Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

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Recycling plastic isn’t enough

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 12, 2018)

One way or the other, our future is plastic. It can either be a hopeful, plastic future that we can shape in the way we want it to go, or it will be a future in which we continue to poison our planet with plastic stuff we never really needed.

At the moment, we can still choose, just as the government of Kenya chose to ban single-use plastic bags — or, more accurately, the plastic bags that blow across the landscape that have no essential use whatsoever.

After all, it doesn’t matter if you use that bag once or twice. It still outlasts you by hundreds of years, before it decomposes into chemical compounds harmful to soil, water and the life that depends upon them.

As garbage dumps go, it was not very big — about five acres, nestled between the new Roman Catholic cathedral and the large parish school in Ngong, a suburb now of Nairobi.

Like other garbage dumps in developing countries, it was also very efficiently managed. A couple of years ago, I watched trucks dump their loads and a dozen women and older children rapidly pick through the trash. Anything edible or with any potential value was removed, trundled away by the men who lurked on the sidelines — and who angrily objected to me taking pictures. These trucks also have a side business at roadside towing services gilbert az which is a better one.

There were two piles that snaked through the dump along the main pathways, however. Each was about 15 feet high. On one side were the plastic bottles, mostly water bottles. On the other side were the plastic shopping bags.

Both piles will long outlast the people who picked around them or the children who walked by on their way to school every day. The local government has promised for several years to remove the dump, but (like here) municipal election promises are not easily translated into action.

The future of Africa is also plastic, in the same terms as our own. Images of horizon-wide herds of migrating animals, the wildlife of exotic safaris, are misleading. That wildlife is confined to small areas where national parks preserve at least some of the animals’ territory from roaming cattle, ruthless development, random tourists and poachers wanting a fast trophy.

Across the landscape, plastic bags blow like prairie tumbleweeds. Small towns and villages are too often unkempt, filled with plastic trash, as locals throw plastic water and pop bottles out the windows of vehicles to be left wherever they fall.

Crossing the Great Rift Valley, where human life supposedly began millions of years ago, I stepped out of the truck in the middle of nowhere to take a selfie with a wild giraffe, the first wildlife we had seen in transit. The plastic iced tea bottle in the ditch at the side of the road sort of ruined the moment… especially when I then realized how many plastic bags were hung in thorn bushes off into the distance.

I have not yet been able to visit Nakuru, the place in tourist videos where thousands of flamingos fly across the lake. This trip, I was told not to bother — because of water pollution, most of the birds have left for another lake, at Naivasha. Seeing the plastic bags and bottles choking the mouth of one of the rivers flowing into Lake Nakuru — and hearing stories of algae blooms and agricultural pollution reminiscent of Lake Winnipeg — it is no surprise the birds did not come back.

Anyone who argues for the continued use of disposable plastic is on the wrong side of science and of history.

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Learning to live without plastic

St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Ngong), with a local dump in the foreground. On the right, plastic bags that will take 1000 years to decompose…on the left, out of sight, an equally big pile of plastic bottles.

(January 2, 2018)

#BeatPollution was the hashtag for the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in early December. The theme was “Toward a pollution-free planet,” which all the UN member states were supposed to address in resolutions, side events and presentations at the global headquarters for the United Nations environment program.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. While governments agreed on some ambitious proposals in Nairobi, what happens when everyone gets home is the real test.

Pollution most concerns us when it is obvious, local and personal — when you can’t breathe because of poor air quality, when the water is contaminated to the point you can’t drink it, when the ground makes you and your children sick just to walk on it — then, people get upset about pollution.

What is most frightening, however, is when the effects are just as serious, but the pollution itself is not so immediate or obvious.

Take lead, for example. One resolution moved to ban lead in all paints, globally. Too many countries in the world still allow it — and Canada only banned lead in paint in 1990. Leaded gasoline is still for sale, though almost all of it is lead-free these days. Out of curiosity, I took a free blood test to check my own lead levels… and despite living in what I thought was a relatively lead-free environment, my level was 5.9/10. In an adult, apparently it needs to be more than 10 to be cause for concern, but any level of lead in children can cause serious and lifelong cognitive disabilities.

Industrial pollutants can be like this — persistent in the environment, persistent in our bodies, causing (in combination) health problems later in life. The only way to stop this from happening is to stop the pollution at the source.

Plastic is perhaps the worst example. Most of the plastic ever made is still around us — it can take thousands of years to decompose. Yet most of it is for convenience, unnecessary, used to save us time and effort. If we factored in the cost of this long-term plastic contamination of the planet, those throw-away, single-use plastics from fast-food operations (apparently the single biggest source) would cost more than stainless steel.

There is so much plastic in the oceans already that there is no longer such a thing as plastic-free wild fish anymore — and by 2050, there will be (by weight) as much plastic in the ocean as there are fish. It’s not just the big chunks, either — micro-plastics, such as microfibres from polyester clothing, or micro-beads of plastic in everything from cosmetics to toothpaste to who knows what, are already in the water we drink and the food we eat. The byproducts of plastics are certainly circulating through our bloodstreams, in ever-increasing amounts.

Despite this, the piles of plastic waste grow. One resolution started to tackle the issue of marine plastics pollution and to identify the land-based sources and the barriers to cleaning up the oceans. It may be hard for Winnipeggers to get concerned about the subject, at least until the next time you eat fish, but there are roughly a billion people worldwide who depend on the sea for the food they need to survive.

It’s a huge job — how does one clean up an ocean? — but it’s clearly easier to stop the plastic from getting into the water in the first place. We just have to start, and to stop making excuses for continuing to foul our collective nest with plastics we don’t need.

For example — plastic straws. Ban them. Period. Plastic knuckles for coffee cream? Don’t eat at restaurants that continue to serve them, because they can’t be bothered finding another way. Carry your own cutlery for takeout food — and make sure the containers are made of paper or compostable materials.

And those plastic bags, the ones we can’t seem to do without? The ones we tried to encourage people not to use, and then gave up?

For the first time ever, I had to be very careful not to pack anything (like shoes) in a plastic bag in my luggage. Kenya has joined a growing list of countries in Africa to ban single-use plastic bags. Some, like Uganda, have had limited success.

Not Kenya — enforcement is strict and the penalties are severe. With fines of US$400 and/or four years in jail, the government means business.

In the Nairobi airport on my way home, I ran into Judy Wakhungu, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for environment, water and natural resources, and told her how wonderful it was that the Kenyan government was doing something about the problem of plastics pollution.

She said they were serious about cleaning up the problem, and the strict enforcement would continue. She was glad to hear me report that driving through the countryside, this time, past dozens of outdoor markets, plastic bags were nowhere to be seen.

Government regulations can work, if they are applied to everyone. In Nairobi, people walk into the upscale Two Rivers Mall carrying their own shopping bags — because they have no other choice except to put mushrooms in their pockets.

A ban on single-use plastics of all kinds — starting with bags — could be part of a Manitoba climate and green plan.

It only took Kenya six months.

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