E15 – Polluted Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

Water is the most essential of essentials. We can survive weeks without food but only days without water. And it’s something that many of us take for granted. But water is not as plentiful, available, and clean in all parts of the world. And with climate change, water is going to become (and is already) a limited resource to some.

From Arizona to Katmandu, Chris Scott, Research Professor of Water Resources Policy at The University of Arizona, has traversed the globe to learn how we use water, problems populations are facing with contamination and access, and to work with governments, residents, and other stakeholders to ensure that everyone has access to clean, abundant water. In this episode, Chris told us some amazing stories of the places he’s traveled to, the people that he’s met, and the challenges that he’s faced.

This episode was produced by Shane Hanlon and mixed by Adell Coleman. 


Episode transcript

Shane Hanlon:   Hi, Nancy.

Nanci Bompey: Hey. Hey, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:   Hi.

Nanci Bompey: Hi.

Shane Hanlon:   I have a question for you.

Nanci Bompey: Yep.

Shane Hanlon:   Wow, you’re on it today.

Shane Hanlon:   What is the one thing that you could not live without? And you cannot say books.

Nanci Bompey: My glasses. I’m blind! You know how blind I am.

Shane Hanlon:   Do you know what your prescription is?

Nanci Bompey: Oh, yeah. It’s like -9, -10.

Shane Hanlon:   Oh my God!

Nanci Bompey: Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:   Wow.

Nanci Bompey: I’m not just saying that like, “Oh, I couldn’t live without my glasses ’cause I need to drive” like I can’t see probably a foot in front of me.

Shane Hanlon:   Wow.

Shane Hanlon:   That is impressive. So yeah, for those of you who have no idea how prescriptions work, I’m like -4 something in one eye and 3 something in the other.

Nanci Bompey: Which I’d say is bad enough. [crosstalk]

Shane Hanlon:   Which is also pretty bad. I think if you’re like -0.5 you’re kind of okay. 9! So how thick-

Nanci Bompey: They’re thick, they’re like coke. I’m wearing my contacts right now so I normally wear my contacts but my glasses are thinned, like the lenses you get them thinned when their so thick and they’re still so thick. I can’t have metal frames, they’re like coke bottles. They’re like warped on the side.

Shane Hanlon:   Oh, okay. So your challenge now is one day wear these glasses into work so that we can see you.

Nanci Bompey: I do sometimes. Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:   Welcome to the American Geophysical Unions podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in a manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Nanci Bompey: And I’m Nancy Bompey.

Shane Hanlon:   And this is Third Pod from the Sun.

Shane Hanlon:   Okay. So I was asking you, Nanci, about the one thing that you couldn’t live without because today we are talking about the one thing, probably the most important thing that we people cannot live without, aside from oxygen which Lauren pointed out to me, thank you Lauren.

Nanci Bompey: And our iPhones.

Shane Hanlon:   And our iPhones, not our iPhones. But water. We’re talking about water, today’s about water.

Nanci Bompey: Water!

Shane Hanlon:   Water.

Nanci Bompey: I love water. I just got some nice lovely water.

Shane Hanlon:   Oh yes. We have fruit infused water.

Nanci Bompey: We do here in HQ.

Lauren Lipuma: We’re so fancy.

Shane Hanlon:   It’s one of our lovely perks. So talking about water today and actually Lauren and I went and interviewed a researcher last year who is actually part of AAAS, what does AAAS acronym stand for?

Lauren Lipuma: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Shane Hanlon:   Thank you very much, Lauren. Their Leshner Fellowship Program.

Chris Scott:         My name’s Christopher, or Chris Scott. I’m a professor of geography and water resources at the University of Arizona in Tucson and I’m the director of the Udall Center for Studies and Public Policy that works on water, food, land and also native governance and native nations questions.

Shane Hanlon:   Yeah, so basically Chris works and researches in the world of water security. So where it is, who gets it, sanitation policy et cetera.

Nanci Bompey: That sounds important.

Shane Hanlon:   It’s very important.

Chris Scott:         So water is this often underappreciated or less looked at resource. Now just imagine every day thousands and hundreds of thousands of kids dying ever day for lack of access to clean water in the developing world. It’s perhaps the largest public health crisis humanity has ever known and it goes on today, day in, day out. There are a lot of solutions to address those kinds of questions of the availability and quality of water that not just kids but humans needs and kids being the most vulnerable.So underage mortality related to waterborne diseases is this really important public health crisis.

