water district truck and grabbed his camcorde “Here we go,” he said, sliding from the cab and pointing his lens at the fine spray of water and rainbow rising from pop-up sprinklers on the lawn of a low-slung ranch home.
Central Arizona Project Canal
“Thursday,” he spoke, recording the day as evidence. No watering allowed on Thursdays.
Welcome to the future, where every drop of Colorado River water is guarded and squeezed. Only here, in the city that gets 90 percent of its water from the fickle and fading river, the future is now.
The vast and highly urbanized Southwest, built on the promise of a bountiful river propped up by monumental dams, is up against its limits. Already tapped beyond its supply, the river is now threatened by a warming climate that shrinks its alpine source.
To support fast-growing urban populations in a time of dwindling supply, the Southwest is due for rapid and revolutionary changes.
A region that uses two-thirds of its water outdoors, and mostly for agriculture, will have to find ways of sharing and boosting efficiency — a shift that many experts believe will mean city dwellers paying to upgrade rural irrigation systems.
Cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, which have reduced their per-person water usage through better landscaping and appliances, will have to do better. They lag behind Los Angeles, whose growing population, by necessity, uses no more water than it did 40 years ago.
Water suppliers from Denver to San Diego will spend billions of dollars to squeeze more out of each drop, and to clean and use wastewater and salt water. It means a future of higher water bills, further promoting conservation.
Problem can’t be deferred
“We’re in a drought,” water patroller Robert Kern said after hanging a warning notice on the home’s doorknob. Two more violations and the water district will fine the owner $80.
“Everyone has to do their part.”
Residents in this part of town — known as Zone C to the Las Vegas Valley Water District — may only water on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from fall through spring. They’re freer to soak their grass at will in summer, when the withering heat demands it.
The cooler months are for austerity, to give the plummeting water levels behind Hoover Dam a break. The river’s massive storage tub, Lake Mead, is draining.
The Colorado isn’t all that we thought it would be when we divvied up the rights in the Roaring ’20s. Most years, it gives less than it once did, and there are more users taking from it.
A 2012 government study of supply and demand predicted a 2060 annual shortfall of nearly a trillion gallons — enough to cover the sprawling city of Phoenix 9 feet deep or to supply 6 million Southwestern households for a year.
How the Southwest’s leaders, farmers and lawn waterers respond will help decide how many millions of people this drying corner of the continent can sustain in the next century.
Throughout this year, The Arizona Republic will examine the twin stresses of climate change and population growth, and ways to ensure reliable water for the next generation of Southwesterners.
“This is not one of the problems you can defer and let your grandkids deal with,” said Doug Kenney, a University of Colorado law professor.
Last year, the Arizona Department of Water Resources published a “strategic vision” for the coming century. The department stopped short of calling the state’s current situation a “crisis,” but said Arizona is at a “crossroads” and needs to decide on actions to secure new water.
Many potentially costly steps for metro Phoenix were included: conservation, treated water recycling, watershed forest thinning, cloud seeding and seawater desalination among them.
Kenney chairs the newly formed Colorado River Research Group, an independent group of 10 river and climate experts from regional universities. This winter, they made a simple recommendation that would have sounded outlandish in the past century.
Use no more water.
Cities will have to grow within their means, through conservation and by paying farmers to save and transfer water, he said. When the river already falls short of supplying everyone who has a legal right to it, there’s no sensible way of taking more from it.
“If everyone takes what they’re legally entitled to,” Kenney said, “the system crashes.”
That’s true even if the wetter 20th century hydrology repeats. But that’s not what the big water suppliers are expecting.
Actual flow of Colorado River versus water promised for Southwest
Agreements have promised 16.5 million acre-feet of water annually to come out of the Colorado River for use by Western states and Mexico. But in many years, the actual flow of the Colorado has been lower than what’s promised, which is marked by the solid line. The 110 year average is shown by the dotted line.
“In my opinion, the future of the Colorado Basin is a future where we have less water than we have right now,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
“The future of the Colorado Basin also has less grass.”
But it won’t be just the urban lawns that attract scrutiny. Farmers from Wyoming to Mexico — by far the biggest users of the river — will have to back off on hay production
They’ll also have to embrace expensive but efficient drip irrigation, Entsminger said. Urban water users will help pay for that through higher rates.
“Everybody’s going to have to figure out how to do the same or more with less water.”
