Category Archives: Water

Climate change could worsen Mekong Delta woes

Source: http://www.thethirdpole.net/climate-change-could-worsen-mekong-delta-woes/

 29.01.2014

Scientists say climate change will have grave impact on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a region already battling pollution, salinity and flooding

(Photo: ImageMD)

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River will heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta. (Photo: ImageMD)

Vietnamese scientists say climate change will probably exacerbate existing ecological problems in the Mekong delta, such as water pollution, salinity intrusion, loss of aquatic biodiversity and rising susceptibility to flooding.

Their concerns echo a 2006 warning by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that the Mekong River Delta and two others — the Ganga and the Nile — are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels.

The delta region – a low-lying area in southern Vietnam dotted with paddy fields and shrimp farms – is home to an estimated 17 million Vietnamese, yielding not only rice but also a third of the country’s GDP.

It is also among Vietnam’s poorest areas, and environmental restoration projects in the region are often a low priority for officials busy trying to kickstart a slumping economy.

“They’ve made some progress, but because of the economic crisis, investment capital is a serious problem,” said Tran Minh Khoi, director of the Center for Water Quality and Environment, a government institute in Ho Chi Minh City that monitors water quality in the Mekong Delta.

Large-scale rice production causes soil pollution

The problems are rooted in the large-scale expansion of rice production in the Mekong Delta, which now produces roughly half of the country’s rice.

In the 1990s, the Vietnamese government began the widespread construction of sluice gates, high dikes and other irrigation measures that were designed to control the Mekong River’s natural flood pulses for the sake of boosting rice cultivation. While the measures have helped Vietnam become one of the world’s top three rice exporters, they have also altered the Mekong’s alluvial flood pulse and changed its ecological balance.

For example, rice farming in the upstream regions of the delta discharges effluents that cause eutrophication of freshwater systems and damages fish populations, according to a recent study by a team of scientists from Can Tho University. And because so many of the delta’s soils are naturally acidic, converting them to rice fields has increased the mobility of heavy metals like arsenic and cadmium.

Le Anh Tuan, a professor at the university’s college of environment and natural resources, said the overuse of fertilisers and pesticides by many Mekong Delta farmers only exacerbates those problems.

“Native fish species will be lost, and biodiversity will be degraded,” he said. “And the consequences may be worse with climate change.”

The construction of high dikes in the delta’s upper reaches has also correlated directly with an increased risk of flooding in Can Tho, one of the delta’s largest cities, according to research by Hideto Fujii, a researcher at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences.

According to Fujii, upstream dikes store a large amount of water that can be dangerous when dikes break. That was evident in 2011 when heavy floods in the delta province of An Giang broke through dikes and caused damage in downstream areas, he said.

And when seasonal floods subside, fresh danger surfaces in the form of saline intrusion.

Because the Mekong is a tidal river, it has a flood pulse in which saline water from the South China Sea travels up its tributaries during the February-to-April dry season. But the construction of so much irrigation infrastructure, coupled with heavy water use in upstream provinces, has in many cases reduced seaward flows of freshwater — and allowed more saline water to travel in the other direction.

A slew of controversial hydropower dams proposed for stretches of the Mekong River in China, Laos and Cambodia would only heighten the risk of more saline intrusion in the delta, according to Dao Trong Tu, senior advisor to the Vietnam Rivers Network, a Vietnamese NGO.

“In the Mekong Delta we have very dense canal system, so if water intrudes it impacts agricultural production very much,” he said. “It’s a big impact.”

International funds pour in to tackle climate change

Several governments and international donors have recently identified climate change as a central priority in Vietnam, and there are several ongoing projects aimed at mapping the extent of the delta’s environmental problems and devise solutions.

The German and Australian governments, for instance, are promoting climate-adaptation measures in the Mekong Delta, and the Dutch government has partnered with local researchers to develop a 100-year plan for sustainable growth in the region. The first version of the plan, released in 2012, suggests closing off branches of the Mekong River in the dry season to prevent further saline intrusion.

On a recent trip to the Mekong region in December ,US Secretary of State John Kerry said that the US will give US$17 million for a new American-led project to help Vietnamese communities adapt to climate change and ”reverse” environmental problems. He said the project will be administered by the US Agency for International Development.

“Vietnam is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change,” Kerry said. “And we will see very serious impacts if we don’t change course today.”

But there are considerable obstacles. Here’s one challenge — though demand for freshwater is increasing across the Mekong Delta, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development has largely resisted calls from Vietnamese scientists to alter itsambitious agricultural production targets, which scientists say are ecologically unsustainable and sorely outdated.

