Hong Kong has a water crisis?

Jasmine writes*

Unseen by its 8 million residents, a water crisis is approaching Hong Kong. Seventy to eighty percent of Hong Kong’s water comes from the Dongjiang river, which also brings water to Macau and other regions in the Pearl River Delta. The Dongjiang river is reaching its “critical limit” and further growth in the region might exceed that limit.

Things only become worse for Hong Kong when considering that the city-state lost 32.5% of its water to leakage and theft. Compare that figure to Tokyo, which dropped its leakage from 20% in 1955 to 2% today.

Hong Kong needs to focus on water loss management to reduce its risks. The Total Water Management (TWM) Strategy was launched in 2008, and it reduced leakage to 15% by 2019. TWM is also trying to get Hong Kong residents to use less water.

I grew up in Hong Kong and never considered that the city was facing a water crisis. I don’t think I use absurd amounts of water, but I also paid little attention to my usage. A study conducted by the OECD across 48 major cities reported that Hong Kong residents have very high domestic water per capita. Hong Kong’s illusion of unlimited water has encouraged residents to overconsume this scarce resource. The TWM strategy [pdf] promotes water-saving devices and conservation awareness in schools, but Hong Kong is consuming more water than ever.

Hong Kong’s water crisis will only worsen unless stricter policies are implemented and additional action is taken.

Bottom Line: Hong Kong’s heavy reliance on the Dongjiang river, leaky pipes, and overconsumption of water risks exposing the city to severe water scarcity in the near future.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

The politics of Dublin’s water scarcity

Aoibheann writes*

How can a city with lots of water have a water scarcity problem?

Look no further than Dublin.

Ireland has 10,600 m3 of renewable freshwater resources per inhabitant (Eurostat, 2022), and Dublin city gets around 1000mm of precipitation annually (Worldbank, 2021). According to Irish Water in 2015 [pdf], existing water sources supplied 623 megalitres/day (Mld) to Dublin, against average demand of 540 Mld, which works out to 375 litres per day per meter (CSO, 2021).

Several factors contribute to Dublin’s water scarcity, including the city’s Victorian-era infrastructure, rapid growth, history of “managing” scarcity by increasing supply, and climate change (Kelly-Quinn et al., 2014).

But the most striking factor is a lack of domestic water charges. Ireland is the only OECD country without direct water charges; water services are funded by general taxation (OECD, 2018) [pdf]. Ireland’s lack of domestic water charges exacerbates Dublin’s water scarcity problems. Missing prices complicate efforts to reduce demand, increase the need for supply-side solutions, and hamper Irish Water’s efforts to pay water service costs (Zhao & Crosbie, 2012). The absence of water charges is particularly ironic when one considers that the “Dublin principles” say “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good” (ICWE, 1992) [pdf].

Why does Dublin lack domestic water charges? Politics, and more particularly the Irish government’s botched attempt at introducing water pricing in 2014.

Numerous factors contribute to the politicisation of water. “Framing” — or the conceptualisation of an issue — has a significant role (Chong & Druckman, 2007). A frame narrows the focus to an issue’s implications for a particular set of values. Different frames can oppose each other, and the  government lost the framing contest quite spectacularly.

Protests took place in towns and cities across the Republic, including Letterkenny in County Donegal, where more than 8,000 people are believed to have taken to the streets — BBC – KEIRON TOURISH

In the context of severe austerity measures and the rolling back of the Irish welfare state, the government framed the need for domestic water charges as a means of boosting economic efficiency (O’Neill et al., 2018). The opposition, on the other hand, framed charges as part of the government’s anti-poor agenda. The opposition’s framing was particularly potent in the context of the financial crisis in which public services were slashed and widespread government corruption was exposed.

The government’s misguided framing, combined with low public trust, meant that the public was unlikely to support its water management reform.

Bottom Line: Irish politics have impeded the adoption of domestic water charges, which are deemed integral to integrated water resources management. A key issue has been the government’s inability to frame water charges as useful to the public. The government should try to re-frame the issue in terms of environmental or pro-poor outcomes, if it wants to shift public sentiment.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Will Las Vegas disappear?

Elena writes*

Las Vegas, USA is located in the Mojave desert and home to 650,000 people. The city is constantly facing water scarcity, which is worsened by climate change. For example, temperatures are more extreme and the water cycle is accelerating.

In 2012, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography declared a 50% likelihood of Lake Mead — the reservoir and water source next to Las Vegas — going (functionally) dry by 2021 if nothing was done to reduce water use. In 2022, Mead reached an historically low level due to droughts and overallocation.

