Protecting local water has global benefits

Protecting local water has global benefits

A new paper in the May issue of Nature Communications demonstrates why keeping local lakes and other waterbodies clean produces cost-effective benefits locally and globally.

A single season of a lake or water body with a harmful algal bloom that results in public do-not-drink orders, damages to fishing activity, lost recreational opportunities, decreased property values and increased likelihood of low birth weight among infants born to mothers exposed to polluted water bodies are but just a handful of reasons why clean water is important.

Most everyone wants their local lake or stream to be clean and useable for drinking, fishing, swimming and recreation. But previous cost-benefit studies showed the costs of protecting local water sources often exceeded the benefits.

Not so fast say the authors. One of the reasons past studies showed costs exceeding benefits is that not all benefits, especially global ones, were analyzed by economists.

New research, led by University of Minnesota Sea Grant Director John A. Downing, found that adding up global financial benefits of clean water shows that keeping water clean can help slow climate change, saving trillions of dollars. Using one Lake Erie case study as an example, the authors also found that the global climate change value of protecting and preventing this Great Lake from algae blooms was ten times greater than the value of beach use or sport fishing.

“Surface water is one of the Earth’s most important resources,” said Downing, who is also a lake scientist at the University of Minnesota Duluth Large Lake Observatory. “Yet people have mistakenly assumed that it costs more to protect our water than it is worth. Our research demonstrates that there is significant local and global value to protecting local water quality.”

One reason for this, said the authors, is that scientists and economists have previously considered only a narrow range of local benefits when calculating the outcomes of good water quality. Downing and co-authors sought to calculate the potential global benefits.

Locally, cleaning or keeping a local lake or waterbody free of unwanted nutrients- what scientists call eutrophication — is obviously good for people who use or want to access that particular water body. Globally, it’s also good for reducing the amount of the greenhouse gas methane that is released into the atmosphere from that eutrophic water body.

Methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because it has a much higher heat-trapping ability and has about 21 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Less methane in the atmosphere can help slow global warming.

The authors sought to answer the question: is keeping a local water body clean worth the cost?

The cost of climate change comes from health-care costs, damages to urban infrastructure, agricultural damages, catastrophic storm damage, negative impacts on recreation, forestry, fisheries, energy systems, water systems, construction, and coastal infrastructure.

“We calculated the global climate damages from methane emissions from eutrophic lakes and calculated the damages that would be avoided damages by preventing increased emissions from 2015 to 2050,” said Downing. “If we could hold methane emissions at current levels rather than the expected 20-100% increase by 2050, the value of avoiding the resulting damages could be as much as $24 trillion.” The authors estimated the costs of global climate change due to eutrophication from 2015 to 2050 to be as much as $81 trillion.

The authors’ analysis shows that local water quality protection has global economic implications. The substantial emissions they document from lakes and reservoirs and the potential for increased emissions suggest that there is considerable value to be gained by improving water quality in lakes and reservoirs and in preventing further deterioration.

“It’s not possible to avoid all emissions from lakes and reservoirs, but with concerted effort it may be possible to prevent increased emissions or even reverse it,” said Downing.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: University of Minnesota

The Aqueduct of Constantinople: Managing the longest water channel of the ancient world

Aqueducts are very impressive examples of the art of construction in the Roman Empire. Even today, they still provide us with new insights into aesthetic, practical, and technical aspects of construction and use. Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) investigated the longest aqueduct of the time, the 426-kilometer-long Aqueduct of Valens supplying Constantinople, and revealed new insights into how this structure was maintained back in time. It appears that the channels had been cleaned of carbonate deposits just a few decades before the site was abandoned.

The late Roman aqueduct provided water for the population of Constantinople

The Roman Empire was ahead of its time in many ways, with a strong commitment to build infrastructure for its citizens which we still find fascinating today. This includes architecturally inspiring temples, theaters, and amphitheaters, but also a dense road network and impressive harbors and mines. “However, the most ground-breaking technical achievement of the Roman Empire lies in its water management, particularly its long-distance aqueducts that delivered water to cities, baths, and mines,” said Dr. Gül Sürmelihindi from the Geoarchaeology group at Mainz University. Aqueducts were not a Roman invention, but in Roman hands these long-distance aqueducts developed further and extensively diffused throughout one of the largest empires in history.