Robert Kern, a Waster Water Investigator for the Las Vegas Valley Water District, documents a watering restriction violation in a west-central Las Vegas neighborhood. Las Vegas residents are only allowed to water on assigned days, Kern issued a warning to the homeowner.
At Lake Mead, America’s most voluminous water impoundment when it was full and a lifeline to everyone from Phoenix to San Diego, the crisis has already arrived.
Lake Mead Water Level
Desiccated palm trees flap over the cracked and peeling shell of a resort hotel at Echo Bay Marina at the northern end of the lake, the tattered banners of a man-made oasis now drained and vacant. Dormant boat docks lie stacked against each other.
To nearby innkeeper Chris Wiggins, it’s a sign of government mismanagement.
“Climate change?” he scoffed. “That’s the biggest joke.”
You don’t have to believe in a climate connection to recognize the risks in doling out on paper more water than a river can give.
“In the lower basin, we use more water than in a normal year we receive,” said Chuck Cullom, Colorado River program manager for the Central Arizona Project, whose canal pumps water to Phoenix and Tucson.
“Even absent the drought we would still be facing a declining Lake Mead.”
A sustained regional drought that started in the late 20th century shrank the reservoir to its record low by last summer. Federal officials say there’s a 1-in-4 chance it will sink low enough — to 1,075 feet above sea level — by next year that Arizona will have to cut back substantially on what it takes from the river.
After that, the government projects, the odds are better than even — about 60 percent — for a declared shortage and restrictions in 2017.
The reservoir has fallen by more than 100 feet since 2000. Its stored water, paired with upriver sister reservoir Lake Powell, is at about half-capacity.
The water’s retreat is a slow-blooming crisis that many have seen coming for years. Some communities have used the time to curb their thirst.
Los Angeles residents use 129 gallons a day each. That’s stingier than the 160-gallon average in Phoenix, whose use rate has nonetheless plummeted in recent years.
Now, though, even conservation-minded Los Angeles is following the unlikely lead of a gaudy, electrified billboard for sustainability. Still ridiculed in some corners as a wasteful and whimsical boomtown in the desert, metro Las Vegas has nonetheless turned its precarious relationship with the river into a powerful incentive to cut back.
Southern Nevadans use 212 gallons a day, which is more than their counterparts in either Los Angeles or Phoenix. But they also return almost 40 percent of that to the river as treated and reusable wastewater, making their net usage rate 124 gallons.
They have slashed usage steeply and deeply, by more than 100 gallons in about a decade.
Las Vegas has cut use of the river by nearly a third in a 12-year period that saw its metro population grow by 25 percent.
Vegas did it by regulating outdoor watering, and by paying $205 million — up to $2 a square foot — to entice people to remove lawns and “embrace living in the Mojave Desert,” Entsminger said.
That was crucial, because in 2002, Nevada was using more than its legal entitlement to the river.
Now Los Angeles is following, paying homeowners even more money to strip lawns.
For decades, the Colorado River hasn’t typically flowed as high as it did about a century ago, when Congress authorized impounding it at what would become Hoover Dam.
Climate scientists say there’s a strong chance it never — or rarely — will again. Yet unlike in those pioneering days of last century, more than 30 million people and several billion dollars in farm production are now counting on a river that is so tapped that in most years it no longer reaches the sea.
What’s left after the U.S. uses most of the water is diverted to farmers in Mexico.
“The Colorado River Compact appears to have been negotiated during an unusually wet period,” said Connie Woodhouse, a University of Arizona geosciences professor who has studied historic flows on the river. “I don’t think anyone would argue with that.”
The 1922 agreement split the river’s flow between upper- and lower-basin states, with the divide just upstream of Grand Canyon, at Lees Ferry. In the first few decades of the 20th century, an average approaching 17 million acre-feet — each acre-foot gushing 326,000 gallons, 51/2 trillion gallons in all — flowed past Lees Ferry every year.
For most of the past 90 years, though, the average flows have sagged below even the 15 million acre-feet that the states legally share, let alone the 1.5 million owed to Mexico by treaty.
The enormous but shrinking reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, capturing spikes in runoff during occasional wet years, have forestalled shortages. The flow was 20 million acre-feet in 2011, and just half that in 2013.
That Colorado, Wyoming and Utah weren’t using their full shares also postponed a reckoning.
The drought that started in 2000 and sent the reservoir holdings plunging is a preview of expected dry spells unprecedented in recent centuries, Woodhouse said. Temperatures are higher than those of the last century’s droughts, compounding the intensity.
