Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Coming Soon: The Era of Water Stress!
All the markers are around that we're soon entering a water-stressed epoch, where water will have the value of oil, or possibly more. But few people, especially Americans, seem to be aware of it despite all the warning signs. One of the most recent was the story (in the Las Vegas Review Journal) about five months ago, on hos engineers had to drill further down (below the surface of Lake Mead) to enable Vegas' water demands, giving how fast the level of the lake was sinking.(The Las Vegas area has 2 million residents and 36 million visitors a year, and its water reserves in January 2011 were lower than they'd had been in any January going back to 1965)
Another warning sign appeared some months earlier, as news broke that Denver water engineers were pursuing new filtration technologies to enable the city to recycle its sewer water for the first time. It was finally conceded that given the continued increases in Front Range and Colorado population, no new added delivery system would be able to meet all the demand and sewage would need to be recycled! Welcome to the future!
Already we can get glimpses of what that will be like if one turns the pages of a 'Mother Earth News' especially the recurring sections on compost treatments and constructing simple, compost based latrines. The idea is simple: People construct special dry latrines in their backyards and collect the human waste to use in their home gardens. No water need, especially as toilets consume most water use (about 13 gallons per flush) for the average American (though lawns, especially here in the West come a close 2nd).
But toilets, dish washing and car washing aren't the only water uses. Water is also the secret ingredient (in terms of purification processes) for the computer chips that make possible everything from MRI machines to Twitter accounts. Indeed, from blue jeans to iPhones, from Kleenex to basmati rice to the steel in your Toyota Prius, every product of modern life is dependent on massive water inputs. Meanwhile, every day the nation’s power plants use 201 billion gallons of water in the course of generating electricity. That isn’t water used by hydroelectric plants -- it’s the water used by coal, gas, and nuclear power plants for cooling and to make steam.
Incredibly, water waste of enormous proportions has become part and parcel of the global processing and use. On average, sixteen percent of water disappears from the pipes before it makes it to a home or business or factory. Every six days, U.S. water utilities lose an entire day’s water. Compare that 16 percent U.S. loss rate to British utilities which lose 19 percent of the water they pump; while the French lose 26 percent. All this as we approach a time (2050) when the world's population will likely be at least 2.5 billion more, with all of them needing water- to drink, bathe in, use for crops, and other.
But what do we find in many still water-blessed (easy access) nations? A disturbing cavalier attitude. There is perhaps no better symbol of the golden age of water, of the carefree attitude that our abundance has fostered. We go to the trouble and expense to find city-size quantities of water, build dams, reservoirs, and tanks to store it and plants to treat it, then we pump it out to customers, only to let it dribble away before anyone can use it. One of the hallmarks of the twentieth century, at least in the developed world, is that we have gradually been able to stop thinking about water. We use more of it than ever, we rely on it for purposes we not only never see but can hardly imagine, and we think about it not at all.
But that time is soon to end, especially as energy needs clash with the purity of existing water sources and in many cases make them unuseable. Alrready fracking in dozens of states is creating cesspools of water contaminated with either oil or chemical leaks, such as one place highlighted in Pennsylvania on last night's CBS Evening News, in which all the life in one pond were killed because of a dump. Currently, there are 6,500 annual dumps of oil in the U.S. alone, much of it onland and much of it that contaminates water sources. The amount, from the CBS report, is 34 million gallons a year of spills and more than twice the Exxon Valdez spill. Only 57% of U.S. watersheds remain uncontaminated and that is to drop below 40% by 2020.
Meanwhile, existing water supplies are dwindling, especially in the West. Denver's case has already been cited, as well as Vegas, but many other communities are living on the edge, from LA to Colorado Springs. Many climate experts, projecting druy conditions in the West for the indefinite future, warn of the need for water rationing before long. Nor is the American West the sole exception. We are entering a new era of water scarcity not just in traditionally dry places like the U.S., Southwest and the Middle East, but in places we think of as water-wealthy, like Atlanta and Melbourne.
Globally, the future for water is even more worrisome. The world has 6.9 billion people. At least 1.1 billion of us don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water -- that’s one out of six people in the world. Another 1.8 billion people don’t have access to water in their homes or yard, but do have access within a kilometer. So at least 40 percent of the world either doesn’t have good access to water, or has to walk to get it. In the next fifteen years, by 2025, the world will add 1.2 billion people. By 2050, we will add 2.5 billion people. So between now and forty years from now, more new people will join the total population than were alive worldwide in 1900. They will ALL be thirsty, and likely also ill most of the time, from water-borne illnesses.
In ‘The State of the World’ Report (2000, pp. 46-47), it is noted that the ever increasing water deficits will likely spark “water wars” by 2025. As observed therein (p. 47):
“When a country’s renewable water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per capita (what some analysts call the water stress level) it becomes difficult for the country to mobilize enough water to satisfy all the food, household, and industrial needs of its population.”
The same State of the World’ report notes at present rates of decline and even without factoring in the worst global warming influences – the number of people living in water-stressed countries will rise from 470 million to 3 billion by 2025. This is more than a six-fold increase. Add in projected new climate change data and likely effects (see. e.g. recent issues of Eos) and the stressed populations increase nine or tenfold. Not mentioned or factored into the report is the unpredictability of climate change. Water availability is intensely weather- and climate-dependent, in both the developed world and the developing world. If a climate-change induced drought were to start next year and last for five years, for example, all the projections made earlier would need to be increased drastically. For example, there would likely be 4 billion living in water-stressed nations by 2025 instead of 3 billion.
It is said in one old saying that "You don't miss the water until the well runs dry". Over the next dozen years people all over the world will learn just what that means, and it could come down to a choice between their getting a new computer with terabyte memory stores, and drinking water!