Despite recent heavy rains, Ethiopia is still reeling from the worst drought to hit the country for half a century, particularly in the livestock-dependent regions of Oromia and Somali. Yet studies (pdf) suggest the country could have billions of cubic metres of untapped groundwater.
The story is the same across many parts of Africa, where farmers rely on erratic rains and depleted surface water while potentially vast groundwater reserves go ignored. Africa’s subterranean water amounts to an estimated 660,000 cubic kilometres (pdf), according to research from the British Geological Society – more than 100 times the continent’s annual renewable freshwater resources.
A new initiative co-led by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) is aiming to mobilise support for greater use of Africa’s under-used aquifers. Developed in the wake of targets set at the UN Sustainable Development Summit and the Paris climate talks last year, the goals of the Groundwater Solutions Initiative for Policy and Practice (GRIPP) include leveraging $1bn (£770m) of investments in sub-Saharan Africa for sustainable groundwater irrigation and improving groundwater access in the region for 4m rural households.
The idea is timely given widespread drought across southern and eastern Africa, yet it is not without controversy. Decades of overexploitation in north Africa(pdf), where groundwater is more abundant, have left many sedimentary aquifers dangerously depleted and in some cases degraded by saltwater intrusion. In Morocco, for example, the water table of the Saïss deep aquifer – one of north Africa’s largest aquifers – has fallen by an annual average of 3m over the past 20 years.
If the right policies and incentives are in place, however, groundwater can be exploited sustainably, argues Jeremy Bird, director general of IWMI.
Not only is groundwater more locally available and more reliable than rain in many parts of Africa, says Bird, it also serves as a better buffer to climate shocks: “It provides an opportunity for farmers to move one step up the ladder from very uncertain rain-fed irrigation, which is subject to the vagaries of climate, to supplementary irrigation, which offers them the ability to provide water when the crop really needs it.”
Improving Africa’s irrigation infrastructure has long been a goal of national policymakers and development agencies. The World Bank, for instance, is currently trying to mobilise international funders to help double irrigation levels in six countries in the drought-prone Sahel region.
The Sahel Irrigation Initiative Programme, with input from IWMI, is now considering the use of simple, farmer-managed pump bores alongside its focus on more expensive canals, reservoirs and other centrally-managed surface water infrastructure projects.
Vincent Casey, water, sanitation and hygiene senior adviser at WaterAid, however warns these simple pumps must be managed well: “Despite the advantages of convenience and affordability, the scale of pumping is very difficult to regulate which inevitably has economic consequences when groundwater is depleted.”
Africa may have considerable untapped aquifers, but not all are able to be easily and affordably accessed, says Casey. “Rural electrification has been limited, discounting the possibility of politically motivated energy subsidies that could make high powered pumping affordable to small scale farmers”. Capacity for groundwater withdrawal is also hampered by a lack of reliable hydro-geological data (Ethiopia hasmapped less than one quarter of its groundwater resources) and relevant expertise.
All these factors contribute to a patchy experience of groundwater projects to date. According to UPGro – a DFID-funded research programme examining groundwater in sub-Saharan Africa – nearly one third of such projects in sub-Saharan Africa fail within a few years of construction. The World Bank puts the estimated cost of groundwater project failures at more than $1.2bn (pdf) in lost investment over the last 20 years.
The main aim of GRIPP, which is focusing on projects not just in Africa but around the world, is to correct this trend through the promotion of research and knowledge-sharing around sustainable groundwater withdrawal practices and policies.
A vital step in this respect centres on farmer buy-in, says Ugandan water planning expert Callist Tindimugaya, vice president of the International Association of Hydrologists, a GRIPP partner. Because groundwater is an “invisible commons”, he argues, farmers struggle to know what comprises sustainable usage. Government provision of cheap power for water pumps and other price incentives to promote agricultural productivity can lead to overuse as well, he adds.
“Local initiatives to co-manage the resource are increasingly being explored as an important element in sustainable groundwater use as farmers realise their common interest in safeguarding the resource,” says Tindimugaya.
