Wednesday, September 02, 2015

An overview of the water challenge

Journalist Charles Fishman is a water optimist in The Big Thirst: the Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. This is a fascinating book and, contrary to what one might expect in a season of collapsarian nightmares, an encouraging one. Yes, the ways we have managed water have been naive and wasteful, but in this telling, people and water should be able to arrive at an equilibrium that permits and enhances life.

But before we even can think about how we interact with water, most of us need a better idea what we are talking about.

... for all our intimacy with water, we actually know almost nothing about it -- about water itself. Water is as potent in our daily lives as gravity, but also as mysterious.

For most of us, even the most basic questions about water turn out to be stumpers.

Where did the water on Earth come from?

Is water still being created or added somehow?

How old is the water coming out of the kitchen faucet? ...

His answers are mind expanding:

  • .... all the water on Earth was delivered here when Earth was formed or shortly thereafter. The water around us is original equipment -- it was included with the planet itself, in the first 100 million years or so. There is, in fact, no mechanism on Earth for creating or destroying large quantities of water. What we've got is what's been here, literally, forever.
  • All the water on Earth came from space in exactly the form it's in now. ... Water not only came from space, it was created out in space. It is, in fact cosmic juice, formed hundreds of millions, or even billions, of years before the solar system itself.
  • [Scientists] pointed the ISO telescope at Orion, a constellation that is quite easy to spot with the naked eye on a clear night. ... "What we found was that there is enough water being formed sufficient to fill all the Earth's oceans every twenty-four minutes." As the stars [being formed] coalescence and collapse in on themselves, they send shock waves out through the clouds of gas, which contain lots of loose hydrogen and oxygen. When the shock waves slam the hydrogens and oxygens into each other, they often form water. ...
  • All the water on Earth -- the thunderheads, the snow-covered ski slopes, Old Faithful, and the current of the Mississippi River -- started out as the finest mist, the smallest ice cubes, drifting around inside of an interstellar cloud.

And then this water somehow becomes compressed into rock forming a band within the earth's core, but you'll have to read that explanation yourself.

Having given us a primer on the nature of water, Fishman goes on to provide a series of descriptive discussions of how various cities, regions and countries have managed water, well and poorly. These include Las Vegas, which from a water availability point of view ought not to exist out there in the desert, but which is actually managing relatively competently. (Friends of mine take a different view of that management than Fishman; more here.)

There's such a thing as too much water: in 2008 Hurricane Ike flooded Galveston and knocked out the city's systems. Restoring them provided many lessons.

These days we may think of California as the epicenter of drought experience, but Australia has suffered far more and learned much about how to provide water to a modern, industrial civilization when natural cycles and climate change turn a continent dry.

The Indian subcontinent deals with water distribution in ways that seem both profoundly counterintuitive and inequitable. Fishman provides a frightening description of how a wealthy, modern society can fail to tend and extend a modern water system as a consequence of historical and cultural attitudes.

From there, Fishman moves on to discuss how international capitalism is developing and exploiting water's marketability, costs and potential profits.

To be honest, this story is frightening. Yet I come away understanding why Fishman is an optimist. Providing water to humans and other living beings both adequately and efficiently is a social challenge, both political and moral. But we know a lot about what could be done if we would just create the context in which to do it. This challenge is about moving from understanding to action. Fishman concludes:

Many civilizations have been crippled or destroyed by an inability to understand water or manage it. We have a huge advantage over the generations of people who have come before us, because we can understand water and we can use it smartly.

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