Here you will find a few articles which I wrote in a geography class concerning the troubling situation in which our world finds itself.
The assigned readings provided insight on the breadth and depth of the worlds water crisis as it transcends across economic boundaries. They present the challenge of implementing solutions to the distinct challenges faced by both wealthy and developing countries. These plights are tied together by underlining the failure of the wealthy nations to commit full attention and resources to provide safe drinking water for the billion-plus people without access to safe drinking water, and the 2.4 billion without access to adequate sanitation services (Gleick, 2003). Traditional large scale and centralized methods of water collection and distribution are juxtaposed against a soft-path approach whereby each unit of water is used more efficiently. With regions of the world in the process of rapid industrialization and economic expansion, greater pressure will be placed on responsible water use. The suitability of both hard and soft path solutions to respond to these modern pressures will have to be weighed quickly by political leaders, the scientific community and every individual currently capable of drinking right out of their tap because we are on track for tens of millions of deaths in the next decade and a half (Gleick, 2003).
As the failings of hard path solutions today are easily recognized, the role which they have played in civilization’s development and industrialization is largely overshadowed. Large, expensive systems such as dams and aqueducts result in substantial waste through evaporation and seepage as flow is diverted and contained for agricultural and sanitation use (Nature Editors, 2003). The Chinese government’s efforts to quench the country’s north through the expensive expansion of a centuries-old network of dams, reservoirs and canals may well initially succeed while also serving to produce power for the growing nation. In turn, however, clean water will be more expensive for everyone and the sustainability of the practice is in question due to plunging water tables in groundwater (Stone et al., 2006). China’s focus on dams may prove to be unwise because climate change models predict an increase in rainfall in its currently arid north; also, the increase in evaporation with the addition of reservoirs will guarantee a reduction in the water available to the entire nation (Stone et al, 2006). With central irrigation systems, such as those first used 6000 years ago by the Mesopotamians, mankind has been able to yield crops on otherwise unsuitable land (Nature Editors, 2003). At today’s rate of consumption, this irrigation is unsustainable as evidenced by rivers around the world which no longer flow to their deltas (Gleick, 2003). The shortage is exacerbated by other greedy practices in developed nations: toilets contaminating with each convenient flush, and dousing golf courses in arid landscapes to maintain their green sheen. It is not clear how hard path solutions may be adapted to more efficient and economic systems to assuage today and tomorrow’s water needs but it is easy to identify their main faults.
The practice of seeking endless water sources through centralized systems is deemed unsustainable by advocates of soft path solutions. As coined by Lovins in 1977 in the context of energy use, the soft path is noted as being different than the hard path due to its smaller technical and economic risks (as cited in Gleick, 2003). Gleick (2003) cites significant improvements in the economic productivity of water in recent decades in the United States; however, net consumption continues to rise. Recommended solutions to combat the most significant wasters- sanitation and agriculture- include the use of simple science: composting toilets and micro irrigation. An integrated approach to responsible use of both land and water will yield improvements in efficiency and the environment: land identified as unsuitable for agriculture could be reclaimed to its natural habitat, while focusing development on regions which produce more effectively.
The lack of attention received by water resources in comparison to energy warfare as well as diseases such as AIDS is troubling; political will must be focused on this unglamorous predicament. Should this issue come to the world stage, I feel strongly that it would not be adequate for wealthy nations to be content with implementing responsible water use in developing nations. As the leading wasters, we should be tossing our own flush toilets in favour of the composting units. The world as a whole needs to reassess its agricultural production: efficient water use must take precedence over an economy’s desire for agricultural employment.
The dams, agricultural irrigation and flush toilets which have brought convenience and prosperity to humans are rightly targeted in the combat of water shortages; however, their days are far from being numbered. Such practices are in widespread use, and increasingly so. Outright reversal of this trend is unlikely in the short term, but their negative effects could start to be offset immediately with the implementation of soft path solutions. While those suffering the health effects of a lack of sanitation and clean drinking water are mostly restricted to developing nations, soft-path solutions could- and should – be implemented across the world.
Nature Editors (2003, March 20). How to slake a planet’s thirst. Nature, 422, 243.
