- Reseach project
- – Western Pacific
Read the latest updates about the International WaterCentre, as well as contemporary water sector insights, water management news, and conversations with researchers, practitioners and students, from both Australia and abroad.
The revelations of the drinking water crisis in the city of Flint, Michigan in the United States shocked the world in 2014. But new data, legislation and forms of pollution mean that the water crisis runs much deeper than those findings. The findings of Flint and recent, widespread reports on water shortages in other states like California and New Mexico due to water pollution have been alarming. But rural America is really feeling the pinch of pollutants in aquifers, with the regulation of waste and pollutants and ageing infrastructure leaving many in small-town America without access to clean water. Groundwater reliance is leaving small-town America with no clean water Groundwater is crucial for rural communities, with about 40 per cent of United States residents relying on it for drinking water and another 39 per cent requiring it for agricultural purposes, according to the United States Geological Survey. And a combination of lead from corroding infrastructure and pollutants like nitrates from farming operations are compromising these groundwater sources. Madison Condon is a fellow at New York University School of Law and she highlighted the dangers in her report Rural America's Drinking Water Crisis. “Water supplies in farming communities often have harmfully high levels of nitrates, which seep into the groundwater from fertilizer and manure,” she said. “Yet, 85 per cent of the communities with nitrate violations have no treatment systems for removing the chemical. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that updating rural America’s water infrastructure … would require $190 billion of investment in the coming decades. “Where this funding will come from has been left unanswered.” Legislation rollback means more pollution could be tipped into United States waterways The United States Government introduced legislation called the Waters of the United States rule in 2015 that aimed at reducing fossil-fuel pollution from coal-fired power plants as well as cars and methane emissions. In November, 2019, the Government repealed this legislation which means that these power plants and other polluters no longer require a permit to dump hazardous waste into waterways. Farmers have welcomed the repeal after many railed against the Government telling them what they could do on their own properties. But environmental groups have warned this repeal could lead to more pollution hitting rural American groundwater supplies. The rise of PFAS and PFOA chemicals in America drinking water Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFAS) are two large-scale pollutants impacting United States waterways. These dangerous chemicals are dubbed “forever chemicals” because of their ability to persist in the environment and resistance to water treatment – even the latest technologies. According to major news outlet Bloomberg, waste from over 180 industrial estates across 39 states is polluting American waterways with PFAS. And these chemicals can remain present in groundwater supplies in rural America for as long as 15 years. This has led the charge from many water safety activists to call for greater government intervention. “In the end, a massive influx of government funding is needed to make sure that millions of Americans are not left exposed to health-harming pollutants put in their drinking water by under-regulated industries,” Madison Condon said.
Since the millennium drought in the mid 2000s, Brisbane has built new major infrastructure, including a water grid, desalination plant, and a now-decommissioned recycled water scheme. The city has also promoted widespread adoption of water-sensitive urban design (WSUD) measures including rainwater tanks, permeable pavements, and stormwater harvesting. But value for money in urban water security requires more than just providing water supply to households and businesses at the lowest cost per megalitre—we need to consider the environmental impacts of water security measures as well. NCEconomics resource and environmental economic practitioner Jim Binney says that when it comes to increasing water supply versus improving water use efficiency, there tends to be cycles. “A lot of analysis was done from 2007 to 2011. We found that when it comes to water savings or availability and their costs, you can’t just choose one option, you have to establish a portfolio of measures, which is why we ended up building a dam as well as desalination and promoting rainwater tanks and water use efficiency,” he says. Binney notes that cyclical thinking can be a planning challenge. This often happens when once the large infrastructure is built, the issues falls onto the backburner. This can be detrimental to the consideration of smaller / incremental supply options such as stormwater harvesting. “Water supply planning and waterway management should be a continuous process, not just something that is front of mind during a drought”. When it comes to determining the bang for your buck when it comes to different urban water security measures, Binney says that it is important to try and match growth in water demand with the best options to meet that demand. “This might mean choosing options with higher unit costs such as stormwater harvesting. These options can be cheaper in the long run as you don’t have significant excess capacity for decades, which often happens with large dam developments,” he says. “One interesting thing that we’ve also found when considering alternative supply options is that with climate change, we’re observing that rainfall up the catchments is often declining but rainfall in coastal zones—where most people live—is often being affected to a lesser degree. This changes the relative efficiency (and costs) of options such as dams vs. smaller options in coastal zones. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced.” Binney believes that some options need to be taken into account more when it comes to effective water management planning. “Typically, we have measured costs in terms of lifecycle financial costs of delivering a particular volume of water. But that only works if only objective is only to supply water,” he says. “We know that initiatives such as harvesting stormwater and recycling have benefits beyond direct water supply such as reducing diffuse pollutant loads into waterways. We need to move from traditional dollars per kilolitre measures to inform investment decisions and move to a broader cost-benefit framework that considers all the benefits and costs of each option.” There is a movement underway within the water management industry to consider cost-benefit analysis, which is already commonplace when looking at flood risk assessments and thresholds for pollutants in water. For Binney, Brisbane is still not placing enough value on WSUD measures, which will prevent nutrients and sentiments flowing into creeks, rivers, and the ocean. “Often the building industry says the cost burden is too high,” he says. “We’re talking $2,800-$4,000 for WSUD per detached house. Putting WSUD into perspective of the total cost of building a new house, it is the equivalent cost of less than 3 m2 of the building footprint, or some fancy benchtops. Given the fact that new builds are now much larger, and for fewer residents on average, the tradeoff between a few square metres on a McMansion and sustainable water management is a trade off well worth making”.