Sunday, June 28, 2009

Water - Civilization's Trojan Horse

With a rapidly dwindling number of exceptions, nations around the world are consuming water resources they cannot replenish. It's the H2O equivalent of drinking their "seed corn."

Look at it this way. How did the earth's population swell from 2-billion in the aftermath of WWII to the 6.7-billion we number today? The simple answer is by over-exploiting our freshwater resources for everything from crop irrigation to industrial production to basic human consumption.

How can someone over-exploit water? Easy. It's as simple as emptying a bank vault. Bank customers periodically place small amounts of jewelry, stocks and bonds in their safety deposit boxes. It trickles in but after a while there's a lot of wealth amassed in the vault. Then some villain figures a way to blast into that vault and empty those safety deposit boxes and - voila - an empty vault.

Now water isn't just wealth, it's life itself. But a substantial amount of freshwater has, over millenia, trickled into subterranean vaults we call aquifers. From the dawn of civilization man has learned to draw water from the ground by digging wells. A well, a rope, a bucket and you have a public water system. In some cases wells ran dry but in most they didn't because there was enough groundwater seeping down from rainfall to replenish or "recharge" the supply.

In the post-WWII era we've learned to produce a lot of a great many things including an awful lot more of ourselves. All of that growth depended on an abundant supply of water - for sanitation and basic hygiene, for nourishment and hydration, for public safety and to make the stuff we all want to buy. To meet the challenges of mass famine from overpopulation we developed the "green revolution" - new techniques to maximize agricultural production. But there was never enough surface water, enough precipitation, to keep the engine of civilization running so we began tapping groundwater resources on a mega-industrial scale.

Even parts of the United States are running out of water. Take a look at what's happened to the once-mighty Colorado River to get an idea. But the looming problems are even more dire in other parts of the world, especially in the emerging economic superpowers of China and India.

I recently came across an article on the NPR website examining how India's "green revolution" has turned into a national, Trojan Horse:

Farmers in the state of Punjab abandoned traditional farming methods in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the national program called the "Green Revolution," backed by advisers from the U.S. and other countries.

Indian farmers started growing crops the American way — with chemicals, high-yield seeds and irrigation.

Since then, India has gone from importing grain like a beggar, to often exporting it.

But studies show the Green Revolution is heading for collapse.

When India's government launched the Green Revolution more than 40 years ago, it pressured farmers to grow only high-yield wheat, rice and cotton instead of their traditional mix of crops.

The new miracle seeds could produce far bigger yields than farmers had ever seen, but they came with a catch: The thirsty crops needed much more water than natural rainfall could provide, so farmers had to dig wells and irrigate with groundwater.

The system worked well for years, but government studies show that farmers have pumped so much groundwater to irrigate their crops that the water table is dropping dramatically, as much as 3 feet every year.

...Another side effect of the groundwater crisis is evident at the edge of the fields — thin straggly rows of wheat and a whitish powder scattered across the soil.

The white substance is salt residue. Drilling deep wells to find fresh water often taps brackish underground pools, and the salty water poisons the crops.

"The salt causes root injuries," Palwinder says. "The root cannot take the nutrients from the soil."

...In the village of Chotia Khurd, farmers agree that the Green Revolution used to work miracles for many of them. But now, it's like financial quicksand.

Studies show that their intensive farming methods, which government policies subsidize, are destroying the soil. The high-yield crops gobble up nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, iron and manganese, making the soil anemic.

The farmers say they must use three times as much fertilizer as they used to, to produce the same amount of crops — yet another drain on their finances.

...Some leading officials in the farming industry wonder when this house of cards might collapse.

"The state and farmers are now faced with a crisis," warns a report by the Punjab State Farmers Commission.

India's population is growing faster than any country on Earth, and domestic food production is vital.

But the commission's director, G.S. Kalkat, says Punjab's farmers are committing ecological and economic "suicide."

If he is correct, suicide is coming through national policies that reward farmers for the very practices that destroy the environment and trap them in debt.

Unfortunately, India's groundwater crisis and the associated soil exhaustion and salination are but one part of what that country is facing. India's other freshwater source, the Himalayan glaciers, are in headlong retreat. Essential agricultural rivers, like the mighty Ganges, are at risk of being transformed into seasonal rivers, full only during the Monsoons when they're not needed for irrigation.

Draining groundwater is like defying gravity. You are bound to fall to earth and your landing can be very, very unpleasant. Over just a few generations you have created a society you simply do not have the essential resources to sustain. When food production fails it triggers a whole set of social reactions and dynamics that can be quite ugly and destabilizing and, sometimes, even impossible to control.

The thing to bear in mind is that much of the world is facing similar problems to those building in India. China is in the same boat. Pakistan is in the same boat. Much of Africa and the Middle East (including Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories) are in similar peril. Most of the world's global security "hot spots" are facing severe and abrupt freshwater shortfalls.

