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The National Geographic is running a series of articles about water this month.
From the website:
By 2050, a third of the people on Earth may lack a clean, secure source of water. Join National Geographic in exploring the local stories and global trends that define the world’s water crisis. Learn about freshwater resources and how they are used to feed, power, and sustain all life. See how the forces of technology, climate, human nature, and policy create challenges and drive solutions for a sustainable planet.

You can find out more about the stories here

I’ve picked out a few highlights below:

How to Stem a Global Food Crisis? Store More Water
Tasha Eichenseher
The key to averting a global food crisis may simply be a matter of storing more water, according to a new report released yesterday at World Water Week in Stockholm.

As we’ve seen with severe droughts in Pakistan followed just months later by debilitating floods, the climate change impacts scientists have warned us about for years may finally be here, making the weather harder to predict and prepare for, and traditional sources of irrigation water much less reliable.

These changes have dire consequences for feeding an ever-expanding global population, especially in areas of Africa and Asia where millions of farmers rely solely on rainwater for their crops, according to the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which issued the report.

(Globally, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater use. Learn more about the planet’s thirsty food on National Geographic’s freshwater website.)

In Asia, 66 percent of cropland is rain-fed, while 94 percent of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa relies on rain alone, according to IWMI. These are the regions where water storage infrastructure is least developed and where nearly 500 million people are at risk of dire food shortages, the report cautions…

Diversify and Insure

How can these regions adapt? Fund a diversity of water storage projects—from small-scale rainwater tanks and larger-scale dams, to systems that artificially recharge groundwater aquifers, to improving the soil so it can hold more water.

The solution, at least a large part of it, is to “use stored water as insurance against climate change and climate variability,” according to Chartres. “If we can we capture some of these big events, like what is happening now in Pakistan, we can channel it back into wells, and old irrigation reservoirs and tanks.”

Stored water in times of drought can “make all the difference between chronic hunger and steady progress toward food security,” Matthew McCartney, the report’s lead author and a hydrologist at IWMI, said in a statement….

…“Storing water is not an end in itself,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and National Geographic’s freshwater fellow, via e-mail. “It is a means to meet food, energy, and drinking water needs. The key goal of climate adaptation should be to build resilient ways of meeting these needs in an equitable and environmentally sound fashion.” A more holistic approach includes conservation and efficiency improvements, Postel explained.

Large-Scale Dams

The need to feed and provide electricity for growing populations has brought about a resurgence in big dam building.

Despite controversy over these projects, which have been associated with significant environmental damage, the displacement of tens of millions of people, and the loss of an income for hundreds of millions of fishers and farmers downstream, Chartres says they are an inevitable part of the picture.

“We’re not going to stop dams with the demand for energy. It’s green energy. We should be asking how to make them more sustainable.”

IWMI recommends that dam builders more carefully weigh the social and environmental consequences against the economic benefits.

Postel agrees with IMWI that large dams are one of many viable solutions, but she cautions that when planning for larger-scale projects in the face of climate change, planners have to take a landscape or watershed approach to storing and managing water. “We are going into a period with greater uncertainty and variability—so you want to build in resilience. If you construct dams of any size, you want to invest in watershed protection, for example.”
(7 September 2010)
More information and the link to the report here.

Six Steps For Avoiding a Global Water Crisis
Tasha Eichenseher
Colin Chartres, co-author of the new book Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World’s Water Problems talks to National Geographic News about how the planet can steer clear of a water crisis.

Colin Chartres, director of the 25-year-old International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and co-author of the new book Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World’s Water Problems talks to National Geographic News about how the planet can steer clear of budding water and food crises.

In your new book, you and co-author Samyuktha Varma outline six steps world, country, and local leaders need to take in order for the humanity to avoid a paralyzing water crisis. We hear about the impending water crisis in the news, but how close are we really? Are events like the Russian wildfires and Pakistani floods part of the crisis, or harbingers of what’s to come on a more regular basis?

