Category Archives: water resources

The Unquenchable Thirst

South-to-North Water Transfer Project. image from wikipedia

Most of the drinking water consumed in Beijing has travelled 1,432km (895 miles), roughly the distance from New York to Orlando, Florida. Its journey begins in a remote and hilly part of central China at the Danjiangkou reservoir, on the bottom of which lies the drowned city of Junzhou. The water gushes north by canal and pipeline, crosses the Yellow river by burrowing under it, and arrives, 15 days later, in the water-treatment plants of Beijing. Two-thirds of the city’s tap water and a third of its total supply now comes from Danjiangkou.

This winter and spring, the reservoir was the capital’s lifeline. No rain or snow fell in Beijing between October 23rd 2017 and March 17th 2018—by far the longest drought on record. Yet the city suffered no supply disruptions, unlike Shanxi province to the west, where local governments rationed water. The central government is exultant, since the project which irrigates Beijing was built at vast cost and against some opposition.

The South-to-North Water Diversion Project—to give the structure its proper name—is the most expensive infrastructure enterprise in the world. It is the largest transfer of water between river basins in history, and China’s main response to its worst environmental threat, which is (despite all the pollution) lack of water.

The route between Beijing and Danjiangkou, which lies on a tributary of the Yangzi, opened in 2014. An eastern route opened in 2013 using the ancient Grand Canal between Hangzhou and the capital. (Jaw-dropping hydrological achievements are a feature of Chinese history.) A third link is planned on the Tibetan plateau, but since that area is prone to earthquakes and landslides, it has been postponed indefinitely…

Downstream from Danjiangkou, pollution has proved intractable. By diverting water from the Yangzi, the project has made the river more sluggish. It has become less able to wash away contaminants and unable to sustain wetlands, which act as sponges and reduce flooding. To compensate for water taken from their rivers, local governments are also building dams wherever they can to divert it back again. Shaanxi province, for example, is damming the Han river to transfer water to its depleted river Wei….Worst of all, the project diverts not only water but money and attention from China’s real water problem: waste and pollution.

Excerpts from Water: Massive Diversiion, Economist, Apr. 7, 2018

A Slow-Burning Tragedy

image from Universal Somali TV

Charcoal is one of the biggest informal businesses in Africa. It is the fuel of choice for the continent’s fast-growing urban poor, who, in the absence of electricity or gas, use it to cook and heat water. According to the UN, Africa accounted for three-fifths of the world’s production in 2012—and this is the only region where the business is growing. It is, however, a slow-burning environmental disaster.

In Nyakweri forest, Kenya, the trees are ancient and rare. Samwel Naikada, a local activist, points at a blackened stump in a clearing cut by burners. It is perhaps 400 years old, he says. The effect of burning trees spreads far. During the dry season, the forest is a refuge for amorous elephants who come in from the plains nearby to breed. The trees store water, which is useful in such a parched region. It not only keeps the Mara river flowing—a draw for the tourists who provide most of the county government’s revenue. It also allows the Masai people to graze their cows and grow crops. “You cannot separate the Masai Mara and this forest,” says Mr Naikada….

Nyakweri is hardly the only forest at risk. The Mau forest, Kenya’s largest, which lies farther north in the Rift Valley, has also been hit by illegal logging. Protests against charcoal traders (!) broke out earlier this year, after rivers that usually flow throughout the dry season started to run dry. In late February a trader’s car was reportedly burned in Mwingi, in central Kenya, by a group of youngsters who demanded to see the trader’s permits. At the end of February 2018 the government announced an emergency 90-day ban on all logging, driving up retail prices of charcoal by 500%, to as much as 5,000 shillings a bag in some cities.

The problems caused by the charcoal trade have spread beyond Kenya. In southern Somalia, al-Shabab, a jihadist group, funds itself partly through the taxes it levies on the sale of charcoal (sometimes with the help of Kenyan soldiers, who take bribes for allowing the shipments out of a Somali port that Kenya controls). The logging also adds to desertification, which, in turn, causes conflict across the Sahel, an arid belt below the Sahara. It forces nomadic herders to range farther south with their animals, where they often clash with farmers over the most fertile land.

In the power vacuum of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, rampant charcoal logging has destroyed huge swathes of Virunga National Park. That threatens the rare gorillas which tourists currently pay as much as $400 a day to view, even as it fuels the conflict.

In theory, charcoal burning need not be so destructive. In Kenya the burners are meant to get a licence. To do so, they have to show they are replacing the trees they are cutting down and that they are using modern kilns that convert the trees efficiently into fuel. But, admits Clement Ngoriareng, an official at the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), the rules are laxly enforced. Some suspect that powerful politicians stymie efforts to police burners.

