Water Security is National Security

Water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of society and the economy, in particular health, food production and security, domestic water supply and sanitation, energy, industry, and the functioning of ecosystems. Under present climate variability, water stress is already high, particularly in many developing countries, and climate change adds even more urgency for action. Without improved water resources management, the progress towards poverty reduction targets, the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development in all its economic, social and environ- mental dimensions, will be jeopardized. UN Water.Org

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Drought Fuels Water War Between Texas and New Mexico

As climate change alters rainfall patterns and river flows, tensions are bound to rise between states and countries that share rivers that cross their borders.

In the Rio Grande Basin of the American Southwest, that future inevitability has arrived.

Last week Texas, suffering through a devastating drought, filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court alleging that New Mexico is failing to live up to its water delivery commitments under the 1938 Rio Grande Compact.

The Rio Grande rises in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado and flows 1,900 miles before entering the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas charges that New Mexico’s pumping of groundwater in the region below Elephant Butte Dam to the New Mexico-Texas border is reducing Rio Grande flows into Texas, thereby depriving the state’s farms and cities of water they are legally entitled to under the Compact.

Texas v. New Mexico is likely to be but one of a string of disputes that erupt as drought causes water supplies to dwindle and water-sharing pacts devised in wetter and less-populated times can no longer hold the peace.

Texas doesn’t specify how much water it believes New Mexico is illegally withholding, but indicates it is sufficient to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland. The city of El Paso also relies on Rio Grande water for half of its supply.

New Mexico officials have consistently maintained that the state is sending to Texas all the Rio Grande water to which it is legally entitled. The state attorney general said in a recent statement that Texas is “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water and using a lawsuit to extort an agreement that would only benefit Texas while destroying water resources for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans.”

Fighting words, to be sure.

If the Supreme Court justices decide to take up the case, they would do well to first sign up for hydrology 101.

One of the great water myths is that rivers and underground aquifers are separate and distinct sources of water. In reality, rivers and groundwater are often intimately connected. Groundwater provides the “base” flow that keeps many rivers running during dry times. For their part, rivers and irrigation canals leak water into the subsurface, recharging the aquifers below.

In dry years, when surface supplies run low, farmers often turn to underground water to replace or supplement their irrigation supply. That’s what New Mexico farmers downstream of Elephant Butte have done during years of drought and low river flows.

In the Mesilla Basin, for example, groundwater is the primary source of irrigation water for about 5,000 acres, but is a supplemental source of supply for more than 70,000 acres. So in dry times, groundwater withdrawals ratchet up.

According to an article on the impacts of groundwater pumping in the Rio Grande Basin published in this month’s Ecosphere, a journal of the Ecological Society of America, during the 2004 drought, when federal officials curtailed releases from Elephant Butte Dam, pumping from the Messila Aquifer rose to twice the long-term average.

The drought of recent years has elicited a similar response from farmers, and groundwater pumping in the Rio Grande Valley has increased markedly. But how much this pumping has affected flows into Texas is in question.

The current bi-state conflict began in 2007 when Texas farmers complained that New Mexico was extracting too much groundwater. To avoid an escalating legal fight, the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Elephant Butte, worked out an agreement with two irrigation districts in Texas and New Mexico to give Texas more river water to make up for New Mexico’s groundwater use. More


Monday, January 21, 2013

China's Water Pollution Crisis

According to one report, “up to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted” and “20 percent were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with.”

In recent weeks, Chinese and western media have been all atwitter over the shocking levels of air pollution inBeijing and a number of other Chinese cities. But it really shouldn’t be all that shocking. After all, in 2007, the World Bank and China’s own State Environmental Protection Administration (now the Ministry of Environmental Protection) found thatthat as many as 750,000 people die prematurely in China annually from respiratory disease related to air pollution. And more recently, Greenpeace Beijing reported that in 2011 in four major cities, more than 8,000 people died prematurely as a result of just one pollutant, PM 2.5. Anyone who spends any time in Beijing knows that the city has not yet found a way to tackle the myriad sources of air pollution from construction to cars to coal.

As frightening as the country’s smog-filled skies might be, the country’s water pollution is easily as alarming. According to one 2012 report, “up to 40 percent of China’s rivers were seriously polluted” and “20 percent were so polluted their water quality was rated too toxic even to come into contact with.” Part of the explanation may rest in the “estimated 10,000 petrochemical plants along the Yangtze and 4000 along the Yellow Rivers.” (And the Yellow and Yangtze are not even the most polluted of China’s seven major rivers.) On top of whatever polluted wastewater might be leaching or simply dumped into China’s rivers from these factories, the Ministry of Supervision reports that there are almost 1,700 water pollution accidents annually. The total cost in terms of human life: 60,000 premature deaths annually.

While the macro picture is concerning, even more worrying is that individual Chinese don’t know whether their water is safe to drink or not. A Chinese newspaper, the Southern Weekly, recently featured an interview with a married couple, both of whom are water experts in Beijing (available in English here). They stated that they hadn’t drunk from the tap in twenty years, and have watched the water quality deteriorate significantly over just the past few years, even while state officials claim that more than 80 percent of water leaving treatment facilities met government standards in 2011.

