Category Archives: Sustainability

California Drought: Overcoming History to Reduce SoCal Water Waste

LAimages

The great news for California in the winter of 2015-2016 is that El Nino-generated storms are on the increase, right? Well , that’s good news for easing the California drought, but with caveats. It’s much greater news if even more rain (and snow) fall in Northern California than in Southern California. The north has more catchment systems than the south. In other words, the north catches, saves and provides more water than the south can.

Why? Northern areas have river systems and reservoirs that redirect water to the south (mainly) via aqueducts. Moisture falling in the south and running off land is more readily fed to the Pacific Ocean, because much of the system there, especially in Los Angeles itself, is allowed and even intended to drain into the Pacific to avoid catastrophic flooding and landslides, like those seen from major storms in the 1930s and later. In other words, the massive waste of freshwater was actually a safety measure. Law was adjusted by climate. Until recently, in fact, it was illegal to capture rain on your own roof in LA. The California Water Capture Act of 2012 eased that outdated policy.

And, fortunately, on Jan. 6 the California State Water Resources Control Board approved a broad plan to capture more rain, The Associated Press reported. About $200 million will fund projects to collect rain, as part of a $7.5 billion water bond voters approved in November 2014. Los Angeles expects to collect an additional 3.3 billion gallons a year from new projects, over the roughly 10 billion it says it collects now. But even that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what SoCal could do in wet years if rainwater collection were made a genuine priority.

Related posts:

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’ s Depletion of Groundwater

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

Learn more:

Much of the torrential that fell on Southern California this week flowed right into the ocean – Associated Press

Rainwater harvesting regulations state by state – Enlight Inc. blog

Building Sponge City: Redesigning LA for Long-Term Drought – Cities Project, NPR

Report: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks – Ceres (full report)

The Untapped Potential of California’s Water SupplyPacific Institute and NRDC

 

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Filed under Climate Change, Conservation, Drought, Groundwater, Law, Natural Disasters, North America, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Study Finds We Vastly Underestimate Water Management’s Depletion of Freshwater

dam-reservoir

Here’s a frightening word of the day: “evapotranspiration.” It simply refers to water lost to the atmosphere by evaporation, or after being consumed and released into the air by plant life. It wasn’t so ominous last week, but it is this week because a new study in the journal Science puts it in a new context: unsustainable human use of freshwater.

Essentially, the study finds human have used 18 percent more of the planet’s freshwater than we previously thought, because we’ve underestimated the impact of our water-management systems, such as irrigation, dams and reservoirs. They cause more water to be lost to the atmosphere than would occur naturally, effecting precipitation patterns. Gather a lot of water in one place, like a reservoir, for instance, and more of it evaporates across the greater surface area exposed to air. The researchers studied the ratio of evapotranspiration to precipitation between 1901 and 2008, finding a significant increase in the latter half of the time period.

The additional 18 percent tips our water use into the unsustainable category given the increasing human population, the researchers warn. As Chelsea Harvey writes in her article about the study in The Washington Post, “The study highlights a critical need for better monitoring of our freshwater use and the ways our management techniques can affect the water cycle, as [study co-author Fernando] Jaramillo noted that the current effects of human water management ‘are even larger and more recognizable than the effects of atmospheric climate change.’”

Read more:

Alarming research finds humans are using up far more of Earth’s water than previously thought – The Washington Post

Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint – Science

Related posts:

World Water Day: UN World Water Development Report Warns of Global Crisis by 2030

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Environment, Groundwater, Rivers and Watersheds, Science, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Understanding Water Crises: New Resources Added

 

The At the Waterline blog’s Water Resources page has been updated with 12 new additions in the past few weeks, for a total of 83 links to sources of information and action on issues related to freshwater scarcity.

