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Matt Simmons: Oil shortage spills into water

Tamsin Carlisle, The National (United Arab Emirates)
Looming oil and water shortages are interconnected and the world is only just waking up to the fact, says a leading proponent of the “peak oil” hypothesis.

Matthew Simmons, the chairman emeritus of the US consulting firm Simmons and Company International, says oil production consumes large amounts of water, while boosting clean water supplies is energy-intensive.

“The inter-twining of oil and water is something we all missed,” he told the Marsh National Oil Companies Conference yesterday in Dubai.

Mr Simmons, a former investment banker and the author of Twilight in the Desert, the controversial book examining the implications of Saudi oilfield depletion for global crude supplies, said the world was not running out of oil or water.

But he believed that oil production had peaked worldwide in 2005, due largely to declining flows of easily extractable, high-quality light oil. Fresh water was also in short supply.
(24 February 2010)

Photographer Burtynsky recent focus on water rooted in political power, control

Murray Whyte, The Star
For more than two decades, Toronto artist Edward Burtynsky has been making large-scale photographs of scenes of humankind’s staggering ability to bend the natural landscape to its will. From freight trains slicing through sheer mountain faces to rivers of molten slag in Northern Ontario to the oil-saturated beaches of the Chittagong Delta in Bangladesh, where decommissioned oil tankers are broken down for scrap, Burtynsky has captured the startling scale of humanity’s viral invasion of the planet – one that has only accelerated since his work began.

Most recently, Burtynsky mounted a show of work specific to the oil industry: both its environmental ravages and its globe-spanning influence. He’s currently at work on another long-term project about something more elemental: water, both its absence and its absolute necessity
(23 February 2010)

Water and the War on Terror

Steven Solomon, Grist
While leaders in Washington have been war-gaming the national security risks of climate change, they’ve only started to connect the dots to the closely related threats emanating from the growing crisis of global freshwater scarcity. At first blush, water and national security may not seem to be interlinked. But the reality, as narrated in my new book WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, is that the unfolding global water crisis increasingly influences the outcome of America’s two wars, homeland defense against international terrorism, and other key U.S. national-security interests, including the transforming planetary environment and world geopolitical order.

Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously predicted 25 years ago that the “next war in the Middle East will be fought over water.” While that has yet to come to pass, the greatest present danger stems from failing nation-states—and not just in the bone-dry Middle East. With world water use growing at twice the rate of human population over the last century, many of the Earth’s vital freshwater ecosystems are already critically depleted and being used unsustainably to support our global population of 6.5 billion, according the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the situation can only be expected to get worse as the population pushes toward 9 billion by 2050. As great rivers run dry before reaching the sea, groundwater is mined deeper and deeper beyond replenishment levels, and water quality erodes with growing pollution, an explosive fault line is cleaving between freshwater Haves and Have-Nots across the political, economic, and social landscapes of the 21st century.

Among the water Have-Nots are the 3.6 billion who will live in countries that won’t be able to feed themselves within 15 years due largely to scarcity of water—likely to include giant India. Throughout history, states that have been unable to feed themselves with homegrown or reliably imported cheap food have stagnated, declined, and often collapsed, with grievous adjustments in living standards, population levels, and regional turmoil.

Health and humanitarian crises are likely to emanate from the dark side of the Have-Not divide where 1 billion abject poor lack regular access to clean, fresh water for minimal needs and 2.6 billion don’t have basic sanitation. Upriver water Have states increasingly exert control over the precious water flows to their dependent neighbors downstream, while within nations the wealthy and those with greatest political clout commonly enjoy the formidable competitive advantage of better, and often subsidized, access to the best water resources. Global warming exacerbates the water crisis with extreme, unpredictable floods, droughts, glacier melts, storm swells, and other water cycle–related depredations that fall disproportionately on already water-insecure, Have-Not regions and overwhelm existing, fragile water infrastructures. Such dislocating events are expected to create 150 million environmental refugees within a decade.

…Arid Yemen is an impoverished, failing state, home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which helped to train and arm the would-be Detroit-bound, Christmas suicide bomber from Nigeria. The Yemeni government is not much better than a large, corrupt tribe competing for control of the nation’s diminishing resources through patronage payoffs and proxy alliances with other strong tribes. There is warfare in the north between Houthi tribesmen and Saudi-backed government forces, while politically and economically disaffected southerners are trying to secede. The government is also battling al-Qaida, which flourishes in ungoverned no-man’s-lands.

Terrorism—which claimed 17 U.S. sailor lives in the attack in Aden Harbor on the USS Cole in 2000, and was beaten back for a few years with the help of U.S. drones—is resurgent. The Yemeni government’s policy of routinely releasing captured or repatriated terrorists after little more than a promise not to do it again frustrates the Obama administration’s efforts to shut the Guantanamo Bay prison, where about half of the remaining 200 prisoners are Yemeni.

One of the world’s most dire freshwater scarcity crises underlies Yemen’s extreme poverty and faltering state. The average Yemeni lives at eight times below the world freshwater availability poverty line, and has 1/20th the world average. Less than half have access to enough clean, fresh water for basic needs, while five-sixths lack adequate sanitation. Illegal well drilling is ubiquitous. Yet when the government tried to remove state subsidies for the diesel fuel powering the illegal pumps, riots forced it to desist. The lion’s share of the groundwater is commandeered (and used wastefully in flood irrigation) to grow the cash crop qat, a narcotic stimulant chewed by Yemeni men and an integral part of Yemeni culture.

…As dangerous as Yemen is as a failed state, it pales in comparison to Pakistan, which is nuclear-armed, Taliban-besieged, regionally fractious, and severely water fragile. Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaida’s core leadership are believed to be hiding out in its rugged northwest regions.

American leaders had a big fright in April 2009 when Muslim fundamentalist Taliban fighters broke out of the northwestern provinces and struck within 25 miles of the Indus River’s giant Tarbela Dam, a critical site they’d attacked through terrorism before, and only 30 miles from the capital, Islamabad. The Tarbela Dam is the strategic heart of Pakistan’s irrigation, hydropower, and flood-control network. If the Taliban damaged or took control of the giant dam, and gained critical leverage over Pakistan’s food and energy security, the government’s viability would be imperiled.
(2 Mar 2010)