Chris Scott:         I grew up in India and I lived for essentially all of my child in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains and yes that’s the way it’s pronounced in English. There’s a lot of Himalaya’s but anyhow. That region also is interesting because it’s a source of rivers that support a huge share of South Asia’s humanities. Water quality is India’s by far, in a way, biggest challenge.

Chris Scott:         There’s a huge industrial and of course urban sector that uses and contaminates and pollutes water. Much of the water is untreated or insufficiently treated so I’ve waded around in sewage rivers without wading boots and basically with trash bags in my boots because you’re collecting samples in rivers of shit. I mean human shit and disgusting stuff like goats and buffaloes, parts floating through the river and just the smell is overpowering. You can just imagine you are at the toilet of the city.

Chris Scott:         So there’s a huge need for wastewater treatment and let me tell you, I wish it was just as simple as stinky shit. What’s really nasty is the heavy metal contamination and the pharmaceutical by-products. We have these things in our wastewater systems here in the developed world too, we just been more successful in investing and insisting on the water quality and environmental controls to be able to see that water is treated adequately.

Lauren Lipuma: Yeah, tell us more about wading around in sewage rivers.

Chris Scott:         So let me tell you about that sewage river in [inaudible] I’ve done this work in Mexico, I’ve done this work in many other locations. So city’s consume, people are in domestic but also commercial industrial establishments, use a huge amount of what are called surfactants basically soaps and detergents and other kinds of things. When they get out into the environment and aren’t treated properly they generate foam, okay?

Chris Scott:         So I’ve been to small cascading, not big waterfalls, but just where the water courses over some rocks. So think of the big falls area here in DC, right? Then imagine a sewage river flowing through that, it generates a huge amount of foam and I’ve seen a water buffalo, and water buffaloes are attuned to being in the water because that’s the way they are, [inaudible] they cool themselves off in the heat and whatever. This water buffalo emerging from one of these foam waterfalls but colored pink because somebodies dye had gotten in with the surfactants and the foaming and so you’ve got this- and it looked like a spittle bug but from a distance. This drippy, but the foam encasing it’s whole body.

Lauren Lipuma: Oh my God.

Chris Scott:         So now you’re out there and the smell is often overpowering and so one of the studies was is there natural process by which the river- because you’ve noticed that you’d go 20 or 30 kilometers or should I say 10 or 15 miles downstream from the city and the water was not necessarily bad quality but was oh so much better than up here but it wasn’t going through wastewater treatment so what’s going on there?

Chris Scott:         So there’s a natural process through aeration and through some of the water that gets filtered out of what’s called the ground water that would come in. Sort of a natural treatment process. Well, can we accentuate this? Is there some way in which- so we’re doing a study to look at what the quality of the biota is in the river and so we were sampling for macro invertebrates for basically different kinds of beetles and insects and other kinds of things. Some larval stage at different points in the river. But the first one was right by the outfall from the city’s butchery. With literally the eyeballs and other things just floating by.

Lauren Lipuma: Oh my God.

Chris Scott:         And we went there in our- we didn’t have wader boots, we should have got like proper wader boots, right? You can imagine fly fishing and you’d go in with some protection but no, what we had was just black trash bags as socks in your boot, so you have a knee-high boot and this rubber band up here to have these improvised waders because we wouldn’t to get in to collect these macro invertebrate samples.

Chris Scott:         Now we’ve got a thousand people on the bridge looking at these idiot scientists down there saying, “What the hell are those guys doing?” You can hear when they’re starting to talk, these are Indians, they’re saying, “Oh, I think one of them lost their ring. They’re down there looking for some lost jewelry. That’s the only reason I’d ever get in that water!” You know? So you start getting into this whole dynamic going on and everything.

Chris Scott:         So we did macro invertebrates studies that show that biodiversity goes from almost zero but it’s not zero, even in the offal, o-f-f-a-l, this outfall stuff from the butchery and the human shit floating by and everything. There’s still life in that river to 20-30 kilometers down. It’s much, much better water quality, still not anywhere near drinking but certainly acceptable for irrigation of crops.

Nanci Bompey: Ew, that is so gross.

