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Cape Town drought is a global harbinger, says NASA scientist

Factors like population growth, income inequality and climate change have exacerbated water related issues around the world. Abuse and depletion of the natural resource has led to instability and violence in places like Iran, Syria and Bangladesh as well as crises in the U.S. Jay Famiglietti, NASA’s senior water scientist, joins Hari Sreenivasan from Los Angeles to discuss the global pattern.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is Cape Town’s water crisis a cautionary tale for the rest of us? Joining me from Los Angeles to discuss the global implications is James Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Thanks for joining us. So is Cape Town a harbinger of things to come?

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    I think Cape Town is really a wake-up call for other cities around the world. Again climate change, changing extremes of flooding and drought, population growth, income inequality – these are these are all factors that we have to include in our water resources management. And if we don’t then the threats the potential for days zeroes around the world is really heightened.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Let’s bring this a little closer to home. There’s a drought situation in California and you’re very familiar with this, you’ve helped create this map and what’s happening here and the increasing sort of red and dark brown areas are areas of drought, and you can see this progressing year, after year, after year, after year. What led to the intensity of this drought that California suffered?

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    Well what we’re seeing in that video is really a combination of a lack of a lack of rainfall, part of which may be the climate change driven, but what’s really driving that animation is over exploitation of groundwater. And this is a problem that we’ve had in California for over a century. We use the water to fuel our agricultural sector which is which is quite productive. But we’ve been using it without any any regulation a significant regulation until now. Only recently in 2014 did California pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to try to slow the depletion of groundwater but still that will take a couple of decades to fully implement.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And what about other cities in areas where private I mean you think of California. It’s got a coastline and perhaps if it spends a ton of money it can turn saltwater into freshwater and take all the energy that it takes to do that. But there are lots of cities around the United States that don’t have access to clean and fresh drinking water and perhaps not a a water table like California does.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    That’s right and I’m glad you mentioned that because one of the one of the issues in Cape Town is the lack of development of groundwater and so the future I think in many cities around the world is a combination of surface and groundwater use managed jointly, some sewage recycling, some desalination if possible, lots of conservation of course maybe changes in water water pricing. We’d like to say there’s no there’s no silver bullet there’s no one size fits all. So there will be region by region solutions. That said I think cities are sustainable. I think the bigger challenge for the global population is growing food in these conditions that we’re seeing globally and satellites have revealed as you’ve shown in the animations the disappearance of groundwater. So I think on the one hand we have sustainable cities in terms of water supply for drinking and economic growth and energy production but not necessarily for food production. So this is this is a big issue that I don’t think that desalination and sewage recycling are going to resolve.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You know we just saw some of the consequences or some of the challenges that people are facing in Cape Town right now. But we also have a map of what’s happened in the Middle East over the past 15 to 20 years and you can see and people might not see the borders on this page we’re talking about parts of Iran and very importantly parts of Syria and as Syria kind of increases in that drought area than you probably saw a huge surge of people rushing into the cities and creating some of that political instability that preceded the Civil War.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    That is the narrative that that has emerged and I think you know there are many hotspots like the Middle East and like we see in California around the world in India and the India-Pakistan border into Bangladesh the North China Plain there Guarani aquifer down in South America. These are all regions where violent conflict is a real possibility in some places already happening for example in the Middle East.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    California was on the brink of their own day zero until you basically had one good rainy season. But what we’re also seem to be seeing is that the intensity of the rain storms are increasing. So it’s not just kind of that California’s evenly getting sprinkles. We’ve just been doing stories in the past few weeks about intense rains that have caused mudslides after the forest fires. It’s kind of all connected.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    That’s that’s right. And so what are the biggest implications of climate change is that change in what we call the hydrologic extremes or more extreme flooding more extreme drought and in many places around the world, and California is one of those and the Central Valley California in Capetown is one of those as well, we can expect more prolonged drought longer droughts punctuated by shorter periods of more intense rainfall. So we have we have huge challenges ahead of us and if we want to avert future days zeros in other cities around the world. Now is the time to begin planning for the future and managing to those extremes.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Help us explain how these cycles are connected. How does increased drought lead to forest fires and lead to mudslides and rain. We kind of connect the dots for us.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    Sure if we had prolonged drought the fuel for the fire comes from forest die off. So there’s plenty of fuel there. Once that vegetation is burned off then the hill slopes which are very steep become very susceptible becomes very susceptible to erosion. And then when the rainy season occurs if the slope is steep enough and there’s not enough vegetation or capture the rain and help it diffuse through the through a hill slope then that hill slope can fail and we have a landslide.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, joining us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much.

  • JAY FAMIGLIETTI:

    Thank you.

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