Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink. – Samuel Coleridge (1772-1834). The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, II
If you look down on our earth from space, the predominant colour is blue. The surface of our earth is approximately 70% water. In that respect, perhaps our planet would have been better called the Ocean, than the Earth. Yet, excepting expensive, energy intensive and environmentally problematic desalinisation techniques (PDF), we cannot use it for our daily personal water intake requirements.
- 97.5% of all water on Earth is salt water, leaving only 2.5% as fresh water
- Nearly 70% of that fresh water is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland; most of the remainder is present as soil moisture, or lies in deep underground aquifers as groundwater not accessible to human use
- Less than 1% of the world’s fresh water (~0.007% of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. This is the water found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs and those underground sources that are shallow enough to be tapped at an affordable cost. – globalchange
We’ve talked about Peak Oil and Peak Soil. Today we need to broach the topic of Peak Water. Despite our inherent natural tendency to think otherwise, fresh water is not an exhaustless commodity, and we are fast running out.
If per capita consumption of water resources continues to rise at its current rate, humankind could be using over 90 per cent of all available freshwater within 25 years, leaving just 10 per cent for the rest of the world’s species. – UNESCO (emphasis added)
More than 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by the year 2025 if the world continues consuming water at the same rate, the United Nations has warned. – BBC
Every day, it seems, we read about lakes disappearing, wells going dry, or rivers failing to reach the sea. But these stories typically describe local situations. It is not until we begin to compile the numerous national studies—such as an 824-page analysis of the water situation in China, a World Bank study of the water situation in Yemen, or a detailed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) assessment of the irrigation prospect in the western United States—that the extent of emerging water shortages worldwide can be grasped. Only then can we see the extent of water overuse and the decline it can bring.
The world is incurring a vast water deficit—one that is largely invisible, historically recent, and growing fast. Because much of the deficit comes from aquifer overpumping, it is often not apparent. Unlike burning forests or invading sand dunes, falling water tables are often discovered only when wells go dry. – Lester R. Brown, Plan B 2.0 Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (PDF)
The following passages outline the almost gold-rush type explosion of water extraction that occurred since the birth of the fossil-fuel based agricultural ‘Green Revolution’ days of post-World War II, and well demonstrates our natural tendency to assume natural resources are limitless:
There was a rush to exploit the limited groundwater resources. The groundwater was freely available at the cost of a bore and a pump. There was competition to use more and more groundwater. Water tables dropped, and farmers drilled deeper bores, and installed more powerful pumps. Almost simultaneously, all around the world, the wells began to run dry, and governments were quite unable to control the extraction of groundwater, or protect the resources.
Most governments did not know where the wells were, or the depth of the wells. Governments did not record water levels, but were certainly informed when farmers complained when their wells ran dry. Farmers, governments, and their professional advisors, had all believed that the wells would flow forever.
The groundwater rush was like a gold rush; it was a great uncontrolled bonanza. The International Water Management Institute has estimated that the total global withdrawal of groundwater is now about 1,000 cubic kilometers each year, but it is quite unsustainable. This great global rush to exploit available groundwater resources in our time is a one-off extraction of a limited natural resource. – Executive Intelligence Review
Over the last century, worldwide, demands on water have increased six-fold – twice the rate of population growth. Some of the main reasons are:
- Population growth: the world’s population has doubled in the last forty-five years, and if present birth/death rates continue it is expected to double again in the next fifty. Whilst much of this growth is in developing nations, even the U.S. population (currently 300 million) has doubled in the last sixty years, and is expected to double again to 600 million in the next sixty-five. “The issue today, put simply, is that while the only renewable source of freshwater is continental rainfall (which generates a more or less constant global supply of 40,000 to 50,000 cubic km per year), the world population keeps increasing by roughly 85 million per year. Therefore the availability of freshwater per head is decreasing rapidly.” (Blue Gold) Water experts estimate that there is no more fresh water on earth than there was 2,000 years ago – when the population was three percent of its current size. (Imasar).
- Agriculture: Approximately 70% of all fresh water is used for agricultural purposes worldwide. And, just as some nations have great oil resources, and others don’t, so it is with water. Dry Pakistan uses 97% of its freshwater for agriculture, and China (with 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its water) uses 87%. For a quick comparison overview of water consumption for different dietary options, see tables on this page.