“The (rising) temperatures are only going to exacerbate conditions that we would normally expect under natural conditions,” she said.
There are lots of reasons to think the droughts of coming decades will be worse than anything we’ve ever experienced — regardless of whether there’s any change in precipitation.
The first is that as the region warms, the trees and plants using the snowmelt will need and tap more of it before it ever reaches the river or pipes.
The next and arguably bigger threat is that the warmth will melt snow faster or even make it fall instead as rain. Either change will lead to more evaporation and less seepage into the soils that, in turn, release water to streams feeding the river.
Four years ago, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — the Southwest’s federal water managers — crunched all of the climate model projections for the Colorado River watershed and determined the average outlook was for a river pumping 9 percent less water through the region by 2050.
There is always a chance that monstrous snowstorms and winter rains will bring enough new winter precipitation to offset the warming’s worst effects, said Jeff Lukas, climate scientist with the University of Colorado’s Western Water Assessment team.
“Increasing flow isn’t precluded,” he added. “It just appears to be less likely.”
Past warm spells, etched as living history in the West’s tree rings and lake beds, indicate that where there’s heat there’s often stinging drought, according to Woodhouse’s work.
She co-authored a 2010 study using regional tree rings from an unusually long and hot medieval drought to project that each increase of a degree Celsius results in a decrease in Colorado River flows of between 2 percent and 8 percent.
Most of the region already has warmed by more than a degree on average in the past quarter-century, according to last year’s U.S. National Climate Assessment. Further warming of at least a couple of degrees in a few decades and up to 5 degrees by 2100 is expected even if global carbon emissions are substantially reduced.
The medieval drought, in its worst decade, baked the river down to about two-thirds of what the U.S. and Mexico draw out of it today.
The drought lasted 60 years, but it was not as hot as today. So it seems the next time there’s a repeat of whatever natural phenomena conspired back then to produce such a long, dry spell, the river will be even drier.
Since Woodhouse’s study, a team of 14 university and government researchers has conducted what Woodhouse calls the “best synthesis” of existing climate and flow models — with jaw-dropping, if imprecise, predictions.
The river’s flow probably will drop between 5 percent and 35 percent in response to warming by midcentury, according to that team, which published a January 2014 report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
Lukas’ University of Colorado colleague, snow researcher Jeffrey Deems, said there’s reason to believe the bureau’s predicted 9 percent reduction in flow is optimistic.
Already, the Rocky Mountain snowpack is melting three to six weeks earlier than before American settlement of the region, Deems’ studies have found, because dust drifting up from grazing lands and other disturbances collects solar heat on the snow’s surface. Today’s snowmelt is measured by direct observation and compared with computer models of older trends.
Without emissions curbs, Deems said, his modeling and others project flows slashed by about a fifth on average by midcentury.
“Even if it’s only 9 percent,” he said, in a nod to the Bureau of Reclamation study, “that’s a huge shock to any overallocated system.”
A 9 percent reduction would roughly equal the 1.5 million acre-feet that Arizona is allowed to pump through CAP’s 336-mile canal every year.
But that’s a midcentury outlook with lots of climate variables. What about the near-term effects of the existing drought?
If the government declares a Lake Mead shortage because the water drops below the mandated trigger elevation of 1,075 feet — the 58 percent probability that managers have projected by 2017 — then Arizona would lose 320,000 acre-feet every year that the water is so low.
An acre-foot of water is about the amount two Southwest families use each year. So the loss would be about three times the potable water that Tucson Water pumps to customers each year. But it’s not the cities and their residents who will suffer first or most.
CAP was built largely to fuel growth in metropolitan areas of Arizona. The farmers who have used what until now was excess water have the lowest legal priority. Some of them will voluntarily cut back on watering hay and other crops this year, in an effort to help keep Lake Mead from falling.
In December, CAP signed an agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation and water providers for Southern California and Nevada to save 740,000 acre-feet over the next three years, and to keep it in Lake Mead. Each of those organizations would sacrifice water or improve efficiency.
Arizona, with the most to lose from a shortage, is responsible for the largest share: 345,000 acre-feet.
Of that, the deepest cuts — nearly half — will come out of farm irrigation districts. But CAP will pay those farmers $5 million.
“It could actually protect us (from shortage) for a couple of years, and that would more than repay our efforts.” said Cullom, CAP’s Colorado River program manager.
