Flooded Planet

Exploring the World to the Very Last Drop

Tag: water crisis

Water Everywhere but Here

Sometimes matters get extremely over-complicated when surrounding very basic equations, and for no good reason. Dirac said the most elegant solutions were the simplest. Something undiluted and straightforward usually serves matters best. Consider these three items:

1) Water…as of right now, there has not been even one documented case that I’m aware of in which a human being born on the planet did not require serious quantities of water from the first day they arrived until the last day of breath.

2) Population…also as of right now, we are staring at a world population that is steadily heading toward 8 billion souls, and we’re all constantly thirsty. Of course, quenching that thirst may be the most pressing of our hydration needs, but once we’ve got that licked, there are a hundred and one other reasons why we need and want more water. Washing, cooking, bathing, farming, manufacturing. In myriad ways, big and small, humanity is just plain hungry for yet more water.

3) Water…(yeah, I did that on purpose). So, it’s interesting to me that some of the world’s most prominent organizations would have us believe that we will continue to tackle this challenge of equitable water distribution with the same aplomb that has served us so well in the past. The news tells a different story, with matters of disputed water involving cities, states, regions, countries…all taking up increasing headline space. It’s as if there’s always enough water to go around, but never enough of it right “here.”

So, with the idea that the need for water is constant in each and every one of us, coupled with the idea that there are more and more of us all the time, lastly joined to the idea that the water supply is a finite quantity on Earth, this leads me to believe that, as of right now, more troubling headlines will be on their way in 2017, and for the foreseeable future.

I think a few years back to the Arab Spring, as it came to be known, and wondered if such events might have been tied to water issues. Certainly not a leap, but as the guy who’s running this blog about water and Climate Change, I was interested, nonetheless, so I typed in “Arab Spring and water” on Google. Of course my suspicions were magnificently confirmed, and why would they not be. “Arab” and “arid” sort of go hand-in-hand, I suppose.

I read that the ongoing war in Syria was ignited over water. Sure it was, and who would say any different? When the country’s farmers suffer years of drought and poverty, then start streaming into the cities without the necessary skills for securing employment, we can safely say that the conflict had its roots, directly or otherwise, in water-related issues.

It’s always more complicated than just a one-solution-fits-all remedy, but given Syria’s geographical location, it certainly seems plausible that water scarcity could easily be thrown into the background noise, at least as an audible annoyance, of just about any conflict that comes to mind in recent history there, and around there.

I don’t recall all the countries involved in the uprisings, but I do recall Libya and Egypt readily, neither of which engender visions of clean water flowing out across fertile verdant valleys full of bountiful crops and lakes and aquifers spilling over with crystal clear plentitude. No, I think of dry, parched, barren deserts (I should mention that I’ve never been to either country, personally). Maybe just being thirsty and hot most of the time puts people in a perpetual state of ill-tempered concern (this is actually a documented psychological state, and I think we’re going to see more of it as secure water sources literally dry up).

Of all the reasons that are cited as official causes for such political uprisings, rare indeed is the case when you will read the bold-faced and straighforward “water scarcity” entry as an item on the list. Maybe it’s just not done. Maybe it has to be cloaked in phrases like “rising food prices…and then you, as the reader, have to add in stuff like…”as a result of diminished food crop yields…that came about as a result of ongoing legal disputes over irrigation rights and equitable water allocation…which was amplified and intensified because of the ongoing drought.”

There will continue to be theories espoused, and the further out we get from Tahrir Square and people setting themselves on fire, the more convoluted and overly academic things become, with the talking heads and think tanks droning on about the role that technology played in the whole matter broken down to the nth degree. If I want to know how many men between the ages of 18 and 32 used Facebook as their preferred social media platform for crowd sourcing, I don’t have to try very hard. Not that I would ever, ever…ever care about such things. It’s about as mindless as the U.S. economy believing that fortunes will be made or lost based on whether or not Yellen will raise interest rates 1/8 of a percent, or what Trump’s latest tweet entails for the economy (sigh).

