Archive for the ‘water’ Category
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy - and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
With my thanks to 350.org for alerting me to this piece of news:
As reported in the Washington Post newspaper recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is warning that by 2030 nearly half the world’s population could be facing a scarcity of water, with demand outstripping supply by 40 percent.
For those of us in the grip of unseasonally cold weather this may seem hard to grasp but, this is where we are heading. However, even without climate change, providing enough water for everybody would be difficult. Climate change will just make it near impossible.
I happened to turn on the BBC News TV channel over the weekend and caught the tail-end of the video below – entitled India’s Water Crisis. However, upon investigation, I discovered this had been first broadcast over six months ago. If you have not seen this, I really do think you should watch it. It is only 22 minutes long but, if even that would be a challenge, you could watch and listen to this 3-minute audio slide show on the BBC website instead.
As part of my MA, I researched the water supply problems China faces in the Yellow River basin, which I summarised on my blog last year (starting here). In this video, narrated and presented by Jill McGivering, we see a depressingly-familiar picture unfolded in graphic detail; regarding India’s most sacred river – the Ganges: For example, at Varanasi, the River Ganges is now one of the most polluted rivers in the World – due to the amounts of untreated sewage, industrial effluent, and cremated bodies that are being continually put into it there. The latter is an issue that I touched upon over a year ago (in ‘The pollution of death’ [14 December 2011]).
The problems the above practices cause are compounded by the fact that the flow in the Ganges is kept very low as a result of the amount of water abstracted from it in order to provide water for cities like India’s capital – New Delhi.
Meanwhile, the groundwater table in rural areas is falling faster than it has ever been known to in the past – not really that surprising given that it is being abstracted faster than ever – because there are more people living in India than ever before.
People who say population growth in the developing world is a non-problem need to watch this video; stop trying to pick a fight with history and science; and start dealing with the nature of reality: All our environmental problems are limits to growth phenomena; and we will not begin to solve them until ideologically-prejudiced economists, politicians, religious leaders – and unduly optimistic people everywhere – stop denying the nature of reality.
If they do not embrace reality soon, I am seriously concerned about the potential for civil disorder and even war that would seem an almost inevitable consequence of water scarcity such as we now see in rural India; where people are already spending a fifth (20%) of their income on water.
Thanks to Twitter, I was alerted to an online discussion on the Guardian website yesterday, prompted by statements of opinion by Mark Lynas (freelance journalist/author) and Dr David Santillo (Greenpeace Scientist).
As discussed with a commenter on this blog (Lionel) yesterday, I decided to get involved; and to try and contact Dr Santillo personally, via email:
Dear Dr Santillo,
Re: The discussion on the Guardian website today regarding Fracking
I am 100% opposed to fracking; but I think Greenpeace should move on from discussing the possible immediate environmental risks of doing it. Hence the comment that I posted earlier.
When will environmentalists stop arguing about whether fracking is inherently dangerous (because of its immediate and localised impacts when poorly engineered and/or executed)… and start focusing on the fact that it is intrinsically dangerous (because we need to stop finding evermore esoteric and unconventional fossil fuel sources to exploit)…?
Apart from this, whilst I would not want to condone the way in which at least one commenter on the Guardian website today has questioned the relevance of your background, this does beg the question as to whether Greenpeace could make use of someone with my qualifications and experience?
Yours hopefully, etc..
Having failed to get a response, I telephoned Greenpeace today, and was referred to a Press Release published on their website yesterday, which is indeed very interesting – because it includes information obtained via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. ‘Greenpeace on lifting of fracking moratorium’ is worth reading in full but, if you are short of time, here are the highlights:
- Fracking is a dangerous fantasy.
- Just because it may be viable in the US does not mean it will be viable here.
- Energy analysts agree that shale gas will do little or nothing to lower bills.
- It is a massive gamble and consumers and the climate will end up paying the price.
Greenpeace FOI requests have established that, as early as last Spring, the Environment Agency issued a high-level briefing to the Prime Minister regarding their concerns of threats to drinking water near proposed fracking sites in Sussex. Clearly, such concerns have been trumped by the climate change sceptics and/or economic rationalists in the Conservative Party.
A full Greenpeace briefing on fracking can be found here: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/document/shale-gas-silver-bullet.
UPDATE: 17 Dec 2012 – Greenpeace UK also advised me to keep an eye on their Energydesk page – for updates on all things related to UK energy policy.
I must thank fellow-blogger Paul Handover for alerting me to – and not posting on his own Learning from Dogs blog – the strange and disturbing real-life story of a man in Oregon who has been sent to jail for a month for collecting rain that fell on his property. When Paul first emailed me about this, I must admit my initial response was one of astonishment. “Whatever next”, I said, “will someone be arrested for sunbathing?”
However, when you read the background to the story, it turns out that the man has been sent to jail as a result of legal action started ten years ago by the Medford Water Commission (MWC), who have argued (successfully it would appear) that the rain falling from the sky within their catchment area belongs to them. Their case rested upon the wording of a State law (dating from 1925) that granted to the MWC full ownership of – and rights to – the water. This makes me wonder whether similar laws have been enacted in other States of the USA but, since I live in the UK, I will leave that to others to investigate…
This may seem ridiculous and insane; and to be even more absurd than people arguing about who owns the land – as Crocodile Dundee (the alter-ego of Australian comedian Paul Hogan) famously equated to being “like fleas arguing about who owns the dog…” However, I think it raises some very important questions.