Gleick, Peter (2003, December 5). Global Freshwater Resources: Soft-Path Solutions for the 21st Century. Science, 302, 1524-1527
Stone, R.& Jia, H. (2006, August 25). Going Against The Flow. Science, 313, 1034-1037
Earth System Science and Global ChangeEdit
Scientists and entrepreneurs alike preach the benefits of geoengineering: large scale global change issues combated with a tool belt of technological solutions. Some challenges are more virtuous, more urgent or more preventable than others, but they are united by the notion that modern ideas can alleviate or reverse human impact on the globe. Risks of these measures are self evident- the unknown consequences of tampering with nature’s extensively developed cycles- yet there are cases where such tampering seems inevitable, leaving us with difficult choices. Stand by as we continue to increase carbon dioxide emissions, or attempt a countermeasure, fertilizing the ocean with a nutrient cocktail to prompt the blooming of CO2 absorbing photoplankton. Continue to serve a seemingly unquenchable appetite for electricity through hydroelectric dams or tear them down in the name of natural preservation, possibly to be replaced by coal-fired plants. The debate is a fickle one, with the benefits sometimes being unevenly distributed between rich and poor, nature and society.
The ecological effects of hydroelectric dams now are much more understood now than when many of them were built over the last century. What seemed like a relatively harmful means of securing a vast supply of water and electricity is now viewed harshly by many for its effects on river species, erosion, and meteorology. Proponents of the removal of the large O’Shaughnessy Dam in California, essentially un-engineering it, consider that doing so would inspire similar restorations, and San Francisco’s water demand could be placated through other measures (Stokstad, 2006). They have faced bureaucratic and scientific resistance, simply that the multi-billion dollar cost of demolition and the associated loss in electrical revenue could be better spent elsewhere, on projects more pressing or more probable to result in environmental mitigation. The disruptive presence of hydroelectric dams in nature will likely continue to be tolerated by societies who continue to benefit from their existence and are willing to sacrifice a partition of nature.
The novel approach of fertilizing the ocean with iron ore is supported by basic science and field experimentation to show that it can be an effective means of increasing the ocean’s carbon uptake (Buesseler et al, 2003). The entrepreneurs parading this fertilization intend to sell carbon credits to polluting nations and corporations to assuage commitments to the Kyoto Protocol and emerging cap-and-trade markets (Schiermeier, 2003). Some pundits discredit the technology’s effectiveness, citing its unknown disruption to marine ecology (Schiermeier, 2003); the ‘solution’ may end up involuntarily destroying fishery industry for entire nations. It is labeled by some simply as a new form of pollution to combat an old one The private interests involved have little in the way of legal hurdles and stand to gain financially- they may well be on their way to creating such an industry. To be decided by policy makers is if such methods, despite their risks, are warranted in the face of the effects of carbon dioxide pollution.
I embrace the notion of geo-engineering as a perspective from which to approach global change solutions. Those who argue that we are dangerously tampering with nature need be reminded that the scale of many of our impacts is so great that nature has not yet had time to fully respond to them. For example, the effects of the exponential increase in atmospheric CO2 over the last century and a half are only more recently becoming more pronounced and they will likely continue to be exacerbated. We are in a situation where we are armed with newfound technological tools, some more proven than others, and we must decide on the sacrifices we are prepared to make in order to utilize the tools. I do not see a day in the near future where many North Americans will happily submit to paying more for water and electricity because their hydroelectric reservoirs were torn down in favour of attempts to restore long-since destroyed habitat. Yet the world may be more forgiving of attempts to increase carbon sequestration into the ocean, even if it represents only a stop gap to long term emission stabilization, and even if some people turn a profit in the making.
Geoengineering solutions will continue to evolve and gain footing in response to global change issues. The choices we face represent a dichotomy between the status quo and dramatic action. We do not, however, face a choice of whether or not we will feel the impact of these global changes. It is a debate to be held amongst scientists and corporations, the rich and the poor, to decide on the extent and severity of the required actions.
Stokstad, Erik (2006, October 27). Restoring Yosemite’s Twin. Science, 314, 582-584
Buesseler, K & Boyd, P (2003, April 4). Will Ocean Fertilization Work? Science, 300, 67-68
Schiermeier, Quirin (2003, January 9). The Oresmen. Nature, 421, 109-110.