Monday, October 01, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere, But Just 1% to Drink: The Global Water Crisis—Part II

“Crises of any kind inevitably bring out the best and the worst in people. They inspire the too few voices of reason as well as the predictable strident expressions of hysteria. And especially intriguing perhaps are the unexpected revelations they offer.” I wish I could say I composed those words since they are so relevant to the subject of this article. However, they appeared in a recent issue of Barron’s under the authorship of one of my favorite writers, Alan Abelson, and referred to the crisis initiated by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. They could just as easily be correlated to the tragic bridge collapse in Minnesota a few weeks ago, and in a sense, that incident too is connected to the topic of a global water crisis.

It’s related not because the bridge was over water or fell into the river below. The fact is that the Minnesota bridge and some 74,000 other “structurally defective” bridges like it are representative of this nation’s infrastructure decay that will require a massive injection of money to rectify years of neglect. How massive? It depends on who you ask and which figures you believe. It would cost an estimated $9.4 billion a year for 20 years just to bring all of the existing bridges up to date, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

President Bush, suddenly the watchful eye when it comes to spending, has already signaled that a recommendation made to increase the federal gas tax by five cents a gallon to pay for bridge repairs is (please forgive the pun) dead in the water. You might recall that the current federal gasoline tax of 18.4 cents a gallon was last increased 14 years ago when gas prices were a mere $1.50 a gallon (as calculated in today’s dollar). If a relatively modest tax increase is viewed with so much disdain by our illustrious leader, how then can this infrastructure problem be resolved? If the public wishes to shield itself from the possibility of “death by bridge collapse,” I can just see thousands of T-shirt wearers sporting a new slogan — “take a ferry.”

Despite the somewhat conflicting repair costs mentioned above, the ultra-right editorial board of Barron’s compounds the confusion in a recent article, writing, “A five cent increase in the gasoline tax may come up for debate, even though the revenue would be barely enough to keep current projects funded, and nothing close to the $460 billion invoice presented by the U.S. Department of Transportation for the repair of risky bridges all over the country.” A report issued earlier this year, titled Infrastructure 2007 by the Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, says the U.S. will under-fund infrastructure needs by $1.6 trillion over the next five years. Although confusion prevails, the numbers are still astronomical.

Not that congressional wisdom is any better than the administration’s. Congress does appropriate billion of dollars for mass transit projects each year. However, because new projects are sexier and more prone to vote getting than providing for existing needs, there is little in the way of political will to undertake massive efforts that require increased taxes. So what do the politicians do in these circumstances? They throw a bone to the project to indicate that they are alert to the situation in the event it comes back to bite them in the-you-know-where. That’s exactly what they have done in response to the bridge crisis. Congress has just provided the munificent sum of $1 billion (about $135,000 for each of the endangered 74,000bridges), to help fix what has been verified as a multi-billion if not a trillion dollar crisis.

When viewed in the light of Alan Abelson’s comment, President Bush’s knee jerk reaction to the mention of the “T (tax) word” may be viewed by some as a voice of reason, while others will vehemently disagree, convinced that his is the voice of hysteria (and ideology). But typical of political figures, the necessity to cope with an immense crisis, be it the decay of roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, dams and levees, the air traffic control system, and electrical grid isn't sexy. The same applies to global warming, peak oil, and a fast diminishing clean water supply. All are far beyond politicians’ abilities and priorities to realistically face up to, and properly manage. The political will is just not there. Actually, solving an infrastructure problem is simple compared to that of an impending water crisis. Money is the answer to the former, but influencing the global movements of unstoppable natural phenomena such as a water crisis is significantly more problematic.

As indicated earlier, population growth has been a contributing factor in causing demand for clean water to triple over the last half century. Research indicates that half the world’s population live in countries where water tables are falling, and that includes the United States. In addition, millions of irrigation wells have driven water extraction beyond the recharge of an enormous number of aquifers — In other words, underground water sources are being used up faster than nature can replenish them. Millions of irrigation wells? How did that come about? That requires a bit of historical background.

Irrigation may be defined as the artificial supply of water to supplement natural precipitation — or substitute for it — for the purpose of agricultural production. Over the course of centuries, various systems and devices were developed and invented to improve the access to water supplies, and to make irrigation around the world more efficient. Discoveries have confirmed that elaborate (for the times) water structures and irrigation schemes were utilized in Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back a 5000 B.C.

Apparently the first civilizations to develop recognized that the provision of water was essential for growing crops and ensuing food production. Irrigation is therefore as old as the practice of agriculture. Rivers such as the Nile in Egypt, and the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia were initially used as the sources for water. The Roman Empire was one of the first to move water over long distances aided by canals and aqueducts. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20 th century however, with the advent of diesel and electric motors, that systems were available that could pump groundwater out of major aquifers faster than they were recharged.

This development occurred simultaneously with the significant population growth in the last half of the 20 th century, an occurrence that might very well have resulted in the triggering of the Malthusian prediction of worldwide starvation as a result of the demand for food far exceeding production capabilities. Neither Malthus, or for that matter anyone else could have envisaged the advent of the “Green Revolution.” According to Wikipedia, “The Green Revolution is a term used to describe the worldwide transformation of agriculture that led to significant increases in agricultural production between the 1940’s and 1960’s. This transformation occurred as the result of programs of agriculture research, extension, and infrastructural development instigated and largely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation along with the Ford Foundation, and other major agencies. The Green Revolution in agriculture helped food production to keep pace with worldwide population growth.”

Starting in Mexico, then India, and subsequently spreading to Latin America, Asia, and North Africa, the agricultural revolution was spurred by programs that concentrated on plant breeding (the development of high yielding varieties of grains such as wheat and rice), and financing of agrichemicals (synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides). As indicated earlier, his was accompanied by the development and escalation of irrigation through the use of mechanical pumps as a replacement for the uncertainty of rainfall, as well as the expanded use of more sophisticated and efficient agricultural equipment. As a result, between 1950 and 1984, Wikipedia reports that, “The Green Revolution transformed agriculture across the globe, and world grain production increased by 250 percent.”

It’s ironic that while a food crisis was averted by virtue of the Green Revolution, another potential crisis (Peak Oil) has been exacerbated by the huge growth in the use of energy in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and transportation, all dependent upon fossil fuels (oil and natural gas). However, the transformation of agriculture could not have been accomplished without a dramatic shift from farmers’ reliance on rain to water their crops, to the more reliable methods of irrigation that pumped water, more often than not, from underground sources. This has resulted in 70 percent of all fresh water usage consumed by agricultural production. This is an alarming figure since around the world, ground water from deep wells is the main source of drinking water (for over three billion people), including half of the population of the United States. That same figure applies in much of Europe, India, China, and many other countries.

As the world’s population increases, the demand for food accelerates, more land must be dedicated to agricultural production, additional water is required for irrigation, and thus millions of wells have been developed to further that supply. It has been written that the groundwater rush was like a gold rush — an uncontrolled bonanza. The International water Management Institute has estimated that the total global withdrawal of ground water is now about 1000 cubic kilometers each year. This is a figure that is unsustainable since this exploitation is far greater than any possible rate of recovery, and most of the groundwater basins of the world are now close to the limits of the resource. In other words, the aquifers are running dry.

Next month will cover the disappearing aquifer problem in more detail, plus the fascinating but little recognized concept of “virtual water.”