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pressure on water resources

a briefing document

New translation, the Magna Carta

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Pressure on water resources is part of a series of briefing documents on housing and making living systems ecological.
This grouping is contained within a set of documents on global concerns at abelard.org
comparing fertility rates and populations in europe and beyond tragedy of the commons land conservation and food production On housing and making living systems ecological
sustainable manufacture GDP and other quality of life measurements ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources global warming briefing documents
pressure on water resources power, ownership and freedom energy briefing documents
the growing trouble with water

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When the Rivers Run Dry - book review

the growing trouble with water

Growing populations, lower crops, hydro-electricity stress....

  • China

    “Water levels in the upper reaches of the Yellow River, China's second longest, have hit a historic low, Xinhua news agency said on Tuesday, after a senior official warned that China might run out of water by 2030.”

    “ With the country trying to clean up its air and cut back dependence on fossil fuels, low water levels cause another problem by denting hydropower generating capacity.

    “In October, water levels at key hydropower reservoirs nationwide were down 12 percent from a year earlier, meaning China was likely to rely more on dirty-burning coal and oil powered plants for its electricity supplies.”

    The article fails to mention the enormous water engineering for agriculture, a major cause of the Yellow River dry-out.

  • Australia

“The drought gripping Australia could be the worst in 1,000 years, government officials said on Tuesday, as Australia started to draw up emergency plans to secure long-term water supplies to towns and cities.

“The drought affecting more than half of Australia's farmlands, already lasting more than five years, had previously been regarded as the worst in a century.

“But officials from the Murray-Darling river basin commission told a water summit of national and state political leaders on Tuesday that analyses of the current prolonged drought now pointed to the driest period in 1,000 years.”

  • Africa

    “ "Climate change is melting a legendary ice field in equatorial Africa and may soon thaw it out completely, threatening fresh water supplies to hundreds of thousands of people, a climate expert said on Thursday.

    “The fabled, snow-capped Rwenzori mountains -- dubbed the "Mountains of the Moon" in travel brochures -- form part of the Uganda/Democratic Republic of the Congo border and are one of Uganda's top tourist destinations.”

  • East Africa

    “Projections for rain-fed areas in East Africa -- already suffering damaging drought and hunger -- point to potential productivity losses of up to 33 percent in maize and more than 20 percent for sorghum.

    “Accelerated glacial melt would lead to rising sea levels and loss of river delta systems, which coupled with low rainfall, would threaten major food systems in South Asia and Egypt.

    “ "We estimate that in the next 25 years the number of people living in water-stressed countries will up from around 800 million to 3 billion people," the report's author Kevin Watkins told reporters.

    “ "We argue that we are heading for an entirely predictable humanitarian catastrophe," Watkins said.”


Glaciers act as water reserves, steadily feeding rivers during summers.

    “But a government think-tank said glaciers on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, which account for nearly half of China's total glacier coverage, were shrinking at a rate of 7 percent a year, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.” [Quoted from planetark.org]

The Mendenhall Glacier in 1937   The Mendenhall Glacier in 2006
The Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska, in 1937
Image credit: Bradford Washburn/ Courtesy Panopticon Gallery
  The Mendenhall Glacier,Juneau, Alaska, in 2006
Image credit: David Arnold

“[...] Answering those questions is far from some abstract exercise. Were Greenland to lose its covering tomorrow, the worldís seas would jump about 20 feet, drowning nearly every major coastal city on earth.

“Even if a disaster of this proportion is not in the cards, in the past decade melting began to accelerate ominously. The area now actively melting - approximately half of Greenlandís entire ice cap - is twice what it was in 1992. The amount of fresh water entering the ocean is triple what it was a decade ago. Last year Greenland lost 52 cubic miles of ice, according to NASA measurements, and though that is only a tiny fraction of the ice capís total of nearly 600,000 cubic miles, the rate is increasing. As the meltwater drips down to the bedrock, it lubricates the movement of ice sheets toward the sea. The Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier, on the islandís eastern coast, is now moving twice as fast as it was in 2002. To the south of Kangerdlugssuaq, the Helheim Glacier slides about 110 feet a day. Researchers reported this spring that the speed and intensity generates noticeable earthquakes, or "glacial quakes." And some scientists quietly worry that a dramatic collapse of the ice cap could result in huge amounts of water draining into the ocean.”

More on the melting of glaciers.

    “Reservoirs are now at 38.9 percent of capacity and 0.1 percent below the minimum they reached last year at the end of the worst drought on record.

    “ "This is the lowest since 1996," an Environment Ministry spokeswoman said.

    “Spain typically suffers cycles of drought -- defined as below average rainfall -- lasting several years.

    “ "The droughts of the 1980s and 1990s were more serious than this one has been so far because they affected more of the country," the spokeswoman added.

    “Drinking water reservoirs are now only 30.9 percent full, compared with a 10-year average of 45.9 percent, while hydroelectric reserves are at 55.4 percent of capacity." ”


  • Brazil

    Reduced rainfall & deforestation in the Amazon.

  • “Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, and the entire eastern region of the state are suffering the worst drought in more than a century. A government scientist who calls it an "atypical" drought says it is chiefly caused by warmer ocean temperatures.”

    “Amazonian deforestation and fires account for more than 75 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions and place it among the top four contributors to global climate change, Greenpeace says.”

This last is a dodgy claim, partly because it is much more complicated than that.

mongabay.com says that the area of Amazonian deforestation since 1970 is more than the area of France and more than twice the area of the UK.