In rural parts of the USA, it is my understanding that, as the land was settled by early pioneers they were granted ownership of land and the groundwater beneath it on a first-come, first-served basis. In his book, Collapse, Jared Diamond painted a very vivid picture of how this policy has run into trouble in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley area of southwest Montana: As it becomes increasingly over-populated there is – quite simply – not enough water to go around. However, I was not aware that government agencies at City, County, State or Federal level might be able to claim prior ownership of atmospheric water vapour before it actually falls to Earth because they need it to suppress fires. It may well be that the City of Medford is unique (or at least very unusual) but what of the important questions this raises…? Well, perhaps the situation in the UK will make these clearer:
Rightly or wrongly, Margaret Thatcher privatised the business of water supply and drainage back in the 1980’s. Prior to that Water Authorities were public institutions. However, whether they were publicly-owned or – as now – private enterprises, the fact remains that the vast majority of UK citizens do not have access to a private water supply (i.e. stream, spring, well, or borehole) – they rely on it being supplied to them. Furthermore, most abstractions from either surface or groundwater for domestic purposes are exempt from licensing (although it is likely this will change in the future as over-licensed and/or over-abstracted resources become more common).
Therefore, if citizens expect their water supply to be provided to them, it is understandable that the relevant water authority will seek to protect its ability to collect rainfall or groundwater and, if so, for others to collect it would indeed become a form of poaching.
It seems to me that this story plays into the hands of those libertarians and climate sceptics who want us all to worry about an over-bearing State (i.e. an autocratic government that seeks to control every aspect of our lives and limit our freedom)… or a dangerous and exploitative monopoly making huge profits out of selling people things that are essential for life (i.e. what will be next – sunshine and clean air?)…
However, if libertarians were to win every argument, Garret Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ outcome would be guaranteed. Hardin used the analogy of medieval commons owned by nobody but used to graze animals by everybody. In such a situation, Hardin suggested, each individual seeking to maximise their own benefit will place more and more animals on the commons unless or until it becomes over-grazed and useless. However, the best modern day analogy would be fish in the sea: No-one owns them but if we over-fish them, they will disappear… After over half a century, the European Union (EU) has still to resolve this problem: It tried to claim common ownership of the seas – and make fishing a common market but it has spent much of the last 50 years rolling-back on this principle. As such, we have ended-up with the absurdity of the EU dictating who can fish where and when and for how long; with quotas for individual boats; and dead fish being thrown back into the sea.
So then, the Oregon man has in effect been jailed for poaching. You could see this as a very dangerous precedent to set or… You could argue that the only alternative is no centralised provision of forest fire-fighting or water supply; because this will not be possible if everyone decides to catch and use all the rain that falls on their property.
As I said many months ago now:
When you live in a wilderness, it is probably safe to treat a passing river as your source of drinking water, washing room, and toilet. However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Mumbai slum, this will almost certainly contribute to causing your premature death.
If we ever did, most of us do not live in a wilderness any longer; and, given that an environment’s capacity to support life determines how many people it can support, even one person in a desert could make it over-populated. Therefore:
When the early European settlers of North America began to move west in search of new lands and new opportunities, a Frontier mentality was understandable. However, to retain such an attitude today is socially unacceptable and morally irresponsible.
Humanity today has a choice: We must either recognise that there are ecological limits to the number of humans the Earth can physically cope with (especially if we are all going to live comfortably); or we will have those limits imposed on us by force: Collapse or Ecocide – which will it be?…
Or do we have a third choice – survival? I hope the jury is still out on that one.
I must admit that I am rather fond of quoting Sir Arthur Eddington as having once said, “…if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.” Without quibbling over the detail, the Law of Conservation of Mass is pretty darn close; but what, you may ask, has this got to do with climate change denial?
Conservation of mass of water
Well, consider for a moment that scientists seem to agree that there has been a 4% increase in the average moisture content of the Earth’s atmosphere since 1970. That being the case, I am bound to say that this extra 4% is making its presence felt in the UK at the moment! This year we have had the wettest 3 months (April – June) in over 100 years; the wettest June on record; the rain is still falling (sometimes as much as 80mm in a day); and – we are now being told – there is no change anticipated in coming weeks. So, if you’re coming over for the Olympics, expect to get wet!
However, whilst the UK suffers from near Biblical levels of flooding, if the Law of Conservation of Mass is to be upheld and – all other things like terrestrial ice volume remaining equal(!) – the volume of water in the oceans is to remain constant, then it must be failing to rain somewhere else. If so, is there any evidence to support this
theory Law? Well, funnily enough, there is: Whilst the UK continues to receive more rain than it wants or needs (all hose pipe bans and drought restrictions have now been lifted), many parts of the World continue to suffer from persistent drought (in sub-Saharan West Africa) and/or record-breaking temperatures (in most of North America).
Sadly, none of this seems to stop self-confessed scientifically-illiterate English graduates such as James Delingpole from ridiculing the entire notion of global warming simply because it is raining a lot here at the moment. It may seem that he has just got a nasty case of tunnel vision and/or short-term memory loss but this is what the fake sceptics always do; they never look at the big picture: Rather than look at daily, monthly, or even annual average temperatures over multi-decadal periods to determine significant long-term trends; they just cherry pick data to reach fallacious conclusions such as “global warming stopped in 1998″.
