Fossil fuels are critical to many industries, but most especially to food production, hence why any interruption to their supply (in the absence of suitable alternatives) would be so devastating. However, there’s one fossil resource that often slips under the radar, but which is equally, if nor more critical to food production – fossil water.
In many parts of the world, water from underground aquifers now represents a key source of water, for both farming and drinking water. However this water is not a sustainable resource. The water has built up in these aquifers over many thousands of years. The recharge rate of fresh water in is a tiny fraction of what’s being taken out. So once its gone its gone. And as the documentary film “Pumped Dry” discusses, those water levels have been dropping alarming fast in recent years, raising fears about wells run dry, which would have devastating results.
Case in point the Ogallala Aquifer in the US. If you’ve ever taken a plane flight over the Prairie states of America you might have noticed these clusters of dark circles dotting the landscape. Those are crops irrigated by a rotating arm feeding off water pumped up from the Ogallala aquifer below. This aquifer, formed when meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets seeped into gravel beds after the last ice age, runs from the Texas Panhandle 1,200 km’s north up to South Dakota. The depth of water varies, but it can be as deep as 350m in places…or at least it used to be. On average every year the US extracts about 2m of water from the Ogallala and rain water only puts back in about 10-20mm. Water levels have thus been dropping alarmingly in parts of the mid west, with individual wells starting to run dry.
While its true that we’ve been tapping the Ogallala since the 1950’s, there’s been an exponential grown in water extraction in recent years. Part of the problem is that nobody’s entirely sure how much is left. Keep in mind that the water levels vary in different parts of the aquifer (so it could run dry in one part of the basin even thought there’s plenty left elsewhere). And perhaps unsurprisingly its likely to the parts of the mid west most dependant on water from this aquifer (generally those at the southern end who can’t easily source water from anywhere else) which are using water the quickest and thus they’ll likely to be the first to run dry.
The consequences of losing this aquifer are considerable. Farming in this region, which represents a significant proportion of America (and the world’s) food supply would cease. 82% of the drinking water in the effected states comes from this aquifer. So it would be a repeat of the dustbowl of the 1930’s on monumental scale. Elsewhere in America, the water levels in the central valley of California have been dropping so fast that the land itself is now sagging and has sunk by several metres. Its fallen so much that the canal systems are starting to break down (as they can’t force water to flow uphill).
And this is not just an American problem, as the aforementioned film discusses, there’s water resource problems in pretty much every continent on earth. Hence why some experts worry about future water wars. And there’s already been several water wars, ranging from unrest and low level conflict in various parts of the world (the film looks into protests and unrest in Peru and India) to water being a key cause of friction between different tribes and country’s (e.g. the central Asia water dispute). Conflict over water was a contributor to the genocide in Rwanda, Darfur and the Arab Israeli conflict.
As I’ve speculated before, its entirely possible that future historians will look back at our time and call it the start of the great resource wars (ongoing conflict in Africa will be known as the Great African water wars, the gulf wars will be known as the 21st century oil wars 1, 2 and 3….4’s about to start btw).
Ultimately the problem here is that these valuable water resources are being squandered. Often a big part of the problem is there is no incentive for farmers to conserve so they often engage in wasteful farming practices Such as just leaving pumps running 24/7, not fixing leaky pipes, nor collecting water that drains away, not covering water storage tanks or channels (resulting in high rates of evaporative losses) and the contamination of aquifers with run off from fertilisers and pollution.
And in quite a number of water stressed regions they’ve been growing cash crops (rather than food crops) with a high water use rate in an environment where such water consumption rates simply can’t be sustained. And btw vegans have to take some of the blame here. As I pointed out in a prior post some vegan foods (such as coconut oil, Asparagus, Avocados) have a surprisingly high carbon footprint and high water demand.
There are possible solutions. Israel used to have all sorts of issues with squandered water resources, but has managed to turn the situation around, by focusing on better water conservation (i.e. cracking down on the poor practices mentioned earlier) as well as developing new water resources. But the problem is that to be effective there’s a need for a carrot and stick approach. But while governments are keen on using the carrot, they almost never apply the stick. Mention the aforementioned issues with draw down of US aquifers and the response you’ll usually get is, oh not to worry, we can just built more dams and rely more on surface water. To which the response is, no we can’t because we’ve already tried that.