Almost every city in the Roman Empire had an ample supply of fresh running water, in some cases actually with a larger volume than is the case today. “These aqueducts are mostly known for their impressive bridges, such as the Pont du Gard in southern France, which are still standing today after two millennia. But they are most impressive because of the way problems in their construction were solved, which would be daunting even for modern engineers,” said JGU Professor Cees Passchier. More than 2,000 long-distance Roman aqueducts are known to date, and many more are awaiting discovery. The study undertaken by Dr. Gül Sürmelihindi and her research team focuses on the most spectacular late-Roman aqueduct, the water supply lines of Constantinople, now Istanbul in present-day Turkey.

Carbonate deposits provide insights into Byzantine water management

In AD 324, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made Constantinople the new capital of the Roman Empire. Although the city lies at the geopolitically important crossroads of land routes and seaways, fresh water supply was a problem. A new aqueduct was therefore built to supply Constantinople from springs 60 kilometers to the west. As the city grew, this system was expanded in the 5th century to springs that lie even 120 kilometers from the city in a straight line. This gave the aqueduct a total length of at least 426 kilometers, making it the longest of the ancient world. The aqueduct consisted of vaulted masonry channels large enough to walk through, built of stone and concrete, 90 large bridges, and many tunnels up to 5 kilometers long.

Sürmelihindi and her team studied carbonate deposits from this aqueduct, i.e., the limescale that formed in the running water, which can be used to obtain important information about water management and the palaeoenvironment at that time. The researchers found that the entire aqueduct system only contained thin carbonate deposits, representing about 27 years of use. From the annals of the city, however, it is known that the aqueduct system worked for more than 700 years, until at least the 12th century. “This means the entire aqueduct must have been maintained and cleaned of deposits during the Byzantine Empire, even shortly before it ceased working,” explained Sürmelihindi. Carbonate deposits can block the entire water supply and have to be removed from time to time.

Double construction over 50 kilometers was likely built for maintenance

Although the aqueduct is late Roman in origin, the carbonate found in the channel is from the Byzantine Middle Ages. This made the researchers think about possible cleaning and maintenance strategies — because cleaning and repairing a channel of 426 kilometers implies that it cannot be used for weeks or months, while the city population depends on its water supply. They then found that 50 kilometers of the central part of the water system is constructed double, with one aqueduct channel above the other, crossing on two-story bridges. “It is very likely that this system was set up to allow for cleaning and maintenance operations,” said Passchier. “It would have been a costly but practical solution.”

Unfortunately for the research team, it is no longer possible to study the exact operation of the system. One of the most imposing bridges, that of Ball?germe, was blown up with dynamite in 2020 by treasure hunters who erroneously believed they could find gold in the ruins.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  Johannes Gutenberg Universitaet Mainz

Wastewater treatment system recovers electricity, filters water

Wastewater treatment system recovers electricity, filters water | WaterWorld

Whether wastewater is full of “waste” is a matter of perspective.

“Why is it waste?” asked Zhen (Jason) He, professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It’s organic materials,” He said, and those can provide energy in a number of ways. Then there’s the other valuable resource in wastewater.

Water.

He’s lab has developed one system that recovers both, filtering wastewater while creating electricity. Results from bench-scale trials were published May 6 and featured as a front cover article in the journal Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology.

The waste materials in wastewater are full of organic materials which, to bacteria, are food.

“Bacteria love them and can convert them into things we can use,” He said. “Biogas is the primary source of energy we can recover from wastewater; the other is bioelectricity.”

There already exist ways to capitalize on bacteria to produce energy from wastewater, but such methods often do so at the expense of the water, which could be filtered and otherwise be used — if not for drinking — for “grey water” purposes such as irrigation and toilet flushing.

He’s lab took the two processes — filtration and energy production — and combined them, integrating the filtration system into the anode electrode of a microbial electrochemical system.

The system is set up like a typical microbial fuel cell, a bacterial battery that uses electrochemically active bacteria as a catalyst where a traditional fuel cell would use platinum. In this type of system, the bacteria are attached to the electrode. When wastewater is pumped into the anode, the bacteria “eat” the organic materials and release electrons, creating electricity.

To filter that same water, however, requires a different system.

He’s lab combined the systems, developing a permeable anode that acts as a filter.

The anode is a dynamic membrane, made of conductive, carbon cloth. Together, the bacteria and membrane filter out 80% to 90% of organic materials — that leaves water clean enough to be released into nature or further treated for non-potable water uses.

