Flooded Planet

Exploring the World to the Very Last Drop

Category: Water Technology

The Dutch and the Garuda

The other day, my friend was looking online at some visually pleasing structures designed solely for the purpose of managing the flow of unwelcome water. She suggested to me that they looked like works of art. I had to agree, even though I imagined that the river they sat in would have been more beautiful still in their absence. I suppose that the trick with all construction whose form follows function is to present them to those forced to stare at them each day in the most palatable aesthetic possible. I think of wind farms and consider that, at times, there’s not much that can be done to “pretty things up.”

That got to me to thinking about the Netherlands, the poppies, windmills, and dikes, and how I keep hearing about Dutch engineering firms staying busy throughout the year and around the world designing the projects that are going to take on the predicted sea levels in the years to come. I wondered why it was that the Netherlands seemed to be dominating the scene as opposed to other countries. Then, after reading up a bit, I realized that, but for human ingenuity, the Dutch geography, left to its own devices, would probably just slip out to sea one day.

Almost the entirety of the country fits cleanly into just three categories: below sea level (more than half of all the land), at sea level, and barely above sea level. Just waking up anywhere in any part of the country would seem to suggest that there must be a constant mindfulness of the sea’s proximity. I also read that the port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe and very well run. I supposed, then, that, by default, the Dutch probably had some pretty longstanding and firsthand experience in matters of flood control, with time simply adding to the projects they can point to and say, “Yeah…we know how to do that.” These days, water management projects are in no short supply. Dutch engineering standards are in high demand far and wide.

When I discovered what the Dutch are up against where Climate Change is concerned, it is small wonder that the country takes ‘all things water’ as seriously as it does. They are going to get hammered from here on out and on multiple levels ranging from an encroaching sea, land subsidence, the growing unpredictability of weather patterns, threats to ground water resources, shifting coastlines, rising population, and a host of others challenges that keep the policy makers on high alert at all times. The poor people even have to deal with muskrats intent on destroying the very levies holding the water back. It’s a daily ‘cat and mouse’ game that must be played, else the muskrats win (apparently) and the towns flood.

It seems common sense, then, that the Dutch would export their know-how and can-do attitude when it comes to assisting less-experienced countries dealing with their own Climate Change challenges. The Netherlands is home to some of the world’s most top notch engineering firms, involved in hundreds of projects literally all around the world.

When I think of the Netherlands now, I will think of a country fully engaged in solutions. The more I learned, the more I was inspired. These people are truly amazing and I commend them on the efforts being made to ensure, not only that the country, itself, but countries around the world, can enjoy the benefits of an entrepreneurial spirit that might just make a small but size-able dent in the challenges that lie ahead, and for the betterment of all.

With the whispers from another post here in which I alluded to the bundles of money that will be made in the “Climate Change Sector,” here are a few projects I found the Dutch taking on, and in no particular order:

  • Providing technical assistance (this is probably an understatement) and pitching their best preventive medicine as part of New York’s task force in avoiding future disasters caused by the likes of a Hurricane Sandy.
  • To combat rising sea levels, Jakarta is building a sea wall in the shape of a giant mythical bird known as a Garuda. The Dutch and the Indonesians have been working together on similar ambitious projects for years now, but the scale of this one certainly takes the cake.
  • The Dutch Wind Wheel “a wind turbine that generates electricity from wind without moving parts.”
  • The Dutch help South Africa to better manage their water resources through a number of admirable projects (ORIO and King Fisher).

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An Amazing Truth


Falling Electricity

Oh, the allure of water when it’s resting somewhere high. All it needs is to be a little bit elevated above the few things below it for the world to take notice. At least higher than the sea. Water gazing down from some uplifted place causes someone peering dreamily to utter, “Yes…the possibilities.”

When homo sapiens happened somewhat late upon the scene, it didn’t take long for water to be recognized easily enough as a source of endless power. For instance, turning water wheels using the natural flow of water was just a little spark of genius, allowing ancient civilizations to efficiently irrigate farmland. The axle driven by the rotating wheel was a reliable source of muscle, lifting life-giving water for transport to otherwise parched places. Irrigating fields in volumes previously unimagined quickly became the norm.

In a very measurable sense, the water wheel began transforming the way in which we lived. This particular invention helped to feed a growing and hungry population as far back as Greek and Roman Times, and maybe much earlier. Once this technology was widely known, its applications became ever more widespread, being used for everything from making flour to sawing wood and grinding ore.