According to Tung Phung Duc, director the Mekong Development Research Institutein Hanoi, a central problem is that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) exert significant control over Vietnam’s nearly US$4 billion rice-export industry and are resistant to reforms that would cut into their profits.

“We don’t have a problem with food security,” he said. “There are a lot of SOEs in the agriculture sector, and I think it’s better (for the government) to sell them.”

Shrimp industry causes fresh conflict

And in the southern reaches of the Mekong Delta, the creation in recent years of coastal shrimp farms has led to “severe losses” of mangrove forests, according to aJanuary study by a team of German and Vietnamese scientists. Shrimp exports from Vietnam are now worth US$2.8 billion per year, according to the state-controlled media, but scientists say the loss of mangroves is problematic because the trees have historically been a natural defense against storms along the delta’s 600 kilometre coastline

And as the shrimp industry grows, conflicts are deepening between shrimp and rice farmers, according to Tran Minh Khoi. He said shrimp farming uses a mix of fresh and brackish water, and the conflicts typically arise when the practice prevents rice farmers from getting the freshwater they require.

The conflicts, Khoi added, are likely to worsen as sea levels rise and demand for freshwater increases.

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Global Reservoir and Dam (GRanD) Database

Source: http://www.gwsp.org/products/grand-database.html

Despite established recognition of the many critical environmental and social tradeoffs associated with dams and reservoirs, global data sets describing their characteristics and geographical distribution have been largely incomplete. To addrress this shortcoming, the Global Water System Project (GWSP) initiiated an international effort to collate the existing dam and reservoir data sets with the aim of providing a single, geographically explicit and reliable database for the scientific community: The Global Reservoir and Dam Database (GRanD).

For the GRanD Technical Documentation click here.

For the GRanD Database click here.

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GGMplus 200m-resolution Maps of Earth’s Gravity Field

Source: http://geodesy.curtin.edu.au/research/models/GGMplus/gallery.cfm

“GGMplus covers Earth’s land and near-coastal areas between +- 60olatitude with highest-resolution gravity maps. Explore the gravity field over six continents here. All data is accessible via our FTP-server.”

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Learning to Bounce Back

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/opinion/forget-sustainability-its-about-resilience.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

By ANDREW ZOLLI Published: November 2, 2012

FOR decades, people who concern themselves with the world’s “wicked problems” — interconnected issues like environmental degradation, poverty, food security and climate change — have marched together under the banner of “sustainability”: the idea that with the right mix of incentives, technology substitutions and social change, humanity might finally achieve a lasting equilibrium with our planet, and with one another.

It’s an alluring and moral vision, and in a year that has brought us the single hottest month in recorded American history (July), a Midwestern drought that plunged more than half the country into a state of emergency, a heat wave across the eastern part of the country powerful enough to melt the tarmac below jetliners in Washington and the ravages of Hurricane Sandy, it would seem a pressing one, too.

Yet today, precisely because the world is so increasingly out of balance, the sustainability regime is being quietly challenged, not from without, but from within. Among a growing number of scientists, social innovators, community leaders, nongovernmental organizations, philanthropies, governments and corporations, a new dialogue is emerging around a new idea, resilience: how to help vulnerable people, organizations and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions. Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.

It’s a broad-spectrum agenda that, at one end, seeks to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events and, at the other, centers on bolstering people’s psychological and physiological capacity to deal with high-stress circumstances.

For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages.

Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves. For extreme weather events, that means developing the kinds of infrastructure more commonly associated with the Army: temporary bridges that can be “inflated” or positioned across rivers when tunnels flood, for example, or wireless “mesh” networks and electrical microgrids that can compensate for exploding transformers.

We’ll also need to use nature itself as a form of “soft” infrastructure. Along the Gulf Coast, civic leaders have begun to take seriously the restoration of the wetlands that serve as a vital buffer against hurricanes. A future New York may be ringed with them too, as it was centuries ago.

Hurricane Sandy hit New York hardest right where it was most recently redeveloped: Lower Manhattan, which should have been the least vulnerable part of the island. But it was rebuilt to be “sustainable,” not resilient, said Jonathan Rose, an urban planner and developer.

“After 9/11, Lower Manhattan contained the largest collection of LEED-certified, green buildings in the world,” he said, referring to a rating program for eco-friendly design. “But that was answering only part of problem. The buildings were designed to generate lower environmental impacts, but not to respond to the impacts of the environment” — for example, by having redundant power systems.

The resilience frame speaks not just to how buildings weather storms but to how people weather them, too. Here, psychologists, sociologists and neuroscientists are uncovering a wide array of factors that make you more or less resilient than the person next to you: the reach of your social networks, the quality of your close relationships, your access to resources, your genes and health, your beliefs and habits of mind.