What is the answer? I don't know and nobody else seems to know either. One potentially ominous solution being floated is to treat water as a commodity of commerce. This is being pitched as an "only way out" solution that in fact means handing over mankind's single most precious asset, literally giving it away, to "for profit" corporations which we're supposed to blindly trust to be both honest and benevolent in distributing the resource fairly and at a fair price. Maybe we could give the water to Halliburton and they could sub-contract the distribution to Blackwater.

But what does this mean to Canada? It means a great deal, more than most could imagine. Social upheaval and political instability throughout East and South Asia, the Middle East, vast swathes of Africa, parts of Latin and most of Central America, will inevitably impact Canada and the rest of the Western world.

The only political party in our country capable of addressing these problems is the Liberal Party of Canada but, sadly, the LPC has lost its way. The next two decades will redefine our world - politically, socially, economically and, unfortunately, militarily. These are challenges of a genuinely existential scope. We need to be exploring these issues now, preparing our nation and our people to meet them. Why, then, are we instead so preoccupied on whether to criticize Harper for spending too much or too little on stimulus and recovery projects or absorbed on how to call an election or prevent Harper from calling one? Harper is a man of low vision. Why do we have to set our sights to meet his?

Some more engaged than I in Liberal politics contend that the current, multi-party parliamentary reality all but rules out majority government. If they're right and that is the case then we have an enormous problem because preparing ourselves and adapting our Canada to the changes that are coming will require strong government leadership. You can't look ahead if you're always looking over your shoulder. If we can't get a majority we had damned well better work on forging a strong, meaningful coalition.

There is ample precedent for coalition governments functioning quite well in times of national difficulty. What is required is a general acknowledgement of unavoidable challenges of a significance dwarfing partisan political interests. What we need is a Liberal leader capable of creating that consensus and, unfortunately, that's not the guy we have right now. That's not to say that the New Democrats have anything better in Layton, they don't. That guy is hyper-partisan.

Somehow Liberals need to find a leader who can reach out to New Democrats, the rank and file, and lead them to understand the need for a genuine coalition, one based on good faith, cooperation instead of capitulation and an acceptance that the times we're entering upon leave a limited scope for partisanship.

We need to come to this epiphany relatively soon. Events around the world are overtaking us. We can't control them but we can prepare for them. Unfortunately there's a shelf life for each of our options for adaptation and remediation. The best options have already expired and are now lost to us. The next best options are steadily being foreclosed. The only way to get the best options remaining to us is to act now. It's tragic that our leaders have no grasp of that.


Anonymous said...

I've been back in Canada for one month now and I cannot get my head around the apathy regarding our environment, the economy and health car. Trying to get something done (health care card) as well is like pulling hens teeth. It's so very frustrating when returning from a country where administrative tasks are handled within a week or two.
I looked for you several times....welcome back. Cheers, A. Morris

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks for your kind thoughts. I'm wrestling with a rather powerful bout of cynicism right now so your 'welcome back' may be premature. I remain, as ever, liberal but I'm experiencing a deep disconnect with what now passes for Liberal politics. The current fop seems to think there are answers to be found in dragging the party far to the right of its natural position but I think he's following the path he perceives best suited to his personal political advancement. To his credit, he has certainly gathered about him a significant flock of sycos.

Ah for the good old days when all we had to worry about was our country and people surviving Harper.

Scruffy Dan said...

Have you read the book blue gold by Maude Barlow? If not I highly recommend it, though I'll warn you it is a tad depressing

LMA said...

While we don't seem willing or able to put the brakes on our excessive growth and consumption, when we reach numbers that the planet cannot sustain our species will be forced to change or face extinction.

Hopefully, political leaders will emerge in the future who will be able to cope with the coming crises. I'm not happy with Ignatieff's failure to address environmental concerns, but I think he deserves a lot of credit for working hard to rebuild the finances and membership of the Liberal Party. Until we remove Harper from office, Canada cannot move forward, and Ignatieff is the only alternative I see at present to Harper.

I have learned a lot from your posts and hope they continue.

The Mound of Sound said...

No Dan, I've not read Barlow's book. I've teetered on the edge of buying it a couple of times but I figured it wasn't beach reading. I will get to it this Fall.

LMA, I readily agree that His Igness has done a lot for the Liberal Party but that's measuring him against Dion and the chaos he inflicted on it. Ignatieff may have done much for his party but he hasn't done much of anything TO the CPC and Steve Harper. That's the only measurement that matters.
Pilfering a few points from Jack Layton isn't going to defeat Harper in a way that will allow a powerful, alternative to emerge.

Oemissions said...

