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Peak predictions: mixing water and oil as global resources dwindle

Oil and safe drinking water are on parallel courses to depletion – a scarcity that will lead to starvation, disease and warfare.

It sounds counter intuitive to compare the two, considering the constant global cycle of evaporation and precipitation that means the amount of water on Earth remains remarkably constant over millions of years. But the issue here is drinking water. And there is a lot less of that than seawater. Due to a number of management issues, made worse by climate change, drinking water is fast becoming a geopolitical resource to rival oil – a flashpoint at various places around the globe. There are currently calls for international mediation over the flow of the Indus (India and Pakistan), Ganges (India and Bangladesh), Nile (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia), Jordan (Syria, Israel and Jordan), Tigris-Euphrates (Turkey, Syria and Iraq) and the Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), and less aggressively stated diplomatic tensions between many other nations (Canada, US and Mexico spring immediately to mind) over shared access to drinking water. In addition, a report published July 2010 states that one third of US counties in the Lower 48 will face a water crisis by mid century shows this is not a developing world issue, but something every bit as insidious and universal as soil loss.

Water is essential for food security and sanitation, not to mention the fact that humans die after three days without it. And with 80 countries and 40 per cent of the world's population currently facing chronic water problems, billions around the globe arguably regard the availability of water as more critical than that of oil.

But can the two be compared in this way? The concept of peak oil, based on the work of M King Hubbert, is simple enough: a bell chart curve plotting the point at which half of the world’s oil will have been extracted; it marks the time of maximum production of this non-renewable resource that can only be followed by a slump in output. But peak water? At first, is sounds laughable. Three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is water, and most people would place the stuff top of the list when asked to cite renewable resources.

But don’t forget the issue here is drinking water – 97.5 percent of all the Earth’s water is not suitable for human use. Freshwater makes up the remaining 2.5 per cent, but the vast majority of this is inaccessible – 99 per cent of it is either frozen in the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica, present as soil moisture, trapped deep underground or in the form of atmospheric water vapor. Only about one percent of the world’s fresh water, less than 0.01 percent of all of the world’s water, is available for human use. And it is not fairly distributed. A 2005 Wired magazine article on peak water observed:

Like oil, water is not equitably distributed or respectful of political boundaries; about 50 percent of the world's freshwater lies in a half-dozen lucky countries.

Freshwater is the ultimate renewable resource, but humanity is extracting and polluting it faster than it can be replenished. Rampant economic growth — more homes, more businesses, more water-intensive products and processes, a rising standard of living — has simply outstripped the ready supply, especially in historically dry regions. Compounding the problem, the hydrologic cycle is growing less predictable as climate change alters established temperature patterns around the globe.

Much of the world’s drinking water is extracted from underground aquifers or lakes and is a finite resource that’s being depleted. I’d argue that the terminology of oil depletion can be used to describe access to drinking water, along with other declining natural resources, and that it is fair to consider the point at which a renewable supply will be outstripped by demand.

And it’s happening right before our eyes. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2006:

Access to water for life is a basic human need and a fundamental human right. Yet in our increasingly prosperous world, more than 1 billion people are denied the right to clean water and 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. These headline numbers capture only one dimension of the problem. Every year some 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhoea and other diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. At the start of the 21st century unclean water is the world’s second biggest killer of children. . .

At any given time close to half the people in the developing world are suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with inadequate provision of water and sanitation such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis. . . These diseases fill half the hospital beds in developing countries.

What's more, it's going to get worse. According to the UN’s Global Environment Outlook:

By 2025, about 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under conditions of water stress – the threshold for meeting the water requirements for agriculture, industry, domestic purposes, energy and the environment. . .

Ismail Serageldin, a World Bank official, famously warned in 1995: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.”

A current flashpoint is the Indus (left), which flows some 2,900 km from Tibet to the Arabian Sea through India and Pakistan. The source of the conflict between these two countries dates back to colonial times, when British engineers constructed an irrigation network that turned the Punjab into the Subcontinent’s “breadbasket.”

This fertile region was divided between India and the newly formed Pakistan in 1947, with both countries agreeing to maintain water supplies at pre-independence levels. The first water dispute arose as early as 1948, with India cutting off the flow of canals flowing to Pakistan. A treaty was signed in 1960, but this is becoming an increasingly tense issue, with Pakistan accusing India of stealing its water and India accusing Pakistan of attempting to hide its own mismanagement behind this angry rhetoric.

An item in the Globe & Mail newspaper of July 2010, Pakistan’s drinkers of the dust, expands on the issue:

Water scarcity in the Indus basin may be the world’s most dangerous environmental phenomenon. If anything will cause a civil war in Pakistan, or a conflict with its nemesis, India, many analysts believe that it will be water.

Civilization in this region depends on snow melting from the Himalayas, feeding tributaries that join the Indus. These pour into the largest continuous irrigation system on the planet, transforming the desert into fields of rice and wheat.

But the system is breaking down. Dry conditions in the past few years have prompted bitter conflicts: Southern Pakistan accuses the north of grabbing more than its share of water; many in the northern regions, in turn, blame their upstream neighbours in India for stealing water. In the mountains that give birth to the rivers, struggles over hydroelectricity are spurring rebellion in Kashmir.