He used a mixed culture of bacteria, but they had to share one feature — the bacteria had to be able to survive in a zero-oxygen environment.

“If there was oxygen, bacteria would just dump electrons to the oxygen not the electrode,” He said. “If you cannot respire with the electrode, you’ll perish.”

To find the correct bacteria, He mostly defers to nature.

“It’s not 100 percent natural, but we select those that can survive in this condition,” He said. “It’s more like ‘engineered selection,'” the bacteria that did survive and respire with the electrode were selected for the system.

The amount of electricity created is not enough to, say, power a city, but it is in theory enough to help to offset the substantial amount of energy used in a typical U.S. water treatment plant.

“In the U.S., about 3% to 5% of electricity is used for water and wastewater activity,” He said. Considering the usage by a local municipal plant, He believes his system can reduce energy consumption significantly.

“Typically, the process consumes about 0.5 KWH of electricity per cubic meter,” He said. Based on bench scale experiments, “We can reduce it by half, or more of that.”

But the primary goal of He’s system isn’t electricity production, it’s wastewater treatment and nutrient recovery.

“Bacteria can convert those organic materials into things we can use,” He said. “We can also recover nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus for fertilizer. We can use it to feed plants. It’s only when we don’t use it, then it becomes waste.

“Wastewater is a resource in the wrong location.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Washington University in St. Louis

UN World Water Development Report 2021 ‘Valuing Water’

The United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR) 2021, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, shows that the inability to recognize the value of water is the main cause of water waste and misuse. Despite the difficulty of attributing an objective and indisputable value to a resource which is fundamental to life, it seems necessary to examine water’s various dimensions in order to understand the various aspects of its “value”. This is especially true in times of growing scarcity and against the backdrop of population growth and climate change.

“Water is our most precious resource, a ‘blue gold’ to which more than 2 billion people do not have direct access. It is not only essential for survival, but also plays a sanitary, social and cultural role at the heart of human societies,” says the Director-General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay.

This year’s WWDR addresses the question of the value of water. It shows that waste and careless use stems from the fact we all too often think of water exclusively in terms of its cost price, without realizing its tremendous value, which is impossible to price.

“The devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic remind us of the importance of having access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, and highlight that far too many people are still without them. Many of our problems arise because we do not value water highly enough; all too often water is not valued at all,” says Gilbert F. Houngbo, Chair of UN-Water and President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The value of water is certainly incalculable and limitless, since life cannot exist without it and it has no replacement. This is perhaps best illustrated by the widespread enthusiasm for the idea that traces of water can be found on Mars, or the fact that we think of water and life as interchangeable when studying other planets.

The report emphasizes the great need to broaden the notion of the “value” of water stressing that we cannot confuse the concepts of “price”, “cost” and “value”.

Although price and cost are potentially quantifiable, the concept of “value” is much wider and includes social and cultural dimensions.

Indeed, water is not like other raw materials which can be treated as commodities and openly traded through stock markets. The challenge is to determine a value for a resource whose importance varies in different areas of economic activity, at different times, without forgetting to take into account its social, environmental and cultural dimensions.

Tools and methodologies for valuing water are both imperfect and misapplied

The tools we have today tend to reduce the value of water to its economic aspect.

The economic value of water cannot be denied considering its myriad uses in food, electricity and industrial production, to name just a few.

While monetary valuation has the advantage of convenience and easy legibility in agriculture and industry, it presents the disadvantage of underestimating, even excluding, other aspects which are more difficult to monetize. How do we quantify the meaning of the 443 million schooldays missed annually due to water-related diseases?

Furthermore, some societies reject the idea of viewing nature and its benefits from an economic perspective, putting the rights of “Mother Earth” to the fore, thus rendering such economic readings of the value of water woefully inadequate.

In India, for example, the Ganges is revered by Hindus as a living entity with the same rights as human beings. Similarly, in New Zealand, the Te Awa Tupua Act of 2017 recognizes the Whanganui River as “an indivisible and living whole from the mountains to the sea” and guarantees the river’s protection by the local Maori population. “The fate of humans and water is inextricably linked. In the words of the Whanganui River Tribe’s proverb, Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au, I am the river, the river is me”, notes Audrey Azoulay.

