The top 5 water stories in 2016

Hydropower remains contentious in Southeast Asia and water shortages raised tensions in India this year. There was progress on cleaning up the oceans and the conservation of marine habitats, but warming seas took a toll of coral reefs.

Bigeye soldierfish underneath coral in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. It has been a good year for marine parks but less so for coral reefs. Image: NOAA’s National Ocean Service, CC BY 2.0

Water is an irreplaceable component in the fight against climate change but it is also its biggest victim. The World Economic Forum named water the number one threat in 2015 and it was also ranked a top risk in 2016.

Over the last 12 months, the world was given a sneak preview of the global water wars scientists have predicted for the century ahead, and tensions surrounding dams and the control of water within drought situations were flashpoints for conflict. Companies can expect water use to hit their bottom lines harder and prices of electricity are likely to go up as hydropower comes under threat.

But there were also commendable efforts to clean up the oceans by individuals, and countries agreed to create the world’s largest marine park in Antarctica. Here are the top 5 water stories of this year.

1. A hotter, drier, more volatile world
Dubbed the “petroleum of the next century”, water is expected to be a geopolitical tinderbox in a hotter, climate-changed world. Droughts were particularly intense in India and Southeast Asia this year due to the El Nino weather phenomeon.

India, which already suffers water shortages that cause tension between its many states, this year saw violent protests in Bangalore over a Supreme Court order to divert water to neighbouring state Tamil Nadu. Government troops were also deployed to secure a canal bringing water to New Delhi after saboteurs caused days of shortage in the capital.

India has been named one of the world’s flashpoints for climate-related violence in the world, alongside Colombia and Nigeria. According to Kerala State Electricity Board chairman and managing director, K Elangovan, there has been a 43 per cent rainfall deficit in India’s southwest and northeast regions. Water levels in India’s 91 reservoirs are at their lowest in a decade. The dry spell has been so bad the Bombay High Court has even lambasted the hallowed Indian Premier League cricket tournament as a “criminal waste of water”.

Southeast Asia roasted in some of the hottest temperatures ever recorded. One million people in Vietnam are in need of food aid thanks to the longest drought in 90 years, and more than more than 81,000 hectares of shrimp breeding areas in eight Mekong provinces have been damaged. To help farmers and citizens deal with the months-long drought, Thailand has been drilling thousands of wells across the country since the beginning of 2016.

2. Mopping up ocean pollution with technology
The fight against ocean pollution has been kicked up a notch this year as new technologies come on stream to help deal with plastics and oil spillage.

Surfer dudes Peter Ceglinski and Andrew Turton from Australia are testing out prototypes of the Seabin, an underwater garbage can that sucks trash out of the water, and aim to launch production models at coastal marinas for a start.

Crowdfunding played a part in the launch of the Seabin, as it has with the launch of the biggest prototype boom ever designed to rid the oceans of plastic. The organisation behind the prototype is The Ocean Cleanup, led by environmental entrepreneur Boyan Slat. The 100m-long barrier will harness sea currents to passively funnel floating rubbish into a cone where it will be kept in place by a cable sub-system until it is collected.

Meanwhile researchers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have come up with an affordable and environmentally friendly membrane to mop up oil spills. How it works is that the membrane turns the layer of oil into a solid or semi-solid state that can be picked up. The oil can be removed from the membrane by simply squeezing or twisting it after. 

3. To dam or not to dam
Dams remained a controversial topic in 2016. Although they generate clean electricity, boost industry and generate jobs, dams tend to take a toll on local ecosystems and communities. Critics have pointed out that the benefits are not always guaranteed and alternatives exist, but countries in Southeast Asia in particular have not slowed down their dam-building.

The mighty Mekong river continued to be a central point of conflict on the topic, where the continuing expansion of hydropower has put 18 per cent of the world’s freshwater fish supply at risk. The self-proclaimed “Battery of Asia” Laos has built 29 dams on the Mekong with a plan for 100 in total. Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has green-lighted hydropower plans on the Salween, Southeast Asia’s last undammed river.

But local communities – and in some cases local governments – are increasingly rejecting dam construction.

Years of protesting by indigenous peoples in Borneo, Malaysia, put paid to controversial plans for a dam this year that would have rendered 20,000 people in 30 villages homeless. In India, the new state government of Assam has promised to oppose big dams, focus on small-scale hydropower projects and look into solar and wind energy generation instead.

4. Impact of water on business bottom lines
The private sector will have to pay more as a result of climate change as resources – especially water – become scarcer and the World Bank has warned that water shortages are likely to impact the economies of Middle East, north Africa, central Asia and south Asia. On the other hand, the GDPs of countries in Central Asia for instance could grow by over 11 per cent if good water management practices were implemented.

Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit that tracks corporate environmental performance, cautioned that climate change-related droughts and floods combined with tightening water regulations will cost companies billions in operational expenditure. In a new report, the organisation noted that firms like General Motors and Diageo were making progress on water preservation, while the energy sector is the least transparent about water risks. The report also noted that water preservation measures frequently led to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change this year also predicted that electricity production will be slashed in the coming decades as hydropower stations and thermoelectric plants, which produce 98 per cent of power today, find their water sources affected by climate change. The price of electricity is therefore likely to spike in the future and companies should switch from water cooling systems to air cooling systems in their operations to mitigate impact, the study advised.

5. Under the sea
This was not a good year for life under water. By March, some 93 per cent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef had experienced bleaching and the US National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency also expects corals in US to be affected for the third year in a row. Similar events are also playing out in the lesser-known coral reefs of the Lakshadweep Archipelago in the northern Indian Ocean.

Higher than normal water temperatures cause corals to expel the colourful algae that live in their tissues, turning them ghostly white. Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology also shared for the first time a chilling time lapse video of a coral’s ‘violent’ bleaching. In happier news, Hawaii is leading a legislative effort to ban the use of coral-killing sunscreen.

But it has been a good year for marine parks. The European Union and 24 countries agreed to set up the world’s largest marine park in Antarctica. Mexico created its biggest marine reserve, US president Barack Obama opened a new marine park in the Atlantic Ocean and expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii. Malaysia also established the Tun Mustapha Park in Sabah after 13 years of negotiation to create the Southeast Asian country’s largest marine park.

Yet Malaysia has also allowed land reclamation works in the Strait of Malacca, posing a threat to nesting sites belonging to the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, with turtle landings falling drastically, according to WWF.

This story first appeared on Eco-Business as part of its Year in Review series. Eco-Business’ Year in Review series looks at the top stories that shaped the business and sustainability scene in each of its 12 categories.