But in the same agreement, the states predicted that these savings might be only half the job of restoring reliable water by 2019. So they also will join Denver Water in sponsoring $11 million in pilot programs that other customers can use to suppress their needs — some of it perhaps for farm upgrades such as drip irrigation or laser field leveling.
If Lake Mead drops another 25 feet after the first shortage, central Arizona would lose nearly a third of what it draws off the Colorado. Farmers there would get nothing from the river, and cities such as Phoenix, Mesa and Scottsdale could start to lose some of the canal water they’re now leasing from Indian tribes.
Best to act now, Cullom said, and reload Lake Mead.
“It’s like a scene from ‘Jaws,’ when one of the characters says, ‘We need a bigger boat,’ ” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to get a bigger boat.”
Some water managers and politicians have mused about importing the solution, from the Great Lakes or the Mississippi River Basin by pipe, or even from Alaska by ship. But the U.S. Interior Department effectively called those schemes pipe dreams, in a study of options for the Southwest.
For one thing, other states may guard their resources as jealously as Arizona would covet them in a water-strapped future. The Great Lakes states even have a compact prohibiting export, and it is being invoked to prevent a Wisconsin county that touches on the drainage from piping water over the line.
Also, the costs, both environmental and financial, caused the Obama administration to reject the idea. Pumping water from the Missouri River to Denver would cost 21/2 times the predicted price to conserve the same amount within the Southwest.
Conservation probably can provide only a third of the new water needed in 50 years.
Environmentalists generally have recommended starting there, though, and then adding treatment plants to clean salt from used irrigation water and return it to the river. Utility managers are also looking to add costlier, more energy-intensive seawater desalination, which could reduce coastal cities’ reliance on the river.
The biggest sponge out there, though, is agriculture. Its use of two-thirds of the Colorado’s bounty offers future urban residents a tantalizing buffer for growth — or a water grab — if it can be reallocated.
About a third of the Colorado River’s annual flow goes just to alfalfa, pasture and other forage for livestock, according to a 2013 analysis of farming in the 256,000-square-mile watershed, conducted by the Pacific Institute.
Much of that grass is flood-irrigated, putting to work water that farmers earned through settlement claims under a “use it or lose it” system that predates the West’s urban population explosion.
The institute modeled other options for ranchers — modern irrigation equipment and a more judicious schedule for watering — and projected a potential savings of 1 million acre-feet a year.
Farmers won’t give up water if they think it means losing their rights to it, and to the income it can bring them, said Kenney, the University of Colorado law professor. But states are free to change the laws, to ditch “use it or lose it.” They can ensure that farmers and rural areas are compensated.
Kenney expects change to come, and city dwellers to pay up, as the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District is doing in an experimental program that gives 33 farmers $750 per acre per year for three years to cut and fallow some citrus orchards.
“Scarcity drives innovation,” he said.
Back in Las Vegas, water patroller Robert Kern spotted a wet sidewalk near the first violator he nabbed. It wasn’t a sprinkler, though. What grass the lawn had was yellowed and crisp.
“I had to mow her lawn the other day because I was afraid there’d be a fire,” said a neighbor, Danny Hinchcliffe, standing on his own dewy grass.
Kern climbed from the truck, knelt to find moss growing in a slight but steady stream of water flowing from a broken underground pipe. He attached another warning to her doorknob.
Hinchcliffe said his own yard used to be rock, but he switched to grass because it helped cool his home and keep down the electric bill.
Reminded that his grass blades shouldn’t be glistening with water on a day when sprinkling is banned, he said his landscaper likely hadn’t had a chance to adjust his timer for the season.
But he didn’t get a citation.
Kern can’t issue a warning or a ticket unless he actually sees the water spraying.
“Our biggest thing is education,” he said. “Without the water, we’re not going to be here.
Another team has calculated that average yields of wheat per field, which only two decades ago were rising rapidly, are now down 2.5%, and barley by 3.8%. In each case, the scientists identify climate change as a contributing factor. Global warming has barely begun but climate scientists have been warning about the consequences for food security for 30 years.
The two latest bits of research into wheat yields are not isolated indicators of tomorrow’s troubles. The big heat has yet to arrive. It will be catastrophic. Another group has studied the consequences for harvests of extremes of heat and calculated that for each 1C notch in the thermometer, global wheat yields could fall by 6%. Some latitudes will benefit, but overall, world harvests could fall. This is very bad news: wheat is one of the world’s staples, and the world’s largest source of vegetable protein. There are other factors at play in the fields. Within a decade, 2.9 billion people in 48 nations will experience chronic water scarcity, another research team warns.
