Monday, March 24, 2008

When the Well Runs Dry...


Considering that it's responsible for sustaining all life on Earth, humans have become rather ingenious in manipulating this precious resource.

And this is not a new phenomenon.

From the Mesopotamians to the Aztecs to modern-day North Americans, we have all successfully conquered water with our elaborately constructed canals and irrigation systems. We've re-routed entire waterways with dams and levees, built golf courses and orange groves on deserts, and have filled swimming pools like they were going out of style.

Clearly, with our seemingly endless supply of H20, not a lot of thought was put into the fact that the well might actually run dry...

A few years ago, Marq de Villiers's Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource really opened my eyes to inevitability of this scenario. By exploring the geological and geopolitical implications of a global water shortage, de Villiers' message is clear. The world's water levels have remained constant since the beginning of geological time, and now the demand for this essential resource far exceeds the supply. Not surprisingly, those most vulnerable to this impending shortage are at the bottom of the supposed "water chain."

As the sub-Saharan desert continues to spread at an alarming rate, this desertification has exasperated the region's already overburdened water system. This, in conjunction with the fall-out of failed Structural Adjustment Programs, unstable governments, and weak economies continue to fuel famine and conflict within the region. According to "Water Stress in Sub-Saharan Africa, " Christopher W. Tatlock sheds light on the role water has played in the war in Darfur: "The crisis...stems in part from disputes over water: The conflict that led to the crisis arose from tensions between nomadic farming groups who were competing for water and grazing land—both increasingly scarce due to the expanding Sahara Desert."

And even though North Americans continue to believe that we have all the water in the world, shortages have already become a reality in California--a state that perfected the art of bringing the water to them. While Californians are no strangers to droughts, water scarcity now appears to be a long-term concern public officials are starting to address.

In the beginning of the 20th century, California began diverting watersheds from the Owens River to the San Fernando Valley by way of the Owens Aqueduct. Since this supply would only be used to irrigate agriculture, Los Angeles needed to find yet another source to quench the thirst of its residences. By the 1930s, the state had secured additional supplies from the Colorado River through the construction of a 400 mile aqueduct. So as we speak, Southern California depends exclusively on these imported reserves in order to sustain itself.

So what's the problem?

Well, it so happens that the Colorado River also supplies Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and the country of Mexico with water. And complicating matters even more, the river has been suffering from a 5-year drought and there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. This imminent crisis has many calling into question the sustainability of this water system since the worst is still yet to come. So as a result, counties in Southern California have begun to look into alternative water sources in order to drought-proof themselves.

Orange County has decided to take the road less travelled in their search for water by spending nearly $500 million on a plant that purifies waste water into drinking water. NPR elaborates on this intricate process:

Engines push the water through the plant's microfilters. Using high pressure, reverse osmosis, it's then forced through a thin membrane. Finally, the water is injected with peroxide and blasted with ultraviolet light to remove lingering hormones and dissolved pharmaceuticals...At the end of every day, 70 million gallons of drinking water — 10 percent of what the county needs — get pumped back underground into the aquifer.

While this "toilet-to-tap" system may trigger our gag reflexes, all the water we consume has been recycled an infinite amount of times over the last 4 billion years so the idea isn't that far-fetched. Also, the project proves to be more sustainable than the former water transferring system by emitting less carbon into the atmosphere.

CBC's California Dry does a fantastic job in exploring the alternative water plans in Long Beach as city planners toy with a more controversial solution--converting sea water into drinking water through desalination. While in theory, the process sounds like a godsend, in practice, some argue that a large-scale desalination plant is only a short-term solution that can upset ocean pH levels, devastate marine life, and result in heavy carbon emissions.

However, proponents of a desalination project claim that negative implications have been carefully considered. City officials ensure that only the most efficient technologies will be used in the process, while certain marine habitats will even be reconstructed (ie. fish farms) in order to offset the destruction of their natural environments.

So even though sub-Saharan Africa and California are only two out of the many regions currently grappling with water scarcity, they can be seen as significant microcosms of times to come if we don't start conserving and fairly distributing the world's most valuable resource.


California Dry--CBC documentary (watch it online)

"Low flow in the Colorado River Basin spurs water shortage discussion among seven states"

"Stepping Outside the Box:Water in Southern California"

"'Toilet to Tap' Planned for Orange County Water"

Water Education Foundation

Water Stress in Sub-Saharan Africa


SoupNumber5 said...

Georgia, my state, is in a drought. In fact, to try to overcome it they wanted to claim part of Tennessee and take some of their source. I think Tennessee said NO. You cannot just take our land. Good for Tennessee. But because of the drought events that happen down the street from me normally are no longer taking place. The dogwood festival, a festival celebrating the dogwood tree, was moved to a mall parking lot. No dogwood trees there. Just concrete. Sad, eh.


Hey Mike, I didn't realize that Georgia was in a drought too--what a shame about the dogwood festival...

Even though Canadians are often over-confident about their water supply, I can definitely see the provinces in the Plains facing increasingly severe droughts in the future since the summers seem to be getting hotter and dryer as the years go by.

Daisy said...

Bamboo, ever seen the movie CHINATOWN? Check it out sometime (also a great movie, but based on a real water-hoarding story in Calif).

My Thanksgiving post was about Atlanta running out of water!

PS: Technorati says you haven't updated in 19 days, you might want to go over there and manually ping it, or start complaining! :) (I had to do that, too!)

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