Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Water is the Next Oil

Fuel may drive electrical power generation, industrial growth and vehicular mobility, but water drives life itself. Irrigation, sanitation and simple drinking water to just about every land animal and plant on earth. We are polluting many natural water resources, just as others are simply disappearing with climate change and over-usage.  Elsewhere, freshwater flooding – seen most recently in our own Midwest and Texas – throws excess at systems built during an era of totally different climatic expectations.
Some countries, notably Israel and Chile, have learned to extract scarce water from limited resources and apply those precious drops precisely to the task at hand. Drip irrigation has been perfected by those long-used to living with unforgiving desert climates. The rest of the world needs to learn these lessons, but for the most populous nations on earth, these systems are mere palliatives to overwhelming water shortfalls.
It was no accident that the last Chinese administration (pre-Xi Jinping) was populated with water engineers. Eight of the nine members of the previous Politburo’s standing committee were engineers and a former president, Hu Jintao, was also a water engineer. Water is a very, very big problem in China. “China is dangerously short of water. While the south is a lush, lake-filled region, the north—which has half the population and most of the farmland—is more like a desert. The international definition of water stress is 1,000 cubic metres of usable water per person per year. The average northern Chinese has less than a fifth of that amount. China has 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. A former prime minister, Wen Jiabao, once said water shortages threaten ‘the very survival of the Chinese nation.’…
“The shortage is worsening because China’s water is disappearing. In the 1950s the country had 50,000 rivers with catchment areas of 100 square kilometres or more. Now the number is down to 23,000. China has lost 27,000 rivers, mostly as a result of over-exploitation by farms or factories.
“Water shortages impose big costs. China is hoping for a shale-gas revolution but does not have enough water for it since most of the gas reserves are in the driest parts of the country [Oil/gas extraction from shale requires massive water supplies]. The World Bank puts the cost of China’s water problems—mostly damage to health—at 2.3% of a year’s GDP.” The Economist, October 12, 2013.
China’s answer is massive water diversion projects, starting with the ancient Grand Canal that runs north-south between Beijing and Hangzhou, building two thousand new canals, and diverting river water in one region to replenish dwindling water in another. Aside from the environmental risks of mingling incompatible ecosystems, many of the PRC’s other policy directives need to be addressed, according to The Economist: “Damming or diverting rivers tackles only supply—increasing available water by capturing more of what flows through rivers or by moving water from one river to another. The government would do better to focus on demand, reducing consumption of water in order to make better use of limited supplies. Water is too cheap in most cities, usually costing a tenth of prices in Europe. Such mispricing results in extravagance. Industry recycles too little water; agriculture wastes too much. Higher water prices would raise costs for farms and factories, but that would be better than spending billions on shipping water round the country.
“Development plans should also be rewritten with an eye to the shortage. China is building cities of a million people in the Gobi desert. That makes no sense. The government should stop boosting demand for water in places that have none.
“China should also fine polluters. According to the land ministry, more than half the groundwater in northern China is too dirty for people to wash in, let alone drink, and some is so poisonous it cannot even be used in the fields. Reducing pollution would not just improve Chinese people’s health, but would also do more than building any number of dams to increase available supplies of usable water.
“China’s engineers have performed amazing feats in the course of its development. But the water problem is best solved by its economists and environmental regulators.”  So much for China. What about the other most populous country in the world, one with a population that will soon eclipse even that of China? India.
The water issues in India are as severe as those in China, as its rivers dry up as well. “Following two consecutive bad monsoons, India is facing one of its worst droughts… Of its 29 states, nearly half were reported to have suffered from severe water crisis this dry season. The worst hit have been Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, among others… The federal government in Delhi has had to send trains carrying water to the worst affected places… India has faced a water crisis for years. Its ground waters have depleted to alarming levels, mainly because of unsustainable extraction for agriculture and industries.”, May 16th.
India’s solution appears to be badly conceived, and more based on generating short-term popular political support with a perceived quick fix than a real long-term, sustainable truth.  India is set to divert water from its rivers to deal with a severe drought, a senior minister has told the BBC.
“Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti said transferring water, including from major rivers like the Brahmaputra and the Ganges, to drought-prone areas is now her government's top priority… At least 330 million people are affected by drought in India… The drought is taking place as a heat wave extends across much of India, with temperatures in excess of 40C [104 degrees Fahrenheit].
“The Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) has 30 links planned for water-transfer, 14 of them fed by Himalayan glaciers in the north of the country and 16 in peninsular India… Environmentalists have opposed the project, arguing it will invite ecological disaster but the Supreme Court has ordered its implementation…
“‘It is even more impossible in the context of climate change as you don't know what will happen to the rivers' flows,’ says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People… ‘The project is based on the idea of diverting water from where it is surplus to dry areas but there has been no scientific study yet on which places have more water and which ones less.’”
The United States also has severe long-term drought conditions in the West, particularly in California, America’s fruit and vegetable garden. Water rationing, attempting to realign legal rights to underground water and drilling down on the biggest wasters of this precious resource have only begun to address this dwindling of our own water resources, most of which is directly linked to climate change issues (as well as recurring weather cycles like Il NiƱo).
Between conservation, redesigning water usage and extraction processes and technology, we better start finding some long-term solutions or… yeah… we’re going to face a future of death and destruction dealing with this reality. Water wars? Some say that’s really what the explosions in the Middle East are already all about.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the word “next” in the title of this blog should probably be more like “now.”

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