- Industry: Worldwide, approximately 20% of freshwater is used for industry, and, increasingly, industry is battling agriculture for a greater share. Our consumer society promotes an escalation of excess, and everything produced consumes water. As our water tables shrink, we’re told to go shopping.
- Home use: Around 10% of the world’s fresh water is used for private use. “The average American individual uses over 150 gallons of water each day. The average African family uses about five gallons of water each day.” (Water.org)
As water tables drop, disease increases in humans, flora and fauna. Additionally, diminishing water stores necessarily concentrate chemical run-offs from agriculture and industry, making remaining supplies increasingly dangerous – sometimes even resulting in toxic algae blooms that can convert dwindling freshwater reserves into poisonous sludge.
The miller sees not all the water that goes by his mill. – Robert Burton
We can be a very single-minded race. It is darkly fascinating to watch governments make profit-motivated policy decisions that not only ignore our diminishing water supplies, but that incentivise (subsidise) the systematic and inefficient escalation of their use. Somehow, our policymakers and industry heads manage to draw up economic strategies wholly independent of natural systems. Our most basic human needs take a back seat in the drive to “grow the economy”.
But, hard cold facts don’t defer to optimism or wishful thinking. Looking at economic and energy ‘solutions’ in isolation from finite resource limitations is a dangerous, but contemporary, tendency. A recent news release indicates that the people of China are learning these lessons the hard way:
Apartment residents collecting
rainwater in China
China Slows Coal-Liquids, Ethanol Push on Water Fear
Beijing is trying to slow the push on water-intensive alternative energy on mounting signs that China might face a serious water shortage in the future.
This may stymie the second-largest energy consumer’s plans to turn its huge coal reserves and agricultural land into transport fuel, and lead it to continue relying on greater imports to fuel its booming economy, a bullish factor for global oil markets.
An official… recently said China might halt coal-to-liquids (CTL) projects and stop ethanol production from corn.
… analysts said the NDRC comment reflected a shift in Beijing’s policy as droughts and pollution have led to hundreds of millions of people going without regular drinking water.
“If there’s any issue that can destroy China’s march forward, it’s water,”
… “Water levels in the upper reaches of the Yellow River have hit a historic low and officials have warned that China may run out of water by 2030.”
The Yellow River, China’s second longest, supplies water to over 150 million people and irrigates 15 percent of the country’s farmland. But in recent years, it has occasionally run dry before reaching the sea. – Reuters
Demand for water is outstripping replenishment rates in many parts of the world, and in some places many times over.
Scores of countries are running up regional water deficits, including nearly all of those in Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, plus India, Pakistan, and the US.
… In 2015 nearly 3 billion out of the estimated global population of 7.5 billion people will find it difficult or impossible to find water for food, industry and personal needs. … According to John Gannon, a former assistant director of the CIA and former chairman of the National Intelligence Council, water scarcity now constitutes “a significant issue in security” as water shortages “encourage refugee movements which, if they spill over into other countries, can engage us.” “If people don’t have water, they can’t live. They are going to move or they are going to die.” According to the CIA report “Global Trends 2015” none of the proposed solutions – importing water, water conservation, expanded use of desalinization of seawater, or developing genetically modified crops that use less water or more saline water – will be sufficient to substantially change the outlook for water shortages in 2015…. – Earth’s Carrying Capacity (emphasis added)
Rapidly escalating glacier and snow melt trends brought about by climate change come as a volatile addition to the above. Sea water intrusion on coastal freshwater aquifers is another dilemma. Although a natural occurrence, rising sea levels as a result of global warming, combined with shrinking aquifers, can significantly magnify this problem.
Saltwater intrusion is a natural process, but it becomes an environmental problem when excessive pumping of fresh water from an aquifer reduces the water pressure and intensifies the effect, drawing salt water into new areas. – Wikipedia
Just to give an idea of the scale of our water problems, I’ve compiled just a few media reports from around the world:
All of which may translate to increased international tensions.
For example, Malaysia, which supplies about half of Singapore’s water, threatened to cut off that supply in 1997 after Singapore criticized its government policies. In Africa, relations between Botswana and Namibia have been severely strained by Namibian plans to construct a pipeline to divert water from the shared Okavango River to eastern Namibia.
