Not A Drop To
A History Of Water: 2000 - 2020
At the turn of the
twenty-first century it was always fashionable to assume the worst.
Looking at it from twenty years hence, this is, perhaps, understandable.
The climate change, after all, had not happened, but the signs were
there; population was on the rise, but the effects were yet to be felt;
the genome had been unravelled, but its potential had not been realised.
It was a time of great uncertainty (much like any other time, it is
true, but in this case perhaps more than ever before.) It seemed at
the time that we were, more than ever before, on the brink of a global
The water crisis of the early part of the century seemed to crystallise
the problem. In theory, there should have been plenty to go around,
and yet there were very serious fears that water or lack of it
would be the cause of mass migrations of refugees, of international
trade dispute, and even of war. These fears proved true, in certain
cases. However, the worldwide meltdown has not happened. Providing the
world with enough water has perhaps been one of mankinds greatest
challenges, but through the development and utilisation of new technology,
radical and bold legislation, and simple common sense, a worldwide catastrophe
has largely been prevented. It is not something that has been done overnight,
and there have been disasters along the way: but in a comparatively
short space of time the worlds fresh water crisis has largely
The Looming Crisis
It is perhaps worth looking at the reasons why, at the beginning of
the century, the view was so stark. We should also examine the pressures
that existed on water systems at the time, and the way in which they
have been tackled. The problem was complex, but at its root lay a simple
supply and demand equation. That equation demanded that supply be enhanced,
and demand reduced.
Initially, the problem was largely hidden. Inefficiency and waste were
not generally apparent while the world was water rich
but global warming unmasked them. Arid regions were becoming drier,
with precipitation frequency down by two thirds in some desert countries.
Even in excessively water rich countries such as Britain, shortages
were becoming more prevalent, even though the total amount of precipitation
was almost the same as it had always been. It was the frequency of rainfall
which was causing major difficulties (see Raining Cats And Dogs?).
Climate change had a more drastic effect on the polar regions, as predicted;
the ice caps have, as is well known, partially melted. In 2001, the
forecast rise in sea levels meant that river water would be brackish
much nearer their sources, putting pressure on cities (often located
on estuaries) to find more alternative sources of for their industries.
This further increased pressure on potable supplies.
top of the changes in natural phenomena, mankinds activities
were also contributing to major shortages in some regions. Poor
infrastructure and inefficiency exacerbated the problem, and the
devastating droughts across Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, China and
the Western United States in 2004 2008 brought mankinds
wastefulness into focus more clearly than ever before.
Cats And Dogs?
... or rhinos and elephants? On August 15th 2007, after two months
without any rain whatsoever, Britain experienced the most extreme
thunderstorm in its history. Hailstones the size of grapefruit demolished
the village of West Meon in Hampshire; one weather station recorded
8 inches of rain in less than 12 hours, and local flooding left
2 dead and 4,000 homeless.
the most extreme and wasteful usage of water was through
agriculture. In the year 2000, agriculture in particular irrigation
consumed up to two thirds of fresh water supplies worldwide,
and in some areas of the developing world consumed up to 90% countries
methods were, even in the United States, primitive, unchanged essentially
since the days of the Sumerians. Fields were either flooded wholesale,
or else ditches were dug alongside rows of plants and water run into
the ditches from ajoining canals. This system, wasteful at the best
of times, was becoming increasingly so: with higher global temperatures,
water simply evaporated more quickly than ever from flooded fields,
before it could get anywhere near the plant.
interesting phenomena, occurring on a microscopic level, was causing
this effect to be exacerbated (see Closing Up): as the
levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, plants are slower
to take up water, so instead of being absorbed, it merely evaporates.
In arid regions, this effect was even worse.
As a carbon dioxide levels increased over the past twenty years,
the effect on plants was marked. Growth has increased by up to 8%.
Plants also transpire less water. Stomae, the pores in the leaves
which let water vapour out, become more resistant. The take up of
water by the plant is considerably less.
though not, initially, short of water, experienced major problems as
precipitation simply ran off fields into rivers, causing widespread
flooding. The floods which occurred in Russia in 2007 were a direct
result of this, with an area the size of France submerged for over three
Industry, too, was contributing to shortages. Production of steel, plastics,
and industrial chemicals was, at the time, hugely dependent on water
both as a necessary component of production, as a coolant, and as a
means of transporting waste from the production site into the wider
environment. Pollution, and the enormous cost of treating water contaminated
with heavy metals, was, at the turn of the century, a serious problem.