A case in point from another part of the world is in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, where farmer groups in over 700 communities agreed to collectively monitor groundwater levels, to plan their crop planting jointly and to adopt water-saving techniques. The project, which ran from 2003 to 2009, successfully reduced overexploitation (pdf) in the semi-arid state. Since the project ended, however, and without adequate governance systems in place, most of the farmer-led initiatives have ceased.
Policymakers might find incentives the best initial defence against unsustainable abstraction, says Bird. He cites a pilot project in the Chinese province of Shanxi, where farmers access set volumes of water from the state-run pumping system with pre-paid smartcards. If they use less than their quota of pumping time, they can trade it with other farmers.
“Our role is to identify the types of policies which might work in a particular situation, learn lessons from other areas and then assess the impacts of these policy decisions over time and see what the implications have been,” says Bird.
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The thought of trying to sustain life as we know it without fresh water is unimaginable. We rely on it for food production, hydration, cooking, cleaning, hygiene, and even recreation. Water is the very center of life, the lifeblood of anything that walks, swims or flies on planet Earth. And yet, a new report from NASA says we are inching toward a world where fresh water is much more difficult to come by.
This report identified some shocking trends regarding aquifers around the globe. NASA observed thirty-seven of the world’s largest aquifers over a ten-year period from 2003 to 2013 by a satellite project called GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment). The results of this most recent study are sobering. Of the 37 aquifers studied, 21 are being depleted at an unsustainable rate. And of those, eight were classified as “overstressed” in the study, meaning they have little or no water recharging them at the present time. Logic would lead one to believe that, eventually, these aquifers can potentially be sucked dry. And that would obviously spell disaster for all life forms dependent on them.
One important question could not be answered by this study and that is: exactly how much water is left in the aquifers? The GRACE system can measure trends in aquifer size, but not the actual amount of water contained in each aquifer. NASA has been quick to acknowledge that there is a great deal of uncertainty in projecting exact amounts of water contained within aquifers as there is not yet a reliable method for measuring such a variable. However, these study results are still incredibly important as we can see that current water sources in aquifers are trending in the wrong direction.
Where’s All That Water Going?
Well, the water certainly isn’t leaving these aquifers on its own. Each aquifer, depending on its location on the globe, has its own unique story behind why it is being emptied at an unsustainable rate. However, whether it is for mining operations, agricultural endeavors, or sustaining a densely populated community, human activity is to blame for each and every shortage in aquifer resources observed. There’s no way around the fact that we’ve come to rely too heavily on the natural fresh water resources underground systems can provide, and we are now depleting them at an alarming rate.
Residential Water Use
Roughly two billion people around the world rely on groundwater as their source of fresh water. With aquifers currently being depleted, that means two billion people are at risk of losing the water they use for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. The most recent study conducted by NASA showed that aquifers currently being used by densely populated areas are especially being hit hard by unsustainable extractions. With no reliable aboveground fresh water resources, aquifers become critical in supplying areas such as India, Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa with fresh water. In fact, the Arabian Aquifer System which supports 60 million people was found to be the most stressed aquifer on the planet. As world population grows and shifts toward heavily populated areas, demand for fresh water for residences in those areas can only be expected to increase.
In some areas, industry is to blame for heavy aquifer extractions. For example, the Canning Basin on the west coast of Australia is currently the third most depleted aquifer. Curiously, this is also an area dominated by gold and iron ore mining as well as gas exploration and extraction. Mining and fossil fuel extraction both rely heavily on water inputs, meaning these industries stand to remove water from aquifers faster than it can be replaced by nature. These operations obviously take place where fossil fuels and valuable metals are present which is not necessarily where water resources are abundant enough to power the process. In the United States, 36 percent of oil and gas wells are located in areas experiencing aquifer stress and depletion. When industries set up shop in areas where groundwater levels are already struggling, it places all the more pressure on the aquifers supplying fresh water to the area.
Agriculture and Water
Agriculture is another major source of groundwater depletion around the world. And just as areas with heavy populations or ongoing industrial operations are observed draining aquifers, major agricultural endeavors are also observed in close relation to some depleted groundwater sources around the world. In fact, irrigation water for agriculture is the single largest cause of groundwater depletion around the world.
