Water shortages add to list of critical pressures

With oil prices steaming towards $130 a barrel, CO2 emissions climbing relentlessly, food shortages and major commodity price hikes hitting the world’s poor, “the last thing anyone needs is another crisis”, according to the current issue of Business Week.

But that’s exactly what we’ve got – in spades. The crisis in question is dwindling supplies of safe fresh water. Right now, 2.8 billion people – 44% of the world’s population – live in areas of high water stress, according to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development [OECD].

This will hit almost four billion by 2030, the OECD warns, unless radical new water-use policies are implemented. Countries such as India, China, and other parts of the developing world will be hit hardest in the short term, but water stress will also increase in almost all parts of the world.

The American mid-west, the world’s largest grain-growing region, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages and drought. The region is heavily dependent on severely tapped aquifers.

The phrase ‘Peak Water’ has begun to surface recently to describe the apparent arrival of an era where human enterprise, including such critical functions as food production, begins to encounter severe natural limits. There are fewer more unforgiving than a shortage of potable water.

As parts of Australia are now experiencing at first hand, without water, nothing is possible. A commodity supplied by nature in such vast abundance, for so long, we have treated water not as a precious resource, but rather as an open sewer for our wastes
and a bottomless well from which we have been relentlessly drawing to force more and more productivity from the land.

The adverse effects of such extreme efforts – salinisation of soils, eutrophication of lakes and coastal areas, erosion and desertification, and of course egregious carelessness in the form of pollution, is now coming home to roost.

By the end of 2008, there will be another 85 million hungry – and thirsty – mouths to feed and water on our long-suffering planet. And a similar number the year after that…

The folks at Business Week, The Economist and all the other trade publications for the globalised economy need to snap out of their collective trance of viewing the world as some giant field waiting to be cut down, harvested and turned into corporate profits, no matter what the cost.

The resources we have are strictly finite, the biosphere in which we operate is equally finite, and fragile. Destroy it, through greed, ignorance, stupidity or a combination of these, and we destroy ourselves.

Even the super-rich, who may be initially sheltered from the storm by their privilege (and most of whom act as if it truly has nothing to do with them) will suffer the same fate as the rest of us if we collectively fail to act. For those who care too little to be bothered ‘saving the world’, it’s worth contemplating that what happens to the world as a whole, happens to us.

Our sheer numbers, our complex societies, our technologies and our systems ultimately make us more, rather than less, vulnerable. It’s a hard lesson to take on board, but we have to continue to believe it’s not yet too late to learn.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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4 Responses to Water shortages add to list of critical pressures

  1. Heavy weather says:

    we dont even bother metering the stuff in Ireland, yet i read recently that ireland is likely to have droughts and water shortages in the next few decades as well. god help the politician who has to tell the public that somethijg they think they have a god-given right to have for free is now going to be metered and charged for. sure we even got rid of domestic rates back in the 70s as part of one of those ff election giveaways and nobody has had the guts to tell the public thats the reason most of the local authorities are permanently skint

  2. Perhaps you could take a look at the plans to pump a third of the Shannon’s water to Dublin to meet the escalating and still unchecked growth of the conurbation. Instead of making a real effort to develop Cork and Limerick as counterpoints to Dublin’s overgrowth, the powers that be have thrown in the towel and are now putting forward the notion that Dublin is our only real centre of industrial vibrancy and that investing in Cork & Limerick would be a waste of resources. This attitude will not only see more concreting over of a declining resource – rich arable land in the Dublin hinterland – but will cause untold damage to the Shannon waterway ecosystem. There is plenty of water in Cork and Limerick, but little in Dublin. It is obvious where new development should go.

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Good point, Coilin. We were supposed to have a Spatial Strategy some years back but it turned out to be as sophisticated as ensuring that Ministers had bits and pieces of departments moved into their own local area (such as Arts, Sports & Tourism Minister John O’Donoghue getting its HQ transferred to Killarney).

    A proper spatial strategy must of course critically take into account sustainability, and while high density is essential to support efficient public transport, such as a a Metro system, that assuredly does not mean it should only be in Dublin.

    The urban sprawl expanding almost 100km in every direction from Dublin is a master class in unsustainability – the countryside is littered with once-off housing, much of it poorly built with minimal environmental considerations, and of course leaving tens of thousands of commuters wholly dependent on their cars.

  4. I am particularly worried by the threat to the Shannon and the assumption that it will be an acceptable fallback if Dublin runs dry. If the spatial strategy was any use it would recognise that sustainable development is linked to availability of local water in the long-term.

    I take your point on density being essential for public transport such as Metro, so let’s pack more people into central Dublin and reduce the commuting.

    I am generally against one-off housing, and I believe nucleated settlements are much more sustainable, but a one-off house not far from a town can be sustainable on almost every front if the residents are eco-responsible. The main unsustainable elements of one-off are commuting distance to work and shops, and impact on landscape. Everything else can be sorted: the house can be small and well-screened with native trees and shrubs; a good percolating system; retrieval of roof-water; wood-boiler and solar panel for space and water heating; recycling of household waste; composting of organic waste; insulation of roof. Delivery of electricity, phoneline, snail mail and mains water is a problem if one-offs are isolated but becomes more economical when density of one-offs in a townland increases, so long as they are not far from a town. Ditto with provision of emergency services. Social isolation is not a big factor because neighbours usually communicate more than in cities. The icing on the cake is that one-off houses with small parcels of land can grow their own vegetables all year (putting their compost to use) and even grow and coppice willow wood for their boiler. Of course, very few one-off houses are actually managed in this way, but if they all were it would make a huge difference, at least if they were within a few miles of a town. The one-offs that are a problem are those that do none of the above, are miles from any town and desecrate scenic and traditional landscapes that drive our tourism industry.

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