Quantcast
Climate

8 Major Cities Running Out of Water

Earlier this year, an obscure United Nations document, the World Water Development Report, unexpectedly made headlines around the world. The report made the startling claim that the world would face a 40 percent shortfall in freshwater in as soon as 15 years. Crops would fail. Businesses dependent on water would fail. Illness would spread. A financial crash was likely, as was deepening poverty for those just getting by.

A woman in India walks atop a water main on her way to collect water. Photo credit: Meena Kadri / Flickr

The UN also concluded that the forces destroying the world’s freshwater supply were not strictly meteorological, but largely the result of human activity. That means that with some changes in how water is managed, there is still time—very little, but enough—for children born this year to graduate from high school with the same access to clean water their parents enjoyed.

Though the UN looked at the issue across the globe, the solutions it recommended—capturing rainwater, recycling wastewater, improving sewage and plumbing, and more—need to be implemented locally. Some of the greatest challenges will come in cities, where bursting populations strain systems designed to supply far fewer people and much of the clean water available is lost to waste and shoddy, centuries-old infrastructure.

We’ve looked at eight cities facing different though representative challenges. The amount of water in the Earth’s atmosphere is more or less fixed, meaning that as populations and economies grow, what we have needs to be clean, available, and conserved. Economies, infrastructure, river systems and climates vary from place to place, and the solutions will have to as well. Here is how eight of the world’s major cities are running out of water, and trying to save it.

TOKYO

Tokyo shouldn’t have a water problem: Japan’s capital enjoys average precipitation similar to that of Seattle or London. But all that rainfall is compressed into just four months of the year, in two short seasons of monsoon and typhoon. Capturing and storing so much water in such a short period in an area four times as dense as California would be a challenge anywhere. One weak rainy season means droughts—and those are now coming about once every decade.

The roof of Ryogoku Kokugikan arena in Tokyo collects rainwater to be used in the building's toilets. The inset shows a similar system for residential use. Photo credit: Facebook

Betting on the rain will be a precarious strategy for the world’s most populous city and its suburbs, home to more than 30 million people. When the four rivers feeding Tokyo run low, crisis conditions arrive fast. Though efficient, 70 percent of Tokyo’s 16,000-mile-long plumbing system depends on surface water (rivers, lakes, and distant snowpack). With only 30 percent of the city’s water coming from underground aquifers and wells, there are not enough alternative sources to tap during these new cyclical droughts.

The Japanese government has so far proved forward-thinking, developing one of the world’s most aggressive programs for capturing rainwater. In Sumida, a Tokyo district that often faces water shortages, the 90,000-square-foot roof of Ryogoku Kokugikan arena is designed to channel rainfall to a tank, where it’s pumped inside the stadium for nonpotable use.

Somewhat more desperate-seeming is a plan to seed clouds, prodding the environment to do what it isn’t doing naturally. Though tested in 2013 with success, the geo-engineering hack is a source of controversy; scientists debate whether the technique could produce enough rain to make much of a difference for such a large population.

MIAMI

Though most Americans’ concern with water shortage in the U.S. is firmly focused on California at the moment, a crisis is brewing in the last place you’d figure: South Florida, which annually gets four times as much rain, on average, as Los Angeles and about three times as much as San Francisco.

As a result of a 20th-century project to drain nearby swamps, water from the Atlantic Ocean began seeping in to the Biscayne Aquifer, Miami's main source of freshwater. Infographic credit: YouTube

But according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the essential Biscayne Aquifer, which provides water to the Miami–Dade County area, is falling victim to saltwater intrusion from the Atlantic Ocean. Despite the heavy rains replenishing the aquifer year-round, if enough saltwater enters, all of it will become unusable.

The problem arose in the early 20th century, after swamps surrounding the city were drained. Osmosis essentially created a giant sucking effect, drawing the Atlantic into the coastal soils. Measures to hold the ocean back began as early as the 1930s, but seawater is now bypassing the control structures that were installed and leaking into the aquifer. The USGS has made progress mapping the sea water intrusion, but ameliorating it seems a ways off. “As sea level continues to rise and the demand for freshwater increases, the measures required to prevent this intrusion may become more difficult [to implement],” the USGS noted in a press release.