The most stressed aquifer in the United States is the California Central Valley Aquifer where agricultural operations are heavy. Other areas such as India rely almost exclusively on groundwater to feed their crops. Globally, agriculture uses about 70 percent of the world’s available freshwater, and one-third of that is used to grow the grain fed to livestock.
Animal agriculture has quickly become the most water-intensive forms of food production across the world due to the amount of water needed to not only grow feed but to hydrate animals, keep facilities clean, and carry out daily operation. In the U.S., the average dairy farm can use up to 3.4 million gallons of water per day between all of these processes. To put that into perspective, it takes around the same amount of water to produce one gallon of milk as an entire months worth of showers! The meat industry is no better in terms of water usage; the average burger requires around 1,800 gallons of water to produce.
Sadly, it is estimated that as the world’s population grows to nine billion by 2050, the number of people who consume meat and dairy worldwide is only set to increase, putting a further strain on these precious water supplies. As aquifers decrease and groundwater becomes more scarce, agriculture becomes pressed to turn out enough food for the masses, threatening food security and even increasing poverty rates around the world.
Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.
The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.
The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.
Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.
But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?
Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarterof current emissions.
Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.
That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.
Working with nature
Given that they are better even from purely commercial considerations, why haven’t regenerative practices spread more quickly? An answer commonly offered by farmers themselves is that “people are slow to change.” Maybe so, but in this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature – as a comparison with geoengineering highlights.
First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it. As Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, puts it, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In contrast, geoengineering seeks to take our centuries-long domination of nature to a new extreme, making the entire planet an object of manipulation.
Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Geoengineering, on the other hand, ignores the law of unintended consequences that plagues any attempt to engineer a highly nonlinear system. It exemplifies linear thinking: if the atmosphere is too warm, add a cooling factor. But who knows what will happen?
Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem. Geoengineering, on the other hand, addresses the symptom – global warming – while leaving the cause untouched.
There is no quick fix
Unlike geoengineering’s quick fix, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented at scale without deep cultural changes. We must turn away from an attitude of nature-as-engineering-object to one of humble partnership. Whereas geoengineering is a global solution that feeds the logic of centralisation and the economics of globalism, regeneration of soil and forests is fundamentally local: forest by forest, farm by farm. These are not generic solutions, because the requirements of the land are unique to each place. Unsurprisingly, they are typically more labour-intensive than conventional practices, because they require a direct, intimate relationship to the land.
Ultimately, climate change challenges us to rethink our long-standing separation from nature in which we think we can endlessly engineer our way out of the damage we have caused. It is calling us back to our biophilia, our love of nature and of life, our desire to care for all beings whether or not they make greenhouse gas numbers go up or down.
Geoengineering, beyond its catastrophic risks, is an attempt to avoid that call, to extend the mindset of domination and control to new extremes, and to prolong an economy of overconsumption a few years longer. It is time to fall in love with the land, the soil, and the trees, to halt their destruction and to serve their restoration. It is time for agricultural policy and practice to become aligned with regeneration.
Source: The Guardian
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By Andreas Wilson-Späth
Supplying South Africa’s growing population with clean, safe drinking water is a major challenge. Not only is the country’s water infrastructure in need of refurbishment in some places and entirely absent in many others, but access to sufficiently large quantities of potable water is increasingly becoming a problem.
This is not only a South African problem, of course. With population and industrial growth, poor watershed management, the widespread pollution and deterioration of rivers and other freshwater ecosystems, and with the impacts of climate change becoming more apparent every year, the world is facing a water crisis of potentially devastating proportions. By 2025, the UN estimates, some two-thirds of the planet’s population could be experiencing water stress conditions, especially those living in the dryer parts of the developing world.
You might have wondered why we haven’t used desalination of seawater to help us resolve our water supply problems. After all, much of South Africa is literally surrounded by oceans of the stuff. In addition, there is plenty of brackish groundwater in inland areas that could be converted into fresh water useable in agriculture, industry and for domestic use.
The basic technology is ancient. Humans have distilled salty water into potable water for centuries. So why not now?