Agriculture consumes 70% of the world water supplies and action is needed “to pre-empt looming conflicts born of desperation”. Separately, US geologists have used historical analyses to work out what modern agriculture does to topsoil. When European settlers took the plough to the American heartlands, erosion accelerated one hundred-fold. At peak, an inch of soil was lost every 25 years. Before the Europeans, wind and water erosion took 2,500 years to remove the same thin layer. Because of erosion, overgrazing and drought, the planet’s farmland is being degraded at a catastrophic rate. An estimated 10m hectares are now abandoned each year; something the size of a family farm every minute. And as the food supply is threatened, demand will accelerate. There will be many more hungry people at the table.
In the last year, researchers re-examined UN population projections and decided that the global numbers may not peak at 9 billion. By 2100, the world could be home to 12 billion and still rising. By 2100, according to business-as-usual climate projections, temperatures will have risen by 4C and sea levels by a metre or so. So land that is ever less productive will be expected to deliver vastly more food at ever greater cost in fossil fuel energy to feed increasingly conflict-torn nation states.
Solutions exist but none are easy. All will require a generous adjustment between the haves and the have-nots and sustained global cooperation. That sounds like a dream, but the alternative is a nightmare. The enduring lesson of history is that drought and famine feed conflict, and conflict breeds more privation, and despair. Come December, each aspect of the climate challenge will have become more pressing, and more complex. Everything should be on the table in Paris except perhaps, symbolically, lunch. More
They say you learn something new everyday. For me, this day qualifies. Michael Specter writes at the New Yorker on the increasingly dire prospects for water — of the clean, unpolluted kind — for a clamoring humankind and of the water wars that are surely on the horizon.
And he has this, on the origins of the word “rivals”: “After all, the word 'rivals' has its roots in battles over water—coming from the Latin, rivalis, for 'one taking from the same stream as another.'” Who knew? Not me. Specter's prognostication on our looming water disasters is a grim but important read and not just for Pakistanis or Nigerians, but for us in a country in which California is parched for water in a prolonged drought and researchers are predicting humongous droughts coming later in the century for our breadbasket, the Midwest! TomDispatch
Angry protesters filled the streets of Karachi last week, clogging traffic lanes and public squares until police and paratroopers were forced to intervene. That’s not rare in Pakistan, which is often a site of political and religious violence.
But last week’s protests had nothing to do with freedom of expression, drone wars, or Americans. They were about access to water. When Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Minister of Defense, Power, and Water (yes, that is one ministry), warned that the country’s chronic water shortages could soon become uncontrollable, he was looking on the bright side. The meagre allotment of water available to each Pakistani is a third of what it was in 1950. As the country’s population rises, that amount is falling fast.
Dozens of other countries face similar situations—not someday, or soon, but now. Rapid climate change, population growth, and a growing demand for meat (and, thus, for the water required to grow feed for livestock) have propelled them into a state of emergency. Millions of words have been written, and scores of urgent meetings have been held, since I last wrote about this issue for the magazine, nearly a decade ago; in that time, things have only grown worse.
The various physical calamities that confront the world are hard to separate, but growing hunger and the struggle to find clean water for billions of people are clearly connected. Each problem fuels others, particularly in the developing world—where the harshest impact of natural catastrophes has always been felt. Yet the water crisis challenges even the richest among us.
California is now in its fourth year of drought, staggering through its worst dry spell in twelve hundred years; farmers have sold their herds, and some have abandoned crops. Cities have begun rationing water. According to the London-based organization Wateraid, water shortages are responsible for more deaths in Nigeria than Boko Haram; there are places in India where hospitals have trouble finding the water required to sterilize surgical tools.
Nowhere, however, is the situation more acute than in Brazil, particularly for the twenty million residents of São Paulo. “You have all the elements for a perfect storm, except that we don’t have water,” a former environmental minister told Lizzie O’Leary, in a recent interview for the syndicated radio show “Marketplace.” The country is bracing for riots. “There is a real risk of social convulsion,” José Galizia Tundisi, a hydrologist with the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, warned in a press conference last week. He said that officials have failed to act with appropriate urgency. “Authorities need to act immediately to avoid the worst.” But people rarely act until the crisis is directly affecting them, and at that point it will be too late.
