Aqua Vitae

If someone loses access to petroleum products, their quality of life is diminished. If that person loses access to potable water, he or she will die. While concerns over oil production and consumption have gotten an increasing amount of press over the last few years, it’s only one of the possible resource shortages awaiting us. Another is water. I recently had the opportunity to read “When the Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century” by Fred Pearce, in which he details mankind’s increasingly complex relationship with water as the new century unfolds.

Pearce details the issues, politics and possible solutions regarding human water usage in a lively, well-written text that was actually a pretty quick read for what can be a very dry subject (pun intended) . While the earth is mostly covered by water, only a very small fraction of it (around one percent) can be used for irrigation or consumption, and we humans seem to use it poorly for the most part.

One of his main points is that while individual water usage patterns can vary greatly between cultures, the main culprits for wastage of this critical resource are agriculture and industry. An average suburban house can easily run through 15-20,000 gallons of water per month in the summertime if the homeowner waters his or her lawn on a regular basis. This sounds like a lot until you read Pearce’s assertion that a single pound of coffee beans requires around 2,600 gallons (that’s 10 tons, by the way) of water to grow. Kind of makes the fair-trade coffee look a little less virtuous, eh? For what it’s worth, the amount of water required to generate wheat (130 gallons per pound) , milk (500-1000 gallons per gallon) and beef (1300 for a small steak) isn’t exactly small either. It’s no wonder that some of the major rivers in the United States, including the Colorado and Rio Grande, and elsewhere never make it to the ocean anymore. The destruction of the Aral Sea is noted in great detail as well.

Pearce also brings up the issue of the virtual water trade. Considering how much water it takes to grow a pound of wheat, the amount of water the United States exports as part of it’s grain shipments is truly staggering. This amount is even more alarming considering how much of the grain belt in the midwestern US is fed by the Ogallala aquifier, which is mostly ‘paleowater’ left over from the last ice age. This aquifer is being recharged slowly, but not at anything close to the rate of removal. As the water table drops in this aquifier, the water quality has a tendency to worsen, and once the wells cease to be viable, large portions of the midwestern farm belt may see sudden drops in productivity, since once again they have been depleting their water savings account without much in the way of foresight.

The book also covers the political fallout over water rights, using the Israeli-Palestinian situation as a sample case. In addition to the political and religious sides of this particular conflict, Pearce also details the ways Israel controls the water flow in the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and how this plays into the poverty, despair and hatred that fuels the Palestinian Intafada. This is hardly a unique situation, of course. Government or corporate control of water rights is a growing issue around the world.

Mr. Pearce also details some of the engineering marvels that have been undertaken to bring water to where there isn’t enough, and the slow-but steady re-learning of ancient water capturing techniques that have proven to be just as effective (if not more so) and much more cost-efficient than the modern methods of dams, de-salination plants, sewage-treatment plants, etc. Many of these traditional methods are detailed in Mollison’s “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.”

Overall, this book is an interesting and important read. I’d like to note that Mr. Pearce has found a nice balance between crisis and opportunity. This isn’t a depressing read, for he notes a number of areas around the world where innovative thinking is leading to a smarter ways to use, gather and conserve freshwater. Many areas of the world are now treating rainwater as a resource to be harvested versus a nuisance to be diverted, and that alone is good news for many people around the world.

Being blessed with ample access to freshwater, most Minnesotans (and Wisconsinites for that matter) probably don’t spend much time thinking about this subject. We’ve seen some strange proposals in the past regarding shipping water from the Great Lakes to California and other places out west by one method or another. Thankfully, these proposals have all been shot down before. As the Colorado river continues to lose it’s flow volume while the population of the Southwestern US continues to rise, I expect that we’ll see more and more proposals covering this. Shipping the volumes of water need to satiate Southern California and Arizona are significant, and would require massive sums of cash to pull off. The US economy continues to slow, so I don’t see the necessary money coming forth, and that will make life for many in that part of the country untenable. Kunster has predicted in “The Long Emergency” that the Southwest’s population will revert to it’s pre-1950’s levels as the cost of energy rises. A lack of drinking water will only make that worse.

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