  • China - deforestation impact on water

    “In a paper soon to be published in Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture: An Update (Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Greenhouse Gases and Animal Agriculture), Khalil and his Portland State colleague Martha J. Shearer point out that China has produced much of the world's rice for many decades, yet for the past 30 years, the area devoted to rice agriculture in that country has fallen from about 37 million hectares to a little more than 27 million. Khalil and Shearer further note that in these rice paddies nitrogen-based fertilizer has to a large extent replaced animal manure or "night soil" (human wastes). This change in how rice is grown in China reduces the amount of methane given off. What is more, these rice farmers are using less water than they did before—another change in agricultural practice that has the unintended side benefit of reducing methane emissions.

    “Clearly, it will be some time before atmospheric scientists are able to quantify with great certainty the changing sizes of the various sources of methane. But as Khahil says, it's important to get at least a crude handle on what is going on for the purpose of shaping policy: "You don't want to try to control something that's already going down.”
    “[...] they note that "severe anthropogenic deforestation has considerably reduced tropical biomass over the past decades," suggesting that this "reduced biomass has probably contributed to the recent decrease in the atmospheric growth rate of CH4 concentration." That is to say, cutting down rain forest might have reduced the atmospheric methane burden."”


  • Any biomass production will, over time, reach equilibrium. Here are some alternatives concerning wood biomass - forests.

    1. strip a forest and burn it. This generates more carbon.
    2. strip the forest to make furniture and regrow the forest. This way, there is less carbon.
    3. grow biomass (and/or process it) and you are likely to burn fossil fuels, and make nitrogen products which also use fossil fuels, and add nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas.

    Time factors are essential for understanding - that is, burning a forest and regrowing it is carbon neutral over time. A mature forest is also carbon neutral over time.

related material
global warmingreturn to the index

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce Four GoldenYak award

This is a book that has been necessary for the past several years, at last it has been hacked together. The writing can be lumbering at times, and there is a distinct lack of organisation and coherent numbers; though many numbers can be found distributed rather randomly around the text. Hence, only four GoldenYaks have been awarded. However, this book is recommended reading for any basic ecology course.

It covers the major problems with the misuse of water around the planet, from grandiose schemes, to poverty, to beggar-my-neighbour water capture, all resulting in depleted ecologies.

The book hops around from the drying of the Aral Sea to feed King Cotton, the destruction of the Iraqi marshlands to serve Madsam’s ambitions, the unsustainable mining of aquifers around the world, the profligate waste of water by much of world farming, the salination of soils through thoughtless irrigation schemes, and much else.

“The water 'footprint' of Western countries on the rest of the world deserves to become a serious issue. Whenever you buy a T-shirt made of Pakistani cotton, eat Thai rice or drink coffee from Central America, you are influencing the hydrology of those regions - taking a share of the River Indus, the Mekong or the Costa Rican rains. You may be helping rivers run dry.

“Economists call the water involved in the growing and manufacture of products traded round the world 'virtual water'. In this terminology, every tonne of wheat arriving at a dockside carries with it in virtual form the thousand tonnes of water needed to grow it. The global virtual water trade is estimated to be around a thousand cubic kilometres a year, or twenty River Niles. Of that, two-thirds is in a huge range of crops from grains to vegetable oil, sugar to cotton a quarter is in meat and dairy products; and just a tenth in industrial products. That means that nearly a tenth of all the water used in raising crops goes into the international virtual-water trade. This trade 'moves water in volumes and over distances beyond the wildest imaginings of water engineers', says Tony Allan of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, who invented the term 'virtual water'.

“The biggest net exporter of virtual water is the USA. It exports around a third of all the water it withdraws from the natural environment. Much of that is in grains, either directly or via meat. The USA is emptying critical underground water reserves, such as those beneath the High Plains, to grow grain for export. It also exports an amazing 100 cubic kilometres of virtual water in beef. Other major exporters of virtual water inc1ude Canada (grain), Australia (cotton and sugar), Argentina (beef) and Thailand (rice).

“Major importers of virtual water include Japan and the European Union. None of these countries is short of water, so there are ethical questions about how much they should be doing this. But for other importers virtual water is a vital lifeline. Iran, Egypt and Algeria could starve otherwise; likewise, water-stressed Jordan, which effectively imports between 80 and 90 per cent of its water in the form of food. 'The Middle East ran out of water some years ago. It is the first major region of the world to do so in the history of the world,' says Allan. He estimates that more water flows into the Middle East each year as a result of imports of 'virtual water' than flows down the River Nile.

“While many nations relieve their water shortages by importing virtual water, some exacerbate their problems by exporting it. Israel and arid southern Spain both export water in tomatoes; Ethiopia, in coffee. Mexico's virtual-water exports are emptying its largest water body, Lake Chapala, which is the main source of water for its second city, Guadalajara.” [pp.23-24]

Monumental waste is the central story of this book:

“ "[...] In L.A., we receive half we need in rainfall, and we throw it away. Then we spend hundreds of millions to import water, "[ ...] ” [p.330]

marker at abelard.org

“[...] In most of the world’s cities - from London to Nairobi to Shanghai - between a third and a half of all water put into the mains disappears through leaks before reaching its customers. [...]” [p.344]

related material
the rapidly growing clash between food, biofuels and water
land conservation and food production, briefing document

When the rivers run dry by Fred Pearce

When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce,
2006, Eden Books,Transworld, 1903919576

£12.53 [amazon.co.uk] {advert} / amazon.com

return to the index

Related further reading
population GDP and other quality of life measurements
sustainable manufacture power, ownership and freedom
tragedy of the commons energy briefing documents
ecologically collapsing and retrenching civilisations: written sources
land and conservation and food production

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the address for this document is https://www.abelard.org/briefings/water_resources.php

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