Faced with these views and those of investors, who consider that resources such as water can have an economic value put on them, it becomes difficult to develop a standard system to measure the value of water in all its aspects. Nevertheless, it is possible to develop an integrated approach that allows the different dimensions of water to be considered together, so as to identify appropriate policy choices. A key element of such an approach is to ensure that all stakeholders, regardless of background or gender, are involved in evaluations and decision-making. If we want to enrich our approach to water and stop reducing the resource to its mere monetary value, we must be enriched by the views held by all, especially the people directly concerned.

Overcoming differences of opinion and reaching the necessary compromises is one of the great challenges of water management. “The time has come for stakeholders to identify, articulate and share perspectives of the values of water,” emphasizes UN-Water Chair, Gilbert F. Houngbo. This implies developing mechanisms that allow stakeholders not only to express themselves but also to be heard.

When major infrastructure projects are studied, for example, it is essential to consider all these different dimensions, to ensure that their social, cultural and environmental consequences are not underestimated. A cost-benefit approach therefore requires considering the different “values” of water.

Similarly, we know that providing universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation in 140 low- and middle-income countries would cost $114 billion per year, whereas the multiple social and economic benefits of safe water are difficult to evaluate.

These issues are at the heart of this year’s edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report (WWDR), UN-Water’s flagship publication on water and sanitation issues, which focuses on a different theme every year.

The report is published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water and its production is coordinate by the UNESCO World Water Assessment Programme. The report gives insight into the main trends concerning the state, use and management of freshwater and sanitation, based on work by members and partners of UN-Water.

Launched in conjunction with World Water Day, the report provides decision-makers with knowledge and tools to formulate and implement sustainable water policies. It also offers best practice examples and in-depth analyses to stimulate ideas and actions for better stewardship in the water sector and beyond.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: United Nations Water

Increased winter snowmelt threatens western US water resources

Snow on mountains

More snow is melting during winter across the West, a concerning trend that could impact everything from ski conditions to fire danger and agriculture, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder analysis of 40 years of data.

Researchers found that since the late 1970s, winter’s boundary with spring has been slowly disappearing, with one-third of 1,065 snow measurement stations from the Mexican border to the Alaskan Arctic recording increasing winter snowmelt. While stations with significant melt increases have recorded them mostly in November and March, the researchers found that melt is increasing in all cold season months — from October to March.

Their new findings, published today in Nature Climate Change, have important implications for water resource planning and may indicate fewer pristine powder days and crustier snow for skiers.

“Particularly in cold mountain environments, snow accumulates over the winter — it grows and grows — and gets to a point where it reaches a maximum depth, before melt starts in the spring,” said Keith Musselman, lead author on the study and research associate ,at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder.

But the new research found that melt before April 1 has increased at almost half of more than 600 stations in western North America, by an average of 3.5% per decade.

“Historically, water managers use the date of April 1 to distinguish winter and spring, but this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred as melt increases during the winter,” said Noah Molotch, co-author on the study, associate professor of geography and fellow at INSTAAR.

Snow is the primary source of water and streamflow in western North America and provides water to 1 billion people globally. In the West, snowy mountains act like water towers, reserving water up high until it melts, making it available to lower elevations that need it during the summer, like a natural drip irrigation system.

“That slow trickle of meltwater that reliably occurs over the dry season is something that we have built our entire water infrastructure on in the West,” said Musselman. “We rely very heavily on that water that comes down our rivers and streams in the warm season of July and August.”

More winter snowmelt is effectively shifting the timing of water entering the system, turning that natural drip irrigation system on more frequently in the winter, shifting it away from the summer, he said.

This is a big concern for water resource management and drought prediction in the West, which depends heavily on late winter snowpack levels in March and April. This shift in water delivery timing could also affect wildfire seasons and agricultural irrigation needs.

Wetter soils in the winter also have ecological implications. One, the wet soils have no more capacity to soak up additional water during spring melt or rainstorms, which can increase flash flooding. Wetter winter soils also keep microbes awake and unfrozen during a time they might otherwise lay dormant. This affects the timing of nutrient availability, water quality and can increase carbon dioxide emissions.

An underutilized data source

Across the western U.S., hundreds of thin, fluid-filled metal pillows are carefully tucked away on the ground and out of sight from outdoor enthusiasts. These sensors are part of an extensive network of long-running manual and automated snow observation stations, which you may have even used data from when looking up how much snow is on your favorite snowshoeing or Nordic skiing trail.

