I’ll be delivering something like the following (draft) lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Franklin (NC) this morning. Happy Earthday everyone!
Water, water everywhere?
by Cecil Bothwell
Depending on your age, and depending a great deal on my voice, you may recognize that as the Ballad of Easy Rider by the Byrds. It struck me as appropriate to my topic today.
Our lovely planet, dubbed the blue planet because oceans cover 71 percent of the planet’s surface, is facing what we ought to consider a permanent drought.
How can that be? What’s causing the problem? What can we do about it?
The first piece of that puzzle derives from the same fact I just stated. That 71 percent of the earth’s surface contains 95 percent of the water. All of the rivers, lakes, glaciers, plants, animals and clouds share the other 5 percent. That 5 percent is what we call fresh water. The salty stuff is okay for swimming, for cooling power plants, and for all of the animals and plants that are adapted to exist in the sea – but it is of very limited use to human beings and other terrestrial life forms. If you drink it, it makes you dehydrated because it takes more water to get the salt out of your body than the amount you drink.
When you frame it in the old question about whether the glass is half full or half empty, you’d say that a glass full of sea water actually makes the next glassful half empty.
Presently we divert more than half of the liquid fresh water on earth to human uses, leaving less than half for the rest of our companions on big blue. Of course, those figures like all statistics, can be read in different ways. And an important thing about water is that it is constantly shared. No one keeps it for long, in any form other than inside a wine bottle, and even that is likely to be poured out sooner than later.
But, the other side of that argument is that we change the water we use: not so much in our own bodies, but when we filter it, add chlorine and fluoride, heat it, use it for washing our clothes and our industrial machinery, or drain it through fertilizer and pesticide laden fields.
As another aside, one of the coolest things you can tell a child is that we’ve had the same water on this planet since water first puddled up when the planet cooled enough for it to exist in liquid form. The glass of water you drink today was drunk in the past by dinosaurs and saber-toothed tigers, and Aristotle and Vincent VanGogh, and queens and princes and aboriginal Australians and Ghengis Khan’s Mongol horde. The first fish that crawled up on land to evolve into amphibians and lizards and mammals and birds came out of that glass, and the hippopotamus cousins that went back to the sea to evolve into dolphins and whales dove into that glass. If the youngster is still listening, you can add that a baby is about 75 percent water, an average adult is about 50 percent water, and we continue drying out all our lives until we finally die and give back all of that water to the planet. So, when you were born, 75 percent of your new self was once a dinosaur.
Salt water can be desalinated, but that’s a very energy-intensive process. Under traditional methods the water is heated and the steam is collected and condensed. It uses so much energy that the only countries that have done it at a large scale are oil rich water poor countries in the mid-east.
A newer and cheaper method uses membranes to filter out the salt – but even that requires the water to be forced through the membrane and that requires substantial energy to accomplish. Energy is a big factor for another reason as well, and I’ll come back to that in just a bit.
The reason life forms that we know and love evolved on this planet—from bunny rabbits to broccoli, to warblers, to human beings—though not in that order—is because our planet’s atmosphere is constantly desalinating ocean water for us, powered by the incredible energy of the sun. And on much of the planet that fresh water is delivered free as rain and snow and hail and sleet and slizzle and fog.
That free delivery system is part of a central conundrum about water, which is this: How do you price water? Or to ask that another way, what is fresh water worth? If you were dying of thirst, you would literally pay whatever price was asked for a sip, even everything you owned. If you were clinging to a tree in the midst of the rising water of a flood, about to be swept away, you would literally pay whatever price was asked to get rid of the water—or, more realistically—for a helicopter to swoop in and save you.
The price we pay for water in this lovely, lush, green, mountainous, thinly populated place we inhabit is for delivery. If you have a well, you pay an electric bill or have a windmill. If you have a spring above your home, you pay for piping and a reservoir. If you’re on City water, you pay for building and operating the system that gets water to your faucet. But the water is free.
In eastern North America, water has been essentially free forever. And that’s the second reason we ought to begin to consider ourselves facing a permanent state of drought. Our homes, our facilities, our industry, our habits, our aesthetics, have been well watered, and we waste an awful lot of the stuff. Moreover, because of the systems we have invented which are based on free water, we have an infrastructure that won’t work very well with less.