I am therefore left hoping that the 57% of the British adult population that seem to fall for this kind of nonsense will soon decide that it is time to stop running down the up escalator and, by embracing the reality of what is happening, decide to become part of the solution rather than being part of the problem. If not, climate change denial may well lead to a failure to conserve mass; with the mass in question being the sustainable number of humans this planet can support in the long-term.
Conservation of mass of carbon
If the Law of Conservation of Mass explains why anthropogenic
global warming climate disruption is not invalidated by any amount of cold weather or torrential rainfall in one place; can it be used to validate concern regarding a 40% increase CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere? Funnily enough, it can: Since the Industrial Revolution began in the mid-18th Century, a vast amount of fossilised carbon has been burnt; with the carbon it contained combining with oxygen in the air to form CO2. Note here that the oxygen was in the air anyway; whereas the carbon had been out of circulation for hundreds of millions of years. All this new carbon has to go somewhere and, given that it will be many more millions of years before any of it gets taken back out of circulation by nature, it is either making the atmosphere warm-up or it is reducing the pH of seawater (just enough to make life very difficult for corals and shellfish).
So then, what is the human response to all this? Shall we stop burning the fossil fuels now we know we’re causing a problem? It doesn’t look like it! It seems far more likely that we shall gamble the future habitability of all the planets diverse ecosystems on finding a way to defeat the Law of Conservation of Mass by artificially removing this carbon from the biosphere: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). And do you know what I find most astonishing about CCS? It is the fact that our governments are spending huge sums of money on long-term tests to simulate the effects of CO2 leaking from a submarine CCS repository – to see if it has any noticeable effects on marine life?
Errr, hello-oh? If any CO2 ever escapes from any CCS repository, the entire exercise will have been a complete waste of time and money! The CO2 will be back in circulation and the Law of Conservation of Mass will have won (again). If the genie will not stay in the bottle we will all be in big trouble: Rather than being likely to “collapse in deepest humiliation”; such a failure to defeat the Law of Conservation of Mass will probably result in the collapse of the entire planetary ecosystem; because of our other big problem – the Law of Conservation of Energy: The reason the atmosphere is warming up in the first place; more energy is coming in from the Sun than is getting out into Space!
So, this year’s weather should be a wake-up call to all of us: Irrespective of the actual kind of extreme weather being experienced in any one place, the impacts on agriculture seem to be equally destructive and spiralling food costs the inevitable end result: All just as was predicted by people dismissed for decades as doomsayers: People like Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Dennis Meadows, E.F. Schumacher, William Ophuls, Mathis Wackernagel, Ernest Callenbach, and Lester Brown… It looks like that darn ‘wolf’ finally showed up!
Funnily enough, it turns out that a doubling in the size of the global human economy every 50 years is not sustainable after all; and worshipping at the Temple of the God of Growth has got us in some serious trouble; otherwise known as a global debt crisis (see the short video embedded below). We thought we could just lend imaginary money to each other indefinitely but someone blinked and the spell was broken. Sadly, it turns out the Emperor was naked after all; it’s just a shame that by the time we realised this we were all completely sold on the latest fashion ourselves: The New Clothes are everywhere; and we have all been left looking for fig leaves to cover our genitals.
Just as The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al) predicted all those years ago, the Earth is running out of the ability to cope with the effects of our chronically dysfunctional mis-management of it. This was why, as I pointed out six months ago, the failure of food harvests in 2010 led to the Arab Spring of 2011… Are you, like me, wondering what is going to happen this time around? My prediction is that some economist such as Tim Worstall will get himself on TV and tell everyone that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a load of old rubbish; and that technology will save us from the consequences of our selfish pursuit of profit at any cost; and from our failure to recognise that we humans are not superior to nature – we are part of it – and we cannot survive without it. Or, to put it another way, as a Native American tribal leader once did:
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
This is the fourth and final part of my 5000-word essay (researched and written in March 2011) on the water resource problems being encountered within the Yellow River catchment of northern China as a consequence of ongoing climate change. Having looked at the problems being experienced within different parts of the catchment, I now begin to consider whether and how these may be solved. (A situation update is appended after the list of References.)
The problem (of demand exceeding the capacity of the groundwater and surface water system to supply) is far from being solved. In 2009, Benewick and Donald used data supplied by the Chinese Government to conclude that 50% of China’s population lives in the arid northern half of the country but is reliant on 15% of the available water (2009: 60). They also indicated that 3 large-scale water transfer projects were either under construction or consideration; and that the first of these (from the mouth of the Yangtze to the North China Plain) should now be operational (2009: 61).
However, WANG et al have studied the Yellow River in some detail; including interviewing farmers in numerous villages throughout Hebei, Henan and Ningxia provinces (2008: 278). Although they acknowledge that the Chinese Government has considered over abstraction of groundwater as a serious problem since at least 1996 (2008: 277), along with many other analysts, they believe the water shortages in northern China are due to slow governmental policy response and/or implementation and/or enforcement (2008: 293).
Thus, WANG et al concluded that the Chinese Government…“has not created the institutions and infrastructure that will provide the incentives required to make farmers save water. We believe a sustainable environment needs to be built on effective water pricing and water rights policies… Although this is a huge job, we believe it will be more effective and much cheaper than…” the proposed south-to-north transfer projects (2008: 293). N.B. The second of these is proposed to take water 1200km from the Three Gorges Dam to Beijing by 2030; and the third to transfer water from the upper reaches of the Yangtze (Tibet Autonomous Region) to those of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) by 2050 (Benewick and Donald 2009: 61).
