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Large Wildfires Scorch Forests in Drought-Stricken Southwest

Climate
The Rocky Mountain Incident Management team battles the 416 Fire. 416 Fire Facebook

A number of wildfires are currently ablaze in the Western U.S. as severe drought envelops much of the region.

The 416 Fire in Colorado, which has scorched 27,420 acres since it broke out on June 1, has forced the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes and the closure of all 1.8 million acres of the San Juan National Forest.


The fire is currently 15 percent contained and no structures have been destroyed, the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team said.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group noted that the blaze has been fueled by abnormally dry conditions and prolonged drought.

Large fires in the West are also burning the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, Manti-Lasal National Forest in Utah and Medicone Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming, the National Interagency Fire Center reported Tuesday.

New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest, one of the state's most popular recreation sites, has been closed since June 1 due to fire danger.

"Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care," Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor James Melonas said in a statement.

The Buffalo Fire, a new fire in Colorado that erupted Tuesday, is edging dangerously close to a ski resort town and has already prompted the evacuation of more than 1,300 homes, the Associated Press reported.

Western states experienced a winter with very little precipitation and a hot spring, which poses a threat come fire season. National Interagency Fire Center forecasters predicted an "above normal" fire potential this June especially in the drought-ridden Four Corners region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet—and an area experiencing "extreme" to "exceptional" drought.

Climate change has been found to intensify drought conditions in the West. High temperatures and dry conditions increase the chance of a fire starting and help fan an existing fire.

National Interagency Fire Center

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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