Water was (and still is, of course) also used as a coolant for many
industrial processes, and in power stations: it was not until large-scale
plasma furnaces (see Hot Stuff) were available (from 2012)
that nuclear waste, including irradiated waste water, could be truly
Water was also used as a source of power, but not as we use it today
(See Hidden Giants). Hydroelectric stations were still being
built on land, even in the United States, until 2011: it was considered
to be a clean fuel, but the environmental and social cost became huge.
Too many people had to be re-housed, and habitats demolished; protests
began early in the century. Turkeys plans to dam the Ilusu caused
international outcry, and in Spain hundreds of thousands protested against
the diversion of the Ebros water from Aragon and Catalonia to
the fruit and vegetable growing regions of Murcia, Valencia and Almeria.
In many cases the rotting trees in the flooded valleys contributed significantly
to greenhouse gases. In addition, it was found that evaporation from
the worlds reservoirs was more than that used by industry and
domestically put together. Hydroelectric development on land came to
an end following the Aswan High Dam attack (see The Darkest Day);
social unease about hydroelectricity had grown to fever pitch, even
outweighing the nuclear protests of the 1960s and 70s, and no more large
scale damming is planned.
The plasma furnace allows for the first time waste to be entirely
dispensed with. A plasma field is held between giant electromagnets.
The core temperature of 10 million degrees centigrade is hot enough
to rip molecules apart, effectively reducing all matter which
enters the furnace to single atoms, which are then fired out of
the furnace and allowed to condense into solid glass-like bricks.
These bricks, which over time will erode to sand, are being dumped
offshore to form a part of worldwide defences against the rising
Scientific Enterprises Corp
was, perhaps, most evident to the general population domestically.
Ancient pipework and hopeless infrastructure were largely to blame:
in Britain, water companies did not know where some of their mains
actually were, so were unable to fix them. Mexico City, in the year
2000, lost enough through leaks to provide enough for a city the
size of Rome.
Potable water supplies were, at the turn of the century, under pressure,
which was increasing all the time. Demand for water rose as the
population grew (and continues to grow the population is
not expected to top out until 2050). A human being consumes 1000
2000 litres of water a year, and at the turn of the century
the world needed twelve trillion litres per year to supply its entire
population. Most countries had adequate water in terms of precipitation,
but most were experiencing more extreme climates in which very hot
summers would ensure that droughts occurred yearly; even countries
such as Britain.
of the crisis
The initial consequence of the crisis was increased drought. Countries
vulnerable to drought, such as Ethiopia, were badly affected throughout
the early years of the new century, although new technology was able
to alleviate the drought to a certain extent: vast bags, each containing
5000 tons of water, were towed by tugboat from Canada to East Africa.
Oil tankers, specially converted, were also able to ship it to the affected
areas, and for a while Canada was trading extensively in water. Middle
Eastern countries, notably Saudi Arabia, were effectively buying water
at the same price as they were exporting their oil. However, the process
of water transportation was inefficient and was really doing little
more than papering over the cracks. It left water poor countries vulnerable
to the whims of the water rich countries: and in the early part of the
century there were at least three disputes caused directly by shortages.
The first of the three major disputes occurred in the Middle East in
2005 when Turkey diverted resources from the Euphrates to irrigate farmland
in the east of the country. This reduced by some 50% the water available
to Iraq. Saddam Hussein, in what would be his final year in power, responded
with firepower, but his ability to threaten was limited by the no-fly
zones which were still in operation. Eventually, after three weeks,
the supply was restored, but it was too late to save Iraqs crops,
which failed that year. Riots on the streets of Baghdad finally forced
Saddam from power, but despite the best efforts of the newly-elected
democratic Iraqi government and the UN, famine was widespread.
so devastated by floods in the year 2000, also suffered from drought,
exacerbated by Zimbabwes refusal to release water from the
Kariba dam in October 2009. War was averted by the rapid response
of the South African government, who intervened, promising Zimbabwe
new and efficient irrigation technology, and Mozambique help with
desalination plants. South Africa also dealt with the hundred thousand
refugees who came across its borders at the time, providing food,
drink and shelter for eight months while the situation was resolved.