In 2008, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its Climate Change White Paper, which included the admission that climate change “…arises out of development, and thus should be solved along with development” (CPC 2008).
Therefore, although China is no less wedded to the idea that economic growth is the best means available to eradicate poverty – and may not be much closer to decoupling economic development from environmental degradation – than the rest of us, it is determined to reduce the carbon intensity of its greenhouse gas emissions (i.e. emissions per unit GDP). In essence, faced with the fact that China must feed 20% of the world’s population using 7% of the world’s agricultural land (Benewick and Donald 2009: 43), whilst watching the latter being reduced by desertification etc., the CPC has realised that climate change is a potential threat to its own survival; and is therefore determined to pursue (as per the CCWP) both mitigation and adaptation strategies.
The Yellow River basin is the ancient birthplace of Chinese civilisation; and home to a significant proportion of the current population. It is the source of a large amount of industrial and agricultural enterprise; and the river is also used as a major source of hydroelectric power generation.
The length of the river and the size of the catchment result in a wide range of climatic and vegetation zones, ranging from the high-altitude glaciated valleys of Qinghai Province to the west, to the North China Plain; with the River passing through the very arid Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (between Yinchuan and Hohot) on its way to the sea. As such, although average rainfall across the catchment is nearly 500mm/yr, actual rainfall ranges from in excess of 750mm/yr in the south; to less than 150mm/yr in the north.
The Yellow River basin includes very significant thicknesses of sedimentary rocks and superficial deposits, which form a complex hydrogeological system capable of storing very large volumes of good quality groundwater (where it falls and can be recharged without being evaporated).
With regard to mineral resources, the Yellow River basin contains more than 25% of China’s oil and more than 50% of its coal reserves and, consequently, it is the focus of a considerable amount of industrial activity. As such, the demand for water is very high and, despite the size of the Yellow River, not all of this can be met from surface water (in part due to climatic variations along its length). Therefore, very large volumes of groundwater are also abstracted to meet the demands of both urbanised industrial and domestic water supply. Therefore, in addition to a general excess of demand over supply, pollution of both surface water and groundwater are also serious problems.
Although the Chinese Government has been aware of the problems for many years, existing policy and legislation appear to have had little positive effect. Furthermore, although very considerable sums of money have been spent on large scale water transfer projects, there remains a significant possibility that the real solution lies in better demand management, including market-based solutions to maximise the efficiency of all water use.
In conjunction with continuing improvements in the effectiveness/enforcement of legislation designed to encourage polluter responsibility and/or pollution prevention, it is therefore to be hoped that, in the face of continuing concern over the potential impacts of ongoing climate change, all of this may yet prevent potentially-catastrophic unsustainable use of available water resources.
Benewick, R. and Donald, S. (2009), The State of China Atlas. Berkeley CA: UCP Press.
CPC (2008), White Paper: China’s Policies and Actions on Climate Change. Available at http://www.china.org.cn/government/news/2008-10/29/content_16681689_5.htm [accessed 11/05/2011].
HAN, Zhantao et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater balance and circulation in key areas of the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.59-86.
IPCC (2007), AR4 Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
MATSUOKA, Norikazu et al., (2009), ‘Permafrost and hydrology in the source area of the Yellow River’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.39-57.
MENGXIONG, Chen (2000), ‘Distribution and exploitation of groundwater resources in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.28-37.
MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (2000), ‘Groundwater resources and hydro-environmental problems in China’, in MENGXIONG, Chen and ZUHUANG, Cai, (Eds), Groundwater resources and the related environ-hydrogeologic problems in China. Beijing: Seismological Press, pp.38-44.
Mori, Koji et al., (2009), ‘Large-scale and high-performance groundwater flow modelling and simulation for water resource management in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.131-46.
Muraoka, Hirofumi et al., (2009), ‘Geological model of the Yellow River basin for the long-term groundwater simulation’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.117-30.
Parker, P. (2010), World History. London: Dorling Kindersley.
Tamanyu, Shiro et al., (2009), ‘Geological interpretation of groundwater level lowering in the North China Plain’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.105-15.
Uchida, Youhei et al., (2009), ‘Groundwater quality and stable isotope compositions in the Yellow River basin’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.87-104.
WANG, Jinxia, et al., (2008), ‘Understanding the water crisis in northern China’, in SONG, L. and Woo, China’s Dilemma: Economic Growth, the Environment and Climate Change. Canberra: ANU Press, pp.276-96.
WEN, Dongguang et al., (2009), ‘Outline of the Yellow River basin of China’, in Bulletin of the Geological Survey of Japan, 60 (1/2). Tsukuba: GSJ, pp.9-18.
WWF (2007), ‘Yellow River (Huang He)’ [online], WWF. Available at: http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/about_freshwater/rivers/yellow_river/ [accessed 04/04/2011].
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YRCC (2007b), ‘Strategy for Flood Control of the Yellow River’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/jj_09471025026.html [accessed 06/04/2011].
YRCC (2007c), ‘The History and Main Achievements of Soil and Water Conservation’ [online], Yellow River Conservancy Commission (YRCC). Available at: http://www.yrcc.gov.cn/eng/about_yr/jj_15462525082.html [accessed 08/04/2011].
