The trouble with water, be it too much or too little

A year ago, while news reports focused on the inundation of Houston by Hurricane Harvey, much of the Indian city of Mumbai was also underwater. Both coastal cities, more than 14,000 kilometers apart, had been swamped by extreme rainfall. Deputy news editor Katy Daigle, who had reported from India for seven years for the Associated Press before joining Science News, knew that flooding was already a chronic problem for Mumbai. Flood risks for this city of 21.4 million and many other coastal megacities in Asia are only getting worse, as climate change raises sea levels and is likely to increase rainfall in the region. Despite the obvious dangers, there’s no obvious way to respond. “There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for cities to follow,” Daigle says. “Coping with a watery future is going to require tough decisions that only local communities can make.”

This special issue on the future of water looks at how the increased scarcity of potable water and sea level rise, as well as the potential for more rain, will pose challenges worldwide. Contributing correspondent Alexandra Witze looked at the complex factors driving water shortages, and Daigle collaborated with freelancer Maanvi Singh to report on urban flooding. Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling traveled to the Florida Everglades, where scientists are trying to figure out if the vast ecosystem can be saved from the double whammy of freshwater diversion and saltwater intrusion.

Work on a special report like this starts months before a magazine goes to press, when we decide on a topic to explore. In this case, we started with “climate change.” A staff-wide brainstorming session followed, with dozens of ideas proposed and much whiteboard scribbling. Then those ideas had to be checked out, with editors asking more questions, reporters digging into more research and visuals editors weighing in on ways we might show rather than tell. After much debate, we decided that focusing on the future of water was the best way to provide fresh insight into this enormous topic.

All that work goes on while we’re also covering the news of the day, and the demands of the 24/7 news cycle make it hard for reporters to get out in the field. Still, we think that on-the-scene reporting is crucial for explaining how science is done and how climate change is affecting people and ecosystems worldwide. “From Day One, I felt like we couldn’t do this story justice without local reporting,” Daigle says of her feature. She reported from our headquarters in Washington, D.C., while Singh reported from Mumbai.

Thanks to Singh, I now know how Saif, the owner of a soda shop on the beach in Mumbai, contends with flooding that had repeatedly threatened his livelihood. And from Gramling, who trekked out to research plots in the midst of the swamp, I know that the mosquitoes may be more of an occupational hazard than the alligators.

We have big ambitions for our coverage of climate change including more reports from the field, as we continue to cover this extraordinary time in the history of Earth and humans.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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