Shane Hanlon:   Ew, so gross.

Lauren Lipuma: Remember when we talked to that woman who said he’s whale poop, Shane?

Shane Hanlon:   Oh, yeah.

Lauren Lipuma: I think this is a lot worse than whale poop.

Shane Hanlon:   Well, yeah, this is not great. Unfortunately this reminds me of when I was younger, not that much I was in high school I guess. I grew up in the country, rural America, and I was playing paintball with my friends, we’re just running around shooting paintballs-

Lauren Lipuma: Paintballs.

Shane Hanlon:   Paintballs. I don’t know. I was running across the speedo at my friend’s place, on his property, and I end up falling into this hole that seemed like a marsh or something. I fell in and I popped myself back out and I was like, “What the hell did I just fall in?” It turns out, that they had an open septic tank, which is not legal by any means. ‘Cause rural places have septic tanks-

Lauren Lipuma: Right.

Shane Hanlon:   …so there’s the top had rusted open or something so it was just open, sort of falling up to my chest into it, yes. So I burned all of my clothes.

Lauren Lipuma: So do you have hepatitis now?

Shane Hanlon:   No, I have nothing thankfully, everything worked out fine.

Lauren Lipuma: That’s awful.

Shane Hanlon:   And at the time I didn’t even realize, I didn’t think about how big of a deal it was but no, it’s absolutely terrible.

Lauren Lipuma: How bad did you smell?

Shane Hanlon:   Pretty terribly. I think I literally may have burned my clothes and I know I scrubbed in bleach. It was one of those things.

Lauren Lipuma: That’s a good plan.

Shane Hanlon:   So up until this point I forgot that, so thank you, Third Pod from the Sun, for reminding me.

Lauren Lipuma: We’re bringing up long last, tragic memories from Shane’s youth.

Shane Hanlon:   Thank you.

Lauren Lipuma: Yeah, well, you know, that sounds pretty disgusting but Chris actually does things, besides just disgusting field work, he has to go to some pretty remote places. He was telling us a story about one time he went to Nepal and getting there was just really difficult.

Chris Scott:         I get out in the field and really want to work in the field and sometimes that means sitting in the bus where there’s 60 people on this little mini bus that was built for 20. We had to get out every time we went up a hill because that poor little bus just did not have the power to go up the hill. It’s basically got the size of an F-150 truck engine or something, you know? It’s hauling 60 people up this slippery, muddy, dirt road and I’ve got pictures on my laptop if you want to see some of this.

Chris Scott:         Then you come to the place where the raging torrent coming in the side, so it’s a side stream or side river and the bridge has washed out and either- you just take your chance or the driver will take the chance- and so there’s the right balance between if there’s no passengers in there, it’s just too light and it will literally float away versus if there’s too many passengers it’s little tires get stuck in the rocks in the bottom of the stream. So we had to be pushed out by the backhoe and luckily there’s a backhoe there.

Lauren Lipuma: Why is there a backhoe there?

Chris Scott:         Well the backhoe was helping to repair the bridge that had washed out, but you’re going to wait a month for the bridge to be built? No, you gotta cross and luckily the backhoe is there and whatever.

Lauren Lipuma: Tell us more about that.

Chris Scott:         Yeah.

Lauren Lipuma: Where were you- [crosstalk] this is the context, set the scene for us.

Chris Scott:         This is story time. So August 2017, so just about a year ago, I was invited to Kathmandu, Nepal to lead the water security chapter assessment that looked at a whole range of things; agriculture, energy, poverty, education. So I flew out to Kathmandu and this is August, the monsoons in South Asia typically go from middle to of June until the end of August, so I said, “I’m going to take a chance” but I’m there at the end of the workshop and they’re not going to organize a field trip and it’s not like I insisted they should but I was going to organize my own field trip.

Chris Scott:         So I was gonna go out to see some of the research locations of in this case the Gandaki river it’s called, but it’s one of the tributaries to the Ganges. It flows down through Nepal but it starts in Tibet. I’m going to [inaudible] which is an important religious site at the source of one of these tributary rivers.

Chris Scott:         so I fly to Kathmandu into a place called Pokhara which is a regional town and that’s a pretty easy flight, there’s 6-8 flights a day, a number of people fly. But to go from Pokhara up to Jomsom is a fifteen minute flight and it’s called the steep take off and landing STOL plane that just roars up the mountain to get up that high and it screams down the mountain and lands on this little, teeny runway strip on the side-

Shane Hanlon:   You said 15? One five?

