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Cyberattacks Are Striking Water Systems

March 24, 2024

Biden Administration Warns of Cyber Threats Targeting Water Systems

On Tuesday, March 19, the Biden administration warned governors that “disabling cyberattacks are striking water and wastewater systems” throughout the country. A letter from EPA Administrator Michael Regan and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said attacks have the potential to disrupt the delivery of clean and safe drinking water as well as impose significant costs on affected communities.

Credit: B_A / Pixabay

They cited two recent and ongoing threats that illustrate the risk. One involved actors affiliated with the Iranian Government Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which targeted and disabled operational technology commonly used at water facilities, where the operator had neglected to change the manufacturer’s default password. The second implicates a Chinese state-sponsored group known as “Volt Typhoon,” which the U.S. says is positioning itself to disrupt critical infrastructure operations in the event of geopolitical tensions and/or military conflicts.

Drinking water and wastewater systems are an attractive target because they often lack the resources and technical capacity to protect themselves. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) offered a list of actions utilities can take to reduce risk of malicious cyber activity, and the EPA is forming a Water Sector Cybersecurity Task Force to help water systems identify vulnerabilities.

Global Water Crisis Threatens Billions, As Mexico City Faces “Day Zero”

Friday, March 22, was the United Nations World Water Day, an annual event since 1993 meant to stress the importance of fresh water.

Credit: Bob Nichols / USDA

Last week, the UN released a report showing that 2.2 billion people live without access to safe drinking water, and 3.5 billion lack access to safe sanitation. The report says that half of the world’s population experiences severe water scarcity for at least part of the year and others confront severe water scarcity all year.

In poor and rural areas, the UN says that women and girls are the first to suffer when water is difficult to obtain because they carry the primary responsibility of collecting it. Also, a lack of safe sanitation leads to girls dropping out of school.

Currently, in many areas of Earth, water conditions are bad. In Mexico City, the water supply is at historic low levels from lack of rain. Some people, if they can, have to pay for a water truck to fill toilets. According to experts, parts of the city of 22 million people could reach “day zero” by June, where there won’t be enough water to pump to the city—even if the rainy season starts that month.

The city of Johannesburg, South Africa, faces the collapse of its water system, which could affect millions. Reservoirs have shrunk from hot weather, and the Associated Press reports that crumbling infrastructure from decades of neglect is also to blame.

One of the worst droughts in the last 100 years has led to severe water shortages in Catalonia, Spain, including Barcelona. Reservoirs there are at about 16 percent capacity, causing officials to declare a drought emergency last month.

E-Waste Rises, As Does Need for Products That Don’t End Up in Landfills

The growth of “e-waste” from discarded electronics like computers, cell phones, microwaves, and photovoltaic panels, is staggering, according to a new report from the UN Institute for Training and Research.

Credit: George Hotelling / Creative Commons

Sixty-two million tons of e-waste was generated in 2022. If you put all of it in tractor-trailers and then lined them up bumper to bumper at the equator, they would encircle the globe. The amount of waste is expected to increase by 30 percent to 82 million tons by 2030.

The growth is because of continuing consumption, limited repair options, shorter life cycles of electronics, and inadequate infrastructure to manage it. The increase of the waste is five times faster than the ability of recycling to handle it, according to the report. Most of the e-waste ends up in landfills or informal recycling systems that lack personal and environmental protections. Only about one-fifth of the tossed items were collected and recycled properly in 2022, and that rate is expected to fall by the end of the decade.

About half of the waste consists of metals, like gold, copper, iron, and mercury, which is hazardous and can contaminate water systems by leaching from dumpsites where the e-waste has been deposited.

Jim Puckett, with the watchdog group Basel Action Network, told CNN that manufacturers show a lack of care by failing to take into account what happens to their products at the end of their lives. He said that electronics companies have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to make products that last and that are not designed to end up in the dump. The manufacturers hope they can sell us new products as soon as possible and they need clear plans for recycling the toxic and hazardous parts.

There is no federal law in the U.S. mandating the recycling of electronics, but some states, like Washington, have started their own regulations.

Heads Up, Gardners! Plant Hardiness Zones Have Shifted North

It’s officially spring, so many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are heading to garden centers. Before you go, you might want to check the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new plant hardiness zone map describing how plants thrive by location. It’s been updated for the first time since the previous version in 2012—and things have changed.

The 2023 USDA plant hardiness zone map shows the areas where plants can be expected to grow, based on extreme winter temperatures. Darker shades (purple to blue) denote colder zones, phasing southward into temperate (green) and warm zones (yellow and orange). |  Credit: USDA

Some cherished plants that once thrived in your yard may not do so well now, writes Matt Kasson of West Virginia University in The Conversation, because global warming has shifted zones northward so much that nearly half the country is in a new one. The zones are determined by an area’s coldest average annual winter temperature, and each one represents a ten-degree Fahrenheit range, with Zone 1 being the coldest to Zone 13, the warmest. Zones are further divided into five-degree half zones, which are noted as “a” (northern) or “b” (southern).

According to the American Horticultural Society, the 2023 map shows a 2.5-degree shift from the 2012 version and that the Central Plains and Midwest are heating up the most and the Southwest the least.

Putting a plant in the wrong zone can stress it, possibly shortening its life and affecting its growth and productivity. It could also make it more susceptible to disease. With milder winters, Kasson says, southern insect pests and plant pathogens are expanding their ranges northward too. Both plants and microbes are less active when soil is frozen, but in wet soil, pathogens might seize the opportunity to colonize dormant perennial plant roots, leading to more disease.

While the new map might make it more challenging to garden, fear not, there are likely thousands of varieties of plants to suit both your interests and your hardiness zone. Just be sure to check the plant’s label before you buy.