Our love affair with lawns can change, though there are plenty of suburban homeowners who are unlikely to give up their riding mowers until their cold dead fingers are pried from the steering wheel. But our sewer system is a lot less flexible. Toilet design has been pushed to the lower limit of how much water is required to flush. Our plumbing consigns all waste water to the same pipes, despite the fact that wash water from your bath and sinks and laundry could be reused before it heads for the treatment plant. We’ve installed millions of garbage disposals that wash down food scraps that have fertilizer value as compost, and that clog up our sewers, but whose convenience is seductive. And there are waterless urinals now, but they require storage tanks that must later be pumped—so again we’re talking energy.
Now, to get back to the natural desalinization, as you know, the evaporation of water from the sea along with transpiration of plants, puts fresh water in the air as clouds. Both of these processes are speeded up by warmth. Our planet is getting warmer. Whether or not you agree with most scientists who study our atmosphere that much of that warming has been caused by human activities, there can be no disputing the fact that the world is heating up.
So, hmm, if warmer temperatures evaporate more sea water, that should be good, right? More fresh water for all of us landlubbers.
The fly in that ointment is that a warmer atmosphere is also more volatile. Storms are more likely to be superstorms, rain is more likely to be torrential. And the core problem there is that when huge amounts of rain fall in a short time, more of it runs off, instead of being absorbed into the soil. Wells, springs, creeks, branches, streams and rivers depend on fresh water that is absorbed into the soil and only slowly leaked out over the hottest months of the year.
At the same time, in warmer weather between rain storms, more of the soil moisture evaporates, and the trees continue to suck it up and transpire it into the clouds. So wet times are wetter and dry times are drier. That’s the third reason why we seem to be headed into permanently droughty times.
The fourth reason is one that most people are quite surprised to learn, and again it involves energy. The biggest use of fresh water in a modern economy is for power plants. Thermoelectric plants, that is those systems that use heat and steam and cooling towers, coal, oil, and nuclear plants, use 49 percent of the water humans divert for their purposes. Some of it is sea water, but 45 percent of the fresh water we use goes into those plants. If you have heard about the energy/water connection it probably came from a news story about water shortages or extreme heat causing a plant to shut down. The first time that happened in the U.S. was in 1988, in Illinois. But it is becoming more common, with plants in North Carolina and Georgia facing possible shutdowns during recent summer droughts.
Another wrinkle showed up in 2012, when the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, Conn., had to shut down one of its two reactors because seawater was too warm to cool it. A heat wave last summer raised the temperature of Long Island Sound, the first time in the plant’s 37 year history that the intake water was insufficiently cool.
At the other end of the pipes, energy is made more expensive because the waste water from a thermoelectric plant is hot, and therefore requires massive cooling systems in order to protect the environment at the outflow. Sometimes, if a large enough cooling pond can be constructed, water can be reused, but as a matter of dollars and cents, it is much cheaper to intake fresh cool water, then cool the outflow just enough to prevent fish kills and other side effects, and send it back to nature.
This brings us to the fifth reason we need to prepare ourselves for permanent drought. Water use has been growing twice as fast as population growth, causing more and more communities to suffer water shortages. As regions of the world develop, electric power comes into high demand. With the massive populations of China and India moving into modern manufacturing, the industrial demand for power and water ratchets up. Then as more workers achieve some level of wealth, the personal demand for modern sanitation and cleanliness rises as well, together with a diet that shifts toward more meat.
Meat production consumes the majority of grain crops grown in the world, and by some accounts, growing that grain uses 70 percent of the non-energy fresh water used by humans.
The sixth reason drought is going to figure very strongly in our future is the biggie, and its the one that drives all the rest. There are more than 7 billion of us on board spaceship earth. Barring a monumental natural disaster or disease epidemic, we are likely headed toward 10 billion by about 2050.
Different experts offer differing guesses, of course, depending on what is factored into their equations, and some believe we won’t exceed 7.5 billion. That’s still a lot of people.
Population growth is slowing as education and wealth liberate more women from multiple pregnancies, and the benefits of smaller families begin to outweigh traditional beliefs and practices. But population increase is a huge force, and with the majority of the population in developing nations only now reaching child-bearing age, the surge will continue.
So even if we take the best case scenario and reach a high point at 7.5 or 8 billion, as wealth and education increase, water demand rises sharply. Here we come back to the question of what water is worth.