It is difficult to get the straight story. According to one report by Century Weekly, there are a number of reasons for differing assessments of the country’s water quality: 1) the frequency of testing at treatment plants is too low, and only 40 percent of the treatment plants in China’s thirty-five major cities have the capacity to test for all 106 indicators in any case; 2) there are only a few independent water-quality monitoring bureaus, and most water testing is done in-house by the same water-treatment plant being evaluated; 3) there is weak transparency from local governments as to the results of the tests; and 4) no water testing accounts for the contamination that occurs from the aging and degraded pipes through which the water is transmitted to Chinese households.

China’s environmental challenges are long in the making, not simply a function of the past thirty years of reform. As one reporter has noted, Beijing in the 1950s transformed from a city that “did not produce even pencils” to one that boasted “700 factories and 2000 blast furnaces belching soot in the air.” In his 1991 book Environmental Management in China, QuGeping, China’s first director of the country’s National Environmental Protection Agency, further commented about that time: “The environmental situation quickly deteriorated. A lot of places were polluted by either smog, sewage waters or rubbish. Biological resources, forests in particular, were seriously damaged, causing several losses to the ecosystem. There was extensive destruction of the natural environment of our country.” More



Step by step water security

Ratlam is perhaps the only city endowed with as many step-wells or bawdis,almost one step-well at each step inthe town of little over 200,000 inhabitants.

According to municipal records, some 52 bawdis exist in various stages of neglect. Even the police station and the government hospital have bawdis in their premises. However, indications are that many more may have subsequently been filled-up to pave way for municipal or private usage.

Located on the Delhi-Mumbai railway route, Ratlam has been an important junction which is better known for its range of salt confectioneries. Situated in the north-west part of Madhya Pradesh, better known as malwa, Ratlam was once one of the first commercial towns in central India known for its extensive trade in opium, tobacco and salt.

But the irony is that most of the step-wells in the town -- though heritage structures -- have been taken for granted as waste dumps, earning the municipality flak from the media and the public at large. A preliminary survey revealed that while the Sai Bawdi in Shastri Nagar and the Do Mukhi Bawdi on the main street have been turned into garbage bins by the surrounding habitation, theKashi Viswanath Bawdi, a few yards away, has retained its glory under a samiti headed by a local priest.

Why have bawdis come to endow this town? The town must have had a rich history at the centre of its legacy. It is evident that the bawdis have existed much before the town of Ratlam was founded by Captain Borthwick in 1829, with broadened roads and well-built houses. The town was not only the capital of the princely state of Ratlam, it was an important town on the trade between western and central princely states.

Given the fact that the town is located in a region that receives an average 90 cm rainfall during two months of the year, it might have forced the inhabitants to build the bawdis. Due its proximity to Rajasthan, the traditional knowledge of water storage and conservation may have percolated from the adjoining dry districts. The need for step-wells may have been necessitated due to the large presence of outside traders in the city as well.

Needless to say, the bawdis were in use well after Independence for household water consumption as well as for critical irrigation needs. These were in use till drinking water was sourced first from Gunavad pond and later from a large storage structure called Dolawad. Some 40-45 lakh gallons of water get supplied for daily domestic consumption in the city. More


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A River Runs Dry in Tanzania

DAR ES SALAAM, Jan 8 2013 (IPS) - Avelina Elias Mkenda, a 52-year-old small-scale farmer in the Mbarali district of Tanzania’s southwestern Mbeya region, can sense a change in her environment.

A resident of the Great Ruaha River basin, she has never had trouble watering her crops and livestock.

But over the last few years, the river has been delivering less and less of the precious resource; the grass that was once plentiful is now scarce, leaving cattle hungry, while production of coffee, the region’s prize crop, has plummeted.

Referred to as Tanzania’s “ecological backbone”, the Great Ruaha River originates in the Kipengere mountains and stretches roughly 84,000 kilometres, flowing through the wetlands of the Usangu Valley and the Ruaha National Park, eventually emptying into the Rufiji River.

Its basin catchment area waters a massive expanse of the Tanzanian countryside. Over a million small-scale farmers produce a significant portion of the country’s food on the lush soil in the Ruaha basin, which also provides 70 percent of Tanzania’s hydroelectric power, according to government sources.

But officials from the Rufiji Water Basin Office (RWBO), which administers the Ruaha basin, along with academics from Tanzania’s leading Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), are now warning that the river is under “alarming stress”.

“The river has been drying up for lengthy periods of three months (at a stretch), up from the short period of three weeks,” Damian Gabagambi, an agricultural economist at SUA, told IPS. He believes the crisis is largely due to an increasing number of farmers diverting the river for irrigation purposes.

“Prior to 1993 the river was never dry,” Andrew Temu, an SUA professor, told IPS, adding that the three-month-long dry spells began in 1999. In this time period, river basin inhabitants increased from three to six million people.

“With the increasing population, there is a corresponding demand for more water,” he said. Intensive grazing and deforestation have also contributed to the looming crisis.

Furthermore, a lack of proper irrigation infrastructure means that much of the water goes to waste, Gabagambi added.

RWBO Community Development Officer David Muginya told IPS that agricultural projects by both large and small-scale farmers have failed to honour the 2009 Water Resources Management Act, which obliges all water users to deploy proper infrastructure in order to avoid waste. More