Today is World Water Day, a U.N. holiday created in 1992 to "celebrate freshwater." The event highlights a different aspect of freshwater each year — the 2010 theme was water quality, while this year's theme is "water for cities." It's a timely topic, as booming urban populations and shrinking water supplies increasingly strain cities around the world, from Atlanta to Abu Dhabi. Half of all humans now live in cities with 10 million people or more, and whether it's longer droughts, melting glaciers or regional "water wars," more and more of them face the growing threat of thirst.
"Running water would change everything," a woman living on the outskirts of Lima, Peru, tells the London Independent. "Living without it is just too hard." Some 1.2 million people throughout the Peruvian capital lack running water, the Independent reports, serving as an extreme example on the front lines of a global crisis. They rely on unregulated private water trucks, which charge up to 30 soles ($11) per cubic meter, or roughly 20 times what wealthier Peruvians pay for tap water. Lima's new mayor wants to change this, but she faces an uphill battle: Lima gets less than 0.3 inches of rain per year and depends entirely on Andean rainfall and glacier melt, both of which are in long-term decline. The largest of three rivers feeding Lima has suffered a 20 percent drop in its low-season flow, while satellite photos show the Elualia Glacier — which feeds the river — has shrunk severely in the past decade, apparently due to global warming. Lima is the world's second-largest desert city, the Independent points out, and it may foreshadow a similar problem for many others around the planet.
Of course, much of the Earth is awash in freshwater, allowing people to waste it even as other parts of the world go thirsty or uncleaned. The U.S. is one of the planet's most prolific water users, with the average American family using 400 gallons in a single day, according to the EPA. Nearly three-quarters of that is used indoors, mostly by the toilet, clothes washer and shower. But as the Guardian reports, many people in water-rich nations overlook another way they waste water: throwing out food. Agriculture is among the thirstiest industries on Earth, and the "embedded water" that it takes to grow food is rarely considered when that food is thrown away. According to a new study by the U.K. government, more than 5 percent of all water used in that country is wasted in the form of uneaten food. "These figures are staggering," a U.K. official who worked on the study tells the Guardian. "Growing concern over the availability of water in the U.K. and abroad, and security of the supply of food, means that it is vital we understand the connections between food waste, water and climate change."
Workers at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are hoping to restore power to some of the damaged reactors today, a key step in cooling them down and averting an even broader nuclear disaster. Unexplained smoke wafted up from two reactors Monday, and officials are still worried about overheating fuel rods in two spent-fuel containment pools. Even though many experts insist a large-scale public health threat is unlikely, it remains unclear how long it will be before the situation can be accurately described as"stable," not to mention "under control."
While the Fukushima disaster was triggered by a tsunami — an oceanic disaster, not a freshwater one — it still offers an important lesson on World Water Day, writes Sandra Postel at National Geographic. That's because energy and freshwater are inextricably linked, she points out: In the U.S., thermoelectric power plants account for 49 percent of all water withdrawn from the country's water sources, and it takes an average of 23 gallons to produce 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity. A typical refrigerator, therefore, requires about 40 gallons every day — not directly, but via the water-guzzling power plant that supplies it with electricity.
The problem isn't just about water usage, however. The power plants need the water for the same reason it's needed at Fukushima: to cool them down. Whether they burn coal or split atoms for power, they typically pump in cool water from a river, lake, estuary or bay, and then release it back as "outflow." This cycle can be devastating to nearby aquatic life, since the outflow is often 20 to 30 degrees above normal temperatures, Postel writes, potentially spurring fish kills and other die-offs. But perhaps the greatest single danger comes when the water supply runs dry, as highlighted at Fukushima. Whether it's triggered by a power outage or a melting glacier upstream, any reduction in water supply can be devastating to a power plant — as well as the people who live around it.
As people in Germany and around the world continue to mourn the death of famed polar bear Knut, animal-rights advocates are blaming the Berlin Zoo, accusing officials of putting their own financial interests ahead of the 4-year-old bear's well-being. While an autopsy is expected to reveal the cause of death sometime today or later this week, critics of the Berlin Zoo say Knut was doomed from the beginning — raised by humans, forced to live unnaturally with other bears, and subject to the harsh glare of media coverage and public adoration.
Knut died Saturday in front of a crowd numbering around 600 people, reportedly turning in a circle before falling over into the water. Witnesses said it seemed like a seizure or stroke of some kind, although zoo officials were unaware of any previous health problems. Knut rocketed to fame in 2007, just 15 weeks after he'd been rejected by his birth mother and taken in by sympathetic zookeepers. He became an icon for the Berlin Zoo and for beleaguered polar bears worldwide, spurring a media franchise that included a Vanity Fair cover shoot, an Italian girlfriend and a wide array of official Knut merchandise. Zoo attendance doubled in the four years Knut lived there, and he reportedly generated around $4 million in 2007 alone.
Polar bears normally live up to 30 years or more, with captive bears often living even longer. Knut seemed healthy, and zoo officials say he was flourishing up until his death. "He played with the other bears, he was relaxed and strong," bear curator Heiner Klos tells TIME. "I was so shocked to hear that Knut had died — he'd been a big part of my life for the past four years." As the director of Germany's Animal Welfare Association argues, though, Knut's lifestyle was likely too unnatural for him to truly thrive. "Knut was subjected to enormous stress, not just by the media hype and public scrutiny, but also by the fact that he was kept in an enclosure with three females," Thomas Schröder tells TIME. "Polar bears tend to be loners."
Knut isn't the only animal suffering from an overabundance of misplaced human affection. As the London Independent reports, the slow loris — a tiny, big-eyed primate from Southeast Asia — is being victimized in a global pet trade, fueled largely by YouTube videos promoting the animal's cuteness. In one popular video that has received more than 6 million views, a slow loris writhes as it's tickled by a human hand. In another clip, a disoriented loris clutches a cocktail umbrella as it's blinded by bright light.
Primates almost never make good pets, and the slow loris is no exception. For one, it's poisonous — poachers steal infant lorises from their parents, and must remove their teeth so they can't deliver painful, venomous bites. That robs them of their natural defense mechanism, and also puts them at a high risk of infection, points out Chris Shepherd of the anti-poaching group Traffic Southeast Asia. "The only reason the loris isn't biting the person holding it in the video is because it has had its teeth ripped out with pliers," Shepherd explains. "The creature is then effectively doomed because of infection. Most don't last very long after that."
Slow lorises often sell for as little as $16 each at open-air markets in Indonesia, but primate expert Anna Nekaris of Oxford Brookes University tells the Independent there's also a "massive" trade in Russia and Poland. "I have visited markets in Thailand where they advise on how to smuggle them into Britain," she says. Nekaris is urging YouTube to take down the videos, which she says promote demand for lorises as pets. Responding to the Independent, a YouTube spokesman issued the following statement: "All videos uploaded must comply with our Community Guidelines, which prohibit animal abuse. If we do find that videos do violate the guidelines, we remove them, usually in under an hour." YouTube has no official comment on the slow loris videos, however.
Landmark toxic-waste treaty is ratified, world's largest municipal landfill closes, and more.
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Photo (drying Yangtze River near Yichang, China): ZUMA Press
Photo (nuclear cooling towers over water): U.S. Energy Department
Photo (Knut memorial at Berlin Zoo): ZUMA Press
Photo (slow loris): Matt Cardy/Getty Images