Humanity never lingers on its accomplishments, however, always pushing on toward the next bend in the river. Even though water wheels worked just fine for the longest while, changes were coming on the horizon that would demand ever more work from ever bigger machines. The child that grew out of the buckets on the wheel became the blades on the turbine. The mother of it all was the Industrial Revolution.

Although there are still a few places in the world where water wheels can be found providing the means for doing simple work, those instances are fewer with each passing year. That wasn’t always the case, and it took about a hundred years of slow but steady technological improvement for the turbine to unseat the water wheel as king. What’s dotting the worldscape now, in a more impactful manner than a water wheel could ever have hoped to accomplish, is the hydroelectric dam.

In one way or another, turbines are behind nearly all the power that is produced in the world today. In the case of a river, they are literally operating behind the scenes, powered by the massive energy that is bound up in the waters constantly falling within the dam’s walls. In terms of sheer hydroelectric output, the U.S. long ago lost its throne. Some of the monstrous machines being powered by behemoth dams recently built by countries like Brazil, China, and Ethiopia make our own Hoover and Grand Coulee pale by comparison.

I was astonished when I read somewhere that, over a period of about 30 years, starting in the 1950s, many tens of thousands of dams were built within U.S. borders. I would never have imagined such high numbers. Then I saw the map and was a believer. Had to be. I remember as a young boy growing up in the dry West, and hearing stories all along about the big dams that were a part of the fabric out there. My family enjoyed many a weekend of recreation in and around what we always commonly called “reservoirs.” It was just a word to me. As a kid, I didn’t really understand what the term meant, or how these lakes had initially been formed. Vega, Blue Mesa, Lake Powell. The list went on. I remembered watching the Gunnison and Colorado slowly become shadows of their former flows right around parts of the city where I lived, and heard stories about how the Colorado never even made it all the way to the ocean anymore.

The big dam project here in the good ole USA is a venture of by gone times, when the technological prowess necessary to pull off such a feat on a big raucous river was something like an expression of national pride. Times and technologies have changed, however, along with the attitudes that go with harnessing and taming something that once ran free and natural. We don’t need a river as much as we once did to produce large amounts of electricity for the masses. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation are now more concerned with maintaining what’s already there than with breaking new hydro dam ground. It’s ironic, then, how some countries around the world seem to be just now jumping on that band wagon.

Check out such names as Itaipu – a wonder of the modern world, Three Gorges Dam, pride of the Chinese, and the Grand Inga, coming soon to a Congo near you…maybe.

In the meantime, the total amount of electricity produced by hydroelectric dams continues to diminish as a percentage of the overall electrical power pie produced in the U.S., now hovering somewhere around 6-8 percent. And the funniest thing…a small number of dams are actually being decommissioned and demolished. The rivers want to flow unencumbered…maybe at least some of them can one day run wild and free again.

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Low Sodium H2O Flow

Of all the water on the planet, only a small percentage occurs in Nature as fresh water.  A safe estimate seems to be right around three percent, give or take a half percent. A majority of that is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. The rest is available to us mostly in the forms of lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers.

Much of what we call “fresh water” is, in reality, not fresh at all, in terms of drinkability. We wouldn’t want to slake our thirst directly from most of the rivers and lakes that surround us, simply because they are not suitable for unfiltered swilling. You gotta treat it first. Surface water, in general, can be uncategorically qualified as unfit if unfiltered for the simple reason that it’s polluted. And the pollutants would include all the things that would make their way onto your Yuk list without much effort—herbicides, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, fecal matter, sediment, etc. Along with all the other stuff that enviro-biologists (I’m pretty sure that’s an actual job title) would recognize and nod about knowingly to one another while the rest of us stood around scratching our heads.

The water that is provided to all of us who live in cities, large and small, comes from utility companies charged with the very important task of keeping our supplies safe. For the most part, they do an outstanding job. The problem we’re facing down around the world is one of scarcity. Some of the usual suspects (liquid in nature) we have always relied upon are being over-burdened. Simply put, their dependability is being tested due to a number of reasons, two of which would include climate change and population growth. As lakes and riverbeds dry up, and aquifers find themselves unable to recharge quickly enough to meet demand, people are turning to other solutions. One that seems to be catching on quickly…almost too quickly…is the desalination plant.

