By the early 21st Century, the weather — “climate change” — had become a political battleground, the religion of the urban agnostic pseudo-sophisticates. In reality, however, it was water which had evolved to be the strategically important issue. It is, significantly and in contradistinction, the decline in riverine trade and the chopping up of water use by dam construction on the Niger River which has led to a decline in much of the social, agricultural, and trading viability of six major states which rely on the bounty of the Niger River Basin in West Africa. This, arguably, has been some of the basis for enabling the rise of the Boko Haram insurrection along the Niger Basin. The aquifers which have fed inland Chinese agriculture from the snowfalls on the Tien Shan mountain range are drying up. The vaunted Three Gorges Dam has not delivered the water volume or quality needed to sustain agriculture or human hydration needs. My only dispute with the report at this point is that, as I've mentioned before about an earlier writing of his, I don't think the American government was intent on winning the Afghan war it launched -- at least not in the second phase of the campaign. And, at the risk of getting into the weeds, one of his passages about desalination confused this layperson because I'm not sure he means zero discharge desalination (ZDD). There's been a lot of research and development related to ZDD in recent years, which frankly has left me at sea except in the most basic explanation of the technology. Beyond that, I wish Copley had stated his personal involvement with Argonaut Water (LLC), although it's easily learned -- and it could be that this kind of disclosure isn't as important for European - British Commonwealth editors and readers as it would be for Americans. Yet given the crucial importance of the report, these complaints are the smallest cloud wisps in a radiantly clear sky. Americans, and indeed all peoples, owe a debt to Gregory Copley for the revolution in understanding about water issues that he's very much helping to launch.
I'm also grateful to John Batchelor for bringing Copley's defense analyses to his radio audience; without that I think it could have taken me several more months to discover Copley's writings about water -- and the fabulous Argonaut Villager water purification system, which I'm happy to plug for the third time this month on this blog. (Full disclosure: I have no involvement with the Argonaut company.)
It was once the standard joke in Britain: everyone talked about the weather, but no one did anything about it.
By the early 21st Century, the weather — “climate change” — had become a political battleground, the religion of the urban agnostic pseudo-sophisticates. In reality, however, it was water which had evolved to be the strategically important issue.
What is critical, at this point, given the declining hydroresilience of modern society, is the reality that the water delivery infrastructure of the industrial world is degrading, particularly in the United States and Europe, and particularly at a time when rapid urbanization is driving increased per capita (and overall) water use. That is the obvious side. What is less obvious is that water quality is eroding in modern societies, with already significant consequences for societal health.
The infrastructure and water quality of the less industrialized world — which is also urbanizing rapidly with the same pressures for increased per capita use — are in even worse shape.
The global increase in average wealth, coupled with urbanization, have escalated potable water volume and quality demands in the past decade or so at a time when existing infrastructure is crumbling and, in any event, inadequate to the task. The search for desalination of sea water, meanwhile, is mired in old technology approaches which do not adequately address health concerns and may actually contribute to a declining (rather than improved) hydration of users.
In many emerging powers, water-related problems appear at a faster rate than planning and technology can address.
If, for example, water quality and delivery issues continue to lag in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is likely that the rising of its strategic power will come to a halt. Declining water supplies from traditional aquifers is coupled with extensive pollution of the water table — and therefore the agricultural viability of much Chinese farmland — contributing to a potential chasm in food production at a time of substantially increased urban demand. The PRC Government itself reported in 2014 that 60 percent of its ground water was polluted, and that in a country where nearly 70 percent of its water is used for agriculture.
Globally, the totality of water engineering and science have been neglected, and nowhere is the resistance to seeking and accepting transformative, disruptive water technology greater than in the U.S.
Nobody can decide whether “water wars” are what is coming, but the existential essence of constant, potable water provision is undeniable.
Break, erode, or deny water infrastructure — natural or manmade — and the potable quality of water, and strategic viability disappears.