These events are, in my view, manifestations of what we can expect as climate change begins to bite. Potential scenarios will include greater climate variability with more droughts and more intense rainfall events. Given that food supply is so dependent on water and that often more than 70 percent of a country’s water resources go to agriculture, we will see increasingly frequent food crises usually of a supply and demand nature that increase prices and impact the poor most significantly. We had one in 2007-2008 and there are some signs that another food crisis is currently emerging.

Today a third of people face water scarcity, according to experts. What does that mean exactly?

These people are in countries that physically use nearly all their available water (physical water scarcity), or in countries where there is water, but there has not been enough investment to deliver it to where it is needed (economic water scarcity). In physically scarce countries, as demand grows, there will be increasing competition for water between cities and agriculture. There are tens of millions of people in developing countries worldwide whose health and livelihoods are suffering because of lack of access to enough water for their everyday needs, growing their food, and watering their animals. Whilst in some years they do have enough water, in others they struggle because of drought…

…Your six-step solution to avoiding the crisis is: 1) gather high-quality data about water resources; 2) take better care of the environment; 3) reform how water resources are governed; 4) revitalize how water is used for farming; 5) better manage urban and municipal demands for water; and 6) involve marginalized people in water management. Easier said than done? How much human and financial resource needs to go into implementing these solutions? How do we start? And what is the number one obstacle we face?

We have to recognize the value of water. Valuing water does not necessarily mean putting a price on it, but for those that can pay this needs to be done. It means, ensuring that water is recognized as fundamental not only to life and health, but to the economy in general. I don’t believe that lack of finance is the only obstacle to ensuring we can cope with the water crisis. Whilst increasing investment in developing countries in water supply and sanitation is vital…, what is equally critical is that we learn to increase the productivity of water via more efficient use in all sectors of the economy and, in many cases, increased recycling and reuse of the water that we have. In agriculture, the number one water user, there is a tremendous need in developing countries for knowledge, capacity building and technical and economic assistance that is required to deliver doubling or even trebling of crop yields from the same amount of rainfall or irrigation water…
(6 September 2010)
Find out more about the book here.

Life and Death on the Colorado River
Jonathan Waterman
In the spring of 2007, as I began preparing for a 1,450-mile journey down the Colorado River, my mother began her fight with rectal melanoma. Since 1976, with her support, I lived for long expeditions, partly for the adventure, but mostly to find meaning and hope amid a world that seemed increasingly disenfranchised from the value of wild places. The isolation and challenges of these journeys were all enveloping and gave me an in-depth sense of place, but on the Colorado River I would carry the baggage about my mother all the way to the sea.

That summer of 2007, because the cancer had metastasized, she had a walnut-sized tumor removed from her brain. I spent a couple of days reconnoitering the river’s source at 10,000 feet on La Poudre Pass in my home state of Colorado. There on the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, before the first trickle of water could reach the valley and flow west, a ditch dug more than a century ago sluiced a third of the river east. The “Grand Ditch” is the first of countless diversions we have allowed upon North America’s most precipitous waterway. I channeled my anger into organization and preparation–the essential components of any successful expedition.

…Despite her denials and a long fight, my mother (still known by her tennis partners as “the Steel Magnolia”) left in January, 2008. Her death left me in state of suspended and often wordless animation. To cope, I continued the sort of work she had always encouraged: plunging into my voyage of discovery from source to sea down the Colorado River.

I snowshoed back up to La Poudre Pass, and while carefully standing below the Grand Ditch, I flung her ashes into the snow so that she could accompany me downstream. The next morning I began paddling a three-pound packraft that would accompany me all the way to Mexico. I thought of my mother a lot during the 1,450-mile journey, wondering how her microbial essence could pass through the dams and diversions that disrupt the Colorado River. Like most grieving sons, I contemplated our differences along with all that she had given me. Although I stayed busy–interviewing researchers, rangers, Native Americans, boatmen, and water operators; confronting rapids; dealing with loneliness during 800 miles of paddling in solitude–I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother. I fell into brief depressions. But mostly I received an education about the river ecosystem and water as an exploited resource: watching birds, learning about farm irrigation and municipal withdrawals of water, tracking animals, and touring dams….