I just hope the next time “the people want to bring down the regime,” they do so with a better end game in mind, since it doesn’t seem that things turned out well, and maybe not even better, for most of these countries. Rioting in the streets and railing against the machine is good, sure, but you still need a plan beyond gathering in the streets and throwing stuff at police. You need to have the leadership that will come somewhat hashed out already by the time you’re talking about replacing the leadership that is.

Now we seem to have what’s termed the “Islamist Winter.” ISIS is rolling into town somewhere, providing bottled water for everyone, but we all know the heavy price that comes with that courtesy.

In the meantime, there’s much more trouble already a’brewin’. Did you know that there are already some 40,000 major dams around the world? Think about that number and tell me you’re not surprised and impressed (in an ecologically sad sort of way). Building a big dam nowadays–and perhaps it’s always been the case–is about as expensive an infrastructure project as a country can undertake. Yet the building of new dams has begun in earnest, with no end in sight. Everyone is getting on the bandwagon, which means that the disputes will just keep piling up. Egypt is mad at Ethiopia, Palestine is fuming at Israel (nothing new there), all of Turkey’s neighbors are about to blow over their damn dams. And let’s not even get started with China, India, or Pakistan.

Unfortunately, where feudin’ over water is concerned, no country is going to escape unscathed, including the good ole USA (yes our nation’s once plentiful aquifers are in serious trouble, too). These matters are grave beyond description. If your local friendly Home Depot helper tells you that the low-flow commode he wants to sell you will take care of any water woes you may be experiencing, he may have missed the boat.

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Big Ball of Bio-Water

It’s all just a great big ball of wax, this thing called Planet Earth, with bio-webs supported by bio-structures, all anchored in big burly bio-foundations. It’s dripping with Bio. And since it all runs on water, maybe we could just say it’s bio-water. Earth is a great Big Ball of Bio-Water. I like the way that sounds.

Well, if it’s one massive intertwined ball of bio-yarn (okay, I’ll stop), then messing with one piece of its twine is bound to have consequences running all through it. The whole thing could just unravel. Of course, we see actual unraveling all around us in the ongoing train wreck we’re calling Climate Change. One huge aspect of the incredibly complicated and messy wreckage is, indeed, the water component. As I’m hinting at here, water is everything. We need it to survive on the most local level (namely, our own bodies) at the same time that we need it not to kill us all off, directly or otherwise.

I have been reading about what the media dramatically likes to term “Water Wars.” They really are all around us (the wars I mean, although I guess the media too), playing out in big and small skirmishes across the planet, either in political spheres, or ones involving Molotov cocktails being lobbed at anything held by the opposing side. Jordan, Pakistan, China, India, Australia, California, Texas, Georgia, Florida.

Most recently, I read about Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Indian neighbors who might otherwise get along just fine, but now feuding mightily about equitable water distributions. Even the country’s supreme legal offices seem to require help sorting out the demands of each party, apparently confused themselves as to what the right water allotments between the two might actually be.

But this example is just one of many that could be listed, and not all disputes end in armed violence. Some just boil down to lawsuits and countersuits amidst endless litigation between litigious factions, every one of them convinced that their claims to the water are the most legitimate. And maybe they are.

There’s no good reason to suspect that these types of conflicts are going to abate any time soon, and many more reasons to believe that they will only increase as we continue to wade further and further in to the turbid waters of Climate Change. After all, with the world’s population continuing to rise, along with its demand for the many accoutrements that go along with human existence (clean water, abundant food, adequate shelter, decent jobs, efficient transportation, nice vacation spots…), why wouldn’t these problems revolving around water be expected to increase.

Anything done now in the name of claiming water that you believe belongs to you more than someone else is bound to be met with increasing fervor. A dam is damned provocative these days. So might be just one more well in a dying aquifer, one more housing development in a region that can’t environmentally support it, one more thirsty farm in a region that’s already drought-ridden, one more river carelessly polluted by the big corporations upstream, or one more fishery now tapped out because of unsustainable catches.

Yes, it really is one big ball of water, this planet of ours. There’s so much of the stuff everywhere, it simply doesn’t make sense that we’re running out. But we’re going for broke, and broke we shall be, unless we start unraveling these unwieldy problems. For now, it seems we’re just unraveling.

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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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