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Not A Drop To Drink?
A History Of Water: 2000 - 2020

Oliver Moor

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 catastrophe.

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 mankind’s 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 world’s fresh water crisis has largely been averted.

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.

On top of the changes in natural phenomena, mankind’s 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 mankind’s wastefulness into focus more clearly than ever before.

Raining 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

Overwhelmingly, 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’ resources. Irrigation 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.

An 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. Closing Up
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.

Temperate regions, 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 months.

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 eliminated.

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. Turkey’s plans to dam the Ilusu caused international outcry, and in Spain hundreds of thousands protested against the diversion of the Ebro’s 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 world’s 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.

Hot Stuff
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 seas.

Eastlund Scientific Enterprises Corp

Wastage 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.

Consequences 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 Iraq’s 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.

Mozambique, so devastated by floods in the year 2000, also suffered from drought, exacerbated by Zimbabwe’s 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 Darkest Day
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 Pakistan’s 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 Gore’s 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 the amount.

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.

Hidden Giants

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.)

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.

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, however.

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 world’s 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 world’s 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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