Humanity faces severe challenges in the coming century.
* Are you fearful about Global Warming? I am.
* Peak Oil giving you the blues? Join me in concern.
Well, let me add to your worries — as mine have been mounting. Water, one of the most renewable of renewable resources, ranks right up there with Global Warming and Energy in terms of key 21st century challenges.
Don’t believe me? (Or, if you already think this but want a more holistic perspective …) Well, perhaps it is time for you to spend some time with Fred Pearce and his wonderful When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century.
When the Rivers Run Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century provides a whirlwind tour (34 chapters in 310 pages) of water issues, a tour both geographic (from Cambodia to Los Angeles, the Aral Sea to the Zambezi River) and in subject matter (from drought to dams, desalinization to sanitation). The core strength of the book is this travelogue nature, in Pearce’s mosaic of historical, technological, social, and environmental realities, limitations, and possibilities.
Pearce lays out challenges, such as the massive amount of water that can go into crops (and, in essence, the trade in water via agricultural trade), the impacts of dams on reducing actual water availability (evaporation), and the ways in which mankind is bumping against limits in water availability around the globe.
For example, in the four-page chapter “Halliburton’s Job for Qaddafi”, Pearce discusses the $27+ billion that have gone into mining Libya’s “fossil water” (“ancient underground water that is not being replaced by the rains”) — taking water from the Nubian sandstone aquifer, which “is the largest freshwater source on earth … [with] some of the water … more than a million years old.” For what: to irrigate Libyan desert … “The vast capital cost and the growing bills for pumping water from ever greater depths beneath the desert make heat grown from the Saharan water some of the most expensive on earth.” Should we count the ways in which this money could have been better spent on a sustainable Libyan future? Such as setting up Concentrating Solar Power systems for exporting electricity to Europe?
The next chapter tackles “The World’s Largest Mass Poisoning”, highlighting the law of unintended consequences where good deeds can turn bad. Throughout Bangladesh and environs, massive numbers of people are poisoned with arsenic, as they use wells dug with international assistance in the 1980s seeking to provide them cleaner water from underground than the fouled surface waters they were using. “Such folly. They forgot that nature can poison water too.”
There is much to learn from this book, such as that reservoirs are a major factor in manmade global warming, as about 1/5th of manmade methane comes from rotting plant matter in reservoirs. This equates to about 7% of manmade Greenhouse effect, which is more than aircraft emissions. And, the vegetation decay is worsened by being in a reservoir, as in a more oxygenated environment, this decay would lead to CO2 rather than methane. For example, the “renewable” energy project built for the Ariane space program, in French Guiana, emits about three times the GHG of an equivalent coal-fired plant. [p 143-144]
Pearce argues that key areas of the world (China, India) will face water collapse in the coming decades unless there is major change. He lays out convincing cases of the criticality of water for numerous security crisis points (Israel & the Palestinians; the Kashmir).
But, this book is not just about dire circumstances and facts. One item made me recall (perhaps with nostalgia) one stream of Israeli concept — that they would achieve peace with and prosperity for their neighbors through learning how to make the desert bloom and sharing that knowledge freely and broadly. Pearce discusses how an Israeli archeologist, Michael Evenari, rediscovered “rain harvesting”. In this case, Evenari recreated “an ancient Nabatean farm” in the Negev desert.
When I paid a vist to the Avdat farm, it hadn’t rained for six weeks. All around was barren wasteland. But on the farm, the soil was damp, a field of wheat was growing, and almond and pistachio trees were in leaf. … It was a stunning sight. And as I have spoken to practitioners of rainwater harvesting around the world since, I have discovered how important the Negev experience has been in their work. [p 269]
South Asians learned rain harvesting from Avdat. Oxfam learned it from the Indians and brought it to Africa. And, so on. Sadly, this sort of sharing of ways to turn the desert green has not been Israel’s dominant interaction with its neighbors and the world.
The below is a five-minute discussion of a similar effort to green the desert. Take the time to watch — this gives me hope that ‘solutions’ are possible.
When the Rivers Run Dry is far from a perfect work. The absence of footnotes, the non-discussion of energy issues, and minimal mention of Global Warming impacts all weaken its impact for me.
And, at the end of the day, I have a core disagreement: it starts (and ends) with the title. Water is critical, even one of the three most pressing 21st century challenges humanity faces, but it is not “the defining crisis”. We could “solve” water and still be killing ourselves and humanity’s future in accelerated Global Warming through using ever more polluting energy systems. No, water is key; water is important, but it is not “the defining crisis”.
Having written this, Pearce has written a great travelogue, engagingly written in short segments that can be read when the opportunity strikes and the book returned to at a later time. Each chapter can stand by itself, but the chapters create an entirety, laying down the basis for a holistic understanding of the Globe’s water challenges today and in the century to come.
And, finally, Pearce should be commended. When the Rivers Run Dry is not just a nightmare tale, but Pearce points to real advances and real reasons for some optimism about paths for ameliorating (if not solving) the globe’s water challenges. Global Warming … Peak Oil … Water … three critical challenges for the coming century. When it comes to Water, When the Rivers Run Dry outlines the challenge but also suggests solutions.
* Celsias had an excellent discussion of water issues last week, Water Worries.