Large-scale desalination plants are, in fact, increasingly being used worldwide. Thousands of them are in operation – the greatest number in the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to Oman and Qatar. Most of Israel’s water already comes from such installations. The USA is home to about 300 of them and California, a state in the grip of the worst drought in history, is investing billions in the technology.
Several South African municipalities are considering desalination as part of their future water supply plans and government has suggested that in 15 years’ time as much as 10% of the country’s total urban water supply might be provided in this way.
The largest local desalination plant was opened in Mossel Bay in 2011 and mostly services PetroSA’s synthetic fuel operation there.
So what’s the problem? Although the technology has been improving steadily, there are several hitches. Most importantly it takes a lot of energy to convert salty water into fresh water.
In conventional high-pressure reverse osmosis systems, a large amount of electricity is needed to push saline water through a series of progressively finer membranes to remove salt and other chemicals. Using a more traditional distillation process, lots of electricity is used to heat water to its boiling point.
This massive energy requirement means that desalination plants tend to have large carbon footprints and contribute significantly to climate change – and thus to even worse water problems. Until now, large-scale desalination has only been a viable option for rich countries or those with plenty of fossil fuel to burn.
A secondary environmental problem results from the fact that for every litre of fresh water produced, about two litres of raw salty water needs to be processed, leaving behind significant quantities of toxic brine which can contain a variety of pollutants and represents a considerable threat to coastal ecosystem if it’s carelessly discarded into the ocean.
In a number of countries, including the Unites Arab Emirates, the USA and Australia, progress is being made in using renewable energy sources, principally the power of sunlight, to drive the desalination process. While this might be a low carbon alternative to conventional methods, the technology is still at an early stage of development and can’t be relied upon to solve our water problems at this point in time.
For now, the answer must lie in conserving existing freshwater sources. We can go a long way in countering the growing crisis by putting effort into water conservation strategies, using our precious freshwater more efficiently, with less waste, reusing water wherever possible, capturing stormwater that would otherwise just run into the sea and recycling used water whenever that is an option.
Ultimately, what’s required is a change in attitude from all of us. We need to change the way we look at water. We need to stop taking it for granted and treat it as a precious resource that needs to be treasured instead of wasted.
I’m part of a new non profit organisation called The Watershed Project. Our aim is to raise public awareness about water in all its aspects. Visit our website for more information, follow us on Twitter (@WatershedSA) and in March, join us for a festival of exciting water related activities from fun walks to outdoor film screenings (only in Cape Town for this year, but expanding to other parts of the country from 2016).
Source: News 24
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Eskom’s electricity woes have hastened the failure of water infrastructure around the country.
For many South Africans, the water crisis is already here. For others, research and projections show, it is only a matter of time – and perhaps not a great deal of time.
Thanks to load-shedding, and a shortage of water when electricity is restricted, the thirsty future could arrive in major urban centres as soon as this summer.
Early last year, four people died in violent protests over a lack of water in the Mothotlung township outside Brits in North West. In the glare of national publicity, water was quickly restored.
But on Monday, almost exactly a year later, taps in the township again ran dry. When the water flowed again on Tuesday, it was brown.
“I am scared to drink water from the tap. I only use it for bathing and washing clothes. I do buy water from the tuck shop when I have money,” said 72-year-old widow Johana Ngwato.
“My daughter is six years old and, whenever she takes the water, she experiences diarrhoea,” said Ngwato’s niece, Baile Masango.
In 2013, a two-week water outage in Grahamstown saw academics, in their formal caps and gowns, march in lockstep on the city council offices, with township residents following, brandishing placards.
Rhodes University, the lifeblood of the town, issued a stark warning that garnered national attention: without water it would have to close its doors.
On Monday night, the water supply went off again without warning in a section of the township overlooking Grahamstown, leaving Tembinkosi Mhlakaza to wonder at what point he should go to fetch water for his grandmother, and how far he would have to go to get it.
“She’s nearly 80,” Mhlakaza said. “Our water went out last night, and it may come on this afternoon. But if it doesn’t, I have to make a plan for her.”
In 2014, the residents of Thlolong outside Kestell in the Free State were promised that a new dam would solve their water woes. On Wednesday, a resident, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal, said neither the dam nor emergency water supplies were anywhere to be seen.