Check out the new additions:

aquaNOW.info: the World’s Water Data Engine

The CEO Water Mandate

Ceres: Mobilising Business Leadership or a Sustainable World (Issues: Water Issues)

>>> Ceres: Feeding Ourselves Thirsty: How the Food Sector Is Managing Global Water Risks (full report)

FAN: Freshwater Action Network

The Guardian: Access to clean water and sanitation around the world – mapped

LLoyd’s 360 Risk Insight: Global Water Scarcity, Risks and Challenges for Business

Water Defense

The Solutions Project (U.S. state plans for 100% clean, renewable energy)

WaterLex: Publications*

World Health Organisation (WHO): Health Topics: Water

WHO Programmes: Water Sanitation Health

(*Note: The international public-interest development organization WaterLex employs me as its head of communications. )

 

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Filed under Blog Changes and Updates, Climate Change, Conservation, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Research, Science, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Water Resources

It’s Long Past Time to Police Big Agriculture’s Water Waste

furrow_irrigation (1)

When you observe water-stressed and drought-stricken areas around the world, you hear the same question being asked again and again: Who uses the most water? A common assumption leads people to blame the general population for its wasteful ways, heedlessly watering their lawns and washing their cars despite a water shortage. But the real answer, in most cases, is agriculture — and not by a small measure. It often accounts for 70% to 80% of total water use, and sometimes more.

Irrigation and other water uses in agriculture, especially where it is a major industry for domestic and export food production, such as California’s Central Valley, make other water uses look like drops in a bucket. According to a 2012 study by the Pacific Institute, the Golden State’s 38 million people use just 4% of its water, while agriculture, including the raising of both crops and livestock, uses 93%.

The reason this matters so much is that Big Agriculture wastes epic amounts of water and often fights efficiency measures on the basis of cost. California, to stick with that example, uses much less drip irrigation than other arid farming regions of the world. Generally, efficiency standards and enforcement are not in place, which allows massive amounts of water to leak out of systems. And much of the water used simply evaporates because it is not recaptured. This goes on while agricultural users pump out deep aquifers’ groundwater far faster than it can be restored naturally, especially in times of drought.

The types of agriculture matter for the scale of water usage, as well. California rice growers flood the fields, whereas another crop might need only sips of water, relatively speaking. Beef producers use about 2,500 gallons of water per pound (as opposed to 100 gallons of water per pound of grain).  Although costly, relocating water-intensive agriculture from water-stressed regions to places where water is most abundant would make sense. In the U.S., that might mean moving some practices from the Southwest to the Southeast. In China, it would mean moving farms  from the arid north to the wet south. But in many countries, business and political interests would keep it from happening as long as possible, and in the end, severe water shortage and escalating costs would force the issue.

Where you have a massive industry, you have a wealthy lobby with a lot of political power to influence government spending. Critics of California’s $7.5 billion drought bond known as Proposition 1, to be voted on in statewide elections on Tuesday (4 November; update — it passed by a two-to-one margin), note that it provides for new dams and water-storage measures that will benefit agriculture. But it’s not yet clear what might be asked in return. About $50 million of the $7.5 billion appears to be earmarked for agricultural efficiency. Will future measures mandate adequate technology and standards of efficiency? Ultimately, the nine-member California Water Commission will decide how funds from the Prop. 1  bond measure, if passed, will be spent.  They should know that the industries using nine-tenths of the state’s water should be doing a lot more to help ease the region’s water crisis.

Read more:

UPDATE: California Propositions 1 and 2 Sail to Resounding VictoriesSan Jose Mercury News

Prop 1: Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 – Ballotpedia

Prop. 1, a False Framing of California’s Water CrisisSanta Barbara Independent

New Report Provides Insight to California’s Proposition 1 – Pacific Institute

Prop. 1 Aims to Relieve Drought — But Not This One – Los Angeles Times

Cows, Rice Fields and Big Agriculture Consumes Well Over 90% of California’s Water – AlterNet

Report Targets Waste, Inefficiency in Agricultural Water UseLos Angeles Times

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Conservation, Dams and Hydropower, Drought, Groundwater, Law, North America, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Set Heading for World Water Week in Stockholm

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In a couple of days I’ll join colleagues from WaterLex at one of the most prominent events in the world of water-related agencies, NGOs, services, and the like — World Water Week in Stockholm, which runs Aug. 31 – Sept. 5 in the Swedish capital, under the auspices of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI). The theme this year, for this and other events around the world, is “energy and water,” two vital forces that are always interconnected.

