Yemen’s irrigation system: invisible victim of the war

For reasons no one can explain, a war has been raging in Yemen since 2013. The culprits are clear, the solutions seem simple—just stop and do something else. But tragically no one seems to bother to resolve.

The airstrikes and ground fights have by now caused an estimated of 10,000 victims. Compare this to 350death during the struggle in the Arab Spring that preceded the war. Yet next to this number there is another tragedy – those who suffer, get sick and hungry and die from the destruction of vital infrastructure water facilities: drinking water, water treatment, irrigation.

The war has destroyed crucial services in the region. An estimated 8.5 million people, for instance, have no longer access to safe drinking water, resulting in higher morbidity. Other victim of the war has been “spate irrigation”—the use short duration flood waters to irrigate land. The ancient Yemeni practice makes use of the short terms floods in normally dry rivers to water crops and grazing areas and to recharge groundwater. It covers an estimated 200,000 hectares in Yemen.

Spate irrigation systems were attacked in the bombing campaigns. In war, however, such civil structures are not supposed to be targeted by any one. According to the 1977 Protocol Additional to Geneva Conventions[1] in Article 14, starvation as a means of combat is not allowed: ‘’it is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable for survival of the civilian population – such as foodstuffs, crops, livestock, water installations, and irrigation works’’. This has not happened in war-torn Yemen: Irrigation infrastructure was targeted directly, making systems hard to operate, causing more neglect.

Agriculture is vital for food security in Yemen. More than 70 per cent of its people depend on agriculture either directly or indirectly as their economic foothold. Yet the harmless sector has been brutalised like anything else. The war damage to the agricultural sector is already more than US $16 billion.

Spate irrigation systems in the coastal red sea zone of Yemen, the Tihama, made it the food basket of the country. Tihama produced most of the grains, livestock and export fruits in the country. But water system infrastructure has been hit by the war while Tihama Development Authority’s equipment and machines stores have been directly destroyed. Below are the images of Wadi Siham branch in Waqer Area of the Tihama Development Authority that has been wilfully destroyed. In addition to the physical damage a lot of documents and computer files, containing data and studies carried out since many decades have also been lost.

The indirect repercussions of the war are even larger. Flood-based irrigation systems need to be cleaned regularly to allow the flood water to flow. The lack of maintenance due to war, however, has led to accumulation of sediments and harmful tree growth in the bottom of canals. As a result, the Wadi Sihamspate irrigation system runs at 50 per cent of its capacity, as confirmed during meetings with farmers and Water User Association members.

It is descent into poverty: half the production in the country’s food basket has gone; food prices escalated; income severed and employment opportunities disappeared.

Situation on-ground

The socio-economic situation in Tihama’s wadis is similar, where the share of land owners is less the 30 per cent. Poverty rate is more than 80 per cent, due to the scarcity of resources and the multilayered crisis in the country. We interviewed several farmers.

Here is Hasan Qadhy, one of the richest farmers in Wadi Siham. Hassan is the head of an agricultural association. He owns 109 ha of land, which he uses to cultivate mango, tobacco and fodder. But Qadhy has skipped the last two crops after floodwater supply reduced and pumping groundwater to became expensive. The war curtailed his income, but he his land provided a buffer amid increased prices And unavailability of fuel.

The second farmer we met was aAbdo Ali. He has about 0.65 ha of land and mainly cultivates fodder. He also owns three goats and fifteen sheep. His yield can supply food and fodder but for less than three months a year. Unlettered himself, Ali tries to send his sons to high school. But the war has shaken him. Producing fodder has become costly and the produce has few takers. Income from the farm is not sufficient, and Ali needs another source for income, which simply is not there. He has to borrow money or sell animals and other assets to make do.

Worst still is the fate of the many tenants and farm workers, who constitute 70 per cent of the agricultural population. Sharif and his family of six, were poor to start with. Now his options as farm worker have shrunk. In the farms of rich farmers, some economic ventures have stopped—cultivation of fodder (not profitable) or tobacco (cannot afford to pump groundwater).

Come July, a new flood season will start in Wadi Sihamm. The period used to be of anticipation and blessing, but this year will be different. Flood may bring little respite with ill-prepared systems. They may instead suffer from the sediment-laden floodwater running across them.

We hope that the energies put in a senseless war are directed to end the conflict. We should enactArticle 14 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.

— source by Frank van Steenbergen

As global groundwater disappears, rice, wheat and other international crops may start to vanish

We already know that humans are depleting vital groundwater resources across the globe. But a new study shows one of the biggest causes of disappearing groundwater is the international food trade.

