The Hill's Sustainability Report: Northern California secures federal disaster declaration

The Hill's Sustainability Report: Northern California secures federal disaster declaration
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Today is Wednesday.  Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here:

The White House has approved California’s request for a Presidential Major Disaster Declaration, as wildfires continue to ravage landscapes and threaten entire communities in the northern part of the state, Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomBiden hails Newsom win as validation on pandemic policies The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Simone Biles, gymnastics stars slam FBI during Nassar testimony Coronavirus most important issue among California voters, exit polling shows MORE’s (D) office announced.

The declaration will help bolster emergency response to the fires by making additional resources available and helping residents qualify for housing assistance, counseling, medical services and legal services. The approval applies specifically to the regions affected by the Dixie and River fires, although other blazes, like the Caldor Fire, may be included later on, according to the governor’s office.

Hand in hand with the wildfires — which are raging not only in California, but also around the world — is prolonged drought, which has meant equitable access to water resources has become all the more critical. Today we’ll hear from experts at the Stockholm-based World Water Week about how local populations can take charge of their own resources. And we’ll look at the question of hydropower, which may be less sustainable — or lucrative — than its clean-energy competitors once social and environmental costs are factored in. 

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at or Sharon at Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.

To ensure access to clean water, populations need a say 

Ensuring equitable access to clean water means giving populations a say in how their own resources are governed, a series of water experts agreed at an international water gathering this week. 

“We need to urgently scale up our investments into the water sector and we need to ensure that WASH infrastructure services are sustainable, safe and resilient to climate-related risks,” Tomas Anker Christensen, climate ambassador at the Danish Foreign Ministry, said at a Monday World Water Week panel. 

Christensen was addressing participants at the annual Stockholm-based World Water Week, held virtually this year. Citing evidence that “structural inequality” is linked to reduced access to water and sanitation, he stressed that failing to include certain voices in water resource management creates greater vulnerability to climate change impacts. 

“For this reason, we need to contribute to inclusive WASH infrastructure and to the inclusion and engagement of citizens as partners rather than just as beneficiaries,” Christensen said.

What is WASH? WASH means “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene” and refers to the concept that integrating “safe water, toilets and good hygiene keep children alive and healthy,” according to UNICEF.

Who is being overlooked? Individuals with disabilities, women, Indigenous populations and remote communities, among others. There are 1 billion people living with disabilities around the world — and 8 percent of them reside in developing countries, according to Christensen.

That’s 80 million people — who often are excluded from water access. 

Often, water taps are too far from hands, toilets are located too far from schools, wheelchairs cannot fit into bathroom stalls and female students with disabilities may face sexual harassment while using remote toilets, explained Yosef Fekadu, director of the Disability Development Initiative. Fekadu and his colleagues emphasized the importance of prioritizing such consideration in WASH planning processes.


Increased empowerment can mean increased access — and more. “The connection between access and income remains overlooked,” said Zehra Shabbir, a senior analyst for, at a separate session that focused on women’s economic empowerment. 

When women participated in the community decision-making process, not only did access to water and sanitation facilities for their family members go up, but the “household’s overall financial health” got better, Shabbir said, citing recent research conducted by her organization. 

Such households, she explained, were also more likely to make routine savings.

Water as a “job enabler”: A series of studies on water governance in Panama, Nicaragua and Paraguay conducted about a decade ago demonstrated how water could be a “job enabler” for women in Indigenous communities, said Carlos Carrión-Crespo of the International Labor Organization.

Not only did women prove to be influential in governing water management projects, but they also employed traditional knowledge that could help solve their unique challenges, according to Carrión-Crespo.

“This empowerment of women not only improved their condition but also improved the quality of the work that was being carried out and the quality of life of the communities,” he said.

The International Labor Organization is now bringing this approach to communities in Yemen, where women are leading efforts to desalinate water tanks, purchase local materials and handle direct cash transfers for community water accounts, Carrión-Crespo explained. 

Citizen water management via smartphones: Another way to empower citizens of developing countries to take control of their water resources is by harnessing the power of the smartphone, according to Rajaram Prajapati, CEO of Smartphones 4 Water-Nepal. 

“The use of smartphones is increasing day by day,” Prajapati said at another World Water Week panel. “The number of smartphone users is 35 percent higher than the total [Nepalese] population.” 

With most Nepalese people equipped with smartphones, Prajapati’s organization has recruited more than 600 citizen scientists to collect data on precipitation, temperature, water levels, water flow, groundwater level and water quality based on their location. Smartphones 4 Water-Nepal aims to use the data to support water management decisions in the Kathmandu Valley and throughout the country.

Takeaway: As climate change puts additional pressure on regions that already lack access to water resources, empowering those who live in the world’s harshest environments to become part of the discussion — as opposed to having decisions made for them by outsiders — is the only way to boost global resilience.