Based on these insights, these researchers have developed training regimens, rooted in contemplative practice, that are already helping first responders, emergency-room physicians and soldiers better manage periods of extreme stress and diminish the rates and severity of post-traumatic stress that can follow. Researchers at Emory University have shown that similar practices can bolster the psychological and physiological resilience of children in foster care. These tools will have to find their way into wider circulation, as we better prepare populations for the mental, and not just physical, dimensions of disruption.

There’s a third domain where resilience will be found, and that’s in big data and mobile services. Already, the United States Geological Survey is testing a system that ties its seismographs to Twitter; when the system detects an earthquake, it automatically begins scanning the social media service for posts from the affected area about fires and damages.

Similar systems have been used to scan blog postings and international news reports for the first signs of pandemics like SARS. And “hacktivists” are exploring ways to extend the power of the 311 system to help people not only better connect to government services, but also self-organize in a crisis.

In a reversal of our stereotypes about the flow of innovation, many of the most important resilience tools will come to us from developing countries, which have long had to contend with large disruptions and limited budgets. In Kenya, Kilimo Salama, an insurance program for small-hold farmers, uses wireless weather sensors to help farmers protect themselves financially against climate volatility. In India, Husk Power Systems converts agricultural waste into locally generated electricity for off-grid villages. And around the world, a service called Ushahidi empowers communities around the world to crowdsource information during a crisis using their mobile phones.

None of these is a permanent solution, and none roots out the underlying problems they address. But each helps a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis.

As wise as this all may sound, a shift from sustainability to resilience leaves many old-school environmentalists and social activists feeling uneasy, as it smacks of adaptation, a word that is still taboo in many quarters. If we adapt to unwanted change, the reasoning goes, we give a pass to those responsible for putting us in this mess in the first place, and we lose the moral authority to pressure them to stop. Better, they argue, to mitigate the risk at the source.

In a perfect world, that’s surely true, just as it’s also true that the cheapest response to a catastrophe is to prevent it in the first place. But in this world, vulnerable people are already being affected by disruption. They need practical, if imperfect, adaptations now, if they are ever to get the just and moral future they deserve tomorrow.

Unfortunately, the sustainability movement’s politics, not to mention its marketing, have led to a popular misunderstanding: that a perfect, stasis-under-glass equilibrium is achievable. But the world doesn’t work that way: it exists in a constant disequilibrium — trying, failing, adapting, learning and evolving in endless cycles. Indeed, it’s the failures, when properly understood, that create the context for learning and growth. That’s why some of the most resilient places are, paradoxically, also the places that regularly experience modest disruptions: they carry the shared memory that things can go wrong.

“Resilience” takes this as a given and is commensurately humble. It doesn’t propose a single, fixed future. It assumes we don’t know exactly how things will unfold, that we’ll be surprised, that we’ll make mistakes along the way. It’s also open to learning from the extraordinary and widespread resilience of the natural world, including its human inhabitants, something that, counterintuitively, many proponents of sustainability have ignored.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t genuine bad guys and bad ideas at work, or that there aren’t things we should do to mitigate our risks. But we also have to acknowledge that the holy war against boogeymen hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive — rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.

Andrew Zolli, the executive director of PopTech, is the author, with Ann Marie Healy, of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back.”

River be damned

Source: http://www.theage.com.au/world/river-be-damned-20130613-2o6r4.html

June 14, 2013 Dave Tacon

The mighty Mekong, the lifeblood of many Asian nations, and holiday destination for an increasing number of Australians, is being heavily dammed. Can the river, and the people who depend on it, survive?

A boy stands on the banks of the Mekong River near the relocation site for a Lao village, which was moved to make way for the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

As the narrow longtail boat glides downstream from the dusty hamlet of Nong Kiew towards the golden temples of Luang Prabang, mirror images of jungle, vertical limestone cliffs and impossibly steep mountains shimmer in the waters of the Nam Ou River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong.

Endangered Asian elephants and Indochinese tigers still roam the upper reaches of the river within Phou Den Din National Protected Area, one of 20 national parks in Laos. This is the beauty that tourists, many Australians among them, come so far to see.

Yet this undeveloped region in northern Laos is about to be jolted into the industrial age. Three hours downriver from Nong Kiew, a scar of ochre-coloured dirt and rock stretches for kilometres: construction of the Nam Ou 2 Dam is steamrolling ahead.

A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam.A local worker is dwarfed by the nascent Nam Ou 2 Dam. Photo: Dave Tacon

”We started early this year and we’ll be finished in three years,” boasts a Chinese engineer dwarfed by a colossal concrete dam wall. Conversation is brought to an abrupt halt when his superior arrives. ”You have to leave,” he says. ”We don’t want pictures of this posted on Weibo [the Chinese version of Twitter].”

