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Sunday, March 15

The Grand Illusion Crumbles

First drip irrigation device in an old greenhouse, Kibbutz Hatzerim, Israel, 1967 (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)

The news reports about water crises the world over are beginning to look the same, aren't they?  After plowing through a few thousand reports from around the USA and the world, samplings of which I began posting last year with the "Water Crisis Gordian Knot" series, I noticed patterns emerging from the chaos of data.  The same story is being told no matter how different the climate, geography, and culture, and no matter the differences in economies.

How should the story be titled?  Decades ago a California politician, in speaking about a water crisis in the state during that era, said that the basic problem was that the state had over-promised and over-allocated water rights.  Sounds pretty much on target for California today and many regions of the world now facing great water stress.

Yet I think the stumbling block for today's generation is a gestalt of factors that converge around virtual water -- a term I never heard of until last year, along with most other people.  I discussed the concept at length in Shoot Yourself in the Foot model of globalized manufacturing and agribusiness: Water Crisis Gordian Knot, Part 14 (August 2014).

It's no longer just the water; it's that it takes vast amounts of water to grow, manufacture, transport, store, distribute, and dispose of everything we purchase.  That was something economists weren't thinking about in the 1970s while arguing that increased global trade would raise the poorest out of poverty. That it did, but once they get out of poverty they have some disposable income. This means they can start buying stuff.  Much of the stuff they buy is highly disposable, requiring constant resupply.

And all that highly disposable stuff, just like less disposable stuff, is virtual water.  The problem being, as I mentioned in the August 2014 post, is that you can't sip on your cellphone when you're thirsty. Once converted to virtual water, the water can't be extracted from a manufactured product, and only a fraction of the water that goes into growing produce can be extracted -- a process that itself requires water -- and reused.

The great irony is that with advances in technologies of all kinds, a tremendous amount of commercially grown produce and manufactured products is not only widely available -- thanks to vastly improved transport and distribution methods -- but also it can be sold very cheaply. This means even today's poor can afford to buy things that a generation ago would have been out of their reach.

And many of the poors' purchases are subsidized by taxpayers, which means they can consume even more virtual water than their income or lack thereof would allow. Subsidies don't only apply to the poor, of course. Many businesses couldn't survive without taxpayer support.

This mass dodging of Nature's Survival of the Fittest rule wasn't an impossibly large strain on the world's water supplies when the consumer society was a quarter of what it was today.  Today, the amount of virtual water required to supply the consumer society is threatening to kill entire nations that depend on exporting to survive.

As to what's to be done about this -- nothing.  What are you going to do?  Snatch people's potato chip bags out of their hands and snap, "Do you realize how much water that bag represents? Do you realize how much water it takes to grow those potatoes and process and package and warehouse them and ship them and sell them?  Do you know how much water it takes to dispose of that bag and recycle it?"

Only a Luddite would consider that approach a solution.

Or maybe pass a law: people can only purchase X amount of virtual water every day.  Then set up a global monitoring force to enforce the law.  Follow around everyone at Walmart, writing down every purchase and calculating its virtual water, then write out violations and haul repeat offenders to court.

Only the kind of lunatics who want zero growth to save the planet from man- made greenhouse gases would argue for such a law.

There is no solution because virtual water isn't exactly problematical, any more than breathing can be considered problematical.  But it does explain where a great deal of water is going in this era.  The problematical aspect is that everyone has been very slow to factor virtual water into their calculations about water usage.

No surprise there because everyone has been very slow to factor plain water usage into their calculations. It wasn't until very recently that the technology was developed ("GRACE") to gauge the amount of groundwater available. And with a few rare exceptions water usage hasn't been metered -- or done in such slapdash fashion the record-keeping is useless.  It is mind-bending to learn that in California, even in its arid regions, nobody had any idea how much water was being used.

So at present any discussions about how to limit virtual water usage are ridiculous. In fact, the only people as a group who've demonstrated baseline human intelligence about water in the modern era are the Jews who settled in Israel after it became a nation. Most weren't even from a desert climate; they were from Middle Europe.  But they looked around and said, 'Here we are in a desert. We should be very respectful of water.'

So it's no accident of fate that it was Israelis who invented drip irrigation.  Fast forward to the catastrophic drought in New Mexico a couple years back there was a New Mexican farmer facing utter disaster and saying, 'Maybe it's time for me to think about switching to drip irrigation tape.' Switching from open canals that evaporate millions of gallons of water in the burning desert sun.

Same with Californians, same with Egyptians, same, same, same, same all over the world.  Very slow to take up drip irrigation even in a drought-prone region, even in the face of severe water shortages.

Now let's talk about leaky water pipes.  It's a safe bet that all the water in all the world's dams is a drop in the bucket next to the water lost in cities with decrepit water transport pipes.

So before we try to get fancy, grab for the low-hanging fruit. There are countless simple ways to conserve water.

This said, it's necessary to understand that we've been living with a grand illusion in this era. Governments are always stating that agriculture takes up most water use.  That was true only when harvests were distributed and consumed within a small geographic radius and underwent no processing beyond washing off the dirt.

Today, the cup of Colombian espresso coffee a New Yorker orders at a restaurant doesn't only represent the water used to grow the coffee beans and make espresso.  It also represents water used in a long and complex chain of packing, manufacture of bags and crates used for shipment, the shipping and warehousing and distribution of beans and their repackaging for wholesale or retail sale, and finally the restaurant's disposal of the coffee grounds.  Add the same process for the manufacture of an espresso coffee cup, and the restaurant patron isn't drinking the worth of a few gallons of water.  He's drinking a small ocean of water when he lifts the espresso to his lips.


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