As the world obsesses about peak oil and invests collosal resources in alternative energy, a much more basic commodity is in chronic short supply all over the world, water. There have been many wars fought over oil, and now experts predict that water wars are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country. The world’s biggest rivers, the Amazon, the Nile, the Tigris, the Zambezi, the Mekong and the Red River, are a few cases in point.
Just like oil, water is a resource long squandered, growing expensive, and soon to be overwhelmed by insatiable demand.
60 years ago the world’s population was 2.5 billion. By 2000 that had risen to 6 billion, it’s 7 billion today and is expected to be 9 billion by 2050. In part this population explosion was made possible by the development of new crop breeds, fertilisers and irrigation. But the more food that is needed to feed the ever growing population the more water, fresh water, is needed for farming.
70% of the world’s water consumption is in agriculture. In the United States 41% goes to farming, in China it’s nearly 70%, while in India it’s almost 90%.
Industry uses a lot of water taking 22% of the world’s withdrawals, while domestic activities take the other 8%.
According to the Economist, farmers’ increasing demand for water is caused not only by the gorwing numer of mouths to be fed but also by people’s desire for better-tasting, more interesting food. Unfortunately, it takes nearly twice as much water to grow a kilo of peanuts as a kilo of soyabeans, nearly four times as much to produce a kilo of beef as a kilo of chicken, and nearly five times as much to produce a glass of orange juice as a cup of tea. With 2 billlion people around the world about to enter the middle classes, the agricultural demands on water would increase even if the population stood still.
It takes 1,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of wheat, and 13,000 litres to produce 1kg of beef.
97% of the total water on earth is the sea, but that’s salty and of no use for consumption or irrigation. There is a process called desalinisation but it’s extremely expensive and inefficient.
Of the 3% of water that is not salty, about 70% is frozen, either at the Poles in glaciers or in permafrost. So all living things, except those in the sea, have less than •75% of the total to survive.
Most of the available water is underground, in aquifers or similar formations. The rest is falling as rain, sitting in lakes and reservoirs or flowing in rivers where is is replaced by rainfall and melting snow and ice.
But its not a hopeless cause. If your car runs out of petrol, you have used a tankful. The petrol has been broken down and will not soon be reconstituted. But if you drain a tank of water for your shower, have you used it? Yes, in a sense. But could it not be collected to invigorate the plants in your garden? And will some of it not then seep into the ground to refill an aquifer, or perhaps run into a river, from either of which someone else may draw it? This water has been used, but not in the sense of rendered incapable of further use.
Water is a commodity whose value varies according to locality, purpose and circumstances. Take locality first. Water is not evenly distributed – just nine countries account for 60% of all available fresh supplies – and among them only Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Congo, Indonesia and Russia have an abundance. America is relatively well off, but China and India, with over a third of the world’s population between them, have less than 10% of its water.
But, you say, we have no issues with water shortage in Ireland surely? You would be wrong. Dublin for instance must find a new water source by about 2016 if there are not be shortages. The Dublin region for water purposes covers Dublin city and county, together with large parts of counties Kildare, Wicklow and Meath.
Future needs are expected to be met by a combination of new sources, conservation, rainwater harvesting, and the use of grey water for non consumption purposes. Leakage from the system is still a problem, though between 1998 and 2002 leakage was reduced from 40% to 30%.
Three options are being considered for new sources:
– Lough Rea & Lough Derg on the Shannon;
– linking the Upper Liffey with the Barrow;
– a desalinisation plant in Fingal.
The latter seems a highly improbable runner.
Draining the Shannon has been a political hot potatoe since the founding of the State, though less so in recent decades. Expect it to become a hot potatoe again real soon. Because while extensive flooding still occurs every winter, last winter having been the worst in many decades, people in the Shannon basin now recognise that water, even excess water, has a real value, when someone else needs it, and Dublin needs it. In fact 7 of the 10 options being considered involve the transfer of water from the Shannon to the greater Dublin area, and most of them appear to be imminently sensible.
There is a brilliant website set up by the Dublin Region Water Supply Project and it is really worth a visit. CLICK HERE and amaze your friends with your deep knowledge of this complex but fascinating subject.
But Dublin’a issues, though serious, are of no consequence compared to other parts of the world. Only 1% of the fresh water in the world is usable without treatment, so that 1 billion people lack access to reliable, safe drinking water. About 2.6 billion people do not have lavatories or other forms of sanitation. Some experts predict that by 2015 two-thirds of the world’s people will live in water-stressed countries.
As the Economist concludes, "Throughout history man’s dependence on water has made him live near it or organise access to it. Water is in his body – it makes up 60% -and in his soul."
So the next time you are enjoying a summer barbeque, remember it probably took up to 5,000 litres of water to produce the burger and bun!
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June 23rd 2010