The 450 kilometre-long Nam Ou, one of the few Lao rivers traversable by boat for its entire length, will soon be severed seven times over by a 350-kilometre stretch of hydropower dams built and maintained by Chinese giant Sinohydro.

The Nam Ou 2 belongs to the first phase of the $1.95 billion project, which is expected to be operational by 2018. Details surrounding the project are scant. Even the final destination for the proposed 1146 megawatts of hydropower is unclear, although the Lao government claims the first three dams, Nam Ou 2, 5 and 6, will provide electricity for domestic consumption.

Details of the other dams have not been made public. Ultimately, the Phou Den Din National Protected Area will be partially inundated by the two northernmost dams, the Nam Ou 6 and 7, in violation of Sinohydro’s own environmental policy against development inside national parks. A pristine waterway and one of the last intact ecosystems in the region will change forever.

Despite concerns of environmentalists and objections by neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the tiny, landlocked nation of Laos is following China’s lead in its exploitation of the Mekong River and its tributaries.

China already has five hydropower dams operating and three more are planned for the upper reaches of the Mekong, the river that begins in the Tibetan Plateau and continues through China and five south-east Asian nations on its way to the South China Sea. Questions remain as to whether the river and those who depend on it for their livelihoods can survive.

”The government tells us that this will develop Laos,” says 65-year-old fisherman Thongsai Chanthalangsy, speaking at his village half an hour downstream from the Nam Ou 2 construction site. ”It’s not for the people,” he continues, ”the power will mostly be sold overseas. We can’t talk to the government. We have to follow what they say.”

Chanthalangsy has been advised that his home, which falls within the catchment of the planned Nam Ou 1 dam, will not be submerged, yet many other homes in his village will be.

”They will build more dams and the problems will get worse. When it’s finished there might not be enough water for our gardens and not enough fish to catch. There won’t be compensation. We’ll have to move.”

The Mekong and its tributaries are the front line of a massive development drive by Laos’ communist, one-party leadership to lift the nation from the ranks of Asia’s poorest countries.

Although hydroelectric power will bring much-needed revenue to the impoverished country, many fear that dams will cost dearly Laos, and all those for whom the Mekong is a lifeblood. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, more than 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food, income and transportation.

Ground zero for the Mekong is the gargantuan Xayaburi Dam, a project led by Thai construction firm Ch Karnchang. Dynamite and heavy machinery have already blasted, gouged and scraped away entire mountainsides above both banks of the swift-flowing waters about 30 kilometres from the provincial town of Xayabury.

Steep, winding, unmade roads carry a constant procession of trucks, earth movers, workers and occasionally armed soldiers to the expansive site. The $3.4 billion price tag of 810-metre-long and 32-metre-high Laos-Thai mega dam is being footed by a conglomerate of six Thai banks.

On its completion in 2019, around 95 per cent of the hydropower dam’s 1260 megawatts will be exported to Thailand. This is almost a third of the power generated by the 16 major dams of Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, built over a period of 25 years to generate around 3700 megawatts.

Along with the immediate environmental impact of a project of such magnitude, hundreds of villagers have been resettled to make way for the dam.

At the new village, Natornatoryai, close to the construction site, teacher Khao Thevongsa, 28, is dissatisfied with the location, with its steep hills of barely arable land and the constant stream of traffic to the site.

She hopes that the dam may become a tourist attraction in its own right. ”We have to start from zero,” she says, ”but when the dam is finished maybe tourists will come here to see it and we can earn more money.” Almost every answer to a question begins with, ”We don’t have a choice.”

About 300 were first shifted to Natornatoryai, which is about 35 kilometres from the river. ”The old people didn’t want to move here,” says 63-year-old Khamkeo Daovong as her daughter-in-law and child play on her concrete floor. ”I was born near the river and so were my parents. Many people cried when they saw their new homes.”

Daovong complains that her house was unfinished when she moved in. The mismatched cinder-block and terracotta bricks were paid for out of her own pocket to keep out the dust and wind. Compensation in the form of rice and about $16.40 in cash per month dried up after one year instead of the promised three.

”I was given pigs and ducks to raise, but it’s very difficult to make money. I used to pan for gold, but now I just do nothing.”

According to non-government organisation International Rivers, about 25 families have already left the village to return to the river to fish, tend their river bank gardens and pan for gold.

For those who live in Laos, open opposition to the dam is unthinkable. The Lao regime has a history of ruthlessly silencing dissent.

