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 planet’s 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.
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IPCC (2007), AR4 Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
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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.