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Pulitzer Center Update December 16, 2015

This Week: The Global Crisis of Vanishing Groundwater

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In places around the world, supplies of groundwater are rapidly vanishing. As aquifers decline and...

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Mukindra Suryawanshi, 22, fills his family's water tank in Maharashtra state in western India. He and his relatives carry the tank on an ox cart and fill it up at another farmer's irrigation well. The water, drawn from about 850 feet underground, is used for washing, cooking and bathing by an extended family of 22 people. Image by Steve Elfers. India, 2015.


The historic agreement reached in Paris last week that will curb carbon emissions is heartening, but oil isn't the only resource being pumped out of the ground at an alarming rate—with catastrophic consequences for the planet. In an eye-opening series for USA Today, The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, CA, and other Gannett newspapers, Pulitzer Center grantees Ian James and Steve Elfers investigate the consequences of groundwater depletion, an overlooked global crisis.

"Groundwater is disappearing beneath cornfields in Kansas, rice paddies in India, asparagus farms in Peru and orange groves in Morocco," writes Ian. "As these critical water reserves are pumped beyond their limits, the threats are mounting for people who depend on aquifers to supply agriculture, sustain economies and provide drinking water. In some areas, fields have already turned to dust and farmers are struggling."

Climate change will only exacerbate the crisis, yet few seem to be taking this existential threat seriously. "Even as satellite measurements have revealed the problem's severity on a global scale, many regions have failed to adequately address the problem," says Ian. "Aquifers largely remain unmanaged and unregulated, and water that seeped underground over tens of thousands of years is being gradually used up."


Pulitzer Center grantees Dan Grossman and Justin Catanoso, were in Paris last week to cover the landmark climate summit. Their deep knowledge of the subject and observant eye brought a fresh perspective to the proceedings.

Justin, in a series of dispatches for Mongabay, wrote about the last-minute push for a voluntary reduction of carbon emissions that would hold rising temperatures to a maximum rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius instead of 2 degrees. He also interviewed Norway's director of Forests and Climate Initiatives on the paradox of his country's willingness to spend big dollars on preserving tropical rainforests, but its refusal to cut down on its lucrative North Sea oil production.

Meanwhile, Dan has been filing reports for NPR's Here & Now, Yale Climate Connections and the Food & Environment Reporting Network on topics ranging from a new electric car sharing service that is catching on in Paris to interviews with French chefs, farmers and vintners about concerns that increasing global temperatures could impact everything from French wine to the prized truffles that grow underground beneath the roots of the oak and hazelnut trees.


Pulitzer Center grantee Uri Blau's investigative series in Haaretz on tax-exempt U.S. funding of Israel's illegal settlements continued to make waves in this country and in Israel. The Associated Press reported on Uri's findings and the story was picked up by The New York Times, Yahoo, the Daily Beast and many other outlets. Uri also gave an interview to Radio France.

Uri's project documents how private U.S. donors used a network of tax-exempt non-profits to funnel more than $220 million to Jewish settlements on the West Bank from 2009-2013. The money was used for everything from the purchase of new air conditioners to supporting the families of convicted Jewish terrorists. Uri also reported that a major U.S. donor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave money to a group trying to re-establish Jewish sovereignty on the Temple Mount, a flashpoint at the heart of the violence in the region over the past few months.

Asked to comment on these findings by journalists at the State Department's daily briefing last Monday, spokesman John Kirby said, "This Administration, like every administration before it since 1967, views settlement activity as illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace. The United States Government does not support any activity that would indicate otherwise."

Until next week,

Tom Hundley
Senior Editor


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