Any engineer or marketing executive explaining how fresh water can result from pumping seawater—the stuff that makes our eyes sting and our hair and skin feel strange, and our gut hurl if ever we are unfortunate enough to ingest it—they’re going  to emphasize the crucial concept of reverse osmosis. These amazing membranes keep getting smaller, more efficient, more cost effective. After all, the biggest reason for the oceans being an unsuitable source of drinking water is…well, yeah, it’s the salt Stupid, right? Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Prevent the salt from following the water on through.

So, these salt removal plants are now becoming the new rock stars in the world of water, providing reliable drinking water for many cities and even whole countries that find themselves hard pressed to find other alternatives for their growing and thirsty populations. US, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, India, Australia. The list goes on…into the low hundreds.

Here are my concerns—numerous, yes, but probably not any different from those held by others much more in the know than myself. First of all, it seems to me that we could easily transition into something not unlike the privatization of water as more of these industrial behemoths dot the landscape. That’s a whole ’nother can of worms to open later, but just note that I’ve put it on the table for consideration. When such odious things like water being politicized and militarized for nefarious gain start making headlines…now that’s a dark cloud on the horizon.

It all seems a bit counter-intuitive, I know. More water, more security all the way around. But read on…if we come to rely too heavily on these plants, and let many or all of our other conservation efforts go to moth balls, how easy will it be to make these desalination plants new targets for exploitation?

Second of all, whereas it seems that years, several at best, and sometimes more than a decade, are required to bring a new plant online here in the states, this does not seem to be the case in many other countries. Looking around the world, I’m astounded by the sheer number of these things sprouting up almost overnight. It’s obvious, then, that many customers have little or no concern about the environmental impact these plants bring to the scene. As long as the clean water is flowing, damn the torpedoes.

Over 20,000 of them already up and running around the world, and with many more already budgeted in. In some cases, a new plant in an old country has indeed come at a price, and was not the first, second, or third most popular option considered. But the technology is proven and now familiar, getting cheaper all the time, and pulling from the most reliable source of H2O we have…the ocean. What else is an already stressed country supposed to do?

Thirdly, having considered my first few beefs, is it possible that the ease with which we are now producing fresh water will cause at least some of us to believe that the crisis is over? I’ve already read this very proposal in more than a few places on the web, so it’s not far-fetched. How tempting will it be for one country after another to consider slapping up one desal plant, then the next, and the next, perhaps suggesting that the new status symbol of nationalistic pride is…water? A country’s wealth will be measured by the number of these plants it can boast of. Prestige in pumps, mining blue gold instead of black now.

New urban sprawl might spring up, full speed ahead in areas that would otherwise be unsustainable. Dubai is one of the driest, hottest places on earth. Yet it is thriving. And with its Jebel Ali desalination plant producing a cool half million gallons of fresh water every day, it may be the poster child for decadent development in places where we would otherwise dare not consider as suitable for driving pilings into the ground.

Israel has gone all in and is currently the proud owner of the world’s largest operating plant (this distinction will soon be lost, no doubt). It was built for nearly half what the plant in Carlsbad, California was constructed for.  Economies of scale mean bigger, mega-producing facilities might be a new part of a dry and parched landscape. Wherever water is in short supply, you can bet your last dollar the desal plants are coming (get a decal touting desal…hey, look there’s one in SoCal!)

Fourthly, we do know that these things have some drawbacks, and, as I mentioned, some countries are not deterred by those cons. Like the high carbon footprint, the potential for environmental damage to the very ocean they rely upon, the massive deposits of brine they dump back into the sea. It’s just a matter of time before someone cries foul, then conducts the study that confirms what we suspected all along…there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The scales must be balanced.

Having stood on my soapbox long enough, I will say this: thank goodness that the technology is there. Without desalination (and I mean the technology, if not the huge structure that presently goes along with it), producing billions of gallons of fresh water in a reliable manner to multiple millions of people around the world, one can only imagine the dire outlook for many countries where the water isn’t flowing where it always used to go.

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The Marvelous Marly Machine

If you are a lover of history, and also jump at the chance to hear any tale involving water in some way, you’re in for a real treat when you stumble upon, as I did, the Marly Machine. If they haven’t made a movie about this fascinating episode in French history, they should.