Excerpts from A Very Black Market: Illegal Charcoal, Economist, Mar. 31, 2018

Choked by Hyacinths: Lake Victoria

Hyacinth-choked lakeshore at Ndere Island, Lake Victoria, Kenya. Image from wikpeida

The report, Freshwater biodiversity in the Lake Victoria Basin (2018), assesses the global extinction risk of 651 freshwater species, including fishes, molluscs, dragonflies, crabs, shrimps and aquatic plants native to East Africa’s Lake Victoria Basin, finding that 20% of these are threatened with extinction. Of the freshwater species assessed, 204 are endemic to the Lake Victoria Basin and three-quarters (76%) of these endemics are at risk of extinction.

The African Lungfish (Protopterus aethiopicus), for example, is declining in the Lake Victoria Basin largely due to overfishing, poor fishing practices and environmental degradation as wetlands are converted to agricultural land. The lungfish is considered a delicacy for some local communities and is an important local medicinal product, used to boost the immune system and treat alcoholism. The lungfish is also traded at market, making it important to the local economy.

Lake Victoria is the world’s second largest freshwater lake by surface area. Its catchment area includes parts of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda. Also referred to as ‘Darwin’s Dreampond’, Lake Victoria is known for its high levels of unique biodiversity. The Lake Victoria Basin harbours immense natural resources including fisheries, forests, wetlands and rangelands….

Pollution from industrial and agricultural sources, over-harvesting of resources and land clearance are among the primary threats to biodiversity in this region. Invasive species also present an important threat to native biodiversity in the basin, affecting 31% of all species and 73% of threatened species. The purple flowered Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) was accidentally introduced to Lake Victoria from South America in the 1980s, and at its peak covered close to 10% of the lake surface in dense floating mats. These mats reduce the oxygen and nutrient availability in the water column, which negatively affects native biodiversity. Opportunities for harvesting and exploiting the Water Hyacinth, for example by using the species as fuel in bio-digesters for energy production, are under investigation.

Excerpts from Livelihoods at risk as freshwater species in Africa’s largest lake face extinction – IUCN Report, IUCN Report, Apr. 30, 2018

Nuclear Waste and Nuclear Energy, Uganda

Mukono- Residents of Kitoba village in Mukono District have opposed plans by the Uganda Atomic Energy Council (AEC) to construct a nuclear and atomic waste site in the area.  The residents fear the dump for non-functional atomic equipment, including X-rays and cancer machines, will compromise their safety.  Already, the residents at Canaan Sites are suspicious of a container that has been standing on the 11.5 acres of land acquired by the AEC in 2011.

But AEC executive secretary Deogratias Luwalira told the residents that the Energy ministry acquired the land to implement a five-year master plan.
He told the residents at Kichwa Primary School in Mpoma during a community awareness meeting on that the Energy ministry acquired the land to build AEC headquarters, staff accommodation, laboratories, atomic/nuclear storage facility, and sports fields.

“The equipment to be kept here has no safety hazards. The store will have a safety case that will be operated in a safe manner,” Mr Luwalira said.
He said radioactive wastes are currently scattered in different parts of the country and needed to be secured in one central location…

In the meantime, Uganda plans to be the first African nation to develop nuclear power, see IAEA gives node as Uganda pushes for nuclear power use (jan. 2018)

Excerpts Mukono rejects radioactive waste site, http://www.monitor.co.ug/, Apr. 10, 2018

Islands of Paradise, Sewage and Garbage

Cesspools—holes in the ground where untreated human waste is deposited—have become a crisis in Hawaii, threatening the state’s drinking water, its coral reefs and the famous beaches that are the lifeblood of its tourist economy.  Sewage from cesspools is seeping into some of Hawaii’s ocean waters, where it has been blamed for infections suffered by surfers and snorkelers. It is also entering the drinking water in part of the state, pushing nitrate levels close to the legal limit.

Hawaii has 88,000 cesspools across its eight major islands, more than any other state. Collectively, they deposit 53 million gallons of raw sewage into the ground every day, according to the state health department. More than 90% of the state’s drinking water comes from groundwater wells…

Replacing all of the state’s cesspools with alternate sewage systems would cost at least $1.75 billion, according to the health department…At one groundwater well, nitrate levels are already at 8.7 milligrams a liter; the legal limit is 10, and the Department of Health estimated that some parts of the aquifer are already over that limit. Environmentalists say they are worried about the potential effect of the water on infants, who can be killed by high levels on nitrates, which are chemicals found in fertilizer and sewage.