“We are thirsty. It has been eight years now that we live like this. The tankers that the municipality use to bring us water are not here this week; we didn’t see them last week. We don’t know what we must do now.”
In Johannesburg, some suburbs were warned this week to expect weekend water outages because of scheduled maintenance at a pumping station – the same station that left some of the same suburbs, and some hospitals, without water for days last year. The maintenance plan was later postponed.
These are no longer isolated cases. According to government officials, about a third of all towns are in some form of serious water distress. The department of water considers one in 10 municipal water systems to be totally dysfunctional, and, of those that are working, a quarter experiences regular service disruptions of more than two days at a time.
In provinces such as Mpumalanga, there are more households that have regular water interruptions than those with a steady supply.
In Mothotlung and Grahamstown, the water supply issues can be linked directly to municipal incompetence, a lack of engineering skills and the failure of management. Neither area has a shortage of untreated water, but they are going thirsty because of a lack of maintenance and proper financial administration and planning.
These problems show no signs of abating, as bitter experience shows.
“If you give me the money and people, I can fix it up for good,” said a Grahamstown city engineer, who is not authorised to speak to the media. “Without money and people, I’ll keep it running as long as I can. Just don’t ask me to fix it quickly when it really all breaks down; then you can keep your money.”
In Johannesburg, water shortages in 2014 were caused by electricity failure to a key pumping station, which in turn was linked to cable theft.
With Eskom warning that there will be regular load-shedding for the rest of the summer, and unable to deliver consistent power for several more years, water engineers are trying to work out how to manage shortages.
Meagre reserve margins
In many areas, water systems have either little or very meagre reserve margins. Electricity outages at pumps that move raw water could leave treatment stations without water. And, without treated water to move, pumps responsible for distribution would be idle when they do get electricity.
These two factors – local incompetence and a national electricity shortage – will have the biggest impact on what, if anything, comes out of the taps for the next several years.
But, within the next decade, two other fundamental issues are likely to make themselves felt – problems that no amount of local governing excellence or electricity will solve.
For one, there is simply not enough water left to go around.
“The situation currently in South Africa is that we have 98% of the water in the country being considered fully allocated. This means that my child and your child that is being born tomorrow has 2% of water for use going into the future,” then water minister Edna Molewa said of water usage rights in 2013.
Eskom has a 99.5% assurance of receiving water, meaning the power utility gets water before any other sector of the economy.
The 2030 Water Resources Group, of which the department is a member, has calculated that, by 2030, the demand for water will exceed supply by 17%. In most of South Africa’s catchments, demand is already outstripping supply, and it is only by piping water from places such as Lesotho that there is enough for now.
Climate change projections are that, by mid-century, reduced rainfall could lower the amount of available water by 10%. Rainfall is expected to come in shorter, but more violent, spells. The projections say this will make collection in dams and underground difficult.
Exactly how much water is available is a complex calculation, with many variables and estimates to consider, and it is seasonal, to boot.
In lay terms, the easy water is already being harvested. Major South African rivers have been dammed to maximum capacity – there are nearly 4400 registered dams – and some would argue beyond their capacity; river systems require what is sometimes referred to as an “ecological reserve”, a minimum amount of water to continue functioning and be useful.
Barriers to supply
Water systems that could handle new dams are both far from population centres and limited in their ability to supply water.
“Many parts of the country have either reached or are fast approaching the point at which all of the financially viable freshwater resources are fully utilised and where building new dams will not address the challenges,” the department of water affairs said in its 2013 strategy report.
That leaves South Africa more dependent than ever on water pumped from Lesotho, where a new phase of the Highlands water scheme will come on line in 2020.
But all the run-off from Lesotho must inevitably flow through South Africa to the ocean, making even that water-rich country a finite resource for South Africans.
An increase in global temperatures is expected to increase evaporation from dams, which potentially makes building more an exercise in running on the spot rather than getting ahead.
More groundwater can be exploited, but only by so much. Desalination is possible, but it requires large amounts of electricity and is very expensive.