WaterLex will exhibit in a booth shared with other organizations in the Swiss Water Partnership, and we’ll also put on a lunchtime side event on Monday, Sept. 1: Water & Energy Nexus: Smart Investments to Help Realize Human Rights. Co-convened with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the event’s panel discussion will explore how wastewater reuse for energy production can serve populations’ rights to adequate sanitation and a safe and healthy environment, while also making for a valuable investment in sustainability. Check out the speakers and topics. I’ll be the guy “moderating” (more like trying to keep up) or running around with a camera, taking photos for the press materials.

It will be my first time in Stockholm, so I hope to get around town a bit. A colleague recommended the Vasa Museum, the only preserved 17th century ship in the world. It heeled over and sank only minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, and was raised in 1961. And of course there’s a museum dedicated to Abba.

Related posts:

WaterLex: A New Role for Me, Working on Water Law and Human Rights

If You Could Advise the UN on Water, What Would You Say?

WaterLex Helps Put the Human Right to Water Into New Legal Frameworks

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

 

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Filed under Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Law, NGOs, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources

China’s Virtual Water Flows: The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get Thirstier

Virtual water flows in China. Copyright 2014 American Chemical Society.

New research shows that China’s wealthier and wetter southern provinces are draining already-scare water supplies from arid northern provinces, exacerbating shortages and increasing risk of crisis conditions.

The study, conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) with the University of Maryland and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, uses the economic concept of “virtual water.” That refers to water tracked through trade of goods that require water to produce, as most do. The researchers say it is the first study to take water scarcity into account rather than treating all water as equal in the analysis.

The researchers say the study helps lay the groundwork for better water-resource management. One upshot is the idea that it might be smarter on the whole not to import water-intensive goods from the dry north to the wet south, even as the country gears up massive efforts to divert water in the other direction because of the shortages.

Read more:

The study: Virtual Scarce Water in ChinaEnvironmental Science & Technology

China’s arid north feeds water-rich south – Reuters

Following China’s water: a threat of scarcity – Nature World News

China’s hidden water footprint – Phys.org

Virtual water highlights China’s hidden water footprint – Science 2.0

Related posts:

 China Plans to Desalinate Vast Amounts of Sea Ice

China Raises Water Prices for Top Users

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

 

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Filed under Agriculture, Asia, Climate Change, Drought, Industry, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Water Shortage

Water’s Place Among Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals

Image: GWP.org

Image: GWP.org

I attended the recent briefing, “Targeting water in the post-2015 development agenda,” at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Co-organized by UN-Water, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), and the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation, the event hosted international mission staff as well as members of the press, academics and others. It focused on how water issues are being addressed within the evolving debate on potential sustainable-development goals (aka SDGs), in the framework of the post-2015 development agenda. The briefing’s documents and presentations are now available online.

The idea that water should have its own complex SDG, rather than being dispersed among other goals, seemed to be widely held and agreed upon at the event. Incorporating water issues into other goals without having a separate item for it could result in water-related issues evaporating in the mix.

“Because water is  everywhere, water ends up being nowhere,” said panelist Jack Moss, senior water advisor at AquaFed: The International Federation of Private Water Operators. Water’s fearsome power in nature is not reflected in its (lack of) strength as a factor in economies, he added.

Panelists agreed that water is too often taken for granted, and not often-enough planned for in proactive and constructive ways. In other words, you consider it separately to help ensure it gets paid for.

“Any time an issue is cross-cutting, like water, you can be sure that some of your targets will be lost in other targets,” said Lesha Witmer, a steering committee member and co-coordinator of The Butterfly Effect coalition of NGOs. “If you have a dedicated goal, it can’t *not* be represented in a country’s national budget.”

