Consumable Water and the Civilized World

The lifeblood of an ecosystem

In the beginning, our earth was lifeless until the water came.  The first living things were water plants and the origins of animal life lived in water.  Today we are still water animals, forced to have access to water, or perish.  The origin of water is as open to scientific speculation, as is the origin of the earth itself.  What we do know is that water covers approximately three-fourths of the earth’s surface and ninety-seven percent of it is in the oceans.

Nature’s Hydrologic Cycle is the natural water purification process, ridding water of impurities, at least temporarily, before it picks them up again.  The sun vaporizes water, breaking it down into individual H2O molecules, drawing it from the earth’s surface into the atmosphere and leaving virtually all of its impurities behind.  The vapor eventually cools in the clouds, condenses and falls back to the earth as rain, snow or other forms of precipitation.  From there it collects as a glacier or some body of water, then runs, and pools in a place where it has an outlet; this is what is known as “spring water”.  It then runs and pools to a place where there are no outlets.  There it sits and eventually becomes stagnant.  Only to evaporate again, going back into the sky where the process begins again.  Nature’s Hydrologic Cycle illuminates water’s indestructibility.  Water cannot actually be consumed or exhausted; it is reusable and recyclable.  The earth possesses a fixed supply of water to which, through the hydrologic cycle, used quantities will always return.  Every glass of water contains water molecules that have been around since the earth began.

An innate purpose of water is to regulate temperature and to act as a solvent.  In nature, it falls as rain, snow or other precipitation helping to moderate the earth’s climate, keeping the earth from being parched and burned.  As a solvent, it dissolves rocks and soil and transports nutrients to plant life.  Three-fourths of the three percent available to us as fresh water is frozen in glaciers and icecaps, the remainder is found, in lakes, rivers, in the atmosphere and underground.  There is approximately thirty-seven times more water underground than on the surface—it can be tied up for hundreds; even thousands of years before it resurfaces again to take part in the hydrologic cycle.  This is known as ground water.  Much of the water used in farm communities to irrigate crops is ground water; at one time, this was the only demand for ground water but as fresh water sources diminish, private water companies have tapped into ground water sources to meet demand.

Modern day agricultural demands implemented the use of chemicals, ironically to counteract a diminishing water supply, unfortunately these chemicals seep into and contaminate the groundwater compromising its quality; in time, it will require filtration and or treatment to be made consumable.  We all need water directly for drinking, growing food and supporting industry and there is a fundamental need to address ecological requirements.  Aquatic ecosystems invariably support our livelihoods and life styles directly and indirectly; water for ecosystems inevitably equates to water for people.  The allocation and control of water rights is a politically charged issue.  Property rights around water generally apply to the right to use an annual flow volume rather than simple ownership of the water.  Prior appropriation, or “first in time, first in right”, water rights are the most common form in western North America.  Prior appropriation water rights typically also require that the water entitlement be put to a “beneficial use” or be forfeit.  Where “first in time, first in right” water rights prevail, the environment is typically last in time.  Consequently, to date, some 30 billion gallons of ground water is pumped from the earth everyday.  So long as we pump no more than is recharged, we are using it sustainably, unfortunately, at this point, with the demands of our “modern” lifestyle, we are pumping up to 15 times more water than is being recharged which is in fact creating a global crises.1)Blue Gold – a film by Sam Bozzo

A deliberate and strategic design to optimize social well-being and resilient ecosystems across a broad array of water needs is long overdue.  There is no substitute for water in any of its functions; it has an important role in the health of the planet as well as a multitude of public needs to include natural habitats.  Sustainability in the management and allocation of water is intrinsically related to Global Warming.  It is the major social-scientific challenge of the 21st century.2)Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170