Vast networks of dams have already been built across America (not to mention in country’s like, China, India or Morocco) and if anything they’ve made the situation worse. With plenty of water available and even less of an incentive to conserve, farmers started to engage in ever more wasteful farming practices. Which, when a drought hits and they have to go back to being entirely dependant on ground water, is part of the reason why these aquifers are coming under renewed pressure. And dams are expensive and create environmental problems all of their own. So much so that there’s actually a programme of dam removal ongoing in parts of the US.
And this looming crisis is creating water haves and have nots. Those with the money to buy working wells off other farmers, or who can afford to sink deeper and deeper wells can continue farming, often by sucking the water out from under the grounds of their neighbours. Meanwhile those who can’t afford such luxuries, often poorer subsistence farmers or those on small holdings, are driven out, creating a vicious cycle.
After all, in such an unregulated libertarian free for all, the best strategy for a farmer isn’t to conserve water but increase their water consumption, growing cash crops which will net enough revenue to allow him to afford to sink a deeper well and beggar his neighbours. But of course if everyone starts playing that game then everyone eventually loses.
So really the solution here is some form of government intervention. Encouraging conservation of water, and the use of techniques such as drip irrigation, reuse of grey water, cracking down on water pollution, as well as concepts like rain water harvesting (or even so-called “fog catching”), can all help conserve water supplies. Swapping from cash crops with a high water use (in those parts of the world where water is scarce of course, there’s still plenty of places to grow such crops where this isn’t a problem), to crops which can be more easily sustained on less water. And domestic supplies too need to be conserved (which is more important in a drought, that rich people have manicured green lawns and a pool, or food?).
Another part of the aforementioned Israeli strategy was desalination, specifically using the reverse osmosis method. That said, desalination is fairly energy intensive and has an environmental impact (so only really an option after you’ve already got good water conservation measures in place).
And ultimately you need to start charging people the true cost of the water they use, with a particular premium put on ground water extraction.
Of course all of these measures make sense, but is easier said than done. The reason why politicians have happily spent billions on carrots yet not used the stick is they know how massively unpopular this would be. Going around telling farmers what they can and can’t grow, how to manage their farm and charging them for something they previously got for free isn’t going to go down well (to say the least!). Already such measures are proving to be deeply unpopular. If you represent a rural district, or depend on rural votes in some way shape or form, proposing such measures would be little short of political suicide.
Not to mention financial suicide. Given that the quickest way for a farmer forced to conserve water would be to swap from a cash crop with a high water demand to one with a lower water demand, but a lower revenue, this would have an immediate impact on that country or states finances, as tax revenue from those farmers would start to fall. And its not unusual for many politicians in these parts of the world to be invested in such cash crops themselves, or they are dependant on wealthy landowners bankrolling their campaigns.
Case in point, Ireland and the recent water charges fiasco. Now while Ireland hardly counts as a water scarce country (we get about 300 days of rain a year!), there are problems with the water management infrastructure. Its old, crumbling and to make matters worse nobody conserves water because its free. I mean some people just leave their taps running 24/7 in winter to stop the pipes freezing.
So the government decided it was going to bring in water meters and start charging people, which would both encourage conservation as well as providing revenue to fix and update the system. And I think you can guess what happened next. Yep, massive protests, with populists such as Sinn Fein jumping on the bandwagon and exploiting the issue (even thought at no point did they propose an alternative solution), till eventually it became such a poisonous issue that the governing parties just dropped the whole thing.
Of course the problem for politicians is that if you think people are angry now, how angry do you think they’ll be when their well runs dry and farmers lose their livelihood completely, cities have no drinking water and the economy of rural states collapses. One need only consider the political consequences of for example the Ogallala running dry. 74 electoral college votes, several state governorships, more than a dozen senate seats about a hundred in the house, which nearly all go republican every election. Can you imagine the GOP ever being able to win an election again without that block of support? Part of the job of being a politician is that sometimes you’ve got to make unpopular decisions that are in the best interest of the country.
In the mean time we the public need to also start factoring this in to our buying habits. So I’d advise being a bit more selective about what foods you eat, or more precisely from where in the world they come from (would advise against buying Asparagus from Peru or Californian wine for example). This might well create the necessary financial pressure to drive change.