It is not that we are actually running out of water, because water never technically disappears. When it leaves one place, it goes somewhere else, and the amount of freshwater on earth has not changed significantly for millions of years. But the number of people on the planet has grown exponentially; in just the past century, the population has tripled, and water use has grown sixfold. More than that, we have polluted much of what remains readily available—and climate change has made it significantly more difficult to plan for floods and droughts.
Success is part of the problem, just as it is with the pollution caused by our industrial growth. The standard of living has improved for hundreds of millions of people, and the pace of improvement will quicken. As populations grow more prosperous, vegetarian life styles often yield to a Western diet, with all the disasters that implies. The new middle classes, particularly in India and China, eat more protein than they once did, and that, again, requires more water use. (On average, hundreds of gallons of water are required to produce a single hamburger.)
Feeding a planet with nine billion residents will require at least fifty per cent more water in 2050 than we use today. It is hard to see where that water will come from. Half of the planet already lives in urban areas, and that number will increase along with the pressure to supply clean water.
“Unfortunately, the world has not really woken up to the reality of what we are going to face, in terms of the crises, as far as water is concerned,” Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change, said at a conference on water security earlier this month. “If you look at agricultural products, if you look at animal protein, the demand for which is growing—that’s highly water intensive. At the same time, on the supply side, there are going to be several constraints. Firstly because there are going to be profound changes in the water cycle due to climate change.”
Floods will become more common, and so will droughts, according to most assessments of the warming earth. “The twenty-first-century projections make the [previous] mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” Jason Smerdon, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said recently. At the same time, demands for economic growth in India and other developing nations will necessarily increase pollution of rivers and lakes. That will force people to dig deeper than ever before into the earth for water.
There are ways to replace oil, gas, and coal, though we won’t do that unless economic necessity demands it. But there isn’t a tidy and synthetic invention to replace water. Conservation would help immensely, as would a more rational use of agricultural land—irrigation today consumes seventy per cent of all freshwater.
The result of continued inaction is clear. Development experts, who rarely agree on much, all agree that water wars are on the horizon. That would be nothing new for humanity. After all, the word “rivals” has its roots in battles over water—coming from the Latin, rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another.” It would be nice to think that, with our complete knowledge of the physical world, we have moved beyond the limitations our ancestors faced two thousand years ago. But the truth is otherwise; rivals we remain, and the evidence suggests that, until we start dying of thirst, we will stay that way. More
The long and severe drought in the US southwest pales in comparison with what’s coming: a “megadrought” that will grip that region and the central plains later this century and probably stay there for decades, a new study says.
Thirty-five years from now, if the current pace of climate change continues unabated, those areas of the country will experience a weather shift that will linger for as long as three decades, according to the study, released Thursday.
Researchers from Nasa and Cornell and Columbia universities warned of major water shortages and conditions that dry out vegetation, which can lead to monster wildfires in southern Arizona and parts of California.
“We really need to start thinking in longer-term horizons about how we’re going to manage it,” said Toby R Ault, an assistant professor in the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, one of the co-authors. “This is a slow-moving natural hazard that humans are used to dealing with and used to managing.”
Megadroughts are sustained periods of sparse precipitation and significant loss of soil moisture that span generations, about 10 times as long as a normal three-year drought.
Tucson had less than 80 percent of its normal rainfall for long stretches in the 1990s. If that were to last for two decades, “that’s a megadrought,” Ault said.
Based on climate models the researchers used for the study, there is an 80 percent chance that such an extended drought will strike between 2050 and 2099, unless world governments act aggressively to mitigate impacts from climate change, the researchers said.
North America’s last megadroughts happened in medieval times, during the 12th and 13th centuries. They were caused by natural changes in weather that give megadroughts a 10 percent chance of forming at any time.
But climate change driven by human activity dramatically increases those chances. “With climate change, the likelihood of a megadrought goes up considerably,” Ault said.
The other writers for the study were its lead author, Benjamin I Cook, a research scientist for NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and co-author Jason E Smerdon, a research professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The report was published Thursday in the journal Science Advances.
“We got some exciting, thrilling and important research,” said Marcia Kemper McNutt, a geophysicist and editor in chief of the journal Science. “We are facing a water situation that hasn’t been seen in California for 1,200 years.”