Chris Scott:         15 minutes. It’s a 15 minute flight.

Lauren Lipuma: So you’re just going up-

Chris Scott:         Yeah, and you’re strapped in and this thing is like really powerful and there’s, I don’t know, 15 people on board or something? It’s a little plane but it’s got two big engines, steep take off and landing.

Chris Scott:         So you get into Muktinath and when you get to the airport they say, “Well, there’s clouds so we’re not sure it’s going to fly.” Okay, wait. And the flight time was six in the morning or something, and you get there at seven or eight and you sort of understand but you’re waiting at Pokhara’s airport waiting room and drinking tea. I speak Nepali so I can talk with some of the local folks.

Chris Scott:         So you can get into Jomsom and I do the first day of getting acclimatized because I had gone from Kathmandu and Pokhara are probably about the same elevation, it’s not actually that high, it’s like three, four thousand feet above sea level, it’s down in the valleys. And now I’m up at eleven and a half thousand feet and I’ve spent time at higher elevations but you need to get acclimatized.

Chris Scott:         So I spend the day walking around to go see the Buddhists of Gompa and some of the buckwheat fields, do you eat buckwheat pancakes? Do you know where buckwheat is grown?

Lauren Lipuma: No.

Chris Scott:         There’s some interesting places. In a very strong irrigation culture and one of these guys who really thinks about and interested in where the does the water flow and what does it mean to peoples livelihoods and irrigation systems and everything.

Chris Scott:         So the next day afterwards I go up to Muktinath and I partly walkup but I partly take a little bus up. That was not all that bad but you have to get off and walk in certain places. I had other stories where the bus, they disassembled the whole bus and carried it on their back to the other side of the gorge and rebuilt it over there and reconstructed it and now you go across by foot and you get on the other side and now there’s a bus, but it only runs up there because it was disassembled and rebuilt up in some of these locations in the Himalayan regions.

Chris Scott:         So long story short, I’m coming back down from the town of Muktinath to the town of Jomsom. Beautiful location, I’ve got some pictures of water spouts, it’s a spring at the bottom of this mountain in a arid region, arid valley. And the water is the critical thing to see up there, I mean not just see, but the pilgrimages to the source of water.

Chris Scott:         So I’m back to Jomsom and the clouds have come even more now and so I say my host, my lodge where I’m staying, “Do you think the flight’s going to go?” And he goes, “I don’t know, but I will try and put in an inquiry, I know somebody who works at the airport.” They go, “The flights haven’t been coming, the whole couple of days you were up in Muktinath and came back down, no flights.” And so there’s a bunch of people waiting for their flights and waiting for their flights. And I go, “But I’ve got a flight going out from Pokhara to Kathmandu back through Abu Dhabi and Dubai back to LAX and back to Tucson and I got to be in class, I’m a professor, I’m teaching. So I’ve got to get back, I’ve got to get back.”

Chris Scott:         Well, the only way that you can really get back is to take the bus down. So I say, “Okay, I guess I’m going to have to take the bus down.” So I get on the bus at six in the morning, we get a few miles out and it’s like pouring rain and there are pot holes and this does not even look like a road. It really looks like a hiking trail. It’s a little wider and the reason why it’s only the size of an F-150 or something is because you can’t get a big bus up there. I mean forget it, take a tour bus up there? There’s no road! So this is like pot hole thing the whole way.

Chris Scott:         So we get to maybe, six or seven it must have left, say ten o’clock. It’s raining heavily, the road’s closed. The landslides have cut the road, oh geez, what do we do? Okay, so I find to Nepali young guys and I say, “Hey, would you help me?” I’ve got all my conferencing gear so I’ve got my suit and my tie and my computer and laptop and I’ve got my whole stuff for the trip up from Tucson all the way up there.

Chris Scott:         Long story short, we hike around 8 or 10 kilometers of landslide things and some places where the old road construction camp is completely submerged in debris. So a lot of pictures that you see of the California flash floods and everything, like that, just stuff buried in debris and this has just come down last night and everything.

