Our Burning Planet


Nearly 1 million Californians drink tainted water, State Auditor finds

Nearly 1 million Californians drink tainted water, State Auditor finds
(Photo: Unsplash / Jana Sabeth)

The climate crisis is being felt and dealt with in various ways worldwide. In these daily climate briefs, we aim to give a round-up of the latest developments and news from across the globe.

Nearly a million Californians drink water contaminated with arsenic, nitrate or other pollutants, even as drought strains the state’s water supplies.

California’s State Auditor found that 371 water systems serving more than 920,000 people had unsafe levels of contaminants, with most failing systems in the Central Valley and the state’s southeastern desert, according to a report published Tuesday. 

While numbers improved from the previous year, when 418 systems had unsafe water, the audit found that for every year since 2017, at least 300 had tainted supplies. More than two-thirds of water systems now on the list serve disadvantaged communities, and hundreds more are considered to be at risk of failing.

The audit of the State Water Resources Control Board, which regulates about 7,400 drinking water systems across California, also found the agency was taking longer to help fix troubled systems. The time it takes the board to process applications and fund projects has nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021 to reach an average of 33 months.

“The State Water Board has funding available to help these failing systems improve the quality of their drinking water,” Acting California State Auditor Michael Tilden said in a letter to legislators introducing the report. “Nonetheless, the board has generally demonstrated a lack of urgency in providing this critical assistance.”

The board acknowledged that improvements can be made, but said it “demonstrated its urgency” by making substantial progress in fixing tainted supplies. Since the start of a state programme in 2019 to improve clean water access, the number of Californians served by failing water systems has dropped from 1.6 million, executive director Eileen Sobeck wrote.

The findings come as California and other western US states battle a prolonged “megadrought” that tree-ring data suggest is the worst in 1,200 years. 

Meagre rains and dwindling mountain snowpack have forced many communities to pump more groundwater, but the audit notes that contaminants from Central Valley farms have penetrated to the depth of drinking water wells. – Bloomberg

Australia begins fight to legislate tougher climate action

Australia’s government introduced legislation to enshrine steeper targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions into law, even as Greens politicians signalled more ambitious goals are needed to win their support.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions 43% from 2005 levels by 2030, compared with the previous government’s goal of a reduction of 26% to 28%, and to reach net zero by 2050. That would bring Australia closer in line with nations such as Canada, South Korea and Japan, though lags behind action pledged by the US, the European Union and the UK.

The Climate Change Bill 2022 was among a raft of legislation introduced by the new government on Wednesday as Australia’s Parliament resumes for the first time since Albanese’s Labor Party won a May election on a platform that included policies to accelerate emissions reduction and to boost renewable energy.

“It’s an important bill,” Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen told Sky News Australia. “It sets our emissions targets in law, it provides a framework for investors to let investors know Australia’s open for business, for renewable energy, for transmission, for storage, to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

Under nine years of fossil fuel-supporting conservative governments, Australia was viewed as a global laggard on action to curb emissions. 

While Albanese has vowed to work closely with international allies and to end the country’s so-called climate wars, his government’s proposals have underwhelmed some campaigners.

That disappointment may prove problematic. To pass new legislation, Albanese will require support from legislators elected after campaigning for far tougher climate action, including the Australian Greens Party and pro-climate independent David Pocock, who hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate, the country’s upper house.

The Greens have called for a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects, a move rejected by the prime minister, who claims that to do so would encourage consumers to use what he argues is more polluting material supplied by other producer nations.

Curbing the A$104-billion (R1.2-trillion) coal export sector would dent the country’s economy and “wouldn’t lead to a reduction in global emissions”, he told the Australian Broadcasting Corp in a Tuesday interview. 

“What you would see is a replacement with coal from other countries that’s likely to produce higher emissions because of the quality of our product.”

Australia’s accounting of coal mine emissions has come under recent scrutiny, and the government in February said it was revising the method used to calculate methane pollution from open-cut mines.

Bowen has described the government’s target of a 43% emissions cut by 2030 as “a floor, not a ceiling,” and has signalled the government may implement higher targets for 2035 and 2040. The legislation should pass the lower house by the end of next week, before heading to the more-contested Senate. Bloomberg

Japan and South Korea hit solar generation records in May

Solar power generation in Japan and South Korea expanded to record levels in May, according to the global energy think-tank Ember

Locally produced renewable energy is making it increasingly possible for countries to take advantage of lower-priced electricity that is also insulated from volatility and disruptions. The expansion of solar in major Asian economies comes amid global disruptions in coal and natural gas markets triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has sent prices for the fossil fuels skyrocketing.

Electricity produced from sunlight exceeded 10 terawatt hours in May in Japan, or about 15% of the country’s total power generation, according to Ember. In South Korea, solar power generated more than 7% of the nation’s electricity, reaching an all-time high for the month. 

To be sure, both countries still remain highly dependent on dirty fuels: Japan generated about 68% of its power and Korea 56.2% of its electricity from fossil fuels, according to Ember. 

Solar and wind power will need to generate more than 40% of the world’s electricity by 2030 to keep climate change at or below 1.5°C of warming, according to the report, which cited the latest analysis from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. – Bloomberg

Palestinians strive to stop Gaza shore erosion with concrete blocks

Authorities in Gaza have ordered giant concrete blocks to be dropped along the shoreline as increasingly heavy seas eat into beaches that provide residents of the densely populated strip with a rare public space for relaxation.

The blocks, placed on beaches and offshore, are aimed at countering waves that have grown in force, eating away the foundations of some seaside cafes and buildings.

But officials, residents of beach areas and experts fear the concrete barricades may not stand another stormy winter and that high waves could cause the collapse of the coastal road and threaten homes.

Nasser Thabit, an official in the territory’s Hamas-run Ministry of Public Works and Housing, said waves that reached up to six metres last year – as the effects of climate change have become more pronounced – had begun to nibble at the edges of the road.

“There are several fragile areas in the Gaza Strip that would be impacted directly from a rising sea. There is a fear that should the waves get higher it may cause a catastrophe, and drown many of those residential areas,” he said.

Nasser said proper long-lasting intervention – vertical wave breakers and retaining walls along all or at least the most at risk parts of the coast – could cost about $150-million and called for help from international donors.

Measuring 375 square kilometres, Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with a population of 2.3 million Palestinians. Most of them live in refugee camps, some facing the ocean.

In the Beach refugee camp in Gaza City, home to 90,000 people, residents have watched over recent years as rising seas have eroded the beach completely. Broken fridges, large tyres and bricks have all been thrown along the shore to hold back the sea, to no effect.

“The refugee camp has no beach, there is no place for people to sit, therefore, people are forced to pay to go north or [south],” said Abdel-Karim Zaqout, a history teacher whose house in the camp borders the ocean.

With Gaza’s land borders tightly controlled by neighbouring Israel and Egypt, the seaside is a precious resource for people looking to escape their day-to-day stresses.

In central Gaza Strip, Radwan al-Shantaf, from Al-Zahra city municipality, said the authorities had used large quantities of the rubble of houses destroyed in the May 2021 Israeli bombardment to barricade beaches.

He said high waves had forced the owners of a bank to evacuate to a building deeper into the city, and the operators of a power plant to build a concrete wall to reinforce the outer fence.

“The advance of the sea decreased the beach area and finished off recreation, cafes and beachgoers spaces,” Radwan told Reuters, standing in front of the concrete reinforcement. – Reuters/DM


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