The UN-Water paper “A Post-2015 Global Goal for Water: Synthesis of key findings and recommendations from UN-Water” was also presented during the event. In the 41-page report, you can see the goal taking shape. The goal, “securing sustainable water for all,” becomes mightily complex when put in the context of the world, its growing human population, economic development, pollution, climate change, public health and myriad other factors.

The Swiss government has taken a leading role on water issues, and its Swiss Position Paper on Water in the Post-2015 Agenda advocating for an explicit water goal was also presented at the briefing.

See documents and presentations from the briefing.

Related posts:

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked UN Report

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

 

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Climate Change, Conservation, Environment, Europe, Events, Human rights, Middle East, NGOs, North America, Oceania, Research, South America, Sustainability, United Nations, Water Resources

Happy World Water Day 2014: Be an Advocate

Image: UN Water

Image: UN Water

World Water Day (WWD) falls annually on March 22. However, because that date is a Saturday this year, many activities will take place on Friday, March 21. This year’s theme is “water and energy.” The oft-repeated phrasse “water-energy nexus” refers to the numerous interdependencies between water and energy; the two are inextricably linked and heavily influenced by climate change.

UN-Water, the United Nations’ inter-agency coordinating mechanism for all matters related to water and sanitation, has prepared a vast array of educational materials for WWD, including an in-depth advocacy guide with myriad tips on how to share key facts and messages. The day’s main celebrations are being held in Tokyo, Japan. Among the festivities, the World Water Development Report 2014 on Water and Energy will be launched, and the UN-Water “Water for Life” Best Practices Award will be given.

Overarching messages:

  • Water requires energy and energy requires water.
  • Supplies are limited and demand is increasing.
  • Saving energy is saving water; saving water is saving energy.
  • The “bottom billion” urgently need access to both water and sanitation services, and electricity.
  • Improving water and energy efficiency in all sectors is imperative, as are coordinated, coherent and concerted policies.

Read more:

UPDATE: Officially launched: World Water Development Report 2014 on Water and Energy

UPDATE: 2014 UN-Water ‘Water for Life’ Best Practices Award goes to India and Singapore

World Water Day 2014 website

World Water Day 2014 Documents and Information Sources

UN-Water homepage

Related posts:

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

UNICEF Says Put Down Your Cell Phone for a Few Minutes to Help Kids Get Water

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked UN Report

The Intersection of Environmental Issues and Human Rights

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Filed under Africa, Agriculture, Asia, Caribbean, Climate Change, Conservation, Europe, Events, Human rights, Industry, Middle East, NGOs, North America, Oceania, Research, South America, Sustainability, United Nations, Water Resources, Water Shortage

At the Point of ‘Peak Water,’ Our Foreseeable Future Grows Shorter

Watercyclesummary

The world has a finite supply of accessible freshwater. By some estimates, less than 1% of the naturally occurring freshwater on earth is accessible to humans; the rest is locked up in ice or too deep and dispersed in the ground for us to get. The phrase “peak water” refers to the point at which we’re consuming available freshwater faster than it can be replenished by nature through the hydrologic water cycle to the usual sources, such as lakes, rivers, and shallow underground aquifers, many of which are already dangerously depleted.

Whether we’re nearing the point of peak water, already there, or well past it is a question under ongoing discussion. One point of confusion is that water volume and use vary widely by region. Some areas are nearing or past peak water, others aren’t. Another factor is that climate change is throwing the status quo of water abundance or scarcity by region into flux. Look at the 2013 research showing that heavy pollution from the U.S. and Europe from the 1960s into the 1980s effectively changed weather patterns, becoming a primary cause of Africa’s long, widespread, and deadly Sahel Drought. What will happen because of today’s pollution from the world’s most prolific sources? (e.g., China).

And those who don’t see water and climate change as parts of the same series of problems should note: “The hydrologic cycle is the climate cycle,” says hydro-climatologist Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, in a video interview that lays out overlapping problems. Water, climate change, and energy production are all inextricably linked. In fact, links between water and energy make up the theme of this year’s World Water Day, coming up on March 22.