On December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone, 62, a prominent campaigner for the environment and the rural poor, and a champion for sustainable development, was abducted from a police roadblock by two unidentified men in the nation’s capital, Vientiane.

Somphone, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay prize, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel prize, has not been seen or heard from since. The Laos government denies any involvement. The official explanation for his disappearance was a ”business dispute”, although the activist has no business interests.

The incident brought rare international attention to Laos, as then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John Kerry, led calls for a thorough and transparent investigation into Somphone’s whereabouts and wellbeing.

International calls to the Laos government for action and information on Somphone remain unheeded. In a recent statement by New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, Asia director Brad Adams accused the Lao government of direct involvement in the activist’s disappearance.

”Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. ”The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”

The reasons for the activist’s disappearance are unclear. But Somphone’s abduction has worsened an already fearful climate in Laos’ environmental grassroots organisations.

Land rights and enforced disappearances aside, dams on the Mekong have serous ramifications far beyond the borders of Laos. The Xayaburi Dam is the first of 11 dams planned for the Lower Mekong River, nine of which are in Laos. Environmentalists have already blamed China’s five Mekong dams, as well as drought, for some of the lowest water levels seen on the river in 50 years. China denies it is responsible.

On top of providing crucial sediment for arable land downstream, the Mekong sustains the world’s largest inland fishery, with 877 species. According to conservation group Great Rivers Partnership, this supplies an industry worth between $3.84 billion and $6.89 billion.

Fish are a foundation of regional food security. In Cambodia, 80 per cent of the nation’s animal protein is provided by freshwater fisheries. Alarmingly, a study of the proposed 11 Lower Mekong hydropower dams by the International Centre of Environmental Management concluded that the dams would reduce fish numbers by 26 per cent to 42 per cent.

Regional famine is a worst-case scenario. Claims by the Lao government and Xayaburi dam officials that fish ladders will allow safe passage for migratory Mekong fish species have been met with great scepticism.

Organised dissent to the Xayaburi Dam has mainly come from Thailand. A flotilla of Thai fishermen and villagers who worked the Mekong travelled to Vientiane to protest during the Asia-Europe Meeting.

In April, delegates from eight Thai provinces on the Mekong were joined by protesters from Cambodia as they occupied the entrance to the headquarters of the dam’s construction company, Cr Karnchang, one of the dam’s financiers.

Although limited at present, opposition to dams on the Mekong may be about to rise rapidly as more dams are built and their impact becomes apparent. Beyond street and river protests, there are rumblings at the highest levels of government that threaten to become a diplomatic stoush.

Should the worst fears of environmentalists materialise, countries downstream from the dams stand to bear the brunt of any damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem. Although Vietnam and Cambodia have plans for their own hydropower projects, they have already objected to the Xayaburi Dam through the Mekong River Commission, of which Thailand and Laos are also members.

Both countries have argued that work on the Xayaburi Dam breaks an agreement forged in December 2010 that no dams would be built until studies on negative trans-boundary environmental impacts were completed.

Vietnam has called for a 10-year moratorium on all Mekong dams. Such concerns have been brushed aside by Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines, Viraphonh Viravonghas, who claimed the extensive construction is merely ”preparatory work”.

”Laos has simply ignored the requests repeatedly made by Cambodia and Vietnam to study the trans-boundary impacts of the dam,” says Ame Trandem, south-east Asia program director at International Rivers.

”The Mekong is becoming the testing grounds for new technologies, which may prove to have disastrous effects. The entire future of the river’s ecosystem is at stake. The Xayaburi Dam is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dave Tacon is an Australian journalist based in Shanghai.

Delivering Water From Disaster

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/opinion/global/delivering-water-from-disaster.html?smid=fb-share

Bryan Denton for The New York Times

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By CHARLES J. VOROSMARTY and CLAUDIA PAHL-WOSTL
Published: June 10, 2013

If one incident best highlights the perilous state of the world’s fresh waters, it’s the “pig spill” in China last March. After the slaughter and illegal dumping of a diseased herd, the authorities in Shanghai went fishing for 16,000 bloated carcasses in the Huangpu River, which flows through the city. Hardly the thing you wish to hear about if you use the Huangpu for drinking water.

On the other side of the world, Greg Lyons tends a stretch of the Merrimack River in Massachusetts as a citizen volunteer. One by one, Lyons collects some of the 8 million plastic treatment disks released by a wastewater plant that malfunctioned in March 2011. The disks, two-inch wafers caked with sewage, today serve as a reminder of how massive public waterworks designed to protect the environment can sometimes go haywire. Lyons’s catch by October 2011: 16,000 disks. The situation would have shocked 19th-century Transcendentalists who used the Merrimack to inspire a modern philosophy of humans in kinship with nature.