This new study is the first to compile data from all 1,065 automated stations in western North America, providing valuable statistical insight into how mountain snow is changing.

And by using automated, continuously recording snowpack stations instead of manual, monthly observations, the new research shows that winter melt trends are very widespread — at three-times the number of stations with snowpack declines, according to Musselman.

Snowpack is typically measured by calculating how much water will be produced when it melts, known as snow-water equivalent (SWE), which is affected by how much snow falls from the sky in a given season. But because winter snowpack melt is influenced more by temperature than by precipitation, it is a better indicator of climate warming over time.

“These automated stations can be really helpful to understand potential climate change impacts on our resources,” said Musselman. “Their observations are consistent with what our climate models are suggesting will continue to happen.”

Other authors on this publication include Nans Addor at the University of Exeter and Julie Vano at the Aspen Global Change Institute.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:  University of Colorado at Boulder

Federal Agencies Plan to Investigate Links between PFAS Exposure and Viral Illness

Two federal health agencies are planning to investigate potential links between exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals and susceptibility to viral illnesses like Covid-19.

The study would build on federally funded investigations of PFAS exposure in nine communities near U.S. military bases where the chemicals were found in drinking water. Researchers hope to enroll 4,075 people from those previous investigations in the new assessment.

A collaboration between the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the study will be based on health questionnaires sent to people who have already had blood samples drawn for the PFAS exposure assessments.

Laurel Schaider, a senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, told Circle of Blue that the agencies can leverage their data on PFAS levels in blood serum to provide valuable insights on the connection between chemical exposure and disease.

“It provides a good opportunity to address some of these questions,” said Schaider, who is leading a separate ATSDR-funded study in two Massachusetts communities of the health impacts of PFAS exposure in drinking water.

The new federal assessment on PFAS and viral illness will support an emerging field of scientific inquiry. A decade ago, a study of more than 69,000 people in the Ohio River Valley found probable links between PFOA and chronic diseases like high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer.

PFOA is one of the thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS. The compounds have been used in firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, waterproof jackets, and other commercial and industrial products. Called “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in the environment, the chemicals have been found in drinking water sources nationwide.

For PFAS exposures and viral illnesses, Schaider pointed to a growing body of evidence of the debilitating effects the chemicals have on the human immune system.

A 2016 National Toxicology Program review concluded that two of the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, are hazardous to the immune system, weakening the body’s ability to fight pathogens.

Very few studies have investigated links with Covid-19. Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University led a study of 323 people in Denmark who were infected with the new coronavirus. That study, published last October, found that even low levels of PFBA — a PFAS chemical that lodges in the lungs — were associated with more severe symptoms of Covid-19.

Grandjean concluded that more work is needed on the topic, especially with people who have higher PFAS concentrations in their blood.

The new federal study intends to fill that gap and more, looking not only at Covid-19 but viral illnesses like pneumonia and the flu. An ATSDR spokesperson told Circle of Blue that the evaluation would include self-reported symptoms as well as illnesses confirmed by laboratory tests.

Another benefit will be the sample size — 3,300 adults and 775 children — which, if all agree to participate, could be more than 10 times larger than the Denmark study.

“Having more people in a study provides more statistical power for us to be able to distinguish or evaluate links between an exposure and a health effect,” Schaider said. “So having several thousand people as compared to several hundred people should be able to provide more information and assess those links more thoroughly.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Circle of Blue

Japan set to release Fukushima plant water into sea

Photo taken on Feb. 13, 2021, from a Kyodo News helicopter shows tanks storing treated radioactive water behind reactor buildings at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. (Kyodo)

The Japanese government is poised to release treated radioactive water accumulated at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea despite opposition from fishermen, sources familiar with the matter said Friday.

It will hold a meeting of related ministers as early as Tuesday to formally decide on the plan, a major development following over seven years of discussions on how to discharge the water used to cool down melted fuel at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The treated water containing radioactive tritium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors, is said to pose little risk to human health because even if one drinks the water, so long as the tritium concentration is low, the amounts of tritium would not accumulate in the body and would soon be excreted.

There is also no risk of external exposure even if the water comes in contact with skin.

Still, concerns remain among Japan’s fisheries industry and consumers as well as neighboring countries such as South Korea and China.

