On water

Water belongs to us all. Nature did not make the sun one person’s property, nor air, nor water, cool and clear.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IV (tr. Michael Simpson)

[For World Water Day, 22nd March 2021]

Without water, there would be no life. It’s true that certain creatures – the rotifers spring to mind – can survive in a dessicated state, but they need to rehydrate in order to do anything that looks like living. Life appears to have started in the oceans, at least on this planet. This is why exobiologists get so excited when they find evidence for water elsewhere: it’s not a sufficient condition for life, but as far as we know it is a necessary one.

Water covers two-thirds of our world, and with climate-driven sea-level rise it will soon be covering even more. Although that water is salt and not of much direct use to us, the hydrological cycle is Nature’s own desalination plant, delivering fresh water in the form of rain. It’s hard to imagine that something which literally falls out of the sky could be a scarce resource, at least in those parts of the world which receive regular rainfall. Human ingenuity, however, has found a way.

Consider Egypt. It used to be called the gift of the Nile, because it has no rainfall and used to depend entirely on the annual Nile flood for irrigation. Because the flood also spread fertilising alluvium on the land there was no build-up of soil salinity, which was the bane of Mesopotamian agriculture. A lot of Egypt was and is desert, but the fertile strip along the river – the black land, as it was called – was productive enough to feed the country and also grow a surplus for export. Ancient Rome was largely fed by grain from Egypt.

Then Progress came to the land of the Pharaohs, in the form of the Aswan High Dam. Part of the idea of this immense engineering project was to regulate the Nile floods, which could vary from year to year. This sounds like a good idea, but in practice it has tended to increase soil salinity and coastal erosion. The alluvium which used to wash down over the fields is now building up in the reservoir behind the dam, reducing its capacity; water is also lost from the reservoir by evaporation.

Egyptian farmers are now resorting to the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer to irrigate their thirsty crops of cotton and potatoes. Unlike the Nile, this is not a renewable resource but fossil water that was deposited underground in ages past. Like other fossil resources, when it’s gone it’s gone.

It isn’t just Egypt that relies on fossil water. About 30% of the water used for irrigation in the United States is drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer. There are already concerns that it is depleting rapidly, certainly at a rate far in excess of the amount that rainfall can make good. Farmers across the Midwest are obliged to sink their wells ever deeper. At the same time, water quality is also under threat from pollution due to fracking as well as from agricultural sources such as fertiliser runoff. If you ever saw the 2010 documentary Gasland, you will doubtless remember seeing people who live near fracking wells setting fire to the fluid that is supposed to be their drinking water.

In California’s Central Valley, farmers have been so successful at extracting groundwater that they have caused subsidence on a massive scale. Apart from the damage done to infrastructure such as bridges, this has permanently reduced the capacity of the aquifers to hold water in the future. Again, the response to this has been to drill more and deeper. What could possibly go wrong?

I don’t want to make it sound as if farmers are the villains here. It’s true that industrial farming practices are often wasteful of water; see Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil (Chelsea Green, 2018) for an account – from a farmer! – of some of the reasons why this is and what can be done about it. Industrial meat production is a particularly egregious example of turning what ought to be a resource – dung – into a pollutant. But farmers have been pushed in an unsustainable direction by forces outside their control.

(Incidentally, in the interests of balance I should point out that livestock farming is far less prodigal of water than is often supposed, at least when done properly. In his review of Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance (Hyden House, 2013), the environmental journalist George Monbiot admits his mistake on this point, in a heartwarming display of intellectual honesty which is all too rare amongst his profession.)

It’s true also that excessive irrigation and the resulting build-up of salt in the soil transformed the fertile lands of Mesopotamia into the desert we now call Iraq. “Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels,” in Derrick Jensen’s grim aphorism. But nobody ever set out to do this. It was an unintended consequence of actions which seemed reasonable at the time in the face of an immediate need. This pattern is by no means rare in human history.

Industry itself has long been cavalier with water, especially in its willingness to contaminate local waterways. The Love Canal is the poster child for this – again, as with the fracking pollution I mentioned above, we find a substance that purports to be water proving to be flammable – but of course it goes back far longer. The town of Walsall, long associated with the leather industry, ended up hiding its river in a culvert because of the noxious level of pollution (tanning produces lots of nasties). The central point of the town is still known as the Bridge, but if you go there today you will see no sign of either bridge or river.

Fresh clean water has thus become a scarce resource, and as such a fertile source of conflict. There are many places in the world dependent on rivers whose headwaters are in foreign territory, and conflicts over water are the inevitable result. By constructing dams it is possible to extract so much water from a river that it no longer reaches the sea – the once-mighty Colorado River is a prime example. In the Middle East, which was already well-supplied with tinder, similar threats to the Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers may well spark violence. Even the Aswan High Dam may find itself trumped by the construction upstream of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Now let’s throw climate change into the mix. With extreme weather events of all kinds becoming more common and more violent everywhere, flooding is a major issue. (In the UK at least, this is not helped by the moronic practice of building in flood plains against all advice.) Industrially farmed soil tends to be slow to absorb rainfall and prone to erosion – again, I refer the interested reader to the work of Gabe Brown – which has obvious consequences for agriculture.

On the flip side of the coin, we need to be more resilient to drought. In addition to the obvious point that water shortages are bad news for anything that grows, we can also expect more and scarier wildfires and (once again) more topsoil erosion. The Dust Bowl is a dramatic example of what can happen, and will again if we carry on as we are.

So: what is to be done?

Many of our water-related problems are already baked into the cake. Contaminated groundwater is going to stay contaminated. Depleted fossil aquifers will take millennia to replenish themselves. We can try to adopt farming practices aimed at improving the soil, along the lines being developed and practised by Brown and others. This is good common sense anyway: even Michael Gove, a man who often seems to have only a tenuous grasp on reality, said some sensible things on this subject when he was briefly Environment Secretary in the UK.

As individuals, we can do a good deal to reduce our water usage. Reusing grey water will economise further. We can also harvest rainwater (now legal in all 50 US states, albeit subject to regulation in places) which is perfectly fine for many things. If you have a garden, get the soil in the best condition possible – good gardening practice in any case, but soil in good heart can both absorb rainwater when the heavens open and retain it through dry weather. If where you are is liable to flooding, ensure your drainage is good.

We can also make a difference through our purchasing decisions. After all, we’re always being told that the consumer is king, so maybe we should start acting that way. Do your research; be aware of “virtual water” and cut it out of your purchases as far as you can. Here in the UK, for instance, we import a lot of water in the form of lettuce and tomatoes from semi-arid parts of southern Spain and, as mentioned before, cotton and potatoes from Egypt. Personally, I’m not especially comfortable doing that. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

Water does, as Ovid says, belong to us all, and as such it has become subject to the tragedy of the commons. (Nestle’s behaviour during the recent California drought shows what can happen.)The good news is that at least that is a problem that can be solved (see, for example, the work of Elinor Ostrom in this area) and indeed has been solved in many times and places. In the Alpujarras region of Spain the system of acequias introduced by the Moors in the eighth century, which includes an elaborate apparatus for resolving disputes, is still in operation.

Individually and collectively, we must all learn to share the gifts we have been given. As Gandhi said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.” Water is a thing we all need and for which there is no substitute. It’s about time we started to treat it, and one another, with some respect.

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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