And then there is the Ganges, arguably the most polluted large river in the world. Each year it carries 16,000 tons of ash from cremated bodies along with a cocktail of sewage and toxic chemicals produced by a dense population and rapidly developing economy. This is no way to treat the goddess Ganga.

A panorama of our conflicted relationship with water is unfolding not only with the sensational fishing expedition for pigs or sewage disks, but with the countless decades of neglect and millions of misguided decisions we make daily regarding this essential resource. This was a chief finding of 350 water experts who recently issued the Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security.

And yet waterborne threats remain under the radar. Exposure to unsafe drinking water and inadequate sanitation results in 3.4 million deaths, mostly poor children, each year from diarrhea, yet this fact never makes the news. Threats also are rising in rich countries like Australia. In January, after drenching rains, residents of Brisbane were asked to restrict water use after the city’s drinking water dwindled to just a six-hour supply. This occurred after the city’s main treatment plant became clogged with sediment washing down from poorly managed land upstream. Across the United States, despite advanced pollution controls, more than 200 million people live within 10 miles of degraded fresh water. Europe is a global hotspot of aquatic biodiversity loss.

It is ironic that many of today’s water problems arise from the very solutions we administer. Proliferation of costly, so-called hard-path engineering, like centralized sewers and large dams, provide undeniable benefits, such as improved hygiene and stable water supply. But they also degrade waters with pollution, obliterate natural flow cycles and block the migration routes of fish and other aquatic life. By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half trillion dollars a year worldwide, we’ve hung a huge technological curtain between the clean water flowing through our faucets and the background array of problems in our rivers, lakes and groundwater. It is no surprise that the public is largely unaware of this or its growing costs.

And virtually unknown to most is the collateral damage to freshwater biodiversity arising from mismanaged watersheds and waterways. Despite overuse and contamination, freshwater ecosystems host a trove of diverse life, almost 10 percent of all known species and one-third of all vertebrates. The 20,000 aquatic species now extinct or imperiled are sending us an important message about our stewardship of fresh water.

Although water has figured prominently in the U.N. development agenda for decades, the world is at a critical juncture as the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Goals take shape over the coming 12 months. In the wings looms a hastily designed and politically motivated post-2015 development agenda. The developing world argues for autonomy in pursuing whatever water-related goals it deems necessary for growth, with a more or less singular focus on the basics of clean drinking water and sanitation. In contrast, the developed world argues for all nations to adopt a broader perspective emphasizing environmental protection, yet is retreating from financial support for the poor to help realize this outcome.

These two perspectives can be reconciled. While it is imperative that we meet the water and sanitation needs of all people, it would be wildly counterproductive if success were achieved at the expense of nature. In a financially strapped world, it is hard to imagine how preservation and sensible use of the rivers, lakes and wetlands would not be a valued component of any long-term development plan. And with the specter of climate change, the very water systems we today abuse, if better managed, could climate-proof society, for example by employing wetlands as natural shock absorbers against floods.

The price tag and environmental damage of poor stewardship and hard-path water management strategies mean that we need to design solutions that deliver basic water services while preserving freshwater ecosystems for future generations.

We are not against sensible deployment of water engineering. But by exporting to poor countries identical versions of the developed world’s model for water management, we risk locking the development agenda into a vicious cycle of capital-hungry and energy-intensive solutions, resource degradation and overuse, and an expanding reliance on costly remediation. We advocate instead a do-no-harm strategy in lieu of emergency care and endless rehabilitation of damaged water systems.

If we fail, we will still have development — but not the sustainable kind.

Charles J. Vorosmarty is professor of civil engineering at the City University of New York and director of the CUNY Environmental CrossRoads Initiative. Claudia Pahl-Wostl is  professor of resources management and director of the Institute of Environmental Systems Research, University of Osnabrück, in Germany.

Shifts in global water systems — markers of a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene

Source: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2013-05/gwsp-sig051413.php

Contact: Terry Collins
tc@tca.tc
416-538-8712

Contact: Alma van der Veen
49-228-731846
aveen@uni-bonn.de
Global Water System Project 

Shifts in global water systems — markers of a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene

Experts in Bonn to detail how science can help people mitigate or adapt to major global human-induced water system changes

 IMAGE: This is an image of North America from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at gwsp.org andwww.anthropocene.info….

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A suite of disquieting global phenomena have given rise to the “Anthropocene,” a term coined for a new geologic epoch characterized by humanity’s growing dominance of the Earth’s environment and a planetary transformation as profound as the last epoch-defining event — the retreat of the glaciers 11,500 years ago.

And in Bonn, Germany May 21-24, world experts will experts will focus on how to mitigate key factors contributing to extreme damage to the global water system being caused while adapting to the new reality.