It is more important to human society than the provision of electrical power, although a significant companion of it, and more important than agricultural output, although critical to it. It is the fundamental. Indeed, there is a clear relationship between hydroresilience and electroresilience in modern society, and particularly urban society, and it is equally clear that both dependencies are becoming more stark and brittle as urbanization entrenches.
The question of electroresilience, and the increasing vulnerability of modern society to cyber warfare threats and natural disaster dislocations, has been discussed at length. The question of the fragility of water infrastructure and water quality in the face of dramatically escalating potable water demand, however, has been less addressed. The issue is broader than the delivery of potable water. It includes issues of the use of water for agriculture, riverine navigation, and much more. But the matter of potable water delivery is existential to human survival, progress, and strategic power.
As I recently noted: “Winston Churchill once said that we shape our architecture and thereafter it shapes us. Roman roads and city structures still guide us. We are captives of the infrastructure and modalities created in the past, and they keep us stable, but on a narrow path, unable to easily achieve radical twists and surprises to grasp the future.”4 Our infrastructure, and particularly our water infrastructure, is what defines us and our potential.
Throughout history there has been an architecture to the energy supply network which has increasingly guided and benchmarked strategic power. The process of energy, and energy-related developments, are now well in the global public domain, and yet it was Britain’s — and then the U.S.’ — dominance of the energy supply chain which gave both states global authority. Underlying this, the water matrix has always been with us, but we are now at a point where dominance of the water science and industry, in all its aspects, could become the next major area of strategic wealth.
That is not to deny the real impetus which water technologies gave to the rise of strategic power, whether in terms of water-driven mills and canals in Industrial Revolution Britain (and elsewhere), or the ability of Rome to build great urban centers throughout its empire because of its aqueducts. It is not that we are unconscious of the historical contribution of water technologies to society, it is that we have not broken out of our 19th and 20th Century technologies at a time when the societal matrix has changed in terms of concentration, per capita demand, and purity requirements.
History has shown that strategic power, wealth, and leadership derives from the creation and dominance of the vital infrastructure of the era.
This began with land power and all that supported it, from the taming and use of horses to the construction — particularly by the Romans — of roads, bridges, and, vitally, aqueducts. Control of the seas, and the infrastructure of sea power and sea transport became critical, particularly for Venice, 15th Century China, the Phœnicians, Britain, and the United States. Within this, coal-fired power prolonged and expanded the wealth of the British industrial revolution and its sea power, and Britain pioneered the transition into petroleum. Apart from revolutionizing sea power, this enabled the great air infrastructure which followed. And all the while land, sea, and air aspects matured into, for example, railways, and the modern highway systems; the global air transport network; and an electronics and computerization capability which gave the ability to multiply “wealth” at greater speeds.
This, the use of hydrocarbon and later forms of energy extraction, became the impetus for the U.S. to lead the world. U.S. energy-related innovation, and the translation of this into industrial leadership, gave the United States unparalleled global strategic dominance.
Electricity followed, largely under U.S.-based leadership by such figures as Nikola Tesla, and this, more than anything else, compounded growth into the telegraph and the cyber age. Our present existential dependence on electricity, as the pinnacle of all of humanity’s infrastructural architecture, has created global wealth, which has led to and allowed the great proliferation in human numbers, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 7 billion today.
If this wealth and human progress is to continue, we must now enter a new infrastructural age to enable our precarious tower of energy-dependent infrastructure — and the people for whom it was built — to survive. Given the substantial increase in overall as well as per capita demand for water and the corresponding atrophy of existing systems, this must be the infrastructural age of water.5 That is, overall demand because of total (global) population growth; and per capita demand because of changing wealth and dietary behavior.
The vast U.S. strategic industrial base, coupled with a now-critical domestic demand to remediate collapsing and inadequate water infrastructure and quality, make the U.S. the logical focus for the creation of a globally dominant strategic water capability. But U.S. response to this situation can by no means be taken for granted. It is an age in which technology favors the nimble, and the race will not necessarily be to the society which can mobilize the biggest financial base.