Read page 1

LONDON

London faces a rapidly growing population wringing every last drop out of centuries-old plumbing. Water managers estimate they can meet the city’s needs for the next decade but must find new sources by 2025—even sooner than the rest of the world, by the U.N.’s measure. London’s utility, Thames Water, looked into recycled water—aka “toilet-to-tap”—but, being English, found it necessary first to politely ask people if they’d mind.

A view of the River Thames in London. In just a decade from now, the city's water infrastructure will be unable to provide for its growing population. Photo credit: IDS Photos / Flickr

At least four urban districts in California use recycled water, which is treated, re-treated, and treated again to be cleaner than conventional supplies before being pumped into groundwater or other supply sources. The so-called “yuck factor” could be an impediment to this solution spreading to London and elsewhere.

CAIRO

Five thousand years ago, an ample water supply and a fertile delta at the mouth of the Nile supported the growth of one of the world’s great civilizations. Today, while 97 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the great river, Cairo finds itself downstream from at least 50 poorly regulated factories, agricultural waste, and municipal sewage systems that drain into it.

The Nile Delta. Ninety-seven percent of Egypt's water comes from the Nile; 85 percent goes to agriculture, and towns upwater from Cairo dump untreated agriculture and municipal waste into the river. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Though Cairo gets most of the attention, a UNICEF-World Health Organization study released earlier this year found that rural areas to the city’s south, where more than half of Egyptians live, depend on the river not just for irrigation and drinking water but also for waste disposal. Engineer Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad has noted that while most wastewater discharged into the Nile upriver from Cairo is untreated, the river’s enormous size has historically been sufficient to dilute the waste to safe levels (and Cairo’s municipal system treats the water it draws from the river). Ayad argues, however, that as the load increases—with 20 million people now discharging their wastes to the Nile—this will no longer be possible. The African Development Bank recently funded programs to chlorinate wastewater before it’s dumped in the river, but more will need to be done.

On the demand side, more than 80 percent of the water taken from the Nile each year is used for irrigation, mostly the inefficient method of just flooding fields, which loses significant amounts to evaporation. Two years ago, initial steps were taken to modernize irrigation techniques upriver. Those programs have yet to show much progress, however.

SÃO PAULO

When it rains in Brazil, it pours. In São Paulo, where in an average year it rains more than it does in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, drains can’t handle the onslaught, and what could be the source of desperately needed drinking water becomes instead the menace of urban floodwater.

The Paiva Castro Dam, in Mairiporã, Brazil, is part of the Cantareira System that supplies water to the state of São Paulo. The water level of the whole Cantareira System has recently fallen to six percent of total capacity. Photo credit: OS2Warp / Wikimedia Commons)

With the worst drought in a century now in its second year, São Paulo’s reservoirs are at barely a quarter of capacity, down from 40 percent a year ago. Yet the city still sees heavy rainstorms. But reservoirs outside the city are often polluted and are too small even at capacity to supply the metropolitan area of 20 million. Asphalt covering the city and poor drainage lead to heavy floods on city streets after as little as a quarter-inch of rain. It’s hard to believe a drought is under way if your house is ankle-deep in water, so consumers haven’t been strident about conservation. The apparent paradox of flooded streets and empty reservoirs will likely fuel an ongoing debate over proposed rationing.

Read page 1

BEIJING

Poor air quality isn’t the only thing impinging Beijing citizens’ ability to enjoy a safe environment. The city’s second-largest reservoir, shut down in 1997 because of pollution from factories and agriculture, has not been returned to use.

In the past few decades, some large dams have been built on the river to form the Miyun and Huairou Reservoirs. These provide the water for Beijing's numerous canals and lakes as well as drinking water. Photo credit: Francisco Anzola / Flickr CC

Ensuring the cleanliness of its water is even more crucial in China than elsewhere, as there is little it can afford to lose: With 21 percent of the world’s population, China has only 6 percent of its freshwater—a situation that’s only going to get worse, as it’s raining less in northern China than it was a century ago, and glaciers in Tibet, once the largest system outside the Antarctic and Greenland and a key source of drinking water in the country’s south and west, are receding even faster than predicted. The UN Environment Programme estimates that nationally, Chinese citizens can rely on getting just one-quarter to one-third of the amount of clean water the rest of the world uses daily.