“The list of human activities and their impact on the water systems of Planet Earth is long and important,” Anik Bhaduri, Executive Officer of the Global Water System Project (GWSP).

“We have altered the Earth’s climatology and chemistry, its snow cover, permafrost, sea and glacial ice extent and ocean volume—all fundamental elements of the hydrological cycle. We have accelerated major processes like erosion, applied massive quantities of nitrogen that leaks from soil to ground and surface waters and, sometimes, literally siphoned all water from rivers, emptying them for human uses before they reach the ocean. We have diverted vast amounts of freshwater to harness fossil energy, dammed major waterways, and destroyed aquatic ecosystems.”

“The idea of the Anthropocene underscores the point that human activities and their impacts have global significance for the future of all living species — ours included. Humans are changing the character of the world water system in significant ways with inadequate knowledge of the system and the consequences of changes being imposed. From a research position, human-water interactions must be viewed as a continuum and a coupled system, requiring interdisciplinary inquiry like that which has characterized the GWSP since its inception.”

Among many examples of humanity’s oversized imprint on the world, cited in a paper by James Syvitski, Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and three fellow experts (in full: http://bit.ly/Yx4COp), and in a new “Water in the Anthropocene” video to debut in Bonn May 21 (available at gwsp.org and http://www.anthropocene.info):

 

  • Humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow its crops and an area the size of Africa for raising livestock
  • Due to groundwater and hydrocarbon pumping in low lying coastal areas, two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking, some of them at a rate four times faster on average than global sea level is rising
  • More rock and sediment is now moved by human activities such as shoreline in-filling, damming and mining than by the natural erosive forces of ice, wind and water combined
  • Many river floods today have links to human activities, including the Indus flood of 2010 (which killed 2,000 people), and the Bangkok flood of 2011 (815 deaths)
  • On average, humanity has built one large dam every day for the last 130 years. Tens of thousands of large dams now distort natural river flows to which ecosystems and aquatic life adapted over millennia
  • Drainage of wetlands destroys their capacity to ease floods—a free service of nature expensive to replace
  • Evaporation from poorly-managed irrigation renders many of the world’s rivers dry — no water, no life. And so, little by little, tens of thousands of species edge closer to extinction every day. 
 IMAGE: This is an image of Africa from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at gwsp.org andwww.anthropocene.info….

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Needed: Better water system monitoring and governance

The water community stresses that concern now extends far beyond ‘classic’ drinking water and sanitation issues and includes water quality and quantity for ecosystems at all scales.

Says GWSP co-chair Claudia Pahl-Wostl: “The fact is, as world water problems worsen, we lack adequate efforts to monitor the availability, condition and use of water — a situation presenting extreme long term cost and danger.”

“Human water security is often achieved in the short term at the expense of the environment with harmful long-term implications. The problems are largely caused by governance failure and a lack of systemic thinking in both developed and developing countries. Economic development without concomitant institutional development will lead to greater water insecurity in the long-term. Global leadership is required to deal with the water challenges of the 21st century.”

“Humanity changes the way water moves around the globe like never before, causing dramatic harm,” says Bonn conference keynote speaker Joe Alcamo, Chief Scientist of the UN Environment Programme and former co-chair of the GWSP. “By diverting freshwater for agricultural, industrial and municipal use, for example, our coastal wetlands receive less and less, and often polluted, freshwater. The results include decreased inland and coastal biodiversity, increased coastal salinity and temperature, and contaminated agricultural soils and agricultural runoff.”

Adds Charles Vörösmarty, co-Chair and a founding member of the GWSP, which receives input from more hundreds of international scientists: “By throwing concrete, pipes, pumps, and chemicals at our water problems, to the tune of a half-trillion dollars a year, we’ve produced a technological curtain separating clean water flowing from our pipes and the highly-stressed natural waters that sit in the background. We treat symptoms of environmental abuse rather than underlying causes. Thus, problems continue to mount in the background, yet the public is largely unaware of this reality or its growing costs.”

Aims of the Bonn meeting

Featuring 60 special topic sessions, “Water in the Anthropocene” is a capstone event for the GWSP, which is developing “Future Water,” the water-related component of the emerging new multi-dimensional international collaborative environmental research framework, Future Earth.

A goal of the meeting is to synthesize major global water research achievements in the last decade and help assembling the scientific foundations to articulate a common vision of Earth’s water future.

It will recommended priorities for decision makers in the areas of earth system science and water resources governance and management.