This looks at the causes of the conflict, citing global warming, mismanagement and over population (“Pakistan’s irrigated lands have almost doubled since the country’s birth in 1947; during the same period, its population grew fivefold. Populations have also exploded across the border, in Indian states that rely on the same rivers.”) It also considers the ecological damage being done to the waterway, with the consequent loss of diversity.

The Wall Street Journal of reported March 2010, under the headline India and Pakistan Feud Over Indus Waters, that:

The latest dispute revolves around India's plans to build a 330-megawatt hydroelectric power project on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. India says it is well within its rights to build the dam. The project has been on the drawing board since the late 1980s and is expected to cost about $800 million.

Pakistan says New Delhi's plans to divert the course of the river will reduce its flow by a third in the winter. That would make it unfeasible for Pakistan to move ahead with its own plans for a hydroelectric dam downstream.

The current ongoing flooding in Pakistan, which the UN believes has affected an estimated 3 million people, is for now obscuring the long-running tensions over water supply in the area – but it hasn’t gone away. Climate change is bringing in weather extremes, with droughts getting longer and floods more severe. Over the next few decades, drought will threaten millions across Asia; snowmelt from the Himalaya feeds the areas major rivers – Indus, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow rivers – which in turn supplies drinking and irrigation water to 1.4 billion people. These glaciers are retreating due to global warming. According to the latest thinking, cited in a June 2010 New Scientist report, suggestions that these glaciers will have vanished completely by 2035 are inaccurate – they will probably last longer than that. However, according to a recent study, “the five rivers will be able to water crops for almost 60 million fewer mouths by 2050.”

That’s less food for 60 million people, in an area of rapidly growing population. Food scarcity is already a major concern during an ongoing period of extreme weather; in August, the Russian government banned the export of wheat to protect home consumers, following drought. In addition, China is reportedly “proceeding with plans for nearly 200 miles of canals to divert water from the Himalayan plateau to China’s thirsty central regions” and planning “the world's biggest hydro-electric project on the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra,” which will, of course, be diverting water currently flowing into India and Bangladesh. This would be a major geopolitical issue – but then, China is running out of water, too. The water table beneath Beijing has dropped by nearly 200 feet in the last two decades, and the city is predicted to completely run out of water in five to 10 years’ time.

Meanwhile, African nations are reportedly drawing up battle lines over the River Nile, in an attempt to overturn colonial-era treaties that promoted British interests in Egypt and Sudan at the expense of upstream countries. Essentially, these two countries were given rights to nearly 75 percent of the Nile’s annual flow. In May 2010, five upstream countries - Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda - signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement giving themselves equal access to the water; Egypt and Sudan refused to sign.

The Nile flows through 10 nations, and 300 million people depend on its waters. The upstream nations need the water for irrigation, hydro and industrial uses – but the people of Egypt cannot afford to go without their allocation, which they control via the Aswan High Dam (right).

A July Boston Globe report, headlined The threat of a water war, calls for international intervention to “forestall hostilities between the countries,” while an Online Opinion essay, Does Egypt own the Nile? A battle over precious water, looks at the issue of sustainability in more depth. It states:

Yet as the nations of the Nile bicker over its future, nobody is speaking up for the river itself - for the ecosystems that depend on it, or for the physical processes on which its future as a life-giving resource in the world’s largest desert depends. The danger is that efforts to stave off water wars may lead to engineers trying to squeeze yet more water from the river - and doing the Nile still more harm. What is at risk here is not only the Nile, but also the largest wetland in Africa and one of the largest tropical wetlands in the world - the wildlife-rich Sudd.

It continues that the Nile’s “entire annual flood is captured behind the High Aswan dam,” and released as required for agriculture. The river’s silt, which historically kept the Nile delta fertile, is accumulating behind the dam. “Most years virtually no water reaches the sea,” and Egypt’s rapidly eroding farmland is maintained by fertilizer.

And water is “an ever-present source of tension” between Israelis and Palestinians (Palestinain youth seen collecting water, left), according to a report aired on Canadian television, Water shortages frustrate Palestinians in West Bank, which claimed:

As a result, the executive director of Jerusalem-based human rights group B'Tselem says most of the water goes to the Israeli population.

“About 70 per cent of all water resources are being used by Israel, and as a result there simply isn't enough water for the Palestinian population,” Jessica Montell told CTV News.

So, while the World Health Organization recommends daily access to 100 litres of water a day per person, Palestinians come closer to an average 70 litres per day. In the neighbouring Israeli settlements daily consumption is up to four times higher.

A July commentary in Lebanon’s Daily Star speaks of the Middle East in apocalyptical tones as “a region heading toward collapse and irrelevance” with problems including: “creeping ecological disasters; water scarcity and poor water management; high urban density; heavy pollution; economic torpor while the rest of the of the planet progresses exponentially.”

The lower reaches of River Jordan, flowing 251 kilometres (156 miles) between Israel, Syria and Jordan – with the flow diverted by all three countries – is too polluted for Biblical-style baptisms, according to Israel's health ministry and various environmental groups. According to an AFP report:

In recent years the flow of the river has slowed to a dirty trickle as fresh water running into the river has been replaced with sewage.