The government has said it cannot continue postponing a decision on the disposal issue, given that the storage capacity of water tanks at the Fukushima complex is expected to run out as early as fall next year.

It asserts that space needs to be secured on the premises, such as for keeping melted fuel debris that will be extracted from the damaged reactors, to move forward with the decades-long process of scrapping the complex.

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. says it will take around two years for the discharge to start.

The government had initially hoped to make a decision on the discharge of the treated water in October last year but later decided it would need more time for discussions amid concerns about reputational damage to marine products.

But Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday his government will decide “in a few days” whether to release the water after meeting with Hiroshi Kishi, head of the national federation of fisheries cooperatives, who conveyed his organization’s continued strong opposition to the plan.

On media reports that Japan is poised to discharge the water into the sea, China and South Korea responded by calling on Tokyo to consider it carefully and with transparency.

China urged Japan to make a cautious decision on the matter, saying, “The radioactive material leakage caused by the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan has had a profound impact on the marine environment, food safety and human health.”

The Japanese government should disclose adequate information and “make a careful decision based on full consultation with neighboring countries,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement, “Our government has always emphasized that the Japanese government needs to transparently open up information over how it deals with contaminated water.”

The ministry added it wants to continue to have close discussions on the issue with Japan and other countries concerned as well with international organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

China and South Korea are among 15 countries and regions that continue to restrict imports of Japanese agricultural and fishery products more than 10 years after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, caused by a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

In February last year, a government panel proposed various options for disposing of the water, including releasing it into the ocean as well as evaporating it.

The following month, TEPCO drafted a plan to dilute the water to below the legal limit for concentration of radioactive materials before releasing it in the sea.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant, which suffered core meltdowns following the natural catastrophe in March 2011, continues to generate massive amounts of radiation-tainted water after it is used to cool melted fuel.

The water is treated using an advanced liquid processing system, or ALPS, to remove most contaminants and stored in tanks on the complex premises. The process, however, cannot remove tritium, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear reactors.

The IAEA has backed the Japanese government’s plan to dispose of the water, saying releasing it into the sea meets global standards of practice in the nuclear industry.

The Geneva-based body’s Director General Rafael Grossi, during his visit to the Fukushima complex in February, said it is a common way to release water at nuclear power plants, even when they are not in emergency situations.

Japan’s industry minister Hiroshi Kajiyama said to Grossi in a videoconference last month that Japan wants the IAEA to conduct a scientific and objective review of the method of disposal of the water and openly convey its view to the international community.

Kajiyama said at the time that the IAEA’s message is vital in dispelling concerns and reputational worries over the safety of the water that exist domestically as well as in the neighboring countries.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Kyodo News

64% of global agricultural land at risk of pesticide pollution?

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, produced a global model mapping pollution risk caused by 92 chemicals commonly used in agricultural pesticides in 168 countries.

The study examined risk to soil, the atmosphere, and surface and ground water.

The map also revealed Asia houses the largest land areas at high risk of pollution, with China, Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines at highest risk. Some of these areas are considered “food bowl” nations, feeding a large portion of the world’s population.

University of Sydney Research Associate and the study’s lead author, Dr Fiona Tang, said the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture — while boosting productivity — could have potential implications for the environment, human and animal health.

“Our study has revealed 64 percent of the world’s arable land is at risk of pesticide pollution. This is important because the wider scientific literature has found that pesticide pollution can have adverse impacts on human health and the environment,” said Dr Tang.

Pesticides can be transported to surface waters and groundwater through runoff and infiltration, polluting water bodies, thereby reducing the usability of water resources.

“Although the agricultural land in Oceania shows the lowest pesticide pollution risk, Australia’s Murray-Darling basin is considered a high-concern region both due to its water scarcity issues, and its high biodiversity,” said co-author Associate Professor Federico Maggi from the School of Civil Engineering and the Sydney Institute of Agriculture.

“Globally, our work shows that 34 percent of the high-risk areas are in high-biodiversity regions, 19 percent in low-and lower-middle-income nations and five percent in water-scarce areas,” said Dr Tang.

There is concern that overuse of pesticides will tip the balance, destabilise ecosystems and degrade the quality of water sources that humans and animals rely on to survive.

The future outlook

Global pesticide use is expected to increase as the global population heads towards an expected 8.5 billion by 2030.

“In a warmer climate, as the global population grows, the use of pesticides is expected to increase to combat the possible rise in pest invasions and to feed more people,” said Associate Professor Maggi.