The former mayor of Mexico City has predicted a war in the Mexican Valley in the foreseeable future if a solution to the city’s water crisis is not found soon. Much has been written about the potential for water wars in the Middle East, where water resources are severely limited. The late King Hussein of Jordan once said the only thing he would go to war with Israel over was water, because Israel controls Jordan’s water supply. – Blue Gold
No-one should feel safe and detached from these issues. Global Warming’s huddled masses will go wherever they have to, to survive.
So, is it all doom, gloom, death and despair? It would be a major understatement to say that it probably will be, so long as we cling to our present lifestyles and a ‘business as usual’ mindset. As we’ve already discovered, freshwater resources are not increasing, indeed, they cannot – yet our populations, and our population’s demands for more (of everything) are all rising just as our aquifers are failing. People worldwide are already feeling the pinch, if not enduring direct suffering. Even putting shortages aside, some believe water pollution is already a leading cause of death in the world – and it’s all happening just as those of us in The North have managed to convince everyone in The South that our water-intensive western lifestyle and diet is a ‘must-have’.
Our ability to overcome this end-of-the-line scenario may well depend on our ability to re-evaluate the priorities of our lives – to learn to find satisfaction in a simpler existence, and to create a society that places far more value on access to clean water, healthy food and healthy local communities than it does on artificialities. I think we need to transform our current deformed understanding of ‘success’, diffusing it with visions and aspirations of sustainability.
Of concern is seeing the same mindset applied to this problem as is proffered in response to our other environmental issues – a patch and continue ‘strategy’: anything but adjust our economies, our industries and our lifestyles:
Antarctic ice offers a remedy. … Tugs with icebergs in tow would be welcome not only to arid areas. Industry disastrously pollutes rivers and lakes in every part of the world. Current consumption makes use of only 0.01% of available fresh water. Over 70% of this valuable store is to be found in Antarctic glaciers, which consist of the world’s cleanest water. An average 2,500 cu km of ice is added to them every year, while just over 2,000 cu km drifts off as icebergs – a steadily renewed source of perfect drinking water. – TerraDaily
“Industry disastrously pollutes rivers and lakes in every part of the world”, and we use water in highly inefficient ways – yet the solution is not to change industry or industrial methods, but to use more energy to retrieve water from Antarctic icebergs. Patch, and continue.
Worse, the industry solution to diminishing water supplies, is to profit from it:
As the water crisis intensifies, governments around the world – under pressure from transnational corporations – are advocating a radical solution: the privatization, commodification and mass diversion of water. Proponents say that such a system is the only way to distribute water to the world’s thirsty. However, experience shows that selling water on the open market does not address the needs of poor, thirsty people. On the contrary, privatized water is delivered to those who can pay for it, such as wealthy cities and individuals and water-intensive industries, such as agriculture and high-tech. As one resident of the high desert in New Mexico observed after his community’s water had been diverted for use by the high-tech industry “Water flows uphill to money.” – Blue Gold
I would like to proffer a solution that involves change, and substantial change at that. I’m not afraid to dare to be different here, however, as social change is afoot, whether we like it or not. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel – I’d rather be a hammer than a nail. We either act, or react.
Peak Oil, Peak Soil, and Peak Water – they all share one central common denominator as we look at solutions: soil building. Please bear with me for a moment. With a little attention, you’ll come out the other end of the next two paragraphs unharmed, but hopefully inspired:
At left, a soil with high humus content – making it rich in carbon (indicated by the darker colour), nutrients and water retention capacity. The crumbly texture of this soil can be compared somewhat to a sponge. A humus-rich soil can hold up to 90% of its weight in water (remember – 70-80% of the water we use today is for agriculture, mostly irrigation). This soil also facilitates the ability of plants to draw water from beneath – through a process called capillary action (similar to what happens when you put a sponge onto a wet benchtop). Such soils have an increased cation exhange capacity – which translates to the ability of soil molecules to bind and hold nutrients to themselves. This soil is full of microorganisms and other soil life – the organic matter, air and moisture content makes it a miniature universe of activity. These micro-organisms take nutrients in the soil and feed them in balanced quantities to plant roots (supplying trace minerals and elements not provided in the NPK concoction ‘intraveneously injected’ via the soluble applications of agribusiness), fostering their own natural defense mechanisms against insects and temperature and weather extremes. The whole ‘package’ provides stability and protection against floods, droughts, disease and insect susceptibility – all of which are increasing as our world’s climate continues in its present state of flux. And, it’s all free.
Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium
on the Menu
Conversely, in the lighter coloured soil profile (above, at right), we see the typical result of our chemical-intensive, heavily mechanised monocrop farming system. This soil invites hardy strong-rooted ‘weeds’ to take up residence (these very plants are working as the first stage of a natural process that seeks to restore the soil to the condition seen at left – by trying to break through the hard packed soil to create channels for air to flow, so microorganisms may return and take up residence, etc.). This soil is unhealthy, and not ‘crop ready’. It requires violent physical interventions, and a barrage of artificial stimulation and inputs – i.e. mechanical aeration, and chemical fertilisers – and its CO2 content is being systematically lost to the atmosphere through the application of both. Much of the chemicals applied are leached into the shrinking water table below. For ‘light’ (i.e. sandy) soils, the application of water and nutrients are regularly required since the lack of organic matter causes rapid leaching. For ‘heavy’ soils (high in clay content), water will often pool on the surface, creating anaerobic conditions that further destroy soil life, and promote disease. The compacted nature of these soils makes flooding a serious issue (water sits on top, instead of percolating down – or worse, moves rapidly sideways, destroying land and property). The heavier the farm equipment used, the more the compaction – the more the compaction, the heavier and stronger the equipment must be to break it up in preparation for planting. This soil is virtually devoid of life and organic matter, so the plant’s natural immunity is lost, necessitating drenching with energy-intensive fossil-fuel based poisons. This soil is the ‘prize’ of corporate agribusiness. The farmer in possession of such a soil is the captive customer of an unhealthy profit-making machine – the drivers of which being the only ‘winners’ in this picture.
If you multiply the above implications for water and energy use across the vast area of land we currently use for cultivation, and add to this the enormous potential of soil for CO2 mitigation, you may then begin to see that a shift in soil management techniques to those that work in harmony with nature, as opposed to battling with it to the bitter end, adds up to planet-saving quantities of resource conservation.
Some say we only have a few years before Peak Oil issues will become significantly more pronounced. Some say we only have the next few years to reshape our society and to head into a low-carbon economy, lest we push our climate into dangerous and irreversible feedback loops. And, don’t forget in all this, that as water becomes increasingly scarce, food production will drop. If we ignore these warnings, and these predictions come to pass, our societies will likely violently break apart in a dog eat dog fight for the remnants of current civilisation. It’s not a pretty picture. But, working away from the large-scale monocrop agribusiness model, and transitioning to a more diverse, small-scaled sustainable farming system, could allow, in addition to the benefits described above, the much-needed reduction in focus on global trade and the obscene product and food swaps that come with it – exchanging this, instead, for an active re-building of sustainable localised systems that value and incentivise health, over inequitable wealth. That health being all-encompassing – for individuals, communities, societies, and for the environment they all depend on.
Yes, save water in the shower, don’t let it run when you’re cleaning your teeth, put a brick in your loo’s cistern, harvest water from your guttering, and follow all the other water-saving tips you’ll find on this and other green sites, but let’s not ignore the largest and most glaring aspect of our water, fossil-fuel and CO2 wastage: our entire societal and economic structure, and the malformed agricultural system that makes it all possible.
Watching social, industrial, and political movements at the moment, there is a clear tendency to simplistically grapple with the individual fibres of an unravelling world, rather than examine the entire cloth. Amongst other things, there is the subsidising of even greater strain on our soil and water reserves, and the naive belief we can actually replace the vast amounts of energy we have come to rely on from fossil fuels with a few wind and wave farms – whilst continuing to shop, consume, fly, drive, and promote the very industries that have driven us into this corner.
I would invite you to step back and look at the bigger picture. We are the first entire civilisation to convince ourselves we can live in the world, while not actually being part of it; that we can control nature, whilst ignoring its unchangeable processes. We have thus marginalised the value of the most vital aspects of our existence – healthy food, clean water and fresh air – and, by doing so, we have corrupted them all.
In closing, if you haven’t already – please take some time to get familiar with some of the issues that are shaping our future. Seek out and support farmers that understand the need for diversity, and that focus on the soil rather than the plant. Indeed, consider becoming one yourself! Start small – discover the satisfaction, savings and increased nutrition of having your own garden, and from knowing that what you’re eating is fresh, and free – and carcinogen free!
There’s a world of change that needs to be made, but, change it we must.
Till taught by pain, Men really know not what good water’s worth…. – Lord Byron