Hope emerged, however, from a 2013 study from Montreal’s McGill University, which found that an experimental program targeting farmers outside the capital showed promising results over nearly two decades. The vast Miyun reservoir, 100 miles outside Beijing, had seen its reserves reduced by nearly two-thirds because of increasing irrigation demands—while becoming polluted by agricultural runoff. Revenue from a tax on major water users in Beijing was spent paying farmers upstream from Miyun to grow corn instead of rice, which requires more water and creates more runoff.

Over the following 15 years, the study authors wrote, “fertilizer runoff declined sharply while the quantity of water available to downstream users in Beijing and surrounding areas increased.” Farmer income was not significantly affected, and cleaner water downstream led to higher earnings for consumers in the city despite the tax.

BANGALORE

Earlier this year, a report by India’s comptroller and auditor general found that the southern city was losing more than half its drinking water to waste through antiquated plumbing systems. Big losses from leaks aren’t uncommon—Los Angeles loses between 15 and 20 percent—but the situation in Bangalore is more complicated. A technology boom has attracted new residents, leading to new housing construction. Entire apartment blocks are going up faster than local officials can update the plumbing to handle additional strain on the water and sewage systems.

In Bangalore, India, new housing is going up in the faster than the city's water utility can expand and repair the decaying water system.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Bangalore’s clean-water challenges illustrate a dynamic that’s repeating itself across the world’s second-largest nation. India’s urban population will grow from 340 million to 590 million by 2030, according to a 2010 McKinsey study. To meet the clean-water needs of all the new city dwellers, the global consulting firm found, the government will have to spend $196 billion—more than 10 percent of the nation’s annual GDP. (McKinsey has a potential financial interest in India’s infrastructure, so its numbers may be inflated).

In Bangalore, they’re already behind schedule. The newspaper The Hindu reported in March that a 2002 plan to repair the existing system and recover the missing half of Bangalore’s freshwater had yet to be implemented.

MEXICO CITY

Gravity always wins. At more than 7,000 feet above sea level, Mexico City gets nearly all its drinking water by pumping it laboriously uphill from aquifers as far as 150 miles away. The engineering challenge of hauling that much water into the sky adds to the difficulty of supplying more than 20 million residents through an aging system. Mexico City’s public works loses enough water every second—an estimated 260 gallons—to supply a family of four for a day, according to CONAGUA, Mexico’s national water commission. CONAGUA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the capital’s potable water is lost to leaks and spills. The good news is that leaks can be fixed.

Mexico City's water utility estimates that it loses 260 gallons per second to leaky pipes in the system—enough to provide a family of four for a day.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Water quality remains a worry, however. Unsurprisingly, companies selling bottled water have done very well in Mexico. The economy growing around the lack of potable water has attracted companies such as Coca-Cola and France’s Danone, whose Bonafont (“good spring”) brand is advertised in Mexico as a weight-loss aid. (Toting a bottle will help you “feel thinner anywhere,” according to a popular television ad).

Meanwhile, disputes over who will get access to underground supplies have turned violent: In February 2014, residents of the town of San Bartolo Atepehuacan, on Mexico City’s outskirts, clashed with police over a waterworks project they feared would divert local springs to the city’s business district. At least 100 people were injured and five arrested as the disturbances continued for more than three months.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

June 2015 Smashes Heat and Rainfall Records in U.S.

Think Today’s Refugee Crisis is Bad? Climate Change Will Make it a Lot Worse

10 Iconic Places That May Disappear Due to Climate Change

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
TAFE SA TONSLEY / Flickr

Worldwide Clean Energy Investments Hit $333.5 Billion Last Year

Global investment in renewable energy hit $333.5 billion in 2018, the second-highest on record, according to a new analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

That's a 3 percent jump from 2016 and 7 percent short of the $360 billion record set in 2015.