At the study’s presentation, Ault had a word of caution. Weather conditions can vary, climate impacts can be mitigated, and the warnings of the study might not come to pass. A single El Niño weather pattern in the West could interrupt periods of prolonged drought.
Smerdon said the researchers went back over a thousand years’ worth of data to look at conditions that caused drought in North America and observing patterns in tree rings to determine wet and dry periods.
After 2050, there is “overwhelming evidence of a dry shift,” he said, “way drier than the megadroughts of the 1100s and 1200s.” The cause, Smerdon continued, “is twofold, reductions in rainfall and snowfall. Not just rainfall but soil moisture and changes in evaporation that dry out the soil much more than normal.”
The research is newly published, but its findings are not dramatically different from similar studies in the past. Beverly Law, a specialist in global change biology at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, co-authored a study of megadroughts three years ago.
It showed that a drought that affected the American West from 2000 to 2004 compared to conditions seen during the medieval megadroughts. But the predicted megadrought this century would be far worse. Law said Thursday’s study confirmed her previous findings.
“We took the climate model and compared” two periods, 2050 to 2099 and 1950 to 1999, she said. “What it showed is this big, red blotch over Southern California. It will really impact megacities, populations and water availability.”
Law is also co-author of an upcoming study commissioned by the U.S. Geological Survey about forest mortality later this century, and the preliminary findings are disturbing, she said.
According to predictions, the amount of precipitation in Arizona will be half of what it was between 1950 and 1999.
“We have drinking water to be concerned about,” she said. “That area’s really vulnerable.” More
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Energy-starved Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new resource crisis: major water shortages, the Pakistani government warned this week.
A combination of global climate change and local waste and mismanagement have led to an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply, said the minister for water and energy, Khawaja Muhammad Asif.
“Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” Mr. Asif said in an interview, echoing a warning that he first issued at a news conference in Lahore this week.
The prospect of a major water crisis in Pakistan, even if several years distant, offers a stark reminder of a growing challenge in other poor and densely populated countries that are vulnerable to global climate change.
In Pakistan, it poses a further challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has come under sharp criticism for failing to end the country’s electricity crisis. In some rural areas, heavy rationing has meant that as little as four hours of electricity a day is available.
In the interview, Mr. Asif said the government had started to bring the electricity crisis under control, and predicted a return to a normal supply by 2017. But energy experts are less confident that such a turnaround is possible, given how long and complex the problem has proved to be.
Now the country’s water supply looms as a resource challenge, intensified by Pakistan’s enduring infrastructure and management problems.
Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Pakistani economy. The 2,000-mile-long Indus River, which rises in the Himalayas and spans the country, feeds a vast network of irrigation canals that line fields producing wheat, vegetables and cotton, all major sources of foreign currency. In the north, hydroelectric power stations are a cornerstone of the creaking power system.
A combination of melting glaciers, decreasing rainfall and chronic mismanagement by successive governments has put that water supply in danger, experts say.
In a report published in 2013, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, with a water availability of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year — a fivefold drop since independence in 1947, and about the same level as drought-stricken Ethiopia.
“It is a very serious situation,” said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership. “I feel it is going to be more serious than the recent oil shortages.”
Shortages of resources have climbed to the top of the political agenda in recent years. Fuel shortages last month, for which government officials blamed mismanagement by the national oil company, caused lengthy lines outside fuel stations that embarrassed the government at a time of low global oil prices.
Mr. Sharif’s government was already grappling with the seemingly intractable electricity crisis, which regularly causes blackouts of 10 hours a day even in major cities. And Mr. Sharif has been visibly distracted by grueling political duels, with the opposition politician Imran Khan, who accuses him of stealing the 2013 election, and with powerful military leaders who have undermined his authority in key areas.
Mr. Asif, the water and energy minister, said the government had started to turn the corner. But he acknowledged that the country’s resource problems were, to a large degree, endemic. “There is a national habit of extravagance,” he said, noting that it extended across resource areas, whether gas, electricity or water.
“I will be very careful not to use the word ‘drought,’ but we are water stressed right now, and slowly, we are moving to be a water-starved country,” he said.
Evidence of chronic water shortages have been painfully evident in some parts of Pakistan in recent years. A drought caused by erratic rainfall in Tharparkar, a desert area in southern Sindh Province, caused a humanitarian emergency in the region last year.
“The frequency of monsoon rains has decreased but their intensity has increased,” said Mr. Amir of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “That means more water stress, particularly in winters.”