Mead is not yet dry, but the city needs to reduce demand. An average household consumes around 0,83 m3 of water daily (220 gallons/HH). This number is high, but it’s better than before. Brelsford and Abbott report that water consumption per capita declined by 55% between 1996 and 2007, while population increased 63%. This fall in per capita use is attributed to water-efficient appliances in new houses, smaller lots (thus landscaping),  and conservation policies (raising prices and fines) attempting to change people’s behaviour.

Bottom Line: Las Vegas tries to limit its water demand, but its dependence on an unsustainable source and vulnerability to climate change puts its future survival at risk.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Pollution in Delhi’s Yamuna

Shreya writes*

The River Yamuna is one of India’s two holy rivers, flowing through five states before it joins the Ganga at Prayagraj — formerly Allahabad (Bhattacharyya & Prasad 2020). However, the Indian capital of New Delhi can hardly worship its stretch of the river – rather, it is frequently called a ‘dirty drain’ (Singh 2011). Dumping waste into the river is an entrenched public attitude in Delhi – meanwhile, government efforts to change such attitudes and improve water management infrastructure have been minimal at best, and careless at worst. This neglect has severely degraded Delhi’s only local source of water, forcing it to rely on external water sources and thus gravely endangering its water security (Economic Survey of Delhi, 2018-19).

Unregulated industrial and domestic pollution in Delhi alone contribute a whopping 79% of the Yamuna’s entire pollution load (Upadhyay et al. 2011). Firdaus & Ahmad (2012) calculate that 85% of this pollution comes from domestic sources. Unprecedented population growth has led to the growth of unauthorised housing colonies without sewage connections that dump waste directly into the river. Secondly, open defecation in these unauthorised colonies contributes organic and pathogenic contaminants to the river. Industries and unauthorised dairy farms with inefficient water treatment systems also discharge untreated effluents, cattle dung and liquid waste into the river (Firdaus & Ahmad 2012).

All this has severely degraded water quality in the river, dissolved oxygen content is approaching 0 mg/L, and biological oxygen demand was highest in Delhi at 18 mg/L in 2005 (Upadhyay et al. 2011). In response to public worries, the Government of India launched the first phase of the Yamuna Action Plan in 1993, with its second phase beginning in 2004 (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]). The plans aimed to increase the capacity of sewage treatment plants (STPs) and sewer connections, construct public toilets, develop the riverfront and increase public awareness and participation about the problems facing the Yamuna (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]). However, both plans, despite a hefty investment of Rs. 2700 crore [€ 31 million], failed completely in Delhi (The Pioneer 2016).

According to Singh (2011), one reason for failure was a lack of funding from state governments – a glaring example of the corruption that frequently plagues the water sector. Additionally, sewage treatment plants (STPs) were underutilised because they were built in areas that did not produce much sewage. Meanwhile, areas that produced more sewage were underserviced and forced to deposit waste directly into the river (Upadhyay et al. 2011). STPs were also poorly designed and maintained, suffering from frequent electrical breakdowns and understaffing (Parween et al. 2017).  Moreover, Delhi’s sewage demand was heavily underestimated, such that STPs could treat only 40% of the city’s generated sewage (Upadhyay et al. 2011). Lastly, STPs did not address non-point sources of pollution, and did not disinfect water to remove bacteria like coliform, leaving ‘treated’ water highly polluted (Sharma and Kansal [pdf]).

Similarly, the public toilets were absent in areas of high population density, and underutilized where constructed (Singh 2011).  Accessibility was also largely overlooked – floor-level pits were difficult for elderly and disabled people to use, while the Rs. 2 [EUR 0.02] fee per visit was too expensive for many poor users (The Pioneer 2016). Thus, the wastes previously produced continued polluting the river, as the infrastructure was inefficiently designed or inaccurately allocated.

Sharma and Kansal [pdf] show that the effects of these oversights by the government worsened pollution in the Yamuna – dissolved oxygen values remained below 5 mg/L and bacterial contamination was too high to comply with environmental standards. Additionally, the plan intended to make the Yamuna water safe for bathing (Class B) by the Central Pollution Control Board standards, but water quality remains at Class D.

Continued pollution and inefficient governance have thus rendered Delhi’s Yamuna completely unusable, despite it being one of the city’s key water sources. Delhi now gets around 50% of its drinking water from neighbouring states – an uneasy and unsustainable solution to its water woes (Economic Survey of Delhi, 2018-19).