Rivers exist as a continuum of interlinked surface and groundwater flow paths.  They are important natural corridors for the flows of energy, matter and species.  Natural changes in river flows, water quality and species, both within the river and on the floodplain, are all connected.  Hydrologic alterations have impaired ecosystems on a global scale, and the pace and intensity of human development greatly exceeds the ability of scientists to assess the effects on a river-by-river basis.3)Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170  One of the most significant human interventions in the hydrological cycle is the dam.  They support human socio-economic development by providing water for drinking, irrigation and electricity, but simultaneously have had a considerable impact on freshwater ecosystems.  There are almost 50,000 large dams worldwide.  Many of them have been created for hydroelectric power without any consideration for consumption or their impact on the overall changes to ecosystems and the hydrologic cycle.  Impacts vary substantially from one geographical location to another and are dependent on the exact design and the way a dam is operated.  Every dam has unique characteristics and, consequently, the scale and nature of environmental changes are highly site-specific.4)Living with dams: managing the environmental impacts, Matthew McCartney  However, they all invariably have an impact on biodiversity.  Dammed rivers fail to carry nutrients and minerals down stream, which compromises biodiversity.  The result is more soil erosion leading to the eventual desertification of the Earth.

Climate change, droughts, growing population and increasing industrial demand are straining the available supplies of fresh water.  As water becomes more scarce, people will search for ways to secure their water supplies.  According to the United Nations, more than 1 billion people live in areas where water is scarce and that number could increase to 1.8 billion by 2025.  One time-tested but expensive way to produce drinking water is desalination: removing dissolved salts from sea and brackish water.  The world’s oceans present a virtually limitless and drought-proof supply of water.  President John Kennedy observed nearly 50 years ago, “If we could ever competitively–at a cheap rate-get fresh water from salt water that would be in the long-range interest of humanity, and would really dwarf any other scientific accomplishment.”  There are currently approximately 87 companies building new plants; GE, Procter and Gamble and DOWchemicals are among them.  According to the latest figures from the International Desalination Association, there are now 13,080 desalination plants in operation around the world.  Together they have the capacity to produce a mere 0.5% of global water use.  Some environmental groups are concerned about the energy the plants will use, and the greenhouse gases they will spew.  A large desalination plant can suck up enough electricity in one year to power more than 30,000 homes.  However, based on the limited evidence available to date, it appears that desalination may actually be less environmentally harmful than some other water-supply options, such as diverting large amounts of fresh water from rivers, for example, which can lead to severe reductions in local fish populations.  Nevertheless, uncertainties over the environmental impacts of desalination make it hard to draw definite conclusions.5)Tapping the oceans, Economist;6/7/2008

Contrary to popular belief in the developed world, every gallon of water we use has an economic value although we typically behave as if clean, on-demand water has zero economic value.  Even though water has indispensable usefulness, the value inherent in water is hidden under a cloak of invisibility and it rarely has a price.  Rather than create local more sustainable methods, our society grows crops in thirsty places and then export them long distances.  For example, water from an ecosystem in Northern CA is transported to Southern CA to grow alfalfa (approx 70,588 liters of water per bale).  The alfalfa is then shipped to place like Japan where it is fed to high-end beef, which is then shipped back to USA.  When water is massively shipped out of an area, the ecosystem is disrupted, natural habitat is damaged, biodiversity is reduced and aquifers dried.  Our soil is eroding and the earth is desertifying because of overgrazing, winds and flooding which damages the top layer of the earth, hardening it so that rainwater cannot soak into the ground.  In addition, deforestation is a major contributor to soil erosion; there are no tree roots to absorb and hold the water on the land, which indirectly causes flash floods and a plethora of other environmental issues.  The health of the world’s ecosystems is presently so threatened that it is in society’s best interest to promote regional environmental flow management for freshwater sustainability 6)Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170

Water is fast becoming a high-stakes business where there is money to be made everywhere you look, as is evidenced by the USA’s trend towards bottled water.  It is hard to believe that just a little more than a decade ago the thought of buying bottled water seemed ludicrous.  Now bottled water is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.  The average price for bottled water is $2 per liter verses approximately .0005 cents at the tap – and there is really no difference.  The long-term effect of the bottled water industry’s taking of waters from one region and shipping it elsewhere thereby dehydrating that area has yet to be fully realized.  One truly arresting sign that our relationship to water is shifting in fundamental ways, comes not from the world of science or climatology, not from United Nations officials or aid workers desperately trying to get water to people in developing countries.  It comes from businesses; water management is fast becoming a key strategic tool.  Companies are starting to gather information that lets them measure not just their water use and their water costs but also their water efficiency, and  productivity, how much work they get from a gallon of water, how much revenue, how much profit.7)A Sea Of Dollars, Charles Fishman