…It took me five months to reach the delta. The river ran dry a couple miles south of the Mexican border in a brown foam of phosphates floating empty water bottles. I spent ten days walking to the sea with my friend Pete McBride. For two days, we paddled south in irrigation canals. In the wastewater of the Rio Hardy tributary, I infected my feet.

Eventually, the Sonoran Desert subsumed the delta in an endless tapestry of cracked mud, surrounded by Sea of Cortez tidal canals that resembled giant dendrites. The microbial remains of my mom–like the pulverized sands from the Rockies and the Grand Canyon that Pete and I stood upon–had stalled 1,420 miles upstream in the depths of Shadow Mountain or Granby Reservoirs.

I traveled the length of the river to write a book and to let readers know not only what remains but what we stand to lose. I used the journey as a retreat to grieve for my mother and ultimately paid tribute to her in the book–Running Dry is a hybrid of river history, adventure, and personal narrative. But I also went for fun and to explore my backyard, to become intimate with the river.

If there’s only one thing I could share with the 30 million people who depend upon the Colorado River, it’s this: If we have the power to wrest a river from the Delta, we also have the responsibility to restore it.

As for what I got out of the trip, I have let go of my mother. But losing our river is a death I cannot abide.

Read “How to Restore the Colorado River” in Jon’s recent interview at He is the author of ten nature/expedition books, including Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. His Colorado River Project was sponsored by a National Geographic Expeditions Council Grant and New Belgium Brewing. This is his third River Notes post with National Geogaphic News Watch.

Read “How to Restore the Colorado River” in Jon’s recent interview at He is the author of ten nature/expedition books, including Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River. His Colorado River Project was sponsored by a National Geographic Expeditions Council Grant and New Belgium Brewing. This is his third River Notes post with National Geogaphic News Watch.
(3 September 2010)
Read more about Running Dry.

Pakistan Flooding Because of Farms?
Mason Inman
Pakistan’s extreme floods, which have displaced 20 million people and swamped a fifth of the country, have been made far worse by decades of river mismanagement, experts say.

In Pakistan’s wide plains where the bulk of the population lives, the rivers swelled by monsoons have been confined by levees, dams, and canals, in much the same way the Mississippi River has in the United States.

On Pakistan’s glacial-fed Indus River, the British started to build a system of canals and small dams for diverting water onto fields, when Pakistan was part of their Indian colony.

Since Pakistani independence in 1947, river managers have expanded the canal system. Now, instead of the natural flow from the Himalaya in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, the Indus is diverted, piecemeal, east or west, wherever it is needed to support farming. Such river diversion is a common sight around the world as populations and food production boom.

These contrived river boundaries and tributaries in essence prevent the Indus River Basin from holding as much water as it once did during heavy and prolonged rains.

Farmland a Blessing and a Curse

The Indus and its canals are “the largest irrigation system in the world,” says Tahir Qureshi, a forestry expert with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a former government forest officer and game warden.

Pakistan’s irrigation system has turned this arid country into an agricultural powerhouse, but it has had its downside as well, experts say.

“The major river engineering is basically a Faustian bargain,” says Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London, recalling the fable in which a man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a life of luxury. Mustafa is a geographer who has studied the history of Pakistan’s river management.

Until a few decades ago, there were typically mild floods each summer—the time when the monsoon rainfall hits, and the melt from the snowpack in the Himalaya and Karakoram Mountains is at its peak.

But now, because humans have sculpted the river and the surrounding natural floodplain and wetlands for farming and other needs, there are fewer floods, but when they hit, they are far worse, said Mustafa…

..The Solution

Allowing the river to flood more regularly, and naturally, could help temper the floods and make them more tolerable, say Mustafa and other experts.

“They need to give the rivers room to expand,” Mustafa says. “Not along the whole way, but they should restore some of the wetlands along the way.”

At the same time, many of the levees should be kept in place, but maintained better, Tahir Qureshi says.

One way of doing this, he says, is to plant trees along the riverbanks…
(16 Aug 2010)