Dr Tang said: “Although protecting food production is essential for human development, reducing pesticide pollution is equivalently crucial to protect the biodiversity that maintains soil health and functions, contributing towards food security.”

Co-author Professor Alex McBratney, Director of the Sydney Institute of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, said: “This study shows it will be important to carefully monitor residues on an annual basis to detect trends in order to manage and mitigate risks from pesticide use.”

“We recommend a global strategy to transition towards a sustainable, global agricultural model that reduces food wastage while reducing the use of pesticides,” said the authors of the paper.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: University of Sydney

Stanford study reveals a deepening water crisis in Jordan – and a way forward

Dwindling water supplies and a growing population will halve per capita water use in Jordan by the end of this century. Without intervention, few households in the arid nation will have access to even 40 liters (10.5 gallons) of piped water per person per day.

Low-income neighborhoods will be the hardest hit, with 91 percent of households receiving less than 40 liters daily for 11 consecutive months per year by 2100.

Those are among the sobering predictions of a peer-reviewed paper by an international team of 17 researchers published March 29 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Jordan’s deepening water crisis offers a glimpse of challenges that loom elsewhere as a result of climate change, population growth, intensifying water use, demographic shocks and heightened competition for water across boundaries, said study co-author and Stanford hydrologist Steve Gorelick, who directs the Global Freshwater Initiative at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. The World Health Organization estimates half of humanity may live in water-stressed areas by 2025, and the United Nations anticipates water scarcity could displace 700 million people by 2030.

In Jordan, flows in the region’s biggest river system — the Jordan-Yarmouk — have declined as a result of upstream diversion in Israel and Syria. Groundwater levels in some areas have dropped by more than 1 meter per year, and a major aquifer along Jordan’s boundary with Saudi Arabia is heavily pumped on both sides of the border.

Demand for water has climbed largely because of population growth punctuated by waves of refugees, including more than 1 million Syrian refugees in the past decade.

Extreme water scarcity and wide disparities in public water supplies are potent ingredients for conflict. Jordan’s water situation — long deemed a crisis — is now on the brink of “boiling over” into instability, said lead study author Jim Yoon, a water security and resilience scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“Jordan’s unique role as a bastion of peace in the region makes these findings all the more cause for concern,” said Yoon, who began work on the study as a PhD student at Stanford University.

The U.N. has committed to ensuring sustainable freshwater management and universal access to clean water and sanitation as one of its 17 sustainable development goals. But until now, analytic frameworks have been lacking, said Gorelick, who led the Jordan Water Project and its continuation, the FUSE Project (Food-water-energy for Urban Sustainable Environments).

The new predictions derive from a first-of-its-kind computer model of Jordan’s freshwater system that simulates interactions among natural processes and human behaviors. Under a range of climate and socioeconomic scenarios, the researchers quantified the effects of maintaining status quo versus introducing measures such as fixing leaky pipes, eliminating water theft, raising tariffs for big water users and reallocating a quarter of water from farms to cities.

The team’s modeling suggests efforts to simultaneously increase supply, slash demand and reform distribution are likely to deliver “exponential” improvements in national water security.

Access to Jordan’s public water supply today is highly unequal, with wealthier households and firms often supplementing rationed municipal supplies with costly deliveries from private tanker truck operators. German economist and study co-author Christian Klassert said, “Avoiding large disparities in public water supply will be necessary to avoid water stress under growing water scarcity in Jordan and regions around the world.”

The many facets of Jordan’s water crisis make it an especially valuable place to explore the impacts of individual versus simultaneous interventions, Gorelick said. Now that a model exists for this complex environment, it can be adapted with relative ease to other regions.

The single most effective step Jordan can take is to increase supply through large-scale desalination. One proposal among many Jordan has pursued to this end since the 1960s would desalinate water from the Red Sea in the south, transport freshwater north to the capital city Amman and dispose of the leftover highly saline water in the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

While water policy debates often present selected supply and demand interventions as opposing alternatives, the authors write, suites of interventions in both modes actually work best in concert.

“You would think that any one of these interventions would have a greater impact. But it turns out you have to do everything,” Gorelick said.