Currently the laws of most nations are not sufficient to protect the water resources and or their government is corrupt; consequently, one day, perhaps within our lifetime, every drop of water will be privately owned.  The private drinking water business is a $4.3 billion per year business.  Private water companies own about 16% of the nation’s community water systems, producing some 4.6 billion gallons of water a day, about 1.7 trillion gallons per year.  There are ten publicly traded water utility companies and nearly 73 million Americans receive water service from a privately owned water utility or a municipal utility operating under a public-private partnership.  In addition, 20% of all wastewater utilities in the U.S., about 4,200 facilities, are privately owned 8)http://www.nawc.org/resources/documents/pwsp-quick-facts.html.  Modern day management of water supplies and systems could be considered the “New Colonialism” creating scenarios whereby clean water will only be available to those who can afford its cost.  The WTO (World Trade Organization) is conquering nations thru trade rules and restrictions, setting up the paradigm for water’s privatization.  Many governments have handed the impending global water crises over to private companies with no clear-cut rules or performance guaranties for water quality.  These private water companies see the pollution of water as securing their positions.  The World Bank, which is supposed to help underdeveloped nations develop by pooling the monies of developed nations and making loans, has begun working with the private water companies by relieving a nation’s debt for water privatization.  Suez, headquartered in Paris, France, has privatized the water in Buenos Aires Argentina, as well as Las Vegas NV, New York NY, Riverside CA, Houston TX and Atlanta GA.  Veolia, also headquartered in Paris, France, has privatized the water in Puerto Rico, Santiago Chile as well as Chicago IL, New Orleans LA, Grand Canyon AZ and Tampa FL.  RWE Thames, headquartered in Reading, Berkshire, UK, has privatized the water in Jakarta Indonesia as well as Seattle WA, Pittsburgh PA and Buffalo NY.  Nestle which owns Perrier, Poland springs,  Ice Mountain and quite a few other labels is a potential buyer of the Great Lakes, the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total surface and volume.9)Blue Gold – a film by Sam Bozzo  One cant help but wonder where we are as a “civilization” if money is more important than water?

At the start of this century, the wars have been about oil, but by the end, they will be about water.  Eventually the water crises will affect us all.  The population continues to increase and the water supply continues to decrease.  It is an inevitable necessity that existing political and economic systems be challenged by the Nation’s citizens.  The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization are all instrumental in comodifying water, which initially affects undeveloped nations but will eventually affect us all.  Further, of the near 50,000 dams worldwide, many are obsolete and or provide less benefit to humans than damage to the environment and biodiversity.  The only way that these dams will be decommissioned is through grassroots activism.  On an individual scale, many simple solutions will collectively have short and long-term effects.  Of course, conservation is key, but beyond that, growing your own crops or purchasing locally grown crops not only supports your community, but also indirectly reduce carbon emissions and demands from industrial farms.  Know your water shed, where your water comes from and how it is delivered to you.  Know where your wastewater goes and how it is treated.  It is frightening to realize that in many US communities waste-waters are treated and pumped back into the consumable water supply, reemerging again from the tap.

Bottom line, the civilized world’s relationship to water is rapidly shifting, at this point, not for the better.  Eventually the devices that clean water, making it consumable will dramatically increase in value as water supply and quality diminish.

 

SOURCES:

  • Blue Gold – a film by Sam Bozzo
  • Native American Northeast Give and Take – TBS
  • Water and Waste Utilities of the World,ABSEnergy Research
  • Water Markets, Licenses, and Conservation: Some Implications, Johannus Janmaat
  • National Geographical Society Freshwater Initiative
  • The Nature Conservancy: Rivers andLakesInitiatives
  • Conservation International: Safeguarding Freshwater
  • Living with dams: managing the environmental impacts, Matthew McCartney
  • Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170
  • Tapping the oceans, Economist;6/7/2008

 

 

References   [ + ]

1, 9. Blue Gold – a film by Sam Bozzo
2, 3. Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170
4. Living with dams: managing the environmental impacts, Matthew McCartney
5. Tapping the oceans, Economist;6/7/2008
6. Freshwater Biology (2010) 55, 147–170
7. A Sea Of Dollars, Charles Fishman
8. http://www.nawc.org/resources/documents/pwsp-quick-facts.html

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