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In May 2011, the Communist Party of China (CPC) published its 12th Five Year Plan, which re-affirms the principle (first alluded to in the 2008 White Paper) that climate change “arises out of development, and should thus be solved along with development”. Therefore, after decades of insisting that economic development must not be impeded by environmental concerns, the CPC has now officially conceded that climate change is a real problem; that humans are its cause; and that doing nothing is not an option. It must be hoped that the rest of the World will soon do the same; especially since China will probably be one of the last places on Earth to actually stop burning fossil fuels. What we most certainly cannot afford to do is to continue pointing the finger at China and saying “Well if they can burn them then so will I”. Such a childish response does not help anyone; and will guarantee unintended ecocide becomes a reality. In short, it may well be humanity’s epitaph.
This is the third of four posts regarding the Yellow River basin in northern China. Having described the geography and geology (Part 1) and the hydrogeology (Part 2), it is now time to look at the extent to which (a) the system is over-subscribed and (b) climate change is set to make the situation worse.
Overall Resource Assessment
There are nine major multi-purpose projects and hydropower stations constructed on the main stream of the Yellow River; and four under construction. The total capacity of the 13 reservoirs is (or will be) in excess of 56 billion m3; with in excess of 35 billion m3 of effective storage. The total installed capacity is (or will be) just over 9 million KW, with an annual average power generation capacity in excess of 34 billion kWh. This represents approximately 30% of the total capacity of the main stream for both installation and power generation and, as the YRCC point out, in addition to exploiting a latent natural resource this “…also brings tremendous comprehensive benefits in terms of flood control… siltation reduction, irrigation, water supply etc, which plays an important role in promoting national economic development and harnessing the Yellow River” (YRCC 2007d).
In 2000, a collection of research papers by Mengxiong Chen (former chief hydrogeologist within the Ministry of Geology and Mineral Resources) and Zuhuang Cai (a fellow-member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) were published in Beijing in English. Within this volume, MENGXIONG (2000) presents a wealth of statistics for the entire country but, (unfortunately in the present context), not in a way that enables data for the Yellow River Basin as a whole to be extracted. However, he does highlight the fact that many “of the important cities in China… are dependent chiefly on groundwater”; a category in which he includes Xi’an and Baotou. Indeed, after noting that the demand for water in some cities including Xi’an is in excess of 1 million cubic metres per day, he also notes that “the growth of urban population and the rapid development in industry and agriculture, water demand has also increased by 40 times the output in the early 1950s” (MENGXIONG 2000: 35).
Growth in the industrial demand for water appears to be impacting on agriculture because, citing as an example the city of Cangzhou (on the North China Plain but outside the Yellow River Basin), Mengxiong and Zuhuang record that water levels in city wells have dropped 60 metres over recent decades; creating a large cone of depression in the area an leading to the failure of 38% of irrigation wells in the surrounding area (MENGXIONG and ZUHUANG 2000: 43). Therefore, although there is little or no published data for cities within the Yellow River Basin, given that Xi’an and Baotou have been highlighted, it would seem likely that similar problems may exist – or soon develop – in those areas and/or in proximity to other major centres of industrial development such as Lanzhou, Hohot, and Taiyuan.
According to the YRCC, up to the end of 1996, a total investment of 42 billion Yuan had been made by the State government in over 10,000 reservoirs of various sizes; over 33,000 pumping stations; and over 380,000 wells. Numerous irrigation projects have reduced the adverse impact of lower-than-average rainfall (YRCC 2007d).
However, this success has been achieved without regard to the sustainability or otherwise of such increased anthropogenic use of water (see the discussion of Groundwater Modelling results below).
In 1975, the Water Resources Protection Bureau of the Yellow River Basin was set up, which led to the beginnings of water resource protection in the form of water quality monitoring, environmental management, and scientific research. However, according to the YRCC, the water quality monitoring work in the Yellow River Basin actually started in 1972, under the auspices of the Department of Public Health; with the YRCC only formally taking over responsibility for the monitoring on the Yellow River in 1978. However, responsibility for water quality monitoring work on tributaries was transferred to the water conservancy and environment protection bureaux within provincial government (YRCC 2007d).
The major industrial centres within the Yellow River basin are Lanzhou, Yinchuan, Baotou, and Sanmenxia on the main river; and Xining, Taiyuan, Xi’an, Luoyang, and Tai’an on the tributaries (see WEN et al Figure 4 – below). Although population growth has been minimal, continuing urbanisation and the improved living standards have resulted in rapid increases in industrial development and agricultural production. Therefore, despite improved regulation over recent decades, large volumes of untreated industrial effluent continue to be discharged into the Yellow River and its tributaries, having a continued adverse effect on surface water quality (YRCC 2007d).
WEN et al Figure 4 Major cities in Yellow River basin
By the end of 1994, a total of 340 water quality monitoring stations (monitoring at least 40 parameters) and 30 laboratories had been established within the entire catchment. However, it would appear that this monitoring has only served to record a significant increase in effluent being discharged to surface water over time. The YRCC currently acknowledge the existence of at least 300 major pollutant sources on the Yellow River alone and, according to analysis of the 1997 water quality monitoring data, only 17% of the total river length has water of a quality that meets minimum drinking water standards; such that it is restricting economic development of the Yellow River Basin (YRCC 2007d).
Referring to his previous work and that of other fellow-contributors, Mengxiong also states that in more than 40 cities (across China as a whole) groundwater is polluted to varying degrees by harmful substances such as arsenic, chromium, cyanide, fertilisers, insecticides, mercury and phenols; and that such pollution is found in both shallow and deeper aquifers (MENGXIONG 2000: 36).