Chris Scott:         So we get down to the other side and there’s this little bus that had come up. So meanwhile, we see those passengers hiking up to get on our bus which will then turn around and go back up and we’re going to go get on their bus. So we’re going down and the road is getting worse and worse because as you go further down the mountain you’re coming back to the rainfall area. This is in the rain shadow area. The far side of the mountains is high and dry, up on the Tibet plateau, and it’s dry up there. It doesn’t rain as much, but the further down you go into the Nepali heartland it’s raining more and more and you’re seeing storms.

Chris Scott:         This is now the Gandaki river that up there was a wide valley but a relatively narrow course of river now. This raging torrent and if this bus slips and you roll, not only are in you the river but the river will wash you away. It’s a raging river now, it’s a huge river. Getting pushed across with the backhoe and pushing the bus up and everything.

Chris Scott:         So we had expected to Pokhara, having left at six in the morning, had the bus been on time, the landslide had no been washed out, it would’ve been a 12 hour bus trip. Okay? For the 15 minute flight. Okay, I’m going down now. But we get three quarters of the way at midnight, so now what? 18 hours later? We left at six in the morning, we get 18 hours. I made friends with this Nepali guy and his daughter and they had simply gone up for the pilgrimage themselves to go Muktinath and have the religious view of the thing and some international European trekker, hiker, types.

Chris Scott:         So the next morning, now we get up at six o’clock in the morning after this flea bitten hotel and whatever and get to Jomsom, get to Pokhara sorry and it’s in time for my flight to Kathmandu. So I’m relieved because I’m going to get back to Tucson. Guess what? The flight came down. I could’ve saved all of that, almost 36 hour, not ordeal, but adventure or whatever. Because my seat was on that flight and it did make it down that day.

Lauren Lipuma: What were you thinking that whole time when you were just like- were you thinking, “This is an adventure! I’m just going to go with it.” Or were you just like, “My life sucks.”

Chris Scott:         You know, I’ve been on a lot of those kinds of bus, I guess I had sort of an innate trust that if the situation had gotten so severe that I would have backed out of it, or that these bus drivers- and he was one bus driver and four dudes whose only job was to clear stones out of the way and whatever. So you go with your sort of mobile. They also had a good sense and they were saying where we’re going to go, but clearly their bus was kind of giving out.

Chris Scott:         So I was concerned but I wanted to come back. But I think if the situation had gotten totally out of control, I would have stepped out and taken a- gotten linked to get back to Tucson.

Shane Hanlon:   But this is the story you have now.

Chris Scott:         This is the story I have, exactly. Had the 15 minute flight had worked there’d be no story.

Shane Hanlon:   Has anyone had a harrowing bus or public transportation journey?

Lauren Lipuma: Yeah, actually I have. I lived for a little while in a small town in the Peruvian Andes at the bottom of this really beautiful valley. Every so often we would have to go up to the mountains and go to different towns to get to the big cities where the other stuff was. I think literally every bus trip I took through those mountains I feared for my life.

Nanci Bompey: One of the ones where there’s no guardrail.

Lauren Lipuma: There’s no guardrail. It’s cliff on one side, sheer drop on the other side and drivers who just don’t care so much about road safety?

Nanci Bompey: I feel like that’s always non-US- wherever you go on a bus like that in the United States up a mountain you’re like, I might die right now.

Shane Hanlon:   My partner lived in Ethiopia for awhile and she tells these stories about, people didn’t worry about the food or you would get attacked by some sort of wildlife thing or anything like that. It was a bus. If you were going to die it was going to be on a bus.

Lauren Lipuma: Yep. I’m not a religious person but I remembering praying so many times for my life. Like please God, just let me make it through this one bus trip.

Shane Hanlon:   Well, we’re happy that you’re here with us.

Lauren Lipuma: Me too.

Shane Hanlon:   Alright folks. Well that’s all from Third Pod from the Sun.

Nanci Bompey: Thank you so much to Shane and Lauren for this episode and of course to Chris for sharing his work with us.

Shane Hanlon:   The Podcast is also produced with help from Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, Liza Lester and Katie Brundle. Thanks to Adele Coleman for producing this episode.

Nanci Bompey: And if you loved this podcast, which I’m sure you do, you can rate and review us on iTunes. You can listen to us wherever you get your podcasts or of course at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:   Thanks all, and we’ll see you next time.



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