Friday, August 8

Swept Away

I knew before I launched the "Water Crisis Gordian Knot" series in July that there was a crisis and that it had many interwoven parts, but it wasn't until I plunged into the specifics that I realized the extent of either.  At one point in my research I blurted in dawning horror, "Oh God. They left water out of everything."

"Everything" being clean energy, much of which requires vast amounts of increasingly scarce freshwater; development projects for entire regions of the world; vast modernization and industrialization schemes;  globalized manufacturing and agricultural exports; democratization; political philosophies; geopolitical strategies; and government economic and social polices.

All of it, the entire edifice of the modern era, did not reflect thinking about water usage in an age of megapopulations.

It wasn't hard to see why. Water, for Europe and most of the United States, was never a big issue in the 20th Century, and it was these two regions that designed the economic, governing, and development policies that the rest of the world adopted. Freed from the bottom line for human progress, the intellect was able to create theories about human values and economic and social progress that ignored water.

Now it's all being swept away as the unyielding bottom line, and the price of ignoring it, become evident.

"We" left water out of everything, I corrected myself.  We, not they.  "I" not we, I corrected myself again. Now I am forced to tear apart everything I thought I understood, all the concepts I'd struggled so hard to learn over the course of my life, and try to rebuild my ideas on a new foundation. For someone closing in on 70 years of age, that's not easy.

And so for the first time I have a real idea of what it feels like for people whose house as been totaled by a natural disaster. I'm too old to start over, but having seen the truth I have the same choice that families do when they've lost the roof over their heads.  Either give way to despair or rebuild.

This isn't to say that the enlightened justice systems that rose up in the West during the 20th Century were wasted effort. Humanity will need all the enlightened justice it can muster as the bottom line makes itself felt with increasing severity.  But we will have to rework every economic and social system, every theory of development and sustainability we hold now, so that water is considered first in every calculation.

Oh, snap!

Then there are the added horrors to contemplate: the anorexic types, the totalitarian minded, and the ones who can convert any disaster into a free ride, will welcome the age of water crises.

Already I've come across the argument that the way to solve the world's water problem is to stop eating meat.  Soon every national government will sprout a water czar.  Then there will be the Global Water Regulatory Regime. And of course cap-and-trade in carbon emissions will be extended to water usage, to be overseen by the same scoundrels who made fortunes by scamming the U.N. Oil For Food Program.

The era of water crisis will also be taken up with gusto by the Occupy Wall Street crowd, which will rework the tyranny of Wall Street into the tyranny of water hogs.  Already there is what's called the "Green Coast and the Brown Inland," which arose during the drought.  The term applies to rich Los Angeles coastal communities that are so well-watered they look like "the Amazon jungle," as one observer put it, while the poorer neighborhoods farther inland, which can't afford fines for wasting water, have brown lawns and dying trees.
And then there are the Scarlet Letter types. Having never quite recovered from no longer being able to brand others witches, warlocks and hussies, they will have a field day pointing at water wasting criminals. 

Don't laugh at the idea of criminalizing water use. This year the government in Jamaica went beyond its usual water rationing during one of the country's periodic droughts and announced that water wasters would be arrested.

Will the coming years see a Grand Water Inquisitor?  A tribunal in the Hague where water wasters are put on trial?

All right, Pundita, don't scare yourself witless.

The irony is that technically there is no water scarcity. This is because all the water this planet has ever had is still with us today. As one observer put it, "Do you realize we're all drinking dinosaur piss?"

This view of water evolved the concept of "virtual" water among water scientists: everything manufactured and grown for food, everything built that uses water in its creation, is water itself albeit in a different form.  

This view is driving the shift in thinking among water engineers toward reclamation as much as toward conservation. And indeed much used water can be reclaimed.  I've learned that even the condensation from air conditioning units can be captured and reused.

There is, however, a caution about carrying the concept of virtual water too far. While it's true that your cell phone represents virtual water, you can't sip from your phone when you're thirsty.  Water, once poured into a different form, can't be reclaimed as water.   

So now plans for every building project, every manufacturing and agricultural process, must be seen first in four aspects: how much water it uses, the amount and location of the water source, and how long the source can hold out.  

And gone are the days when regions could depend on an annual monsoon or melting snowpack to replenish rivers and aquifers. The snow will still fall on the mountain top, but it will evaporate in 100 degree temperatures before it can melt and flow into the river valley.  The monsoons will still arrive, but they can fall on land already so parched by drought that their restorative effect is almost nil.
Not to consider those aspects is to set up a falling dominoes situation. Too much agriculture in California?  Okay, transfer some of it to places in Oregon and Texas that have plenty of water.  Pretty soon, the regions in those states that welcomed the new business are finding their irrigation systems are running dry.

We'll learn as we go along, but we'd better learn fast. When this close to the edge, the margin for error plummets.

Another pitfall is to place too much blame on poor water management. The most enlightened water management cannot overcome the realities of stuffing too many people into cities perched in a semi-arid or arid region. The experience of Las Vegas is ample indication of that. Led by a smart and tenacious water czar, the city by sheer dint of effort greatly reduced its water use, but it could not change its locale.

When the water czar fixed on the idea of importing water from the Great Lakes, a member of the public who lived in the Great Lakes region took objection: "Come endure our cold winters if you want our water," he snapped. And added, "Nobody told you to live in a desert."
So it's not just about water management.  Every mistake in every type of policy that pertains to human populations also intersects with water use -- and with human nature, which is not the fountain of caring and sharing when it perceives gross violations of common sense.

Thus ends my account of how a series of blog posts became a personal journey of discovery. There will be one or two more posts on the water crisis but then I'll have to move along to other topics.  

Yet when I look back on 2014 I will remember it as the year of "Oh by the way."  Oh by the way, six U.S. states are running out of water. Oh by the way, 10 major cities in the world are running out of water. Oh by the way, our satellite imagery shows there's far less groundwater left than we'd realized.  Oh by the way, oh by the way..... 

My time spent on learning about the water crisis in detail has amounted to one long reading on "Oh by the way."

And I will remember, above all else, the words of a blogger at the University of California at Berkeley. In an essay titled Desertification: The Forgotten Side of Climate Change, he wrote:

"Ironically, we appear to be making great strides in enhancing our energy infrastructure, while at the same time the grass is slowly disappearing under our feet."

Yes. Those most intent on fighting global warming were looking at the atmosphere. Not at the ground, and the groundwater, beneath them. But this is not the time for recriminations. This is the time to change.

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