Print Friendly and PDF
Of water and fever

Of water and fever

While we're rightly distracted by fighting a virus, are we ignoring other "just" wars over water?

Let's visit a city of 600,000 that, until a few days ago, I didn't know existed.


Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. It's gripped by an epic drought, and its citizens have access to tap water one day per week.

One day a week.

Think of how often you use water to drink, launder, bathe, cook, flush.

One day a week.

A year ago, southern Africa was in such deep drought that Cape Town's 4.5 million people came within weeks of running their water supply dry.

The five million people of Jordan's capital, Amman, have often lived with restrictions allowing water use as rarely as one hour per day.

The 161 million people of Bangladesh face an increasingly likely future of rising seas, more intense typhoons, and decreasing freshwater supplies from rivers fed by the dwindling glaciers of the Himalayas.

More water risks, anyone?

Rising seas plus increased demand on coastal freshwater supplies could equal saltwater intrusion—the ruin of drinking water. This month, Yale Environment 360 reported water supplies for Philadelphia and much of South Jersey could be compromised as the Delaware River's "salt front" moves upstream.

The salt front is the farthest extent that tidal saltwater reaches the fresh river water. It's currently 40 miles from the closest drinking water intakes. Three feet of sea level rise could bring the front to within a dozen miles, while a protracted drought could draw it much closer.

From the Carolinas to northern Florida, the equation is rising seas plus draining aquifers. Drinking water from these subsurface lakes has enabled booming coastal growth.

There's increasing concern that encroaching seawater could forever spoil the aquifers. In addition, an influx of saltwater could upset the salt/fresh water balance in estuaries, not only in the Southeast U.S. but along coastlines worldwide.

This would spell catastrophe for the shellfish industry. Oystermen in the Florida Panhandle have already been in a quarter century long battle over water rights in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin. Upstream water users, notably metro Atlanta, stand accused of taking too much water, leaving Apalachicola Bay too salty to grow its prized oysters.

Finally here are three items from Michigan, the state surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes.

Torrential rains this week breached two ancient dams upstream from the industrial city of Midland, sending nine feet of water through downtown—past Herbert H. Dow High School; the Grace A. Dow Public Library; the Dow Gardens Arboretum, with its statue of old man Dow; and Dow High's crosstown rival, Midland High (home of the Chemics).

Well, if you guessed that Midland is a company town, you'd be right, and for 123 years, Dow Chemical has graced Midland with multiple sites full of its leavings. So far, Dow has acknowledged that the floodwaters "commingled" with waste at at least one site.

The Midland floods raise two questions. First, how many other unsafe, nearly century-old dams are waiting for climatologists' predictions of more frequent and intense downpours? Also, those downpours may unearth toxic soup at any one of thousands of waste sites, legal or otherwise, known or unknown.

It's been six years since we learned of Flint's criminal scandal in allowing lead pollution in aging water hookups to thousands of homes.

Not only are many of these largely poor and minority residents still drinking bottled water, but Flint's plight has been found to exist in hundreds of communities across the nation.

And finally, a slightly upbeat item from the Great Lakes region: The U.S. Senate has signed off on a potential increase in funding to combat the spread of invasive Asian carp into the lakes. But cash-strapped states may have trouble keeping their end of the funding alive.

Is there an upside? Between a pandemic of failing dams and a pandemic of poisoned pipes, we have infrastructure projects that could help revive a tanked economy.

Just sayin.'

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Contact him at pdykstra@ehn.org(opens in new tab) or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.

Banner photo: Students wash their hands at a new well and water pump installed at a Bulawayo, Zimbabwe,school in February 2012. (Credit: Save the Children/flickr)

Become a donor
Today's top news

Op-ed: It’s time to re-think the United Nations’ COP climate negotiations

Instead of focusing on negotiations, let the main event be information sharing, financing and partnerships that produce faster technological change.

Evidence of PFAS in sanitary and incontinence pads

The findings come on the heels of other testing that found the forever chemicals in some popular tampons.

From our newsroom

LISTEN: Beau Taylor Morton on the power of community organizing

“People can see you engaged and wanting to begin the work, not only as a researcher, but you’re invested in the community.”

Op-ed: What the media gets wrong about the new world population numbers

The last time that we lived within the productivity limits of our planet was about 50 years ago — that is a problem.

Pennsylvania’s first proposed hazardous waste landfill would be near homes and schools

Residents can voice their opinions at an upcoming public hearing or in public comments.

Where did the PFAS in your blood come from? These computer models offer clues

New research could help pinpoint “forever chemicals” exposure — giving communities a roadmap for cleanup and individuals direction on what to avoid.

Making an impact with environmental health: Yanelli Nunez, PhD.

Engaging in ways to make scientific work more impactful