About 70 percent of freshwater around the globe goes toward irrigation. Researchers from the University College London and NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies now say that a third of that freshwater is drawn from the world’s aquifers — nonrenewable underground pockets of groundwater — and 11 percent of that nonrenewable groundwater is used to irrigate internationally-traded crops.

That means in time, “the current type of food that’s grown will not be able to be produced,” said Carole Dalin, an environmental engineer at the University College London who led the study published in Nature. “Or we’ll not have the same productivity, so it means prices will increase.”

When water is used to grow crops, it’s no longer visible to the consumer. This study keeps track of where this ‘hidden’ water is embedded and where it ends up.

To measure how irrigation drains global aquifers, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis hydrologist and study co-author Yoshihide Wada used an in-house model that essentially places a computerized grid over the Earth and then measures soil moisture, along with water exchange between the atmosphere, soil layers and the underlying groundwater reservoirs, to see where water was going and why. He validated his calculations by comparing them with satellite measurements that track water flow and underground water storage.

Meanwhile, Dalin gathered information on global trade and irrigation rates. By combining the information, they could determine how much groundwater was sapped by the agriculture required for the international food supply.

Rice used 29 percent of the groundwater intended for international food crops, topping the study’s list, followed by wheat (12 percent), cotton (11 percent), maize (4 percent) and soybeans (3 percent). Citrus and sugar crops used about 5 percent each.

Who will be hit the hardest? Countries that export the largest number of these crops, those that import a substantial amount of their food and those that both export and import these crops, the study says.

Pakistan, the United States and India, for example, account for two-thirds of all exported crops irrigated with nonrenewable groundwater. Depletion of this water resource would impede efforts to export crops at their current levels.

Countries in arid and semi-arid regions that rely heavily on imported goods — like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait — would have the most difficulty getting access to food should groundwater run out and potentially create a global food shortage. In other scenarios, countries such as the U.S., China, Mexico and Iran, all major food producers and importers, would take a hit both in the amount of food they can produce as well as in a drop in the global food supply. U.S. exports to China, Mexico and Japan — largely cotton, wheat, maize and soybeans — are depleting most of the country’s groundwater supply for crops.

“If you are producing this crop and it disappears, then you can compensate with imports,” Dalin said. But it’s harder if “both your local production and imports … are exposed to the risk.”

Dalin and Wada, along with colleagues from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York City and the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre in Germany, found nonrenewable groundwater was also being extracted at a much higher rate in 2010 than it was just 10 years earlier. Dalin predicts farmers could lose their jobs, nations could face food shortages and economies could suffer if these trends continue.

Jay Famiglietti, the Senior Water Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a professor at the University of California-Irvine, was not involved in the study. But his research indicates two billion people rely on nonrenewable sources of water, and more than half of the world’s aquifers are being depleted passed the “sustainability tipping point.”

“I think we’re headed to major threats to food security,” Famiglietti told the NewsHour.

Keeping track of water resources used for tradable goods can improve water sustainability and food production, as populations continue to grow and drought frequency rises.

“These virtual flows of water are going to become more and more important as population grows and certain regions don’t have enough water to grow food,” Famiglietti said.

Some regions have attempted to tackle the groundwater problem, but nothing is being done on a global scale, Famiglietti said. There are a number of barriers to doing so.

“It’s not just how much water we have and how much we’re using, but it’s, ‘Who’s got the rights? What are the policies?’ And we don’t manage the surface water and the groundwater together – we treat them like they’re completely separate, which they’re not,” Famiglietti said.

California, which recently came out of a years-long drought, is addressing the problem locally, albeit slowly, Famiglietti said. The state passed a Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 that divides the state into different groundwater management agencies. Each agency now has five years to create and implement 20-year sustainability plans.

“The whole process is about 27 years, so [it will take until] about 2042 to really understand where we’re at with groundwater,” Famiglietti, who is also an appointed member of the California State Water Boards, said. That’s a little slow, “but at least it’s there,” he added.

Kansas is also addressing concerns about its High Plains aquifer, which provides about 70 percent of the water Kansans use each day. Water management officials in Kansas have placed flow meters on 99 percent of the irrigation wells that pull water from the aquifer as a way to measure the amount of liquid that passes through. This data helps scientists who study the groundwater levels.

“The key to the Kansas situation is the data, because you can’t really manage what you don’t know,” Jim Butler, a senior scientist at the Kansas Geological Survey, said.

In addition to the data collection, a group of farmers in a small 99-square mile area of northwestern Kansas agreed to reduce the their groundwater crop rate by 20 percent through a grassroots generated program called Local Enhanced Management Areas (LEMA). By changing their irrigation and farming strategies, they have used less water while maintaining their bottom lines. Now in its fifth irrigation season with these new protocols, the group has hit the 20 percent reduction mark each year.