Bottom Line: The case of Delhi’s Yamuna shows how corruption and government oversight in water management can perpetuate public attitudes that support pollution, degrading crucial water sources and endangering water security.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Cape Town’s returning challenge

Bente writes*

How do we stop a “day zero” of running out of water? Cape Town was one of the first cities facing this problem. How did it escape — and can it do it again?

Day Zero is reached when Cape Town’s dam levels fall below 13,5% (Climate Portal, 2022). During the severe drought of 2015-2018, dam levels were under 21%, and taps were on the verge of going dry (memeburn, 2018). Farmers helped by giving their water to the city. The government added restrictions to water use, increased water tariffs for heavy water users, and reconfigured its pressure management system — saving around 10% of supply (Global Resilience Institute, Bloomberg, 2019). The return of rain also helped, but these actions and results may not be easy for the next drought hitting Cape Town or another city.

Image Source

So which measures should always be taken to avoid a day zero? The answer may be by trying to change the water usage habits of citizens. How did Cape Town change this successfully? They started by making things such as filling pools, water gardens, washing cars, or other non-essential uses illegal (National Geographic, 2018). Restaurants asked people to minimize toilet flushing with the slogan “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” (World Economic Forum, 2019). But maybe the most important measures were the social controls that the city implemented. This started with weekly updates of the dam levels to create awareness of water scarcity and digital boards on highways that counted down to Day Zero. In 2018, the city published a city-wide water map showing household level water usage, which helped people hold each other accountable (Bloomberg, 2019). An online community shared tips for saving water.

Do social norms work in long term? Demand is increasing again because social measures only worked when the drought was severe. When supplies returned, so did demand. It is necessary to “destroy” demand if the city wants to avoid a future day zero, by encouraging people to permanently reduce their demand for water.

Bottom Line: Cape Town implemented restrictions to avoid Day Zero once; if it wants to avoid a future day zero, then it needs to destroy demand.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

The endless issue: water pollution

Mira writes*

Costa Rica is proud of its sustainability, but it’s mismanaging its water. As the head of the Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA) said in 2019:  “We sell ourselves as a green country, but in terms of wastewater and the quality of our rivers we have not been consistent”. In the country, low water quality, and subsequently high levels of pollution has negatively impacted the lives of many.

Specifically in urban areas, this water pollution can directly be seen in rivers. According to La Nacion, San Jose’s levels of water pollution are continuously increasing as untreated wastewater is diverted into rivers rather than into sanitary sewer systems. Rivers also suffer from trash dumping. In a further article the minister of health commented on the threat this posed to a “potential harmful disease outbreak”. In a 2013 research paper on “water supply and sanitation,” Bower found linked high levels of water pollution to untreated urban and rural wastewater. Pollution was worse near hospitals. The release of chemicals, antibiotics etc. into the water supply threatens ecosystems and people.

A 2021 study of water quality in Cartago (an agricultural region close to San Jose) found high levels of pollutants and chemicals in the water. Pollution was linked to urban population, erosion and agriculture — specifically from unauthorized pesticides.

Overall the agricultural sector is a large contributor to water pollution. Agriculture affects water quality through fertilizers, which in recent years have only increased in concentration. Simultaneously, contamination through organic matter from livestock farming. Both integrating into the water system as ground water, run off water and through irrigation.

What is being done? Agua Tica is promoting [pdf] good agricultural practices (GAPs). In the past much produce has been grown with the help of agrochemicals and other synthetic fertilizers, with the intention of increasing crop yields. Agua Tica trains farmers on implementing sustainable farming practices at a low cost. Many farmers have implemented GAPs as they wanted to protect their environment and people from pesticides.

The Los Tajos wastewater-treatment plant, opened in 2015, has increased wastewater treatment capacity. The AyA is working to expand and repair sewer infrastructure around the capitol.

Bottom Line: Costa Rica’s poor management of water has led to high water pollution mainly caused by the urban population, agriculture and industry. To resolve this crisis farmers are being trained and the sewage system is being expanded.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

On transboundary water management

Eszter writes*

Water allocation requires complex management directives, with inevitable tradeoffs between different recipients of the agricultural, industrial, or residential spheres and nature, suitable domestic and international policies, as well as a multifaceted decision-making approach, including political, economic, and environmental considerations.

Békéscsaba, in the southeastern part of Hungary, faces the same challenges. Located on the Great Hungarian Plain, the city and the surrounding area are in one of the country’s most agriculturally intensive regions, responsible for feeding many people. On the other hand, a substantial part of Békés County (which holds the city) falls under environmental protection as part of one of Hungary’s ten national parks. Further complicating water management is the proximity and aquatic interconnectedness with neighboring Romania as the main rivers surrounding Békéscsaba originate on the other side of the border, in the high Carpathians.