U.S. engineering and scientific skills, however, could not only avert the great crises which are about to strike North America and much of the world because of the shortage of potable water; leadership in the comprehension of the hydrological age could be the next great U.S. economic leadership arena. It is possible that, by the mid-21st Century, no infrastructural endeavors will be bigger or more important to the viability and health of life than those linked to the creation and delivery of pure, clean drinking water.
Those engaged in this know that it is not merely as simple as building dams, or digging irrigation channels or building pipelines. It requires radically new technology for desalination of sea water, for ensuring that riverine highways are viable and sustain trade, agriculture, and fisheries while delivering, with the use of technology, water which actually averts society-destroying viral, bacteriological, and mineral contaminants.
The U.S. and its Coalition partners discovered, at great cost, the critical necessity of water to tactical military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this was the Achilles’ heel which cost U.S. and Coalition economies their viability, and their forces the conflict mobility required to achieve a real victory.
The U.S. already has significant water knowledge in the military. Arguably, it was the growth of water handling capabilities which led to the U.S. strategic growth, well before the maritime and engineering breakthroughs which led to the rise of its rail, telegraph, and electrical infrastructures. It was water technologies which powered the great rise in wealth in the U.S. gold rushes; it was the management of riverine traffic which powered (and still powers) its ability to deliver goods to market. The use of canal and riverine power was a global phenomenon, leading to the rise of wealth in 15th Century China and Industrial Revolution Europe.
It is, significantly and in contradistinction, the decline in riverine trade and the chopping up of water use by dam construction on the Niger River which has led to a decline in much of the social, agricultural, and trading viability of six major states which rely on the bounty of the Niger River Basin in West Africa. This, arguably, has been some of the basis for enabling the rise of the Boko Haram insurrection along the Niger Basin.
In the U.S., the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is not only a font of engineering greatness, but also of infrastructural thinking when it comes to water. Partly as a result of this, U.S. industry is well poised to expand into the new age of water technology, and it will require a totally new scientific and industrial capability. However, neither the U.S. nor any other state can dominate this field by a mere linear extrapolation of the ancient aqueducts and waterwheels.
Certainly, the U.S. will not abandon its great economic enterprises, at home or in the export markets, in the fields of aviation, engineering vehicles, and computerization, but the next great area of dominance — and one which can well employ the large capital formation capabilities of the U.S. — is the creative dominance and leadership of the water infrastructure. It is vital for the U.S., if it is to rebuild its domestic viability. It is vital for the world, where conflict avoidance and stability is possible through the export of more creative ways to find, clean, and deploy water.
The window for achieving dominance in this field, globally, will be contested soon and decisively.
Indeed, given the strong governmental and commercial impetus behind water technology and water-related industry in France and Israel, the U.S. capital formation advantage will face significant competition from those two states (and others) for global dominance in the water business.
What is surprising is that the PRC, which arguably faces the most strategic challenge when it comes to water — and the management of its use — is not already at the forefront of this technology. The water table of its agricultural lands, as noted, is heavily polluted and in need of remediation. The aquifers which have fed inland Chinese agriculture from the snowfalls on the Tien Shan mountain range are drying up. The vaunted Three Gorges Dam has not delivered the water volume or quality needed to sustain agriculture or human hydration needs.
And China has discovered that water needs are increasing, per capita, as urban wealth drives new food and water demand. The new food preferences themselves are all those — such as the production of beef — which require substantially more water to produce than traditional diets of the Chinese people. And urban societies drive up water use per capita because of sanitation and social demands. Rising wealth elsewhere in Asia, as well as in Africa, will equally tax water availability, even if, within a few decades, overall population levels decline.
Israel, which pioneered strong water management and utilization technologies, has let its water innovation leadership dwindle, although it may well be one of the significant repositories of water technologies and water consciousness. Israel has turned to seawater desalination and waste water purification, powered by cheap supplies of natural gas, to end its own water shortage (and has begun to export water to Jordan, the Palestinian West Bank, and the Gaza Strip), but the five major Israeli desalination plants rely on reverse osmosis (RO) technology. RO is an expensive water purification process — despite the gradual recent reduction in costs — but the new plants now provide 35 percent of Israel’s potable water needs (anticipated to rise to 70 percent by 2050).