Many bathrooms in homes outside Honolulu still pump sewage into nearby holes in the ground.  Yet, some residents resist plans to replace cesspools, worried about expense. In January 2018, Upcountry Maui residents overwhelmed a Department of Public Health meeting, complaining about potential costs.

Excerpt from Hawaii’s Big Headache: Cesspools, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 12, 2018

The Maritime Environment Protection Authority’s (MEPA) of Sri Lanka spent millions of rupees on coastal cleanups last year — a reflection of “spending public money for public waste,” as the MEPA’s General Manager and CEO, Dr. Terney Pradeep Kumara, puts it.

A large proportion of the problem is attributable to inland waste, he notes. “It is not merely what is dumped directly on the beaches, but all that flows through canals and rivers,” he says, pointing out that other triggers, including the fisheries and the tourism sector, are only secondary to inland waste which ends up on the coast. Added to the burden is the garbage which flows from India, Indonesia and Thailand, he says. The MEPA’s role in controlling pollution covers Sri Lanka’s 1640 km coastal belt and extends up to 200 nautical miles to the deep sea, the area, which, according to Dr. Pradeep Kumara, is eight times the size of Sri Lanka’s land area.

The garbage dumped in the coastal vegetation is contributing to the dengue problem…especially the fishing craft, both in use and abandoned, in which water is stagnated.”   Mitigating inland pollution is seen by MEPA authorities as the first step in realising cleaner beaches. They moot a site-specific garbage disposal system, as opposed to a ‘blanket system’. “What works for Colombo will not work for other areas,” says Dr. Pradeep Kumara.

Excerpt Sea of trash: Inland and overseas garbage washes up on Lanka’s beaches, Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), Feb. 11, 2018

Air, Water, Waste and Death

UN Environment and WHO have agreed a new, wide-ranging collaboration to accelerate action to curb environmental health risks that cause an estimated 12.6 million deaths a year.

On January 10, 2018 in Nairobi, Mr Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, and Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, signed an agreement to step up joint actions to combat air pollution, climate change and antimicrobial resistance, as well as improve coordination on waste and chemicals management, water quality, and food and nutrition issues. The collaboration also includes joint management of the BreatheLife advocacy campaign to reduce air pollution for multiple climate, environment and health benefits

“Our health is directly related to the health of the environment we live in. Together, air, water and chemical hazards kill more than 12.6 million people a year. This must not continue,” said WHO’s Tedros.  He added: “Most of these deaths occur in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America where environmental pollution takes its biggest health toll.”

Excerpts from, UN Environment and WHO agree to major collaboration on environmental health risks, Press Release, Jan. 10, 2017

Red-Dead: water crisis in the Middle East

The Dead Sea is dying. Half a century ago its hyper-salty, super-pungent waters stretched 80km from north to south. That has shrunk to just 48km at its longest point. The water level is falling by more than a meter per year. All but a trickle from its source, the Jordan River, is now used up before it reaches the sea. “It will never disappear, because it has underground supplies, but it will be like a small pond in a very big hole,” says Munqeth Mehyar of EcoPeace, an NGO.

Until the summer of 2017 Israel and Jordan, which share the sea, were trying to slow the decline. The “Red-Dead project”, as it is called, would desalinate seawater at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and pump 200m cubic metres of leftover brine into the Dead Sea each year. That would not be enough to stabilise the sea, which needs at least 800m cubic metres to stay at current levels. Still, it would help—and the project has a much more important benefit.

The World Bank defines water scarcity as less than 1,000 cubic metres per person annually. Jordan can provide less than 15% of that. The Aqaba plant would send fresh water to southern towns in both Jordan and Israel. In return for its share, Israel agreed to pump an equal amount to parched northern Jordan, where most of the population lives.

But the project was now on hold due a dispute between Jordan and Israel. On July 23rd, 2017 a Jordanian teenager delivering furniture to the Israeli embassy stabbed a security guard. The guard opened fire, killing both his assailant and an innocent bystander….

Jordan is already one of the world’s most arid countries. Climate change will make matters worse. By the end of the century, say scientists from Stanford University, Jordan could be 4°C hotter, with about a third less rain. It needs to rationalise water consumption. And Israel, which wants a stable neighbour to its east, has an interest in getting water projects back on track.

Excerpts from Jordan’s Water Crisis: Diplomatic Drought: Economist, Dec. 2, 2017