Forget the parties. That is my message to eveyone. Vote for the best MP, one who will NOT tow the party line but commit to his/her constituents.
Briony Penn who ran on a Red/Green agenda for the Libs and is an acclaimed environmentalist has decided not to run again and introduced some of us at her new home built from local materials and local craftsmen on Saltspring to Renee Hetherington. She is more than awesome, she is FORMIDABLE.
But Elizabeth May is thinking of running in this riding. After meeting Renee, I emailed Elizabeth to tell her to find another riding.
You can read about Renee at
Woman at Mile 0 mentioned her in her blog about the classy Ignatieff dinner in Victoria.
I think that Ignatieff needs educating from the many.

The Mound of Sound said...

I'm gradually coming to share your view on parties, Oem.

Whether it's our politicians, the punditry or even fellow bloggers, it is becoming depressingly obvious that the environmental calamity that's even now setting in is something they're simply unwilling to discuss much less confront.

It's as though we somehow choose to look the other way, desperately hoping that either we won't be badly affected or will come up with some technological solution in the nick of time.

In his Monday column, Paul Krugman accused America's congressional climate change denialists of treason against the world. I'm not certain that denialists are more of a problem than pols who claim to "get it" but then shirk the question of action. It's these slack jawed bastards, like the three amigos who lead our national parties, who lull us into inaction.

I must confess that, while I appreciate Ms. Penn's good intentions, I find micro-environmentalism an irrelevant and distracting diversion from the real problems at hand.

The problems that we must confront, the truly existential quandries, are global and climate change is but one of them. You must add to that deforestation, desertification, air/water/land pollution, resource exhaustion, species extinction, nuclear proliferation, regional instability and global security threats (there are more). As Jarred Diamond points out in his seminal book "Collapse," if we're going to avoid going the way of Easter Islanders, we'll have to come up with solutions to each and every one of these. Leave one or two out and we've had it.

These are global problems even though their impacts will be of inconsistent severity and their arrival will be different region by region. We in the "last and least" West (where we will generally be least affected as the impacts arrive here last) somehow think we'll be immune from the fallout in those regions that are hardest hit from the outset. That's a potentially lethal false assumption.

It's becoming evident that our ad hoc approaches aren't going to work with cap and trade policies here and hard caps there and no caps at all elsewhere. If we cannot achieve a minimal level of cohesion essential to survive global warming, how on earth are we to deal with all those other problems that are, collectively, even more dangerous?

I'm becoming convinced that, if we're to survive, mankind is going to have to come up with new structures for dealing with each other. 19th century Capitalist industrialism blanketing a quilt of rival and often adversarial nation states simply will not serve our current purpose.

Leadership that heralds the Tar Sands as the key to our nation's prosperity in the 21st century represents a mentality we can no longer afford. We need a new generation of leadership capable of handling reality with genuinely global vision and an understanding that undoing the problems we have created demands holistic thinking.

I'm convinced that we can answer these problems only if we're all willing to devise and accept new principles governing our lives and our societies.

Oemissions said...

4 sure.!
4 directions.
One thing we can do is unite on the political front.
In the last BC election,look what happened with the environmentalists.
Rafe Mair wrote in the Tyee that Tzeporah Berman and David Suzuki gave away this election to The Campbell Liberals.
And I see that Elizabeth is out here next week in Saanich. That looks to me like she is still considering this riding.
She needs to meet Renee, who is only so far seeking nomination.
Elizabeth needs to be in the House but she has no business running in a riding that has a candidate that is as qualified as her.
Also, in the BC election, our NDP candidate Gary Holman lost to Murray Coal by a few Green votes.
There must be collaboration for the good of the whole and not a party's gain in votes.
And Carole James was stupid to be stubborn about the carbon tax. She should have just said, we are flexible on this.She thought she'd get the rural vote with the axe the tax.And the low income. People spend twice the amount on cars as they do on food.
My proposal is that before the next election, all environmental and social justice organizations promote the candidate in a riding who is sure to get the necessary actions done.
The emphasis must be on the candidate and why she/he is the best. That line from old Mr. Dylan..." don't follow leaders, watch your parking meters....reminds me that we must be the leaders.
In Canada we need to discuss Coalition governments.
I don't know if Independents can form a government if enough of them were elected but that would be something to find out.
In the meantime I say, get behind your candidate of choice and talk "em up.
Have neighborhood potlucks.Townhall meetings. Soapboxes in the parks and shopping malls.
There is a grocery chain in Ontario that is now reporting that 70% of customers have stopped taking their groceries out in plastic bags since they began charging 5 cents a bag. 70% is amazing. If it can be done there then it can be done in other areas.They did it in Ireland, with 25 cents a bag.
Planetary citizens!
Wasn't that a bit what the Iran activities were about?
And Iraq's new carfree solar city?
I wrote the CBC to tell them to play MJ's Earth Song video. There are a few good versions on You Tube. I like the one with the lyrics printed on the screen.

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