The following blog post will elaborate on this latter international dimension by looking at the cooperative steps taken for integrated water resources management of the Körös/Crisuri sub-basin.

Figure 1 source

The aforementioned system of three rivers converges near Békéscsaba, one of the main sub-basins of Hungary’s longest river, the Tisza. The catchment area of the Körös approximates 30000 km2, with an average water volume of 3,437 million m3 annually, thus bearing prominent environmental, economic, and social values both in the southeastern region of the Great Plain as well as in the Western parts of Romania (GWP Toolbox, 2010).

As a response to the pollution calamities striking the river Tisza in the early 2000s and facilitated by their admittance to the EU, Romania, and Hungary developed a collaborative water management strategy over their shared resources in adherence to the requirements enclosed in the EU’s central law for water protection since 2000, the Water Framework Directive (WDF). The WDF is aimed to “protect and […] restore water bodies to reach good status and to prevent deterioration” (European Commission) across the EU, and to incentivize transboundary regional management by allocating districts based on river basins irrespective of national borders.

Enabled by the collaboration of French, Romanian, and Hungarian experts, the strategy, which started in 2005, successfully set up a management body to administer technical assistance over the coordination of respective organizations in the environmental sector. During the span of the first 2 years of operation, the initiative achieved the harmonization of ecosystem monitoring, structured stakeholder, and public involvement through consultations on local water issues, provided economic analyses as well as professional training on quality conduct. Subsequently, the project also aimed to alleviate the impact and occurrence of frequent floods, posing great threats to the agriculturally prominent regions surrounding the river system. Perhaps most importantly, however, it facilitated efficient transboundary data collection and processing in the form of a catalogue of metadata, which lies at the heart of transboundary decision-making on the allocation of shared resources (IOWater 2007).

Bottom Line: Despite the steps taken for the sustainable and responsible management of the Körös/Crisuri basin, the area still faces substantial water shortages throughout the summer, with occasional water flows dropping below 1m3/s. Such dry periods can have detrimental consequences for the local natural vegetation and ecosystem as well as the agricultural production reliant on the river, requiring on average 30-40 million m³ of irrigation water per season. On the other end of the spectrum, certain years are afflicted by inland water and floods (Behír, 2017). These severe fluctuations are highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and will pose serious challenges to the co-managed region of the Körös catchment area with the probable proliferation of extreme weather events in correlation with global processes.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Modern twist on tradition: Chennai

Conor writes*

Storms are looming on the horizon. With climate change churning its course, cyclone events are only expected to worsen in the Bay of Bengal. Chennai needs to be ready.

Chennai, an Indian coastal city on the Bay of Bengal, suffers from mass storm surge events. Historically, Tamil Nadu, the state within which Chennai is a part of and acts as the capital, has found ingenious ways of dealing with the storm surge and flooding caused by these monsoon cyclones. The city is pockmarked with large and ancient holes that have been carved into the landscape. This is the Eri system.

Eris are an ancient method of dealing with the annual struggles of drought and flooding, commonly seen in Chennai. They are tanks that aim to both contain flooding events during the monsoon season, but then also act as water harvesting methods, capable of irrigating large swathes of agriculture and recharging the groundwater that Chennai relies on. The way in which these Eris are constructed, however, is the final stroke of genius. When one Eri fills up entirely and starts to overflow, the runoff is directed towards the next Eri, and this system continues, sort of like a cascading waterfall, until finally the water is released into natural ‘Eris’ such as rivers or wetlands.

To understand the importance that this system of Eris plays within the Chennai urban ecosystem, one must first understand the geography of the region. Chennai lies on the Eastern Coastal Plains, where the city is, on average, only 6 meters above sea level. Additionally, while three rivers pass through the city, none of the rivers are perennial, needing to be recharged by rainfall. This means that the city relies entirely on rainfall for its water. As such, the city also requires a lot of rainfall, 1440mm of average annual rainfall to be exact. The Eri system is integral to the management of this rainfall and is needed for the survival of the residents.

Most recently, Ooze, a design practice based out of the Netherlands, which focuses on architecture and urbanism has launched their project “The City of 1000 Tanks.” This project aims to increase the functionality of existing Eris existing within temples in Chennai, while also creating new ones, and complementing them with artificial wetlands and bio-swales which can help to filter water and act as “Nature-Based Solutions.”