For a country whose economic output per person is less than one-tenth that of the U.S., the scale and cost of near-total reform of its water sector are particularly daunting. “In water-scarce regions where sustainability planning is most needed, it is challenging to think beyond how to distribute scarce freshwater tomorrow, next month, and to some extent, in the next several years,” Gorelick said. “It’s in these places where our long-term policy evaluations are most valuable.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Stanford University

Even small levels of nitrate in drinking water results in smaller babies

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It appears that the weight of newborn babies decreases if even small amounts of nitrates are present in the drinking water that mothers drink before and during pregnancy. This is shown by a major new register-based study carried out by researchers at the universities in Aarhus and Chicago, USA. They now question whether the threshold value is too high.

The more nitrate there is in mothers’ drinking water, the smaller the babies they give birth to. But alarmingly, the declining birth weight can also be registered when the women are exposed to nitrate levels below the EU’s threshold of 50 milligrams of nitrate per litre.

This is shown by a register-based study of more than 850,000 births in Denmark carried out in a Danish-American partnership led by Professor Torben Sigsgaard from the Department of Public Health at Aarhus University and Professor Leslie Stayner and Dr. Vanessa Coffman from the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health.

On the basis of Danish registry data, the research group concluded that babies born to mothers whose drinking water contains between 25 and 50 milligrams of nitrates per litre — i.e. from half of the current threshold value up to the maximum limit — on average weigh ten grams less than babies born to mothers with smaller amounts of nitrate in the tap water. Not only did the babies weigh less, they were also slightly shorter, while their head size was unaffected by the amount of nitrate — which is the form of nitrogen run off from the agricultural sector that most frequently appears in groundwater.

According to Professor Torben Sigsgaard from Aarhus University, it is difficult to say whether we should be concerned about public health in areas with high amounts of nitrate:

“The difference in body length and weight doesn’t sound like much at first as it’s on average only ten grams, but this is not insignificant if the newborn also begins life as underweight for other reasons. Birth weight is generally recognised as having a life-long impact on a person’s health and development,” says Torben Sigsgaard.

“There is no doubt that the results of the study challenge the threshold value that is in place throughout the Western world, and that any changes will be a bit like turning around a supertanker. But it’s important to discuss these results,” he adds with reference to the WHO, EU and American authorities who all view drinking water as harmful when the content of nitrates is higher than fifty milligrams per litre.

The study was initiated because it has long been known that very high nitrate concentrations may lead to people being exposed to nitrite. This inhibits the body’s ability to absorb oxygen and can lead to the dangerous blue-baby syndrome, or methemoglobinemia to give it its medical name. Nitrate in drinking water is also suspected of causing other chronic diseases, including bowel cancer. Research has also documented how, depending on local geological and geochemical conditions in theearth, the fertiliser used in agriculture more or less percolates down to the groundwater.

“With the study, we’ve established that there is a need to explore the effect of the low nitrate concentrations in the drinking water, if we’re to assess the adequacy of the current threshold values — and this is possible thanks to the unique Danish registers. It wouldn’t be possible to carry out corresponding studies on the basis of US data alone, because such data simply doesn’t exist,” says Torben Sigsgaard.

The research results — more information

The register-based study compares data from more than 850,000 births in Denmark during the period 1991-2011 including the weight, height and head size of the newborn babies — before in turn comparing this with the content of nitrate in drinking water via the parents’ place of residence and the GEUS Jupiter register, which contains information about the quality of drinking water in Danish households based on more than 300,000 nitrate samples from routine water quality monitoring. GEUS stands for Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

Vanessa Coffman and Leslie Stayner from the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC) and Jörg Schullehner and Birgitte Hansen from GEUS, were important partners on the project. Additional contributions came from colleagues at Aarhus University, including the “Drinking water group” under the Center for Integrated Register-based Research (CIRRAU), as well as researchers from the University of Copenhagen.

The study is financed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), USA.

Journal Reference:

  1. Vanessa R. Coffman, Anja Søndergaard Jensen, Betina B. Trabjerg, Carsten B. Pedersen, Birgitte Hansen, Torben Sigsgaard, Jørn Olsen, Inger Schaumburg, Jörg Schullehner, Marie Pedersen, Leslie T. Stayner. Prenatal Exposure to Nitrate from Drinking Water and Markers of Fetal Growth Restriction: A Population-Based Study of Nearly One Million Danish-Born ChildrenEnvironmental Health Perspectives, 2021; 129 (2): 027002 DOI: 10.1289/EHP7331

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Aarhus University