Perhaps the most serious crisis was the most recent, when, in 2013
the effects of significant rise in sea level put thousands of square
miles of coastline underwater in Pakistan. It has still not receded
and by 2016 it was considered that those areas were now lost to
the sea effectively for good.
The terrorist attack on the Aswan High Dam was the single worst
atrocity that has ever been perpetrated. It has never been completely
clear which organisation carried out the June 14th 2006 attack:
various theories abound. What is known is that a low-yield nuclear
device was detonated, underwater, at or near the base of the dam,
which burst, unleashing a wall of water half a kilometre high. Cairo,
Suez, Alexandria and Luxor were utterly destroyed as millions of
tons of water crashed down the Nile valley, and most cities on the
Mediterranean were seriously damaged by the gigantic tidal wave
which followed. Nineteen million people died at a stroke as seven
millenia of history were washed away. It was, by far, the darkest
day the world has yet known.
The Indus is now
brackish for hundreds of miles more than it previously was, rendering
its water useless for irrigation. Since 2015 Pakistan has been in dispute
with the Indian and Chinese governments who are not responding to Pakistans
call for water to be pumped from the Himalayan ice fields. The sabre-rattling
has continued until the present day, and although Russia has responded
with shipments of water from its newly-accessible deep-crust aquifers,
Pakistan is still short of fresh water.
Resolving the problem
What was needed were three things: greater efficiency, a reduction in
demand, and the application of new technology to access previously unobtainable
sources. President Gores first term of office (2005-2008) saw
the introduction of legislation which realised this. By 2011, 90% of
all US farms were expected to use direct root injection systems instead
of the flooding techniques for irrigation. The system, first introduced
in the 1990s, was mandated after tests showed that 95% savings in water
usage could be achieved. By 2015, the US was using 60% less water than
it had been in the year 2000, and crop yields had improved by 40%. The
rest of the developing world is slowly following suit, encouraged by
incentive based measures which encourage the use of new
techniques such as this. But there is still much work to be done.
Ironically it was the capital of excess New York City
that led the way in domestic water saving, and other cities began, slowly,
to follow suit. A strategy of replacing old, inefficient domestic toilets
with new ones reduced consumption by some 30%, and the city authority
took steps to ensure that water was largely recycled. New York now barely
wastes any at all: leakages are at 2% of their 2000 levels. In Britain,
London managed to repair and restore 95% of its dilapidated mains by
2011, and the movement of water will be enhanced by the use of giant
underground mains which will transfer it between Scotland and the Midlands
(to be completed by 2022). Other social changes, largely in the developed
world, have had an effect. Food scares, and a gradual movement away
from meat eating in general, has reduced the amount of water used by
livestock. The amount required to produce the typical Western meal was
once 200% of what it was in Asian countries; it is now merely 125% of
Dumping toxic waste into rivers was one of the most reckless practices
of the 20th Century, and one which put a huge strain on reserves. The
practice has, in the developed world, long been outlawed, and fortunately
in the developing world too it has largely been laid to rest. 2004 saw
the first national use of a particularly shrewd piece of US government
legislation (the so-called TMDL clause of the Clean Water Act) which
essentially allowed states to monitor lakes and rivers pollutant
levels (their Total Maximum Daily Load of pollutants.) The polluters
are then identified, and advised and / or prosecuted as need be. The
old methods -- merely monitoring the levels of waste from the source
has largely been abandoned. The legislation was initially hard
to police, but over the last 20 years has become easier, thanks to the
introduction of super-resistant tracer chemicals, which allow the precise
source to be identified accurately. The practice has been adopted by
many countries worldwide. The polluter-must-pay strategy
is finally paying dividends, with a reduction in polluted lakes in the
United States and Europe. Unpolluted lakes mean water supplies require
less treatment, allow fish stocks and environments to recover, and take
pressure off man-made reservoirs.
