When it comes to groundwater it seems we just can't help ourselves. From the US to India, China and many other places, man has become so dependent on our underground reservoirs - aquifers - that we're pumping them dry. The real problem is we've grown enormous societies that are sustained by agriculture that relies heavily on that rapidly diminishing resource.
You've probably never heard of Shijiazhuang. It's a boomtown provincial capital in northern China, population 2-million and ballooning. As reported in today's New York Times, it's also a city running headlong into the wall of groundwater exhaustion:
Above ground, this city in the North China Plain is having a party. Economic growth topped 11 percent last year. Population is rising. A new upscale housing development is advertising waterfront property on lakes filled with pumped groundwater. Another half-built complex, the Arc de Royal, is rising above one of the lowest points in the city’s water table.
Hundreds of feet below ground, the primary water source for this provincial capital of more than two million people is steadily running dry. The underground water table is sinking about four feet a year. Municipal wells have already drained two-thirds of the local groundwater.
For three decades, water has been indispensable in sustaining the rollicking economic expansion that has made China a world power. Now, China’s galloping, often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis. Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in north China — even as demand keeps rising everywhere.
China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.
China and India are facing a particularly severe water crisis. Climate change has caused the Himalayan glaciers to retreat. Key rivers in both countries, essential for irrigation, are fed by the glacial runoff. Think of the Ganges and the Yellow River and the hundreds of millions of people whose food is grown with irrigation from those rivers.
As the supply of surface or rainwater diminishes, more pressure is placed on groundwater. Unfortunately, aquifers have a limited "recharge" rate if they recharge at all. Recharge is the trickle of surface water that reaches some aquifers. But the rate at which water is drawn from aquifers rarely has any connection with the recharge rate. Imagine you've got a fire truck pumping water out of your backyard swimming pool through a four inch hose while you pour water into your pool through your garden hose. It's pretty obvious that pool is going to be empty pretty quickly.
Critics of global warming theory like to point out that there's just as much water on earth today as there was a century ago, a millennium ago, even hundreds of thousands of years ago. They're absolutely right. It's an endless cycle of rain, evaporation, condensation, rain. The water's always somewhere in that cycle.
What's conveniently ignored in that deceptive boast is what climate change is doing to the cycle and how that impacts mankind. Climate change is altering rainfall patterns. Any farmer will tell you that too much water is just as bad as not enough. Too much rainfall early in the season can prevent the farmer from getting onto his fields to plant his crop. Too much rainfall late in the season can prevent the farmer getting onto his fields to harvest his crop. Insufficient rainfall during the growing season can mean there's little or no crop to harvest. The farmer needs rain, enough of it but not too much, at the right time of the year. If it arrives in unusable amounts at unusable times it can increase his dependence on groundwater and lead, in time, to groundwater exhaustion.
Around the world from Britain to Africa, Asia to America, people are being hit by floods and droughts. You can't read the papers without knowing that. But there's no reason for us to be smug here at home.
Consider this. Our bountiful prairie is a region that quite naturally experiences mega-droughts ranging from 60-years to a few centuries in duration. The past couple of centuries have been unusually cool and wet which has allowed us to settle that region and grow all that grain. Now imagine Alberta and Saskatchewan with almost no rainfall for six decades. Imagine a whole lot of empty.
This isn't the dark fantasy of some tree hugger. It's a reality fully understood by the man many consider Alberta's greatest premier, Peter Lougheed. He's very worried that other provinces, such as BC, could get into the business of selling freshwater, especially to the Americans. He wants that water reserved for his province, for Alberta, when the day comes that it will be needed. He wrote quite a lengthy opinion piece in the Globe & Mail on this a few years back that you can get from the paper's archives.
The perfect irony is that greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming that causes climate change that brings precipitation change that threatens the viability of particularly vulnerable places like Alberta. Go figure. Yet they can't suck water out of the Athabasca fast enough to use it to pump bitumen to the surface and then leave it contaminated. As far as Alberta, Harper and Big Oil are concerned, Alberta has water to burn.