Little to go around
That all leaves little untreated water to go around, even without the expected increases in municipal use, because of a growing population, agricultural use, which is increasing the amount of land under irrigation and is a mainstay of plans to improve both employment and food security, and industrial use.
“Increases in water supply cannot match the expected increase in demand without additional and far-reaching interventions,” Steve Hedden and Jakkie Cilliers, of the Institute for Security Studies, wrote in a September 2014 paper. “The water crisis cannot be solved through engineering alone.”
The second structural problem is an unfolding ecological disaster, which is making available water more difficult to treat and, eventually and without intervention, will make direct use of untreated water impossible.
“Water ecosystems are not in a healthy state,” according to the department of water affairs’ National Water Resource Strategy 2013. “Of the 233 river ecosystem types, 60% are threatened, with 25% of these critically endangered … Of 792 wetland ecosystems, 65% have been identified as threatened, and 48% as critically endangered.”
The sources of pollution in fresh water include industrial run-off and acid mine drainage, but human waste is a larger and more immediately dangerous component, ironically because of the large amount of water South Africans use.
“Most waste water treatment facilities are under stress because so much more waste water needs to be treated,” said Gunnar Sigge, head of Stellenbosch University’s department of food science and one of those involved in a seminal – and alarming – 2012 study for the Water Research Commission.
“Some of the biggest problems [in the water system] are caused by treatment works that aren’t functioning.”
Jo Barnes, a specialist in community health risks at Stellenbosch, said a chronic lack of investment in treatment plants meant conditions that should not exist, such as diarrhoea, were killing people.
“The whole environment where people live is contaminated. This is a massive, massive problem, but one that people will not talk about. There are just a few angry people trying to raise awareness.”
The 2012 study, carried out in all the provinces and over a three-to-four year period, found that the amount of faecal matter in many water systems made it unsafe for irrigation, because eating raw produce watered with it could cause illness.
Informal settlements both contribute to the pollution and are affected by it, and some draw directly on groundwater. According to the department of human settlements, the number of informal settlements rose from 300 in 1994 to about 2 700 today, housing 1.3-million families.
In Mothotlung, Serube Lukhelo is afraid to give her one-year-old baby water that could cause diarrhoea, so she spends what money she has on bottled water.
In Grahamstown’s Joza location, Nomfundo Bentele is considering putting up a sign at her hair salon to let customers know whether she has water or not.
In Johannesburg residents and hospitals wait to hear when water from their taps will stop running.
Everywhere else the clock is ticking.
Source: Mail & Guardian
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More than nuclear weapons or a global disease pandemic, impairments to water supplies and punishing cycles of flood, drought, and water pollution are now viewed by heads of state, nonprofit leaders, and chief executives as the most serious threat to business and society.
For the first time, water crises took the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s tenth global risk report, an annual survey of nearly 900 leaders in politics, business, and civic life about the world’s most critical issues. Water ranked third a year ago.
The report measured 28 risks on two dimensions: the likelihood of occurring within 10 years, and impact, which is a measure of devastation. Water ranked eighth for likelihood and first for impact. It was one of four risks — along with interstate conflict, the failure to adapt to climate change, and chronic unemployment — that were deemed highly likely and highly devastating.
Water’s ascent reflects a remarkable shift in thinking among the members of the World Economic Forum, the Geneva-based think tank known for its yearly meeting in the Swiss Alps that draws the elite of wealth, business savvy, and political power. Water’s top ranking also reflects the growing recognition among world leaders that diminishing supplies of reliable, clean water, if not well managed, will be a significant impediment to health and wealth for the poor and for the richest economies and largest cities.
Residents of California (GDP $US 2 trillion) and Sao Paulo (population 12 million) felt the first tremors of such disruptions during dreadful droughts in 2014. The 2.5 billion people without toilet facilities that protect them from disease and personal danger feel the stress every day.
“So much of life is affected by what happens with water,” said Bob Sandford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative, which helps governments connect the science of water with public policy. “We didn’t realize until recently how much our economy and society relied on hydrologic stability.”
