Stories Percolate on World Water Day

National Geographic dives in with special issue

By 2025, 1.8 billion people are expected to live in areas where water is scarce—a prediction, among many troubling others, that was highlighted during World Water Day on Monday.

The sixteenth annual event, sponsored by the United Nations, drew fairly light coverage. The most popular peg came from a report released by the U.N. Environment Program, “Sick Water?” which found that more people die from polluted water every year than from all forms of violence, including war.

The Environment News Service ran the longest and most detailed account of the report. The Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press, Reuters, and Voice of America chimed in with shorter pieces. Among blogs, The Huffington Post stepped up with at least four posts (here, here, here, and here) on World Water Day. It’s too bad there wasn’t a bit more. Fortunately, one publication dove headlong into the story. In honor of World Water Day, National Geographic is offering a free download (from March 22 until April 2) of its current issue, which is entirely dedicated to freshwater issues around the globe.

Under a simple cover beaded with water, the book is stocked with articles and items related to “Our Thirsty World.” As one might expect from National Geographic (or any other magazine, perhaps), the content is very solutions-oriented. The front contains a number of interesting briefs on new desalination technologies, sunlight disinfection techniques in the slums of Kenya, “fog catchers” in the mountains of Peru, and even the suspected locations of major reservoirs throughout the solar system.

Barbara Kingsolver writes the lead essay, however, and does little to assuage my distaste for the environmental musings of celebrity writers. The opening has her marveling at beads of water on a spider web, the end at light refracting through a glass of water sitting on her desk. Somewhere in between, she tells of traveling to the parched Bajo Piura Valley of Peru to see “an innovative reforestation project” launched by local conservationists and an international NGO. Kingsolver makes a point of telling readers that she was there “as a journalist,” and surely it is an interesting project, but she doesn’t explain it very well.

These criticisms aside, Kingsolver captures the power that water wields over human existence in two excellent lines: “We stake our civilizations on the coasts and mighty rivers. Our deepest dread is the threat of having too little moisture—or too much.” After a beautiful photo essay (of course—the issue is littered with incredible images of the life aquatic) by John Stanmeyer about the use of water in ritual blessings, six features deal with this concept exactly.

The lead feature, “The Big Melt,” addresses the threat that retreating Himalayan glaciers pose to the two billion people across Asia who depend the rivers they feed. The article, by Brook Larmer, is a welcome read after the recent controversy surrounding an error in one of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 reports, which said the massive tongues of ice might disappear far sooner than is actually likely. But they will disappear if the world continues to warm.

Larmer’s article—which acknowledges that “the rate of melting is not uniform” and that there are “gaps in scientific knowledge”—isn’t really about the science, though. It’s about the people who depend on the water the glaciers provide. There, too, Larmer leaves room for Tibetan farmers who are pleased by swollen rivers that have expanded croplands and lengthened the growing season. There is a growing realization that “such benefits often hide deeper costs,” however, and in other parts of Asia the facts are plainly obvious: the reservoirs are running out.

The rest of the features cover the plight of women in Ethiopia who must trek tens of miles each day for meager amounts of polluted water; an “ark”-like laboratory in Knoxville, Tennessee, where scientists are trying to save a variety of Southern Appalachia’s endangered aquatic species; why California’s “heroic system of dams, pumps, and canals can’t stave off a water crisis;” how water is source of both war and peace (seems like mostly the former, though the article kind of sugar-coats it); why the fate of the Earth’s waterways ultimately depend on conservation.

“In conjunction with the special issue, the National Geographic Society has named Sandra Postel its first Freshwater Fellow,” according to a press release. “She will head a National Geographic-led multiyear project to motivate people across the globe to care about and conserve fresh water and the extraordinary diversity of life it sustains.”

Postel is the founder of the independent Global Water Policy Project, where her bio says she writes, lectures, and consults on global water issues. She is the author of two books, one of which was the basis for a 1997 PBS documentary, and “more than 100 articles” prominent newspapers, magazines, and journals. Postel’s article “Troubled Waters (pdf),” was selected for inclusion in the 2001 edition of Best American Science and Nature Writing.

Online on Monday, National Geographic News ran a few additional items about World Water Day. The most impressive was a story about the “two billion tons of human and animal waste and industrial pollution [that] are dumped into waterways every day around the world.” The article, which focused on sanitation issues in the Kibera slums of Nairobi, Kenya, was based on the U.N. report, “Sick Water?” as well as another one it released called “Clearing the Waters,” which most other outlets failed to mention. There is also a World Water Day photo gallery, a useful water resources page, and a complete archive of National Geographic’s clean-water coverage.

Coincidentally, a couple other water-related stories appeared on and around World Water Day. One of those provided an interesting follow-up to National Geographic’s feature on California’s overstressed water infrastructure. The feature focused on a choke-and-flood point of that system—the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in northern California, whose waters are pumped to farms in the Central Valley and cities in Southern California—and plans to circumvent it with a new canal. Among the many problems afflicting the delta, including subsidence and earthquake vulnerability, is the decline in smelt, salmon, and other fish that live in or pass through it.

For two years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service have required reductions in the amount of delta water pumped to farms, in order to help the fish recover. On Friday, the National Academy of Sciences released a study, which found that federal efforts to protect the endangered fish are “scientifically justified.” The study noted “uncertainty” about the timing of the water reductions, however, and that the decline in fish populations is not entirely caused by thirsty farms (pollution and invasive species could also be factors).

The academy’s study got fairly wide coverage. In California, the Stockton Record, located in the delta itself, had one of the best articles. The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial praising the study and an article that began, “Score one for the fish.” But a Los Angeles Times headline declared, “Scientists’ report only intensifies debate.” Likewise, a long article from Greenwire stressed that the academy had delivered a “mixed message.”

The other big news over the weekend was the Environmental Protection Agency’s announcement on Monday that it will impose stricter limits on four carcinogenic contaminants as part of a new strategy to streamline and improve drinking water regulations. According to an article from Greenwire, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said the agency is taking a four-pronged approach: “addressing contaminants in groups rather than individually, fostering the development of new treatment technologies, using multiple statutes to safeguard water supplies, and enhancing state and local partnerships.”

The EPA’s actions follow an ongoing New York Times series called “Toxic Waters,” a multimedia investigation of water pollution across the country, and of the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The series, by Charles Duhigg, won second-place place in this year’s John B. Oakes Award, administered by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, for outstanding environmental journalism.

It would be nice to see more outlets devote extra time and resources into coverage of freshwater issues in the way that National Geographic, The New York Times, and others have. Reporters need not depend on events such as World Water Day. This is a local story as much as it is a global one. We may dam and divert rivers, but ultimately, it is water that guides the course of human civilization—not the other way around.

[Clarification: In order to avoid generalization, the text of this story was changed to note that National Geographic’s feature focused on the plight of women in Ethiopia, specifically, and not Africa at large, although similar issues exist elsewhere on the continent.]

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.