Dalin said there’s an urgent need for more data on nonrenewable groundwater because “we don’t know exactly how much water is in these aquifers and so we don’t know exactly when they’ll be empty.”

“The one wish we all have is that we would have moved forward on this 10 to 15 years sooner,” Butler said. “Each year that passes that we don’t do something it just makes it more difficult because you have less and less of an aquifer to work with.”

— source by Dave Berndtson

Lead-tainted drinking water found throughout San Diego schools

Schools throughout the San Diego Unified School District and in surrounding communities began testing for lead in their drinking water on April 14. A majority of those examined so far have tested positive for elevated levels of lead in their water; at least eight schools have exceeded the minimum threshold for lead in water set by the state of California and will require immediate action.

At present, the US Environmental Protection Agency recommends schools shut off water facilities when results show 20 parts per billion (ppb) or greater of lead. However, as of January of this year the California State Water Resources Control Board mandated new regulations that lead in water cannot exceed 15 ppb and school sites may receive free testing by any request from a school official.

— source

How a private water company brought lead to Pittsburgh’s taps

In the summer of 2015, Metropolis Magazine named Pittsburgh one of the world’s “most livable” cities and gushed about its infrastructure, “The city has more vertical feet of public stairways than San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Portland, Oregon, combined.”

But the magazine hadn’t done its research. Around the same time, the city’s water utility was laying off employees in an effort to cut costs. By the end of the year, half of the staff responsible for testing water throughout the 100,000-customer system was let go. The cuts would prove to be catastrophic. Six months later, lead levels in tap water in thousands of homes soared. The professor who had helped expose Flint, Michigan’s lead crisis took notice, “The levels in Pittsburgh are comparable to those reported in Flint.”

The cities also share something else, involvement by the same for-profit water corporation. Pittsburgh’s layoffs happened under the watch of French corporation Veolia, who was hired to help the city’s utility save money. Veolia also oversaw a change to a cheaper chemical additive that likely caused the eventual spike in lead levels. In Flint, Veolia served a similar consulting role and failed to detect high levels of lead in the city’s water, deeming it safe.

For-profit water corporations see America’s crumbling infrastructure as a business opportunity. Either they buy struggling water systems or market their services to cities like Pittsburgh that need the help. At the same time, they use their political clout to cut taxes, choking off the public money necessary to sustain vital water infrastructure. Veolia, along with other corporations like American Water, is a member of the National Association of Water Companies (NAWC), which actively lobbies for lower taxes.

Last Wednesday, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced the city would provide filters for drinking water, which is the right thing to do. But he’s also considering partnering with another for-profit water company to clean up Veolia’s mess.

Partnering with corporations that must turn a profit should be off the table. For-profit water corporations will always have a financial incentive to cut service, shrug off maintenance, and fire employees. When they’re in charge, the high costs of doing business are passed on to residents: privately owned water systems charge 59 percent more than those that are publicly owned. Every public dollar that goes to executives and shareholders is a dollar that could be invested in making water clean and affordable.

Pittsburgh’s water needs democratic control and public investment, not corporate takeover.

— source by Donald Cohen

Climate change key suspect in the case of India’s vanishing groundwater

In three short months during monsoon season, India historically receives 75 percent of their annual precipitation. Imagine awaiting this promised, bountiful rainfall and receiving 14 percent less than average. This is what happened in 2015 – and it compounded decades of drought. India is suffering a water scarcity crisis but, until recently, most people believed that over pumping groundwater was the number one reason behind it. Now, a new study published by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar in Nature Geoscience, shows that variable monsoon precipitation, linked to climate change, is likely the key reason for declining levels of groundwater.

India’s rainfall has decreased since the 1950s. When rainfall decreases, so does the water table. By observing climate patterns and well depths, researchers found that groundwater storage dropped in northern India about two centimeters per year between 2002 and 2013. Today, groundwater irrigates over half of India’s crops, but aquifer levels are falling, threatening both water and food security.

India’s groundwater problem is detectable from space. From 2002-2013, a satellite from NASA mapped aquifers around the world. The Gravity Recovery Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite detects the Earth’s mass below it and uses this data to measure groundwater pumping. GRACE reported that 54 percent of 4,000 measured groundwater wells are declining, some dropping by more than three feet per year.