In a rich country like ours, most of us would be willing to pay a little more, and certainly be willing to use a little less. Simply due to a growing evironmental ethic, residents in WNC are using less water per capita than they did a decade ago—at least in their homes. But we sometimes forget that we are using Chinese manufacturing water as well when we purchase a cell phone, and Chilean agricultural water when we eat a fresh apple in April, and taking a virtual sip of water in Mumbai when we phone customer service and reach a call center in India.
As I noted early on, a thirsty person can be driven to extremes to get a drink. And a thirsty country is no different. Why did China conquer Tibet in
the 1990s? Possibly partly to find room for an expanding population, partly for the meat —and truckloads of wild animals have been slaughtered and shipped to market—but also to gain control of the headwaters of major Chinese rivers that flow down from the Himalayas. Headwaters which depend on the snowpack laid down during cold Tibetan winters, winters that aren’t so cold any more. Himalayan glaciers are in retreat.
At the same time, climate change is affecting the monsoon rains which are so imperative to the population of the Indian subcontinent.
So the two most populous nations on earth are facing growing water scarcity, and their people are thirsty for development and a better life.
A Pentagon report issued during the G.W. Bush presidency identified climate change and population growth as the two most destabilizing factors in our future. Resource wars could definitely be on the horizon.
A much less known report developed during the Nixon and Ford administrations was never released. Here I come to the religious part of my sermon, which I’m sure many of you have been wondering about.
“When is he going to start preaching?”
That report was called the National Security Study Memorandum 200, or NSSM 200 for short. It detailed the security threat to the United States posed by uncontrolled global population growth. It emphasized the need to educate women and make family planning options available to them. It emphasized that such a policy would not be successful unless abortion were included among those options.
The United States Catholic bishops got wind of the report and used every avenue they could find to block release of the report. They stalled it through the Carter administration and the Reagan administration finally scuttled it altogether. Catholic and fundamentalist Protestants continued to press against any such policy, and during the G.W. Bush administration, all funding for any organization that performed abortions was cut, along with a diversion of substantial resources from effective family planning to abstinence-only programs. Had the U.S. implemented the Nixon-Ford plan, the world today would be cleaner, healthier, wealthier on average, and facing far less dire resource scarcity.
The power of religious dogma to do real harm in the world has probably never enjoyed as explicit a demonstration as when the Bishops intervened.
Every manufacturing nation needs feedstock, and competition for what’s left is ramping up quickly. Easily mined minerals have been exhausted around the world. As Arctic ice retreats, all of the northern nations are exploring the seabed for potential exploitation. China and the U.S. are engaged in a bidding war for mineral wealth in Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Rare earth minerals, which were rare to start with, are getting more scarce, with China controlling most of world production now. And those minerals are essential to modern technology, in your computer, cell phone, hybrid car and more.
Here in the Southern Appalachians the most valuable resource we have is our pure water. Mountains squeeze clouds as air is forced up to cooler altitudes and no matter how climate change affects big weather patterns, that effect of the mountains will only change over geologic time. It is the core reason why Asheville is fighting to retain control of its water system right now. Our pure mountain water was the reason why knitting and weaving factories emerged here in another century. It’s the reason our regional beers win national awards, and why major breweries are building new facilities here. If we lose control of our water, it may be sold down the mountain to South Carolina and Georgia, or voer the mountains to eastern Carolina for fracking operations. If it is going to be sold as a high value resource, the benefit needs to accrue to the people who have paid for the reservoirs, for the pipes, for protecting the watersheds, and not handed off to commercial interests.
No resource outside of air is more precious than fresh water. To compound our water problem, other resource extraction often impinges on the water that is available, as in the environmental disaster of tar-sands mining in Alberta, or hydraulic fracturing for gas drilling in Pennsylvania and possibly North Carolina, or in copper mine tailings in Chile, or gold mine residues in South Africa.
In sum, I think we need to stop thinking of water as free. We need to stop imagining that water will always be abundant. We need to change our minds, and change our infrastructure to prepare for what, during our prospective lifetimes, will be a permanent drought.
Like the experience of the characters in that movie, Easy Rider, I don’t expect it will be an easy ride.
“Flow river flow, past the shaded tree Go river, go, go to the sea, flow to the sea, Flow river flow”