Water Rises in the Ranks
A decade ago, the global risks report was dominated by financial worries and macroeconomic concerns: the pace of China’s growth, sharp swings in stock and bond prices, and roller-coaster oil markets. Water merited little attention and climate change, pushed aside as a “still emerging” threat, was the only risk out of 120 in the 2006 report that was deemed too distant for a rigorous statistical analysis.
Today, the script is flipped. Respondents to the 2015 survey viewed social and environmental risks as the gravest threats to the planet’s 7 billion people. Experts offered several explanations for the new direction.
Howard Kunreuther, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who served as an academic advisor in the development of the report, said that the large number of weather disasters in the last decade has captured the attention of government officials. Floods in Pakistan’s Indus River Basin in 2010, for instance, displaced 20 million people, caused at least $US 43 billion in economic damages, and killed 2,000 people.
“Events that used to be extreme are more likely today,” Kunreuther told Circle of Blue. The risk increases as global temperatures rise, with climate change expected to cut water availability in Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the American Southwest while also increasing the number of severe rainstorms. Engulfing rains or deep droughts could slash crop yields by 25 percent by mid-century, according to worst-case projections cited by the United Nations climate panel.
A second factor is also responsible for water’s rise in the risk rankings, argued Giulio Boccaletti, global director for water at the Nature Conservancy and a member of the World Economic Forum’s global agenda council on water. An evolution in the balance of world power may explain a greater emphasis on water, he said.
“The types of countries that are more vulnerable to water crises are becoming more important in global politics as the center of gravity moves from the United States and Europe to China and India,” Boccaletti told Circle of Blue.
In China and India, there is a much closer connection between infrastructure development, water resources, and economic growth, he added. Home to more than one-third of the world’s people, the two countries have severe mismatches between water availability and water demands. Both nations rely on unsustainable supplies of groundwater in their prime food-growing regions, suffer from polluted rivers, and have hydropower ambitions that can be wrecked by Mother Nature. As many as 30,000 people were killed and 10 hydropower stations were destroyed in a vicious June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, an Indian state at the foot of the Himalayas.
A Broader Look at Water
Water rose as a global priority in the 2015 report, and it also acquired a new designation. The report reclassified water from an environmental risk to a societal risk, an acknowledgment that nearly all human activity — from growing wheat and catching fish, to preventing child-killing bacterial diseases and powering industries and communities — has water at its base.
“That’s big,” said Sandford about the reclassification. “I agree with the change. Water is environmental but it transcends that category. People are being devastated by these events of flood and drought. How you manage these impacts becomes an important political question.”
The world is not doing enough, the report asserts. Though the problems of floods, drought, and inadequate water supplies that were projected more than two decades ago have come true, little is being done to address them effectively. Leaders are especially ill-prepared for widespread social instability, the risk perceived to be the most interconnected, according to the report. Those connections were most visible in the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in 2010 with turmoil in the public square over food prices and resulted in the toppling of governments. A 12-year drought in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, which crippled the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere, contributed to shortages of grain and escalating food prices that year.
Not all agree with the assessment that the response is lagging. The report is too pessimistic in its assertion that little progress has been made to address water issues, Boccaletti said, pointing out the report’s discussion of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin as one example of an effective solution.
The Murray-Darling is Australia’s most important river basin, providing water for two million people and 40 percent of the country’s agriculture. The long drought, which ended late in the 2000s, forced water managers to completely rework the system for allocating water to farmers, cities, and ecosystems. Less water would be available for farmers and more would be set aside to maintain the health of the river. What was needed was a credible idea of how much water would be available in the future.
Out of the crisis came the world’s most advanced system for analyzing the water flows in a river basin. Leaders committed money and made politically difficult decisions to throw out longstanding management practices in favor of decisions based on data and scientific merit.
The global risks report, Boccaletti said, is evidence that leaders elsewhere may be at a similar stage – ready to consider seriously the idea of water.
“What this report says is that leaders now recognize that they need to take care of water,” Boccaletti said. “It’s an opening to engage. We’re not necessarily ready to solve all problems. But politically we’re at a stage to have a conversation about sustainable development, to have a discussion about water and development.”
Source: Circle of Blue
25 June 2015.
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