Having constructed their three-dimensional numerical groundwater flow model, Mori et al first simulated groundwater flow with no human intervention (no abstraction from either river or groundwater) and compared this to data for the upper and lower reaches of the catchment in the 1960s (for which sufficient reliable data are available) and obtained a good correlation with observational data (Mori et al. 2009: 136-40).
Much of the subsequent modelling work undertaken has focussed on the North China Plain, not strictly part of the Yellow River Catchment, because this is where population density and/or groundwater abstraction is greatest. This predicted that, if current abstraction is continued from the deep aquifer, a further drop of 1m per year should be expected. Whereas, if all abstraction were to cease, piezometric levels would recover in about 5 years (Mori et al. 2009: 140-43).
No modelling of future increased abstraction was undertaken. No reason for this is given and, although this may reflect unstated government policy regarding population and/or development control, it is hard to see how a moratorium on all abstraction could last 20 years.
However, as an indicative tool for the analysis of a problem, the results speak for themselves: Current rates of abstraction are unsustainable in the long-term.
Because of frequent droughts affecting flows in the Yellow River basin, government action has been taken at both National and Provincial level to put in place a variety of demand management measures, such as constructing water conservancy projects; improving irrigation efficiency; and soil conservation schemes (as discussed above).
As part of its 11th Five Year Plan (2006-2010) – indeed part of a more widespread acceptance of market economics – the Chinese Government has allowed the price charged for water used to be increased in order to moderate demand (YRCC 2007d).
Tomorrow, in the final part of this presentation of my essay on the subject of the water resources of the Yellow River, I will discuss potential solutions to the problems climate change is causing; and discuss the conclusions that can be drawn from all of the information presented. Furthermore, in addition to providing details of all the references consulted in the process, I will also offer an update on the situation since I wrote this essay in March 2011 (e.g. the 12th Five Year Plan published in November 2011).
This is the second of four posts presenting my research into the ways in which climate change is impacting the environment within the Yellow River basin. Having described the geography and geology in Part 1 (yesterday), this second part looks in detail at the hydrogeology of the three distinct geographic zones within the surface water catchment.
The Tibetan Plateau
Based on observational data and extensive modelling, the IPCC (AR4 2007) has concluded that temperature changes induced by anthropogenic global warming (AGW) have already been – and will continue to be – most pronounced at higher latitudes.
Nevertheless, studies at lower latitudes in China have found evidence of AGW-induced temperature changes at high altitude; where conditions are similar to those nearer sea level at higher latitudes. However, Tibetan mountain permafrost is not as thick as that at high latitudes; and its distribution is highly dependent on slope aspect. Furthermore, irrespective of location, the presence of permafrost – unlike glaciation – is not always readily apparent because it is overlain by a seasonally thawed layer (the active layer) usually less than 3 metres thick (MATSUOKA et al. 2009: 39-40).
A variety of data collected at the Geological Environmental Monitoring Station of Qinghai Province in 2002 suggests groundwater levels are falling; these include the downward migration of spring lines and discharges within alluvial fans; the reduction in valley-bottom areas covered by moorland; the disappearance of thermal springs; and the drop of groundwater levels in densely-populated areas (cited in HAN et al. 2009: 59).
According to Mori et al., who have undertaken a detailed three-dimensional modelling of the entire basin, groundwater resources are limited in the Tibetan Plateau region because there are few sedimentary basin structures to contain them and, therefore, surface water is the main source of water for agricultural and domestic use (Mori et al. 2009: 131).
Major ion studies of the hydrochemistry of groundwater throughout the Yellow River basin have established that bicarbonate type groundwater dominates beneath the Tibetan Plateau; whereas isotope studies (of hydrogen and oxygen) indicate that, in general, most groundwater has been subject to minimal surface evaporation prior to sub-surface percolation (HAN et al. 2009: 66-7). Exceptions to this general rule are highlighted in subsequent sections of this essay. Groundwater in the Yellow River source area (i.e. the Tibetan Plateau) is calcium-bicarbonate type, except for sodium-sulphate type thermal spring water at the provincial capital of Xining (Uchida et al. 2009: 89).
The degradation and/or disintegration of permafrost leads to the deeper percolation of subsurface water. Furthermore, the fact that lake shrinkage has been observed implies that the subsequent reduction in interflow to lakes is greater than any increase in surface runoff from melting glaciers. Based on the results of a two-year intensively instrumented study, it has been concluded that, at current rates of change, the shallow Tibetan mountain permafrost (i.e. where it is currently less than 15m thick now) could thaw completely within 50 years (MATSUOKA et al. 2009: 40-2).
At high altitude, therefore, groundwater circulation is affected by the presence and/or seasonal thawing of permafrost. As such, two separate groundwater systems have been identified; unconfined groundwater in unconsolidated strata; and deeper groundwater in well-fractured bedrock (HAN et al. 2009: 75).
Water balance calculations undertaken by the Geological Survey of Qinghai Province, from 1956-67 and from 1977-99, show that there is only a positive change in water storage in years of high rainfall and low evaporation. Notwithstanding the absence of data for 1968-76, there appears to be a long–term drying trend; with only 4 out of 23 years since 1977 recording a surplus. Furthermore, droughts lasting 2 or 3 years were sufficient to cause no-flow events in 1961, 1979, and 1997 (HAN et al. 2009: 80-1).