Australia, which had an earlier impetus toward innovative water usage, and which faces its own strategic needs for more and better water strategies as never before, now lags in its potential as a “water power”. Indeed, Australia — surprising for a country in which, like Israel, water is a more critical element than in, say, most parts of Europe — has been adopting what could only be termed as unimaginative, or reactive, thinking in its major water projects. Three Australian state capitals (Perth, Sydney, and Melbourne) now depend on seawater desalination projects to deliver potable water to their citizens, and all use massively energy-expensive and maintenance-heavy RO systems, a 20th Century technology which had exhausted its viability.
Both the Israeli and Australian projects downplay the real energy costs, as well as the huge capital costs, of their RO facilities.
The Australian desalination projects, now vital to the continued viability of three of its major urban areas, are enormously inefficient and cost-ineffective in light of the possibility for desalination through new technologies which have just been undergoing patent approval in the U.S. This new technology will use very low power and super-refined ultra-filtration technologies to purify ground water, and in the next-generation iteration, desalinate sea water.
RO throws back the bulk of the salt water to be refined, into the source waters; the new technology does not. In the case of the Perth desalination project, this churning back of the water coming into the RO plant has meant increasing the salinity of the Cockburn Sound waters to the point where the desalination system has been forced to stop operations from time to time.
The new technology obviates the high capital cost and the even higher through-life costs of RO technology, utilizing very low power (one Watt per U.S. gallon, making it ideal for solar/battery), no filter changes ever, and no wastage, while producing water purified to 0.01 microns, eliminating all viral and bacteriological contaminants. This is the kind of technology which will revolutionize water delivery efficiently and without recourse to major power grids. It adds elasticity back into the hydrological equation. And the technology is capable of extending — in that next-generation iteration which could be available by late 2015 — to 0.001 microns of refinement, totally replacing the need for RO.
That technology has been developed commercially by Argonaut LLC, and it is scalable from small mobile unit applications up to city-size projects. Most significantly, it offers maintenance-free, stand-alone infrastructure which can be utilized by communities remote from all other support.
Industrially, the U.S. is perhaps best placed to dominate this space as the world faces the alternative: which is that human and scientific growth will be limited, and may reverse, if water infrastructure does not provide the answer to the declining availability of safe and potable water. But France has taken the most significant private sector initiatives in dominating the water space, with two major companies — 24.4 billion euro (sales, 2014) Veolia Environnement and the 14 billion euro (sales, 2014) Suez Environnement — working on vertically-integrated industrial and commercial approaches to water sourcing, processing and distribution, including one other vital sector: waste water recycling.
In the defense domain, the United Kingdom has begun to recognize the reality that water delivery in the military context was one of the great limiting factors in operational viability in the recent Coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UK Ministry of Defence has begun a billion-dollar, Defence-wide integrated program to deliver next-generation water solutions to the military, with its Combat Water Supply System (CWSS) project, which is due to go to tender in 2015. But even there, the industry responses have — thus far — been less than the kind of disruptive thinking which is necessary to transform military operations to the degree required in the future climate of economic challenge and conflict-type variability anticipated.
The International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA) has been working extensively over recent years to develop creative approaches to resolving the water challenge, largely as a result of an examination of lessons learned from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as well as engagement in studies seeking to understand the linkage between water and strategic viability. ISSA was, as a result, involved in the research which led to the technological breakthroughs developed by Argonaut, but is also engaged in understanding the energy-water-urbanization-new conflict framework.
One of the major goals is to re-establish hydro-elasticity into national-level down to village-level civil life and into military options, so that the water equation is not tied so directly to energy-dependent frameworks.
The extent to which civil and military societies can be removed from the fragile and brittle dependency on either electrical (and therefore computer) and water grids will determine a large measure of future viability and strategic capability.
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