"Sadly, the lower Jordan River has long suffered from severe mismanagement with the diversion of 98 percent of its fresh water by Israel, Syria and Jordan and the discharge of untreated sewage, agricultural run-off, saline water and fish pond effluent in its place," the statement said.

(Neither would you want to be doused in the holy waters of The Ganges, for two millennia a symbol of spiritual purity, due to it’s sheer level of pollution. “In Varanasi, India's most sacred city, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the United Nations world Health Organization, according to Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and Hindu priest who's led a campaign there to clean the river for two decades.”)

Some of the world’s largest cities – those exceeding 10 million people – are experiencing water shortages: Mexico City, Calcutta, Cairo, Jakarta, Beijing, Lagos, Manila. But don’t go thinking water scarcity is solely a developing country problem. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report in July 2010 stating that the Western and Southwestern United States was facing urgent water shortages. (See the graphic, left, illustrating the nation's water sustainability index; essentially the areas that are going to suffer water shortages in coming years.)

Their release stated:

“Global warming will make it harder for farms and cities to find water,” said Barry Nelson, study co-author and co-director of NRDC’s western water project. “The latest global warming science is clear: drought-like conditions are likely to increase. This means that conservation and water use efficiency will become our most important sources of new water supply.”

Concern over droughts and global warming is increasing across the West. Over the past eight years, the Colorado River, which supplies water to parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, has received just over half its average flow. Southern California is experiencing its driest year on record. The Department of Water Resources predicts that every river in the southern Sierra Nevada will receive less than half of normal runoff this year.

Civil engineering website publicworks.com, in the article Report: More Than One Out Of Three U.S. Counties Face Water Shortages Due To Climate Change, stated:

Washington — More than 1,100 U.S. counties — a full one-third of all counties in the lower 48 states — now face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of global warming, and more than 400 of these counties will be at extremely high risk for water shortages, based on estimates from a new report by Tetra Tech for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The report uses publicly available water use data across the United States and climate projections from a set of models used in recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) work to evaluate withdrawals related to renewable water supply. The report finds that 14 states face an extreme or high risk to water sustainability, or are likely to see limitations on water availability as demand exceeds supply by 2050. These areas include parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. In particular, in the Great Plains and Southwest United States, water sustainability is at extreme risk.

Activists in Canada have long been lobbying to protect their water supplies from the US, which, it is feared, could accessed under the NAFTA free trade agreement. As ab aside, Canada’s claims to 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater, just like its claims to have oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia, are questionable. An Innovation Canada article, The Myth of Abundant Canadian Water, suggests:

The true measure of water that we can use sustainably is the annual runoff from land. If we exceed that value, our water use is unsustainable. Canada has seven percent of the world’s land mass, and produces seven percent of the world’s terrestrial runoff. In other words, we have just an average supply of sustainable freshwater by global standards

Putting international politics aside, reports on diminishing drinking water tend to contain the following common strands:
· Population pressure: demand is increasing all the time, with the global population set to pass 8 billion by 2025
· Increasing pollution: contamination that is effectively decreasing the amount of available drinking water
· Poverty: it’s incredibly expensive to tap new sources of water, and it’s the world’s poorest that are suffering water shortages
· Climate change: many parts of the world are getting dryer
· Mismanagement: much of the water tapped for irrigation leaks or is lost to evaporation.
· Conflict between domestic users: power generation, industry and agriculture – all heavy consumers. This is going to become more of an issue, with hydro being promoted as a clean power source.

Respected – and greatly missed – peak oil guru Matthew Simmons made, as ever, penetrating observations about declining global resources. His February 2010 presentation, Twin Threats to Resource Scarcity: Oil & Water, noted the “historical irony” of the intertwining of oil and water. “The two do not mix and we can not get along without both.”

Having noted the global importance of oil, the long-time energy investor notes “water is even more priceless” – as it is central to both food growing and energy generation. “For a century mankind ignored depletion of both precious resources.”

Editorial Notes: EB contributor Matt Picio writes:
Matthew Wild's article quotes an NRDC study on Water Supply Sustainability which seems to be flawed. I don't argue with his conclusions in the article, but NRDCs study purports to show problems at a county level yet only takes into account precipitation within the county as a source. As an example of where this study is flawed, Wayne County, Michigan is shown as a high-risk county. The county's water supply is pulled directly from the Detroit River, at the rate of 1 billion gallons per day (to supply most of the Tri-county area). This represents a tiny fraction of the total flow of the river. Wayne county does not simply draw from its own surface area, nor solely from the watersheds within it, but from the entire surface area of 3 of the 5 great lakes plus all net inputs to that system from all the connecting watersheds. It shares this draw area with other major cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, but to say that Michigan's interior counties are at lower risk is ludicrous, since they have neither the infrastructure nor the political capital to extend their water draw, but the counties of metro Detroit do. While NRDCs study does not (and probably should not) cover the political aspects involved, it should take into account the physical capabilities of existing infrastructure and the water sources they draw from.
-BA

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