It’s worth noting that water scarcity is a crucial element of the resource crises cited in the upcoming NASA-funded study predicting a “perfect storm” within a few decades that could end global civilization. The study looked closely at the fall of previous complex societies, such as the Mayans and Romans, and found parallels with our unsustainable overuse of resources — particularly the massively unequal use by wealthy versus poor.

However close to “peak” we may be, no sustained sense of urgency over water scarcity is apparent in mainstream media. In part this is because water supplies are local or regional, not global, and in part it’s because these problems take a long time — and a much longer attention span than a 24-hour news cycle has — to address. So you see localized articles about regional droughts and potential conflicts over resources, though rarely anything that puts the worldwide water crisis in perspective and looks ahead to cross-cutting solutions (e.g., large-scale renewable-energy power production that requires much less water than nuclear or fossil-fuel-based power, combined with modern and far-reaching conservation measures addressing agricultural, industrial, and residential water use and re-use).

Compared to today’s world, our near-future planet will have double the human population, even more-severe climate change, and yet the same old freshwater, redistributed. Perhaps it’s too easy to push off the worry, as we think we’ll get serious about conservation before it’s too late. Or that governments and industry will join together to provide desalinated water wherever necessary — somehow without the troubling environmental costs of today’s practices — before vast human populations must migrate or die.  Or that those fresh and brackish aquifers recently discovered under the oceans will push the point-of-no-return a few decades further into the future. Well, someday, after the fights over the rights, maybe somebody will throw billions at drilling into those aquifers. Because someday they’ll have no choice. And then those reserves will be sucked dry, too.

You might say we have no choice other than to better manage our freshwater.

Read more:

UPDATE: CHARTS: How power generation threatens water supplies, and climate change threatens both – ClimateProgress

UPDATE: NASA-funded study: Industrial civilisation headed for “irreversible collapse”? Natural and social scientists develop new model of how “perfect storm” of crises could unravel global systemThe Guardian

Are we on the path to peak water? – Climate Central (with infographic)

Peak water is here – Daily Kos (links to video interview with Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute)

Peak water (background) – Wikipedia

Pollution in Northern Hemisphere helped cause 1980s African drought – Washington University

Related posts:

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Serious Water Conservation Demands Layered Approach and Emotional Commitment

Over-Salted: The Trouble(s) With Desalination

Study: Freshwater Shortage Will Double Climate Change’s Impact on Agriculture

Unchecked Emissions Will Drain Water Resources, Warns Leaked U.N. Report

Study Describes Vast Reserves of Water Under Ocean Floors

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Filed under Africa, Agriculture, Climate Change, Conservation, Desalination, Drought, Europe, Groundwater, Industry, North America, Pollution, Research, Rivers and Watersheds, Sustainability, Technology, United Nations, Wastewater Treatment, Water Resources, Water Shortage

Mapping the World’s Most Water-Stressed Countries

Image: thaibiodiversity.org

Image: thaibiodiversity.org

Playing with maps can be fun — except when it’s totally depressing.

In adding China Water Risk, an interesting information source, to this blog’s Water Resources page, I was reminded of another one I had already added: World Resources Institute (WRI), which provides a home for Aqueduct’s mapping surveys of water-stressed places. China Water Risk provides a version of WRI’s helpful breakdown of the data and list of 36 most water-stressed countries. So, rather than jumping straight into the mapping tool’s various menus to generate visualizations of data, you can get a bit of an overview of how the tool works and some of its findings.

Aqueduct’s mapping tool, the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas, uses 12 indicators to value amounts of water stress, and assigns each country a score of up to 5 points, the high end of the scale for potential water stress. Sixteen countries representing a handful of world regions, such as the Caribbean, the Middle East, and parts of Africa and Asia, achieve a perfect(ly dire) score of 5.0. All 36 countries on the list of the most at risk of water stress rank 4.01 or higher, suffering “extremely high risk.” See the list.

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Filed under Africa, Asia, Caribbean, Conflicts, Middle East, Research, Sustainability, Water Resources, Water Shortage