Water is also tied to nationalist, even jihadist, politics in Pakistan. For years, religious conservatives and Islamist militants have accused rival India, where the Indus River system rises, of constricting Pakistan’s water supply.
Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, regularly rails against Indian “water terrorism” during public rallies.
Mr. Asif said that contrary to such claims, India was not building reservoirs on rivers that flow into Pakistan. “We will never let it happen,” he said, citing the Indus Water Treaty, an agreement between the two countries that was brokered by the World Bank and signed in the 1960s.
One major culprit in Pakistan’s looming water crisis, experts say, is the country’s inadequate water storage facilities. In India, about one-third of the water supply is stored in reservoirs, compared with just 9 percent in Pakistan, Mr. Amir said.
“We built our last dam 46 years ago,” he said. “India has built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline.”
Experts say the country’s chaotic policies are hurting its image in the eyes of Western donors who could help alleviate the mounting resource crises.
“The biggest looming crisis is of governance, not water — which could make this country unlivable in the next few years,” said Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert with the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute, a research group based in Islamabad. More
Situation described as 'unfolding catastrophe' as investigation finds oil drilling companies injected untold amounts of waste into protected groundwater reserves
With the blessing of California state regulators, drilling companies have injected an untold amount of toxic wastewater left over from fracking and other drilling operations into aquifers, according to an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle published on Sunday.
In October, it was confirmed that nearly 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater had been illegally dumped in aquifers through at least nine disposal wells. According to data reviewed by The Chronicle, it is now evident that more than 170 such wells injected a mix of “briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals,” including acid, into aquifers suitable for drinking and irrigation.
This information about the extent of the aquifer contamination comes as the state's historic drought continues to push many desperate municipalities to tap groundwater reserves for drinking water and agricultural irrigation.
“It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Chronicle.
The practice first came to light in July 2014 when state regulators shut down 11 waste disposal wells in Kern County over fears of possible groundwater contamination.
The Chronicle reports on the source of the wastewater injection problem, which they say dates back to 1983 when EPA officials agreed to allow the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources responsibility for enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act:
The agreement listed, by name, aquifers considered exempt, where oil companies could legally inject leftover water with a simple permit from the division. If state regulators wanted to add any aquifers to the list, they would need EPA’s approval.
But there were two signed copies of the agreement, said Steven Bohlen, the division’s new supervisor. Eleven aquifers listed as exempt on one copy weren’t included on the other. The state and the oil companies considered those aquifers exempt — perfectly suitable places to dispose of wastewater. The EPA didn’t.
“We cannot tell, nor can the EPA, which version is correct,” said Bohlen, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
The bureaucratic confusion didn’t stop there. In some cases, the state treated entire aquifers as exempt when, in fact, only specific portions of them had been approved for oil industry use. In other instances, the state issued injection permits for aquifers that the EPA had never declared exempt, Blumenfeld said.
Water classified as containing 500 parts per million or less of dissolved salts and other materials is considered high quality and safe to drink. The state aims to protect all water that registers below 3,000 ppm.
According to The Chronicle's analysis of state data, drilling companies bore 171 injection wells into aquifers with counts of 3,000 ppm or less and an additional 253 wells into potentially usable aquifers that the EPA considers protected. Further, an additional 40 injection wells were drilled into aquifers for which no water-quality data was available.
According to state officials, tests of nearby drinking-water wells show no contamination thus far.
However, the federal EPA has threatened to seize control of regulating the waste-injection wells, and the state has a February 6 deadline to present a comprehensive plan to fix the problem and prevent future contamination of supposedly off-limits drinking water wells. More
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – A major Rio hydroelectric power plant was switched off after water levels slipped below an operational minimum following severe drought, Brazil's national grid told AFP on Thursday.
Water levels are also dwindling at three other plants that serve a region home to 16 million people, but an ONS spokesman denied there was any immediate threat to energy supplies.
“The hydroelectric plant was switched off Wednesday as there was no longer enough water to keep its turbines turning,” the spokesman said of the shutdown at the largest of the four sites.
Rio is laboring under weeks of scant rainfall as stifling temperatures approach 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
The plants receive their water from the Paraiba do Sul river, which flows through the states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, as well as Rio.
Last month, the states' governors agreed to begin work on improving the infrastructure of the sites as the drought shows little sign of abating.
Last year, Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous state, suffered its worst drought in 80 years. More