Keep reading... Show less
Renewable Energy

How Blockchain Could Boost Clean Energy

By Jeremy Deaton

Bitcoin, the much-hyped cryptocurrency, made headlines recently for driving a surge in power use. Around the globe, digital entrepreneurs are 'mining' bitcoins by solving complex math problems, using supercomputers to get the job done. Those supercomputers use a ton of power, which largely comes from coal- and gas-fired power plants spewing gobs of carbon pollution.

But while hackers wreak havoc on the climate, blockchain, the bleeding-edge technology behind bitcoin, could one day help clean up the mess. Climate wonks say blockchain has a role to play in the clean-energy economy, helping homeowners sell electricity, allowing businesses to trade carbon credits, and making it easier for governments to track greenhouse gas emissions.

Keep reading... Show less
Abdallah Issa / Flickr

Post-Fire Landslide Problems Likely to Worsen: What Can Be Done?

By Lee MacDonald

Several weeks after a series of wildfires blackened nearly 500 square miles in Southern California, a large winter storm rolled in from the Pacific. In most places the rainfall was welcomed and did not cause any major flooding from burned or unburned hillslopes.

But in the town of Montecito, a coastal community in Santa Barbara County that lies at the foot of the mountains blackened by the Thomas Fire, a devastating set of sediment-laden flows killed at least 20 people and damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes. In the popular press these flows were termed "mudslides," but with some rocks as large as cars these are more accurately described as hyperconcentrated flows or debris flows, depending on the amount of sediment mixed with the water.

Keep reading... Show less
The most notable observation from the count was DeMartino's sighting of the golden crowned kinglet, but in general volunteers found the same species they normally do. (Photo above is of a golden crowned kinglet, but not the one DeMartino spotted.) Melissa McMasters

Birders Get a First Look at How 2017 California Wildfires Affected Wildlife

By Matt Blois

A neighbor knocked on Rick Burgess's door at about 9:30 p.m. to tell him a fire was coming towards his home in Ventura, California. When he looked outside he saw a column of smoke, and the hills were already starting to turn orange. He loaded up his truck with a collection of native plants he was using to write a countywide plant guide, and barely had enough time to get out.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
A learning garden from Kimbal Musk's nonprofit called Big Green. The Kitchen Community

Elon Musk's Brother Wants to Bring #RealFood to 100,000 Schools Across America

Kimbal Musk's nonprofit organization, The Kitchen Community, is expanding into a new, national nonprofit called Big Green, to build hundreds of outdoor Learning Garden classrooms across America.

Learning Gardens teach children an understanding of food, healthy eating and garden skills through experiential learning and garden-based education that tie into existing school curriculum, such as math, science and literacy.

Keep reading... Show less
Drilling fluids spilled into Ohio wetlands during construction of the Rover Pipeline in April. Sierra Club

Rover Pipeline Spills Another 150,000 Gallons of Drilling Fluid Into Ohio Wetlands

Energy Transfer Partners' troubled $4.2 billion Rover pipeline has spilled nearly 150,000 gallons of drilling fluid into wetlands near the Tuscarawas River in Stark County, Ohio—the same site where it released 2 million gallons in April.

The 713-mile pipeline, which will carry fracked gas across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Michigan and Canada, is currently under construction by the same Dallas-based company that built the controversial Dakota Access pipeline.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Large Dams Fail on Climate Change and Indigenous Rights

Brazil has flooded large swaths of the Amazon for hydro dams, despite opposition from Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and others. The country gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydropower. Brazil's government had plans to expand development, opening half the Amazon basin to hydro. But a surprising announcement could halt that.

Keep reading... Show less
Jim Henderson / Wikimedia Commons

World's Largest Money Manager: Companies Must Respond to Social and Climate Challenges

The world's largest publicly traded companies must take a more active role in solving social issues or face blowback from investors, the CEO of BlackRock said Tuesday.

"To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society," Laurence Fink wrote in his annual letter to CEOs of companies in which BlackRock invests. BlackRock is the world's largest money manager, with more than $6 trillion in assets.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!