The Loess Plateau
In the area around Yinchuan, Quaternary deposits are typically in excess of 1700 metres thick, with at least 3 separate aquifers (one unconfined and two confined) being widely recognised. Downstream of the most arid climatic area (i.e. in the Hubao Plain below Baotou), the occurrence of unconfined groundwater is more sporadic and only a single confined aquifer has been identified (HAN et al. 2009: 60-1).
In the Guanzhong basin (i.e. the Wei catchment of the northern half of Shaanxi Province, around the city of Xi’an), groundwater is relatively deep. As such, it should be less vulnerable to pollution than elsewhere, which may be just as well given that this is a relatively densely-populated area. In the Taiyuan basin (in the extreme eastern part of the deeply-incised Loess Plateau) the recharge areas are mainly limestone outcrops; with abstraction mainly occurring from Quaternary strata in the valley bottom of the River Fen tributary. Here again, however, there are two distinct groundwater bodies; unconfined and confined (HAN et al. 2009: 62-5).
Sulphate-bicarbonate waters are dominant beneath the Loess Plateau; and isotope studies indicate that evidence of evaporation, mineralisation, and/or salinisation are widespread within the shallow and/or unconfined aquifers of the Yinchuan and Hubao Plains. Furthermore, within deeper aquifers here – and/or with increasing distance from recharge areas elsewhere – hydrochemistry becomes complex; with a wide variety of groundwater types having been identified due to the large range of rock types present (HAN et al. 2009: 67-73).
However, in general, the same two groundwater types predominate here; with a clear division between shallow calcium-bicarbonate groundwater deeper sodium-sulphate groundwater (Uchida et al. 2009: 89).
Two circulation systems have been identified in the area of the Yinchuan Plain; local (shallow) and regional (deep); with typical residence times (i.e. carbon-14 ages) of less than 10 years and greater than 5000 years respectively. In the Taiyuan basin, two groundwater circulation patterns have also been identified. Whereas shallow groundwater flow is determined by topography, deeper groundwater flow and/or discharge his heavily affected by artificial pumping. Where unconfined groundwater is present, surface discharges are generally due to vertical flows induced by evaporation; causing salinisation (HAN et al. 2009: 76-8).
Data from 2000 to 2004 for the Yinchuan Plain area suggest that typically 80% of groundwater recharge is artificially induced by irrigation methods; whereas evaporation and abstraction account for 47% and 22% of groundwater losses respectively. It is believed that current annual abstraction is probably equivalent to at least 33% of the mineable resource beneath the plain. Equivalent data for the Habao Plain suggest overall abstraction is equivalent to 65% or total recharge; but with groundwater mining (i.e. unsustainable abstraction) occurring in densely-populated areas. In the Taiyuan basin, the situation is much worse; with abstraction already greater than recharge and groundwater levels continuously falling. No comparable data are available for the Guanzhong basin (HAN et al. 2009: 81-3).
The North China Plain
The water level in the Yellow River is typically 3 to 8 metres higher than the groundwater level beneath the surrounding alluvial plain, which makes the Yellow River an important source of groundwater recharge in the area; mainly as a result of large-scale irrigation schemes: As such, the zone of influence of the Yellow River extends between 13 and 26 km on the north bank; and up to 20km on the south bank. Within the surrounding alluvial deposits, groundwater is believed to circulate to a depth of 350 metres and can be found in four separate Quaternary units Q4, Q3, Q2, and Q1 (HAN et al. 2009: 65-6).
Within the lower reaches of the Yellow River, shallow bicarbonate type groundwater is mostly of good quality; with low overall mineralisation and a typical hardness of less than 450 mg/l (HAN et al. 2009: 74). In Shandong Province, many shallow groundwater samples have been found to be sodium-bicarbonate type; with some resembling the composition of sea water (Uchida et al. 2009: 89). However, deeper fossil groundwater has been found to be of meteoric origin; between 10,000 and 25,000 years old (Uchida et al. 2009: 101-2, and Tamanyu et al. 2009: 110).
Annual rainfall is typically between 600 and 700 mm, which would appear to have been equivalent to 87% of long-term groundwater recharge in the area (i.e. after evaporation) due to the unconsolidated nature of the fine clay and silty-clay soils. However, recharge direct from the river and via irrigation systems are also important (HAN et al. 2009: 79).
Water balance data for the lower reaches of the Yellow River suggest that infiltration from precipitation represents 60% of recharge, with artificially-induced infiltration and direct leakage from the Yellow River accounting for 26% and 11% respectively; whereas pumping and evaporation account for 37% and 60% of groundwater losses respectively (HAN et al. 2009: 83).
Average groundwater levels in confined Quaternary aquifers beneath the Yellow River (up to 400 m below sea level) have fallen from less than 5m below ground level in 1980, to greater than 30m in 2002. Furthermore, comparative piezometric (contour) maps for these confined aquifers beneath the North China Plain as a whole indicate level reductions of up to 80m, in the same time period, in densely populated areas such as Dezhou and Canzhou.
However, in proximity to the Yellow River, little change has been observed along much of its length (from Xingxiang down to the Provincial Capital of Jinan); whereas increased abstraction would appear to have caused a 60m drop in the area around Binzhou (Tamanyu et al. 2009: 110-1).
Tomorrow, in Part 3 of this essay, I pull all of this information together to look at the relationship between economic development and water pollution; and to look at how groundwater modelling is being used to help assess and predict problems.