The main modernization of the Eri concept that is seen within Ooze’s design plan, is its dynamic nature. Since the monsoon and drought seasons are so climatically different, urban solutions to these problems need to be flexible in their implementation, such as having detention tanks that can act as children’s play parks in the drought season and then fill up in the monsoon season. In doing so, the modernized tanks bring with them a social benefit that was lacking in the traditional Eri system. This does not mean, however, that the modernized versions do not take anything with them from the traditional methods. Ooze also plans to create “Blue/Green Canals” that will interlink all the existing Eris and new tanks to be able to create the cascading waterfall effect from the traditional system. The project started in 2018, promotes a promising future for Chennai’s multidisciplinary water problems.

Bottom Line: The traditional Eri system within Chennai was one of the most ingenious solutions to the city’s water-based problems. Now it is being revamped and modernized to fit the needs of a growing city in need of better solutions.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Interesting stuff

  1. Video: The redesign of Pakistan’s rivers created the world’s largest irrigation district — and many problems.
  2. Read: Which matters most: Many bikes or good infrastructure?
  3. Listen: Should academics forsake peer review for public discussions?
  4. Read: Disney is harvesting data from you and your kids.
  5. Read: How counterfeit fabric slips into a complex supply chain
  6. Read: Musk’s destruction of Twitter should push legislators to regulate algorithms. My idea? Make any company with x% market share disclose its algorithm (even if it’s in a black box), so that civili society can find its bias.
  7. Read: Heat pumps are amazing. Have you got one? (I’m waiting for a smaller one for my flat.)
  8. Read: You can now pay social media companies for more prominence, account security and more followers. What could possibly go wrong in a  world already known for fakes, lies, and counterfeits?
  9. Read: “I was struck by how many people said that their present age was their favorite one. A reassuring number of respondents didn’t want to trade their hard-­earned wisdom—or humility, or self-­acceptance, whatever they had accrued along the way—for some earlier moment”
  10. Whelp, that’s peak libertarian!

The economy over residents

Fauve writes*

Despite the city of Abeokuta being one of the largest water distributors to urban cities in Southwestern Nigeria, the residents of Abeokuta themselves suffer greatly from water scarcity.  A growing population and intensifying climate change (pdf) is making the already poor potable water supply even more scarce. But politicians are prioritizing economic development over the interests of residents.

The Oyan dam, one of the main supplies of water to Abeokuta, was built in 1983 by the Ogun Oshun River Basin Development (pdf) for municipal uses in hopes of solving the water scarcity problem. However, rather than supplying a sufficient amount of water to residents, the Oyan dam is barely distributing water. Poor infrastructure, insufficient connections, and a lack of maintenance means that only 1.3% of Abeokutians get their water from Oyan.

It is important to note, however, that the dams built were not only meant for municipal uses, but also for industrial and irrigation uses in hopes of the state gaining more financial income. After a study in 2019, it became clear who the state prioritizes. Whilst the unmet potable water supply for residents was 4.5 MCM (millions of cubic meters), the demand for industrial and irrigation uses was often fully met. Unmet demand becomes understandable when looking at the revenue and expenditure of the main regulator in Abeokuta, The Ogun State Water Corporation (OSWC). In spite of gaining N9.1 billion a year (US$20k), with a recurrent expenditure set at N1.6 billion (US$3k), and capital expenditure at N7.5 billion (US$16k) supposedly used to tackle water scarcity in Abeokuta, the government prioritizes rehabilitation of dams, leading to the issue of its populace not having water being put on hold.

Due to the dam not supplying Abeokutians with enough water, the residents choose to take matters into their own hands by investing in self-supply via “private utility companies.” Therefore, if residents are able to afford it, they tend to install tanks to ensure clean drinking water. In fact, 68.6% of residents rely on their own private utilities whilst only 2.63% rely on the pipeline connection provided by government water supplies.

Not only has the lack of government action to provide potable water to Abeokuta resulted in residents installing private utilities, but it has also increased the price of water due to the costs of aging infrastructure. Residents who commonly relied on tanks to gather water face a price increase of 33% (N500 or US$1.09) per m3 of water. Though this may not seem drastic, for a family or community with an unstable income, this could decrease the average number of liters they buy, or set a stop on buying clean water at all, leading to high risks of developing waterborne diseases from unsanitary water supplies.

Bottom line: The dams constructed in Abeokuta are inadequate in ensuring a sufficient potable water supply to its residents due to insufficient funds put towards the reconstruction and building of pipeline connections as a cause of government interests lying in the economy rather than its citizens.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