A warming world has made India’s monsoon season less predictable. During the past century, the Earth warmed 1.5 degrees, largely due to humans’ unprecedented burning of fossil fuels. What appears to be a small change in temperature is causing drastic upheavals in natural patterns. Increased atmospheric temperatures are changing wind currents and causing more frequent and intense storms. In some cases, this is also redistributing rain and intensifying drought.

In India, warmer air over the Indian Ocean has altered the path of monsoons – leaving Indian farmers high and dry the past two years in a row.

There is no singular definition for water scarcity that takes into account the availability, accessibility, and quality of potable water. However, the Falkenmark Indicator (FI) is a popular tool that measures water runoff and population to determine levels of water stress. According to the FI, a country is considered ‘water scarce’ when they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of usable water per person annually. In 2015, analysis using FI categorized India as having ‘absolute scarcity’, with less than 500 cubic meters of water per person annually.

So little water affects security. Last September, protesters set 56 busses on fire in Bengaluru when the Supreme Court ordered that Karnataka must release more water from Cauvery Dam to be used by a bordering state. Retrofitted oil trains deliver millions of liters of water to Lature, a district east of Mumbai. Madhya Pradesh, a state in Central India, deployed armed guards to protect one of its reservoirs after farmers from a neighboring state attempted to steal water last year.

Farmers are on the frontlines of the water crisis with India seeing a serious uptick in farmer suicides. Some estimates put the number of related suicides at 500 in 2015, but the central government only publicly acknowledges that 13 farmers’ suicides were related to water shortages. According to the Government of India, 52 percent of agricultural households were in debt in 2014. Heavy debts have resulted in an exodus of farmers, who are now seeking daily labor in large cities.

“Farmers invest their own borrowed money for sinking bore wells to develop agriculture,” said Secretary R.H. Sawkar of the Secretary, Geological Society of India (GSI). Bore wells are similar to tube wells, long shafts that are drilled into the earth. Electric pumps are used to draw the groundwater through the tube to the surface. Most rural farmers pay a flat fee for unlimited electricity to pump from tube wells, leading to over-pumping.

But farmers don’t have the money, tools, or know-how to drill deeper wells that can access sinking water tables. This creates a serious dilemma in areas where levels drop by almost a meter per year.

“Only rich farmers can effectively pump groundwater from deep aquifers and the urban rich can buy extra water for their luxuries like car washing, [maintaining] lawns near their residence and [using] bottled water for drinking purpose,” said Sawkar.

There are over 20 million tubewells in India today, a technology that enabled the Green Revolution in India. The Green Revolution was a global shift in agricultural production, beginning in the 1930s; it mechanized farming for developing nations and utilized new technologies, like pesticides and genetically modified crops, to feed a booming population. Developing countries could suddenly grow more food on the same amount of land.

When India gained independence in 1947 the central government – along with the Rockefeller and Ford foundations –brought the Green Revolution to India. This meant cultivation of genetically adapted, high-yielding seeds, a deluge of fertilizers, and flood irrigation. Tube-wells proved to be the best way to irrigate more land, since they reached untapped groundwater. But today, annual groundwater pumping removes at least 24 times what was consumed in the 1950s.

“India also inherited Britain’s water policies that were based on water abundance. Any landowner had the right to pump as much groundwater as they wanted… India doubled ag[riculture] productivity between 1972 and 1992 under this system,” said Trevor Birkenholtz, political ecologist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Chapmaign. “In short, there was no groundwater law.”

Laissez-faire pumping is today reflected in the fact that farmers pay a single flat fee for electricity to power tubewell pumps.

The same revolution that once sustained India’s growing population is partly to blame for the cracked and barren landscape that farmers try to cultivate today. According to the World Bank, India’s population tripled since the 1960s, hitting 1.3 billion in 2015. As India continues to battle climate change and overpumping, an equitable distribution for groundwater, if it ever comes, will take considerable intervention.

“This requires strong political will to address this issue, which is lacking,” Sawker said.

Groundwater law and rulemaking falls under the purview of individual states in India. Researchers say that the central government will have a difficult time overcoming this decentralized system, if they wish to establish national water laws. To date very few politicians have fought to limit water pumping.

“No politician wants to be the one that tells farmers – who vote at rates upwards of 85 percent – that they can no longer pump groundwater at current rates,” said Birkenholtz.

It’s more likely that authorities will mandate drip irrigation or restrict the supply of electricity, perhaps through metering, to limit pumping. Using drip irrigation and gaining “more crop per drop” is an efficient alternative to flood irrigation.

Unfortunately, groundwater pumping is only half of the problem. Taking on climate change is equally important in solving India’s water scarcity. Climate change weakens monsoons, groundwater fails to recharge, wells run dry, and families go without water. The future of India’s water security, in part, rests on international agreements to combat climate change like the United Nations Paris Agreement.