And it will constitute a scientific prelude to October’s Budapest Water Summit, a major objective of which is to elevate the importance of water issues within the UN General Assembly negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals — a set of globally-agreed future objectives to succeed the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

 IMAGE: This is an image of Europe from the data visualization video “Water in the Anthropocene, ” to debut May 21 at gwsp.org andwww.anthropocene.info….

Click here for more information. 

Observers expect adoption of “water security” as a Sustainable Development Goal

Water expert Janos Bogardi, Senior Advisor to GWSP, says the absence of defined global water quantity and quality standards for personal use, agriculture and healthy ecosystems are critical gaps as the world community develops its next set of shared medium-term objectives.

“These definitions constitute a cardinal challenge today for scientists and politicians alike. It is important to reach consensus in order to make progress on the increasingly important notion of ‘water security’,” says Dr. Bogardi, stressing that changing terminology will not in itself solve problems. “Replacing the word ‘sustainability’ with ‘security’ is not a panacea.”

With respect to quantity, less than 20 liters daily for sanitary needs and drinking is deemed “water misery” while 40 to 80 liters is considered “comfortable.” (Current US per capita average daily consumption is over 300 liters; daily usage in urban Germany is about 120 liters per capita and in urban Hungary, where water is relatively expensive, the figure is 80 liters.)

Missing also are authoritative scientific determinations of how much water can be drawn without crossing a “tipping point” threshold into ecosystem collapse. While there is no general rule, GWSP scientists say withdrawals of 30% to 40% of a renewable freshwater resource constitutes “extreme” water stress, but underline scope to continue satisfying needs if water is returned and recycled in good quality. Mining fossil groundwater resources is by definition non-sustainable.

The GWSP is developing water quality guidelines for people, agriculture and ecosystems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The urgency of formulating the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and a tracking system for their success means that quite soon the SDG negotiators must offer-up water targets,” says Dr. Vörösmarty. “Whether they focus predominantly on continuing the Millennium Development Goals (narrowly on drinking water and sanitation for human health) or formulate a more comprehensive agenda that simultaneously optimizes water security for humans as well as for nature remains an open question. The water sciences community stands ready to take on this challenge. Are the the decision makers?”

Definitions of water security

In 2007, World Bank expert David Grey and Claudia Sadoff of IUCN, defined water security as “The availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

Their use of the term “acceptable” acknowledges that water security has relative, negotiable meanings.

In March, another formulation was set out by UN-Water, the United Nations’ inter-agency coordination mechanism for all water-related issues.

It defined water security as: “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.” (seehttp://bit.ly/1864vMG)

About the Global Water System Project (gwsp.org)

The Global Water System Project seeks to answer the fundamental, multi-faceted question: How are humans changing the global water cycle, the associated biogeochemical cycles, and the biological components of the global water system and what are the social feedbacks arising from these changes?

GWSP Core Themes:

1. What are the magnitudes of anthropogenic and environmental changes in the global water system and what are the key mechanisms by which they are induced?

2. What are the main linkages and feedbacks within the earth system arising from changes in the global water system? How resilient and adaptable is the global water system to change, and what are sustainable water management strategies?

GWSP gratefully acknowledges support of its activities provided by the four Global Environmental Change programmes of the International Council for Science — DIVERSITAS, International Human Dimension Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) — and by national and international research funding agencies. The GWSP International Project Office received decade-long support from the Ministry of Education and Research of the Federal Republic of Germany (BMBF).

‘On Average, Humanity Has Built One Large Dam Every Day for the Last 130 Years’

Source: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/13/05/on-average-humanity-has-built-one-large-dam-every-day-for-the-last-130-years/276036/

Ours is a planet and a time deeply shaped by one species — us.
MAY 20 2013, 1:43 PM ET
chinadam.gifChina’s Three Gorges Dam as seen from space over the past three decades (Google/Philip Bump)

When we think about the dams that are reshaping our planet and its waterways, the projects that come to mind are the massive ones, such as the Three Gorges Dam in central China (as captured in the gif above).

This is one of the largest of *many*. According to a new report, there are now 48,000 “large” dams (15 meters or taller) around the planet, which works out to a construction rate of one new dam every single day over the last 130 years. Over email, Owen Gaffney of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm said that another 1,600 are currently under construction. As journalist David Biello wrote on Twitter, “You know what says Anthropocene like almost nothing else? Water.”

Ours is a planet and a time deeply shaped by one species — us. Our waterways bend and bloat to meet our needs. Our atmosphere bears the emissions wrought by our fossil-fuel habit. Even in the depths of the remotest jungles,scientists are now finding our buildings. We are, of course, not the first species to have a dramatic effect on our planet — cyanobacteria beat us to that punch more than 2 billion years ago — but we are the first to do so knowingly, and that makes a world of difference.