Water's use as a power source is markedly different
from that at the turn of the century. Offshore power stations, situated
mostly out of sight of land, are extensively used, and rely solely
on the rise and fall of tides to generate up to 30% of the worldís
energy needs. In addition, seawater is electrolysed to extract hydrogen,
to provide energy for the fuel cells used in 65% of the worldís
cars, trains and ships. (Photo Courtesy Tidal Power, Inc.)
countries have certain advantages in some respects: those with no
history of industrial output are now building brand new factories
which are immediately able to compete on the global market without
the need for enormous cleanup programs. Those programs do, however,
yield positive results. The example of Lake Baikal, in Russia, was
a great example of how legislation could work. This vast lake, containing
one-fifth of the entire world supply of surface fresh water, was
threatened extensively during the Soviet days through paper mills
wishing to site nearby. As a result of legislation which prevented
any discharge at all into the lake, the mills were forced to
and succeeded in producing products which required no water
at all to make.
Developing countries have certain advantages in some respects: those with
no history of industrial output are now building brand new factories which
are immediately able to compete on the global market without the need
for enormous cleanup programs. Those programs do, however, yield positive
results. The example of Lake Baikal, in Russia, was a great example of
how legislation could work. This vast lake, containing one-fifth of the
entire world supply of surface fresh water, was threatened extensively
during the Soviet days through paper mills wishing to site nearby. As
a result of legislation which prevented any discharge at all into the
lake, the mills were forced to and succeeded in producing
products which required no water at all to make.
New technology has
come to the rescue for certain applications. Membrane technology is
improving all the time, allowing cheaper desalination to take place
in countries of the Middle East and the Western United States. High
volumes of seawater can now be converted to fresh drinking water at
a fraction of the cost of importing drinking water from overseas. Some
unlikely countries have become water-rich: through a combination of
the very latest irrigation technology, large-scale off-shore desalination
plants, and extraction from previously undiscovered aquifers, Kuwait
has become entirely self-sufficient with regard to water and is even
able to export a small amount (under the Oasis brand name).
Groundwater (from deep aquifers) is being increasingly used, thanks
to new laser-mining techniques which allow boreholes to be drilled
or rather, burnt -- several miles into the crust. The advantage with
groundwater is that it requires almost no treatment and is accessible
in a wide number of places. The cost of the technology remains exorbitant,
And what of the next few years? Most scientists are increasingly hopeful.
The fuss being made over genetic modification has now largely passed,
and new species of wheat and rice, which require 40% less water, are
being introduced in Brazil and China. As the world moves away from heavy
industry, the pressure will be further alleviated. The icecaps are melting,
but the view of several companies is while this is unfortunate, there
is nothing that can be done about it, and that they may as well take
advantage of the fact. TransAntarctic Group are planning an undersea
pipeline taking meltwater from the Ross Ice Shelf to Tierra Del Fuego
in Chile, and Big Ice, Inc. of Washington, are planning to transport
icebergs to Arizona and New Mexico. The bergs will be wrapped in a form
of bubble wrap to insulate them while they are dragged across the Pacific
by tankers. It is hoped that 90% of the worlds population will
have of their daily needs met by the year 2030, rising to 95% by 2040.
The current picture is not as rosy. Many countries are still without
water for large parts of the year, and have few resources with which
to buy their way out of trouble through the aquisition of expensive
technology. In these cases simpler systems are being tried. Treadle
pumps, which allow at least some water to be available for irrigation,
are being used. Steps are being taken often through such simple
measures as spreading reflective plastic sheeting to reduce evaporation
from irrigated fields. Drip feeding is largely unavailable, but the
simple use of perforated plastic tubing is a close approximation. It
has allowed crop production to increase markedly. The reduced amount
of water used for irrigation has also had the effect of reducing the
incidence of waterborne disease.
|Water has been,
and continues to be, the most precious substance on earth. As we
move into the second quarter of the twenty-first century, we must
continue to ensure that we are ever more vigilant in ensuring that
we use it carefully. There are still many of the worlds 8
billion citizens who do not have access to it on a regular basis.
Without it, the Earth would be as dead as the moon: it is up to
us to ensure that water, the stuff of life, is able to give life
to all people.
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