Saturday, December 01, 2007

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

“The world is coming to an end.” Now, as unlikely as you may think that as a possibility, and as depressing as that thought might be (can anything be more disheartening than a life-ending prediction?), that is not necessarily my current belief. Although I am now just relaying a message that has existed for a few millennia, I can picture the day when I might join the guys in long white robes carrying a sign that echoes that conviction. So, as the saying goes, at least for the moment, “Don’t shoot the messenger.”

However, if you are a true believer in whatever religion it is that you profess, you won’t scoff at the possibility that perhaps we are approaching the “end times,” the Last Judgment, the Day of Reckoning, Quiyamah (in Islam) — however you phrase it — the end of the world as we know it. Now, mind you, every religion, almost without exception, has expressed a view of the world’s demise, usually accompanied by the eventual emergence of a savior.

Followers of the New Testament are especially fortunate in that they have been provided with a mind picture of what to look out for in anticipation of that fateful day. That inevitability was registered officially some 2,000 years ago when the last book of the bible, commonly known as Revelations, attributed to John the Apostle (also known as John of Patmos), was added. This book has most famously been associated with John’s image of what has become known as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and you might think that their hoof beats would be construed as an alarm, but perhaps they approach on silent legs, too late to discern.

Revelations is considered to be one of the most controversial, questionable, and most difficult books in the New Testament to understand because of the many diverse interpretations of its meanings. Wikipedia states that, “there are some notable critics who have dismissed the Book of Revelation as fraudulent, or otherwise fabricated… Among these is Thomas Jefferson who wrote, ‘… I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherencies of our own nightly dreams.’”

Be that as it may, executed over 500 years ago, the most famous, and certainly the best-known rendition of the physical aspects or the Four Horsemen is a woodprint by one of the great German engravers and painters of the 17th century, Albrecht Durer (see below).

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

A review of a book published in March 2000, inspired by, and titled, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, describes the age characterized by apocalyptic expectations and speculations, specifically the period 1490 to 1648. The book defines Durer’s engraving as being comprised of a figure on a White Horse, identified as the Second coming of Christ. The Red Horse was predicated on the experience of War, most prevalent at the time in an age of religious conflict. It is the book’s next description that bears a frightening and perhaps prescient view of our era’s future. It reads: “Under the rubric of the Black and Pale Horses of Famine and Death, the authors investigate the impact of such factors as food, famine, climate, population shifts, agriculture, health, and disease on daily life, and in molding the period’s pervasive attitudes.”

I could not help but associate those seven factors underlined above with the exact same conditions that threaten the world today, and the current dire predictions accompanying these same concerns. The Four Horsemen of today that threaten civilization as we know it could be the White Horse depicting, instead of the Christ child resurrected as a man, billions of children that will contribute to massive population shifts and unsupportable population growth; the Red (hot) horse that could represent global warming; the Black Horse symbolizing oil and its imminent peak; and the Pale Horse signifying fast diminishing clean water supplies leading to a global water crisis. Exacerbating these issues is the fact that if you think about it, each one impacts, is interconnected to, and acts as an accelerant to the other. It’s as if the Four Horsemen of today have colluded to form a coordinated attack on our civilization, but the question is whether or not the public hears the hoof beats approaching.

The answer is, perhaps. There at last seems to be some escalation in the public’s perceptions that these issues are real. This recognition is occurring because of the media’s sudden interest in the fundamental environmental problems that the world faces, and as more and more evidence emerges, news reports related to one or more of these topics are now being delivered almost on a daily basis. For example, on November 4 th, a major exhibit opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York is titled “Water: H 2 O = Life.” This opening compelled The New York Times to run a feature article about the exhibit headlined, “The Blue Planet’s Lifeblood: A Finite Flow.” Both the exhibit and the Times article emphasizes the message that this series of articles has attempted to convey: our planet faces a perilous future, with water crises intensifying at the same time that there appears to be a failure by governments, politicians, industry, and the public to fully recognize and confront the issue in an aggressive and constructive manner.

This was not the first time that The New York Times devoted space for an article on the impending water crisis. (On second thought, impending is defined as “looming; approaching; future” yet the crisis is actually already here.) The cover article of the Sunday Times Magazine section on October 21 st was headlined, “The Future is Drying Up.” The article’s opening paragraphs provide a sobering and frightening prospect. “Scientists sometimes refer to the effect a hotter world will have on this country’s fresh water as the other water problem, because global warming more commonly evokes the specter of rising oceans submerging our great coastal cities. By comparison, the steady decrease in mountain snow pack — the loss of the deep accumulation of high altitude winter snow that melts each spring to provide the American West with most of its water — seems to be a more modest worry. But not all researchers agree with this ranking of dangers.”

It goes on to point out that Stephen Chu, a Nobel laureate and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, remarked that diminished supplies of fresh water might prove a far more serious problem than slowly rising seas. Chu suggests that 30 to 70 percent of the snowpack will disappear by the second half of this century and “There’s a two thirds chance there will be a [fresh water] disaster, and that’s in the best scenario.”

Ominous effects in the Southwest are becoming ever more evident. An ongoing drought has brought the flow of the Colorado River to its lowest level since measurements began 85 years ago. A report by the National Academies on the Colorado River basin “points to a future in which the potential for conflict” amongst the seven states using it remains ever present. Just as we are facing the prospect of “peak oil,” one report suggests that “the Colorado River basin is ‘past peak water,’ a milestone that means the river’s water supply will now forever trend downward.” The article also states that, “Lake Mead, the enormous reservoir in Arizona and Nevada that supplies nearly all the water for Las Vegas, is half empty, and statistical models indicate that it will never be full again.”

The threats of critical water shortages in the Southeast, including Florida, Georgia, and Alabama were outlined in last month’s article and continue to be heralded in press releases on almost a daily basis. The latest has the governor of Georgia, obviously either at his wits end, or out of his wits, pleading with the citizens of that state to pray for water. (Sure! That’ll do it.) Last month’s article mentioned the Ogallala aquifer situated beneath the High Plains states. Its depletion rate is eight times faster than its replenishment rate, threatening the huge amount of agricultural products produced in that area.

Another report states, “Even legendary water-rich areas such as the Great Lakes are struggling to cope with foreboding stresses on their water ecosystems. Analysts say more than $26 billion are needed to clean up and protect the Great Lakes water supply.” The beginning of November, MSNBC’s Internet site quoted Duke University political scientist David Rohde who predicted, “Population is surging in the arid West, where water shortages are chronic, and in the Southeast, where the drought has prompted spats between neighboring states.” The article continued, “The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of rising temperatures and evaporation rates, lack of rain, urban sprawl, waste and overuse. Water levels of the three biggest Great Lakes - Superior, Huron, and Michigan - have been in steep decline since the late 1990s. The region's eight state legislatures are considering a compact that would prohibit sending water outside the drainage basin except to localities that straddle the boundary.”

A quote sometimes attributed to Mark Twain states, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.” A number of states are already vying for position, anticipating they will unquestionably become involved in water wars in the future. Yet despite the obvious, neither the current administration nor the Congress has considered a comprehensive plan to deal with a fresh water crisis that is building toward a potential catastrophe.

On November 19 th, the front page of The New York Times headlined an article (part of a special series) reading “At China’s Dams, Problems Rise With Water.” Next month’s article (the last in the Water Series), will cover not only the calamitous state China’s water crisis, but also that of the entire international spectrum.


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