“Weather is uncertain by nature, and the impacts of climate change are extremely difficult to predict at a regional level,” explained Wada. “But our research suggests that we must focus more attention on this side of the equation if we want to sustainably manage water resources for the future.”

Today, India accounts for 4.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Under the Paris Agreement, the country has committed to generating at least 40 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and decreasing carbon emission intensity related to GDP by 33-35 percent by 2030. This means India’s emissions will likely rise, depending on the level of its economic growth.

— source by Kayla Walsh

Nestle wants more Michigan water

Let’s start with the fact that bottled water is history’s greatest scam.

For the most part, bottled water companies take a product any American can access at the tap for pennies — at least 25% of bottled water comes from municipal drinking sources — slap it into a plastic bottle, and charge dollars for the same quantity.

America’s obsession with bottled water creates tons of plastic waste each year, and in almost every circumstances — barring instances like the Flint water crisis, for example — bottled water is entirely unnecessary.

And then let’s ask why on earth the State of Michigan should allow multinational conglomerate Nestle to make off with billions of gallons of our water each year, making serious bank while paying Michigan just a $200 administrative fee for the privilege.

It’s a perfect business set-up: Pay next to nothing for a product, throw in some marketing, and sell at an exponentially higher mark-up. It’s a business gambit so one-sided it would make Tom Sawyer blush.

Nestle has been pumping spring water for its nonsensically named “Ice Mountain” brand near Evart, Mich. — neither a region nor a state known for mountainous terrain — for about 12 years. Evart is one of three Nestle water-pumping locations in Michigan. Two years ago, the company applied for an increase in the amount of water it is permitted to pump at one of its wells from 150 to 400 gallons per minute, but at present, the company is allowed to pump 218 gallons per minute, a limit that is the result of a lawsuit filed by conservationists. So its apparent solution is to increase the siphoning from a different well in the area.

This 167% increase would be a much larger draw on the state’s water resources.

Despite the frivolity of the bottled water industry, it’s clearly here to stay. Bottled water revenue is more than $15 billion per year, with substantial annual increases expected.

But we need to get smart about it.

After perfunctorily greenlighting Nestle’s request last year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is taking a longer look at the company’s request for a permit increase. At the behest of new director, Heidi Grether, MDEQ has extended the public comment period for the request and asked the company to provide further documentation that its stepped-up pumping operation wouldn’t cause harm to Evart or its environs

That’s what MDEQ ought to be doing, and we’re glad to see Grether’s instincts, in this case, are good.

Because Nestle owns the wells it’s pumping, the company pays just $200 in administrative fees to authorize its groundwater extraction, plus a $5,000 one-time-fee for permit application review.

And that’s the bigger problem here — a regulatory framework, created before bottled water became a multi-billion industry, that tends to assume Michiganders would pump groundwater for personal, municipal or direct business use.

Groundwater isn’t regulated like surface water; rather, its use is governed by an old principle that allows “reasonable use” of groundwater, as long as that use doesn’t permanently alter the availability or accessibility of water for other users. Does extracting drinking water violate that standard? Well … it’s hard to say.

Thus far, Nestle’s water extraction hasn’t seemed to limit or harm the availability of water for Evart and the surrounding area. But some experts note that because Ice Mountain water is shipped out of state, it’s not returned to the water table — and while Nestle’s application says that increased water withdrawal will have “minimal” impact on nearby streams, some critics have noted that any pumping operation should have no effect on Michigan’s water supply.

Fresh water is one of Michigan’s most valuable assets. Any conversation about the scarcity or value of Michigan’s water should take into account that clean, potable water will become an increasingly valuable resource.

But fresh water is also one of Michigan’s most marketable commodities.

Balanced against this, of course, is jobs. Nestle’s Stanwood plant employs about 200; a planned $36-million expansion would create about 20 additional jobs. In a county of just 43,000, that’s a lot.

Balancing our state’s future — safeguarding our resources and our environment — with our economic interests is the reason we have regulation. And it’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts work lawmakers should embrace. There’s a solution here, if only they’ll chose to find it.

— source by Nancy Kaffer

Flint Residents Could Lose Their Homes Over Unpaid Bills for Poisoned Water

The city of Flint, where the pipes have still not been fixed and the water crisis is ongoing, is threatening to place tax liens on people’s homes for non-payment of water bills, according to a local news source. NBC affiliate 25News reported Tuesday that more than 8,000 people have received notice from the city that they are “at risk of losing their homes to foreclosure if they don’t pay up on their water bills” by May 19.

— source