Saturday 25 April 2009

Ready to fight a world war for water?

USA Today reported yesterday that California is heading for its third yeard of drought, with conditions even worse than usual. More fires, more ruined crops, more jobs lost. Water matters.

The coming battles over oil and carbon are only the first salvos in a series of battles that could last centuries, all over resources: water, food and land to grow things on.

People have been fighting over water rights since the age of agriculture. America has had squabbles over water out west for a century; water fights break out in places like Sudan, which feeds Nile water to Egypt.

Eastern Australia’s Murray-Darling basin is drying up. The government is trying to restrict water use. The system could die outright. But in western Australia has iron ore (which China eats up) and tons of water.

Infrastructure is an issue also. Some water systems in the western U.S. are old.

There are ways to conserve water, use stormwater capture, and make manufacturing efforts more water-neutral – Coke is one of the firms giving it a go – but further down the road we will need to look at desalinization. A $300 million desal plant is going up in San Diego, with enough water for 100,000 homes. But much more research is needed because desal is resource-intensive. Costs are dropping but not enough yet: the University of Ottawa is working on a new technique that allegedly would be 6-7 times more efficient than the current systems; GE is working on it too. The process eats energy: Russia is using “co-generation”, exploiting the energy expended in nuclear power generation, to desal the water, and Australia is using co-generation to desal on wind farms. Membrane technology is also worth a look.

Another problem with desalinization is the waste it generates: it’s too hot and too salty for some ecosystems; they are working on ways to put the stuff back in the water without killing everything. Then the biggie: building some sort of viaduct/pipe grid to get the water to the people, which makes it more attractive to live near the coast (good news for China since everyone already lives on the coast there).

Another water issue: as we rely more on fish as a food supply, we’re going to need to lean on certain countries regarding overfishing and pollution.

Air is also a finite resource: not just as a place to dump carbon, but to breathe, obviously. Excessive deforestation needs to stop.

Living space: look at how much luck the Chinese had with population control. Population affects all the other resources – food, energy, water, the works.

More finite resources: food, and land to grow it on. Same methods as with energy: we conserve, we create more sources, and we provide aid where we can.

Agriculture is starting an impressive number of global economic squabbles, and that’s just about food producers selling it, not the hungry getting their hands on it.

The food problem is becoming more acute: in three years global prices almost doubled; the food issue hurts the urban poor the most, and there have been food riots in 30 countries; since it takes 6 pounds of grain to make a pound of protein, the growing Asian appetite for meat will only make things worse.

We may need to abandon some time-worn illusions about growing natural foods on family farms: more commercial agriculture will be needed to deal with investment, supply and delivery chains, marketing, regulations and innovation. Insisting that some peasant farmer grow your food on a family farm is like insisting that your DVD player be built in your neighbor’s Olde Handicrafte Shoppe. Feeding seven billion people cannot be done that way. Meanwhile the EU will need to set aside its anti-Americanism and protectionism and embrace GM foods.

Even food aid can be tricky: it can depress the local market and prices, thus discouraging production and encouraging further dependence, and it can be withheld for political reasons.

Food issues will bring pollution issues to the fore: biocides, fertilizers and water pollution; raising livestock causes the most problems.

All of these resource issues affect each other in ways we are only beginning to understand. Desalination gives us water but devours energy. Ethanol helps with the carbon issue but hurts on the food front. Carbon gives us more energy but hurts us on the air pollution issue. Water affects the food problem.


HelloDollyLlama said...

Excellent point! There are a hundred things we can do to conserve water, that I didn't address.

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