King Louis XIV (our famous Sun God who might just as accurately have called himself a Water God, given his affinity for the liquid) was in dire engineering straits. The divine ruler needed water and needed it desperately. How was he supposed to host a respectably splendid and stunning fountain show for his subjects at Versailles and Marly without the requisite water? (hint…choose sites for your entertainment venues that are closer to ample water supplies). So he put the word out on the street that he would pay handsomely anyone who could successfully fill his need…and the reservoirs. As time went on, although he collected many proposed hydrologic remedies, Louis was disappointed by the pool of candidates, with most of the outlines for blasting water up the bluff somewhat questionable, at best.

All seemed lost when, at the 11th hour, a couple of ambitious, smart, and creative young fellows by the names of Rennequin Sualem (master carpenter) and Arnold de Ville (engineer for hire) appear on the scene, plans in hand for building the machine. Well, of course, both had prior experience in moving water around, fashioning pumps, extracting water from coal mines, that sort of thing. In the end, the king knew a good thing when he saw it and immediately pushed the project their way, fully confident that the water would effortlessly flow to the fountains. And it did, sort of… eventually, several years later.

Sualem and de Ville feverishly began the work, together plotting and planning the difficult work of modifying the Seine, laying out the construction site, gathering together the small army of workers who would pound the whole flatrod system together. It was one of the most ambitious engineering feats to date. After all, they were going to move water over a longer distance than was prudent and up a steeper incline than was practical (almost a 500 foot vertical rise, all told). How does one go about such an enterprise when electrical pumps haven’t yet been invented (although steam was on its way)? Answer…use water to move water.

Over the centuries, the water wheel has been one of the most basic and useful tools for performing work. Its simple and straightforward principles are still used in many parts of the world today for such mundane tasks as making flour and sawing wood. Dip some paddles down in the flowing water and you have instant, constant, and reliable rotation. Rotary movement is a hallmark for getting work done.

The enterprising duo would have known this, of course (although many engineering principles that would have greatly improved their efficiency were still unknown at the time). It was as much a matter of sheer will power, however, as it was engineering prowess to move the quantities of water they were proposing at the time. The massive machine that resulted, most impressive by any standard, was also highly prone to mechanical failure.

With the entirety of the torque derived from the rotating wheels way down on the river below, the linkages necessary to drive the pumps much further uphill were bound to be problematic. It was probably not well conveyed to the king at the time the contract was awarded that a standing maintenance crew of some sixty men would be required to address the frequent breakdowns that were part and parcel of the mechanical components throughout the project’s lifetime.

Fourteen paddle wheels—each thirty plus feet in diameter—was remarkable stuff, churning on a river that had been narrowed and dropped to provide the necessary flow. After all, the wheels were the engines that drove those hundreds of pumps that heaved the water uphill. The quantities of labor and materials to pull off the King’s self-indulgent stunt were staggering.  Almost two thousand laborers, multiple tens of thousands of tons of wood and iron and lead. It was as though Louis was outfitting an army preparing for war. But if it was war, it was one of aesthetics.  Water, in the case of Louis and Versailles and his fountains, was simply an elegant and expensive way to suggest endless supplies of prestige, power, consumption.

The rattletrap noise the machine made when cranking at full bore (which would have been rare, since…you can probably guess…maintenance and repairs) must have resembled a battlefield barrage, and became the infamous stuff of legend, at times keeping the neighbors angrily awake at all hours of the night.

At any rate, a successful demo was done for Louis in mid-1682, only a year or so after the project had broken ground. Water was shown to move successfully up to the top of the hill by the Seine. It wasn’t until several years later, though, after staged reservoirs had been dug, and a well-arched aqueduct was complete, that the thing was considered finished.

Overall, the king must have been pleased with the results. Sualem was well-compensated for his hard-to-come by skills, eventually obtaining a position in the king’s court and enjoying the benefits of knighthood. Engineer de Ville (Baron and lawyer, to boot) also became quite rich, ultimately bestowed with his own chateau in the vicinity, and rising in stature as he went along, never missing an opportunity to climb.

As is the case in many such monumental undertakings, however, the results were not exactly as planned. As already mentioned, maintenance was ever present and costly. The efficiency of the engineering was beyond inadequate, and the thing was falling down, by degrees, almost before it was fully stood up. And besides, the fountains at Versailles were a real drain on things, simply requiring too much pressure and capacity to run very often as designed. Much of the water pumped by Marly wound up flowing to the much smaller and intimate Chateau of Marly, instead. The water wound up where it was most supposed to be.

Over the decades and centuries, the Marly Machine would undergo numerous transitions, always driven by improved engineering technology. Although the original construction remained in operation until the early 19th century, only remnants of the original works are still evident today.

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