Hydropower costs more than thought, new study suggests

Hydroelectric power generation equipment at the bottom of the Hoover Dam

Hydropower ends up costing a lot more than competitors, such as solar, when environmental sustainability and governance (ESG) factors are included, a new study has determined.

These findings suggest that ESG is not external to the business of hydropower but “a core part,” Benedick Bowie, director of the analytics firm TMP, said at a virtual press conference that accompanied the study’s publication.

First steps: The study, conducted by TMP and the nonprofit International Rivers, was a trial run of a new joint commercial product called Riverscope, which aims to quantify and predict the social and environmental costs of hydropower. Once those are factored in, Bowie said, the economic case for new large dams may vanish.

What’s the possible downside of hydropower? Hydropower is often seen as the classic clean energy: As water runs through the turbines of a dam, it generates electricity without releasing any carbon.

But that’s only part of the story. Dams built through the 20th century flooded entire valleys for their reservoirs — destroying ecosystems, kicking people off of their land and releasing the equivalent of a billion tons of carbon dioxide globally each year as drowned vegetation decays, according to the Guardian.

That means that dams are also helping power the same climate change that — in countries like Brazil — is drying up the rivers that they derive power from.

These are real business risks: Social and environmental impacts have commonly been seen as a side consideration to the broader hydropower business: Dams might flood communities or stir up unrest, which could damage a firm’s reputation. But that was separate from whether the dam made sense in business terms.

But Wednesday’s study suggests that those ESG issues “have operational impacts” on whether a particular dam is worth the money, said Bowie of TMP Systems. “They are not externalities. They are core to the business.”


The reason why is intuitive: A dam with heavy environmental or social impacts leads to resistance and therefore delays. Local people and environmental organizations are more likely to sue, demonstrate or otherwise block progress on a dam that perhaps didn’t take their needs into account.

In extreme cases, such opposition can kill a project. For example, the Chadin II dam in Peru was canceled after years of determined and forceful resistance from the Peruvian peasants that it would have flooded out.

Even when it doesn’t, the Riverscope team’s evaluation of 281 large dams found that construction delays ranged from four to 10 very expensive years — meaning hydropower could take twice as long as solar power to reach market in the best cases. In the worst cases, it took 10 times as long.

ESG factors lead to difference in cost: When Riverscope applied this model to five proposed dams in Africa and Southeast Asia, they found that those projects’ ESG liabilities meant they would lose, on average, 40 percent of their value thanks to delays and associated cost overruns. “And that’s not the worst case,” Justin Muhl of TMP Systems said at the conference. “That’s the median.”

With those factored in: Hydropower electricity would cost around 50 percent more per kilowatt hour than solar, Muhl said. 

And hydropower comes alongside new long-distance transmission lines, “which bring new social and environmental risks, and the delays associated with that,” Muhl said.

A reason to change: These numbers provide a dollars-and-cents way around the deadlocked environmental and social impact debates that typically accompany dams, Bowie suggested.

Last words: “We want to provide energy planners with specific alternate suggestions to hydropower,” Bowie said. 

“It’s all well and good to say: this gigawatt dam is a problem. But it’s unlikely countries are going to move away from those plans significantly until they can also meet their priorities in driving development and dealing with energy poverty.”


Western Wednesday 


Bee not seen since 2006 ruled 'endangered'

  • The federal government is extending Endangered Species Act protections to a West Coast bee that hasn’t been seen in 15 years, according to E&E News.
  • The Franklin’s bumblebee is both elusive in nature and flexible about habitat — and the “systematic surveys” of its habitat necessary to determine its extinction have not occurred, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
  • And if they’re still around, they’re likely in trouble, the FWS found. “The threats to the species of pathogens, pesticides, and small population size are ongoing and rangewide,” the FWS stated. 

Groundbreaking climate observatory opening in Rocky Mountains

  • A “new kind of national climate observatory” is opening up at the headwaters of the Colorado River to help scientists predict rain, snowfall and stream flow that 40 million across the region depend on, according to The Associated Press (AP).
  • Radar systems, balloons and cameras will help scientists investigate how the “critical interface” between land and atmospheric conditions impacts the availability of water, Alejandro Flores, a professor of hydrology at Boise State University, told the AP.
  • The Colorado Basin is in a 20-year “megadrought” that — along with increased demand — led to the first-ever shortage declaration along the river in August, as we reported.

Female firefighters describe 'hostile' work environment, sexual harassment

  • A woman who spent almost six years on the Los Angeles Board of Fire Commissioners has testified that the agency is “a very hostile work environment” for female firefighters, the Los Angeles Times reported. 
  • The board member, Rebecca Ninburg, cited allegations from a former firefighter that male colleagues exposed themselves to their female coworkers, according to the Times. 
  • Ninburg also described a lack of support for a study that would assess female experiences at the department, adding that one aide to the mayor had told her that such a study was less important than maintaining the firefighter union’s support for the mayor, the Times reported. 

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Thursday.