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February 8 – I’m drawing inspiration from the Diane Rehm Show last week. As some of you may know, this program can be heard on National Public Radio; here in Cincinnati, I listen to it on WVXU, 91.7 FM. It’s on from 10:00 am until 12:00 pm, Monday through Friday. I listened to the podcast the next day.

Half of the February 2nd show was about water. The three panelists – Steven Solomon, Geoff Dabelko, and Julia Bucknall – are each, in their own way, experts regarding the current world water situation. They are, in addition, professionals who are capable of predicting what the world water situation could be in 15 to 20 years. Keep in mind that, both now and in the future, global warming is and will be having a significant impact on this very fluid (!) situation.

Here are some things I heard that I hadn’t heard before: countries in the Northern Hemisphere will have to deal with more rainfall than they currently receive, in 15 years there will be 3.6 billion people in the Middle East and India who will have difficulty feeding themselves because of a lack of water, desalinization is a very energy-intensive operation, and drilling for natural gas can result in contamination of proximate water tables.

Let’s reflect on each of these forecasts, one at a time. Insofar as the additional rainfall northern countries will be contending with, I would think it reasonable, in various locations throughout the Northern Hemisphere, to expect an increase in flooding, landslides, and lost topsoil. These calamities would often be accompanied by loss of infrastructure, destruction of buildings of all kinds, and loss of life. At some point, insurance companies would have to initiate large increases in their premiums, in order to satisfy the increasing numbers of claims.
It would not be surprising to find a similar increase in the numbers of people unable to carry insurance because of the expense. At the same time, there would be a commensurate increase in the numbers of jobs created in the emergency response and rescue fields, clean up crews, electricity re-installation and repair, home repair, etc. Where the money would come from in order to pay for these various services – plus many more – would be a matter that might well strain the financial resources of individuals, municipalities, states and the federal government. Depending upon how frequent disasters become, it might well be possible only to repair things to the level of functionality necessary for society to continue to be operational. Heaps of refuse might linger for years. Then again, recycling might take on added meaning, as people foraged in these piles for usable materials. What health problems might arise as a result of open-air garbage storage of this magnitude? I think we can assume that there would be an increase in health problems related to this issue.

For the people residing in the Southern Hemisphere, the exact opposite scenario will unfold: a lack of water, both for drinking, and for growing food. Whether 3.6 billion people actually will be affected, or whether an increased mortality rate will begin reducing the human population in the Middle East and India, only time will tell. Even now, global warming is reducing the flow of rivers originating in the Himalayas. The forecast for Pakistan, as described during this program, is that the volume of water in the Indus River – Pakistan’s primary source of water – will decrease by 30% at the same time the population increases by 30%. Clearly, draconian conservation measures will have to be instituted. While this is unlikely to ensure that everyone survives, it could provide hope of a future for some. Some countries in the Middle East are already adept at making do with very little water. Whether or not they can continue to thrive while at the same time supporting growing populations remains to be seen. Others, like Yemen, already face serious problems, particularly where its mountain-dwelling citizens are concerned. Whether or not wars will break out between water-rich and water-poor nations will depend upon the willingness of water-rich states to accept environmental refugees, since transporting water – a heavy and sloppy commodity – would be unsustainable. Piping it long distances would invite considerable loss along the way, due to leakage and evaporation, as well as terrorist attacks (assuming the countries of origin were willing to consider this remedy).

Actually, I don’t know if drilling for natural gas always results in contamination of water supplies or not. The panelists didn’t say. What was talked about was the fact that New York City has arrived at an agreement with a natural gas company not to drill near their water supply, apparently as a result of sufficient evidence that for them to do so would threaten that water supply. How many municipalities would be knowledgeable enough to head off this potential threat?
If natural gas does, in fact, become our transitional fuel of choice, to what degree will that threat increase?

I skipped over desalinization. Based upon the comments made by panelists, I conclude that removing the salt from water to make it usable for drinking and agriculture is both energy-intensive and expensive. The ability to use a renewable source of energy for this purpose would help humankind address at least one of these issues. The impression I got, however, is that we are not very close to achieving this very worthwhile goal. I’ve never quite been able to convince myself that desalinization will ever be widely available, and I honestly don’t regard it as being more than tangential to the issue of water availability.

The three panelists on this program were

Steven Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and the Civilizatio.
Geoff Dabelko, Director of Environmental Change and Security at the Wilson Center
Julia Bucknall, Manager of the Central Water Unit of the World Bank

Related reading: Aqua Shock: The Water Crisis in America, by Susan J. Marks


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