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, governments are focussed on hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity and securing enough PPE for their health workers. In the emergency stages of response the focus on clinical and health sector responses dominated preventative measures. This prompted water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) focussed multilateral platforms such as Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) and UNICEF to lobby for a great focus on WASH as the first line of defence for this and future epidemics. SWA’s Call to Action highlights that WASH should be available to everyone, and, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, eliminate inequalities and leave no-one behind. Of all the elements of WASH, handwashing with soap is a particularly critical one. SARS-CoV-2 is a virus with a lipid layer broken down by soap, and so washing hands with soap has never been more important for preventative health. Changing human behaviours is notoriously difficult: shifting hygiene and handwashing behaviours has been one of the toughest nuts to crack in WASH, and equally hard to measure. As videos of handwashing with soap (HWWS) go viral in social media and signs are plastered in public places more than ever, are we witnessing a renaissance for handwashing? If we are, it will have benefits for not only preventing the spread of covid-19 but also other water-borne diseases with high morbidity and mortality rates like diarrhoea. Yet so many communities lack the facilities to enact this barrier of defence, as currently highlighted by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program. Globally 1 in 3 people do not have basic handwashing facilities at home (WSSCC), the bulk of them in lower and middle income countries. The situation in healthcare facilities is particularly alarming: 1 in 4 have no clean water on site; and 1 in 5 have no decent toilets (WaterAid). Of Australia’s nearest neighbours Timor Leste, only 28% of households have access to basic handwashing facilities (with water and soap). In Indonesia, 38% of the rural population (45 million) and 22% of the urban population (31 million) have no handwashing facility at all in their household (JMP 2017). Indonesia has registered 22,000 cases as of May but health specialists suggest this is probably an underestimate due to low levels of testing. In many instances even if households want to increase handwashing they are constrained by inequitable water access. In the five months since covid-19 started it has spread to more than 180 countries and 5 million people in that short space of time. From where I sit (at home in Australia), the data being presented in global press overwhelmingly emphasises the case loads of developed or middle income countries (e.g. US, Russia, South Korea, Italy, Brazil). Cases reported in countries with less robust healthcare and monitoring systems are less represented. Is this because they have fewer cases, or are less able to accurately measure them? It may be years before we know the answer to this, and this itself represents the possible inequitable toll the virus may take. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on equity will take time to be revealed. In Australia, restrictions are having gendered impacts in essential services on women who are over-represented as nurses, carers and teachers, in access to paid work where more women have left employment due to economic downturn, and in the household where studies are showing women have taken on more of the domestic load. In contexts where access to WASH services is already challenging there are already well documented gender and social inclusion issues. How are covid-19 risks and restrictions altering or exacerbating existing inequalities in accessing WASH? What about in densely populated areas or in water scarce or flood-prone areas? WASH professionals need to consider intra- and inter-household equity issues within a do-no-harm framework. Covid-19 is highlighting inequalities within households and societies and between countries. There is no doubt that WASH is a first line of defence against this pandemic and there cannot be adequate responses without adequate WASH. We must understand the complexities and nuances of delivering adequate WASH as we continue to work towards improving these services and decreasing inequalities as we do so. The blog author, Bronwyn Powell is also a Water and WASH Specialist with over 20 years’ experience in the Asia-Pacific. Inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services impact on the health, livelihoods and wellbeing of many families around the world. Learn more in our Introduction to WASH Development Online Training Program. Details here.
Read more about IWC’s work in addressing social and gender inclusion issues in Fiji and Indonesia via the Australia government supported grant Engaging corporate actors for inclusive WASH-at-work linked to the Water for Women Fund.Banner image courtesy of Clear Water.
By mid-2021, the International Water Centre’s Dr Regina Souter hopes that many of the communities in the Solomon Islands and Fiji will have better access to safe and secure water, something that will dramatically improve health outcomes. Progress depends not so much on infrastructure as it does on local human capacity and political will, says the WASH and IWM specialist, who applies research and teaching to improve practical water management in the Pacific Islands. One of those research projects is Pacific Community Water Management Plus (PaCWaM+), which is a partnership with Griffith University, the University of South Pacific, and Solomon Islands National University, with the CSO Plan International Australia, Live and Learn Solomon Islands, Habitat for Humanity Australia, and Habitat for Humanity Fiji, as part of the Australian Government’s Water 4 Women Fund. “At the moment, many rural communities are supported to install water systems, but largely left on their own to operate and maintain the systems, including fixing unfamiliar technical problems or rehabilitating systems after disasters,” says Regina. “The PaCWaM+ research aims to identify ways communities can be better supported so that their water systems are more resilient, providing safe drinking water and meeting the needs of all members of the community, so that health and wellbeing are maximised.” There are also difficulties for communities in urban areas in accessing safe water and sanitation. “In Honiara in the Solomon Islands, 30 per cent of the population are living in unplanned settlements and most don’t have piped water services or safe sanitation,” says Regina.
Access to clean water is seen by many as a fundamental human right, but in some parts of the developing world, women are being forced to pay for it through ‘sextortion’. Pillar Avello, Program Manager for water governance at the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), says that the problem is pervasive.