Following my scene-setting yesterday, this is the first of four posts presenting my case-study of the challenges posed by ongoing climate change in the Yellow River basin of northern China. All references cited will be listed in Part 4 on Friday.
The problematisation of water resources in the Yellow River basin
The Yellow River is the second-longest river in China (after the Yangtze River) and, at 5,463km, the seventh-longest in the world. In China, the Yellow River (Huang He) is known as the “Mother River of China” because it is considered by many to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization.
It is called the Yellow River because huge amounts of loess sediment turn the water that colour in its lower reaches. Here, the average annual sediment flow is 1.6 billion tonnes with a sediment content of 35kg/m3. An average of 400 million tonnes of sediment is deposited every year; resulting in an increase in the elevation of the river bed of 10cm/year (Yellow River conservancy Commission[YRCC], 2007a).
The source of the Yellow River (in Qinghai Province) is located in the rain shadow of the Himalayas; within the high altitude Tibet-Qinghai plateau (greater than 4000 m above sea level (ASL). This forms the first of three distinct topographical areas through which the Yellow River flows; the other two being the Loess Plateau (1000-2000 mASL); and the North China Plain.
After this section and the two that follow (regarding human geography and hydrogeology respectively), this threefold geographical division of the Yellow River basin will be used to structure the discussion of groundwater resources; followed by a multi-faceted assessment of the water resources (i.e. surface water and groundwater) of the river basin (i.e. its surface water catchment area) as a whole; and the presentation of conclusions drawn from all of the above.
Within the Tibetan Plateau, the Yellow River valley floor is at 4800-3700 mASL. The Yinchuan and Hubao Plains (the main parts of the Loess Plateau) are at 1200-1100 mASL. The Taiyuan and Guangzhong basins (incised into the Loess Plateau) are 830-735 mASL and 800-320 mASL respectively. The lower reaches of the Yellow River are below 100 mASL; and the river delta below 15mASL.
Because of this large change in elevation over its vast length, the Yellow River basin encompasses a wide range of vegetation types and climatic zones. However, most of the basin – below approximately 3000 mASL – has been classified as having a mid-temperate to warm-temperate climate; but is bounded by the aridity of Inner Mongolia to the north; and the humidity of the Yangtze basin to the south. The Yellow River basin has an average annual precipitation of 479 mm; the distribution of which is very uneven in both space and time. Between 58% and 77% of all rainfall occurs between June and September.
With reference to WEN et al Figure 3, it may be seen that there is a wide range of total precipitation; with over 1000 mm/yr in areas bordering the Yangtze catchment to the south. However, the majority of the Yellow River Basin (south of 35°N in the west and south of 38°N in the east) receives at least 750 mm/yr.
The average annual runoff into the Yellow River from its catchment area is in excess of 57 billion cubic metres per annum. However, because of its seasonal nature – and as a result of over-abstraction (for industrial and agricultural use) – the lowest reaches of the Yellow River dried up completely in 22 out of 29 years between 1972 and 1999. However, since 1999, better centralised regulation of abstraction may have prevented any drying-up of the river between 2000 and (at least) 2006 (WEN et al.2009: 13).
WEN et al Figure 3.
The silt load of the Yellow River is the highest for any river in the world, but is highly seasonal – with 85% being carried between June and September. As with rainfall, the distribution of this sediment load is therefore uneven in space as well as time; with sediment input being particularly high where rainfall is low and evaporation is high.
Today, the human population living within the catchment is in excess of 110 million, and the area of land under cultivation is in excess of 12 million hectares. With regard to its economic importance to China, the Yellow River basin is home to less than 8% of the total Chinese population but it contains greater than 12% of Chinese land under cultivation. Furthermore, the basin is also the source of greater than 25% of China’s oil and greater than 50% its coal. The Yellow River basin contains 8 provincial capitals and 36 other cities above prefecture level. As a consequence of this activity, the total demand for water supply in 2005 was 46.5 billion cubic metres; with usage being 70% agricultural, 14% industrial, and 6% domestic (WEN et al. 2009: 14).
Chinese Ministry of Water Resources data (circa 2005) suggest that there was a 10% reduction in total water supply volume between 1998 and 2005; which may be due to climate change. This is giving cause for concern because any significant increase in demand will not be sustainable (WEN et al. 2009: 15-16).
As with all other countries in the world, China has found it very hard to achieve continuous economic development without causing ongoing environmental degradation. This subject is addressed in detail in the Overall Resource Assessment towards the end of this essay.
ZHANG et al Figure 1 (below) presents a simplified geology map of the Yellow River Basin. The Yellow River basin contains a relatively complete set of geological strata ranging from the Archaean to the Cenozoic in age (i.e. from greater than 2500 to less than 65 million years old). The former are mainly represented coarse-grained metamorphic rock (gneiss) generally exposed at the margins of the river basin (i.e. at altitudes in excess of 2500mASL), whereas the latter form the surface of much of both the Loess Plateau and the North China Plain; with a wide variety of water-bearing lithologies present (including aeolian and alluvial deposits). In between these two, there are generally very significant thicknesses of both Palaeozoic and Mesozoic strata; with a variety of lithologies present, although limestone (both karstic and non-karstic) is the most regionally-important aquifer type (ZHANG et al. 2009: 19-21).
ZHANG et al Figure 1.
As described above, tomorrow I will look in detail at the hydrogeology (i.e. aquifers, groundwater chemistry, circulation, and the balance between supply and demand [such as it may be]) within each of the three main geographic areas making up the surface water catchment.