Saturday, November 24, 2012

When the rivers run dry - Everybody chases short-term wealth even at the cost of destroying their long-term collective future.

When The Rivers Run Dry is about water, especially fresh water – where it comes from, how it flows and what happens to it. The news is not good, but it needs to be listened to, especially in Asia – and nowhere more so than in the Indian subcontinent, which may be heading towards a catastrophic scarcity of water even faster than other parts of the planet.

Fred Pearce is an English journalist, currently the environment consultant of New Science magazine. He is a writer who knows how to craft a compelling narrative out of mind-numbing facts.

‘Get your head around a few of these numbers if you can. They are mind boggling. It takes between 250 and 650 galloons of water to grow a pound of rice. That is more water than many households use in a week. For just a bag of rice… And when you start feeding grain to livestock for animal products such as meat and milk, the numbers become yet more startling. It takes 3000 gallons to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger, and between 500 and 1000 gallons for that cow to fill its udders with a quart of milk…. And if you have a sweet tooth, so much the worse: every teaspoonful of sugar in your coffee requires 50 cups of water to grow… (G)rowing the crops to feed and clothe me for a year must take between 1500 and 2000 tons – more than half the contents of an Olympic-size swimming pool.’

This introduces us to the concept of ‘virtual water’: ‘In this terminology, every ton of wheat arriving at a dockside carries with it in virtual form the thousand tons of water needed to grow it. The global virtual-water trade is estimated to be around 800 million acre-feet a year, or twenty Nile rivers… This trade “moves water in volumes and over distances beyond the wildest imaginings of water engineers”.’

Much of this trade is unnecessary and illogical. Pearce points out that US is draining its aquifers only to export enormous quantities of virtual water as wheat; Pakistan is pouring a third of the flow of the Indus into cotton, and thus exporting it as virtual water: ‘the global trade in virtual water… lies at the heart of some of the most intractable hydrological crises on the planet.’

Much of Pearce’s reporting comes from the Indian subcontinent. His travels take him to Pakistan, which is as dependent on the Indus as Egypt is on the Nile. But ‘it is abundantly clear that the Indus is in deep trouble. In the first years of the twenty-first century, the river was largely dry for its final few hundred miles to the sea.’ He attributes the rapid growth of Karachi’s population to Pakistan’s hydrological crisis.

In India  the crisis takes a somewhat different form: the green revolution has led to an indiscriminate plundering of underground water reserves. In Pearce’s account the electrical water pump is largely to blame because it allows farmers to pump water at will, with highly subsidized electricity. In Tamil Nadu he meets farmers who have stopped farming and spend their days doing nothing but pumping up water, which they then sell to tankers. They know the water will soon be exhausted; the table is sinking so fast that they have to deepen their boreholes every week. But no one person will voluntarily end this suicidal practice – because that would only leave more for his neighbours, most of whom are also pumping up water as fast as they can. As Pearce notes, this ‘is a classic case of what environmentalists call “the tragedy of the commons”.

Everybody chases short-term wealth even at the cost of destroying their long-term collective future.’
The celebrated ‘white revolution’, which has led to a huge output of milk in semi-arid parts of Gujarat, is also creating the conditions for a water disaster. Pearce goes to meet a farmer who keeps a herd of cows, which he feeds with alfalfa grown on his five acre plot. ‘I did the math. He uses 4.8 million gallons of water a year to grow the fodder to produce just over 2400 gallons of milk. That’s 200 gallons of water for every gallon of milk… (C)alculated over the year, it means he pumps from under his fields twice as much water as falls on the land in rain. No wonder the water table in the village is 500 feet down and falling by about 20 feet a year. What looks at first sight like an extremely efficient local economy, making milk in the desert for a dairy that trades across India, is in fact hydrological suicide.’

The notion of ‘hydrological suicide’ is hard to comprehend – this is perhaps the reason why people tend to shrug it off. It is their indifference that allows policy-makers to ignore it too. But ‘hydrological suicide’ is a real predicament; it happens. Perhaps the most dramatic chapter in the book is Pearce’s account of one instance of it: the shrinking of the Aral Sea, which has been described as the ‘greatest environmental disaster of the 20th century.’

The Aral Sea was not a small water-body: it was once the world’s fourth largest lake – the size of Belgium and Holland combined – and was fed by a river the size of the Nile – the storied Amu Darya. Its waters were filled with fish and it was famous for its beach resorts; the lands that surrounded it had extensive orchards and vineyards. Now it is largely a desert, surrounding a few ‘hyper-saline’ stretches of water. It was essentially killed by cotton: in order to cultivate the crop on a large scale, the Soviet Union diverted the waters of the rivers that fed it into irrigation schemes, reducing the flow of water to a trickle by the time it reached the sea.

The sea was gone in a few decades.
The population that once lived off the sea’s bounty have now been reduced to penury; the rate of throat cancer in the area is 9 times the world average. They too were probably unable to envision the prospect of hydrological suicide, even as the water that sustained them was vanishing before their very eyes.
Pearce is at pains to explain that the problem lies not in an absolute lack of water, but in the patterns of water use. ‘Today,’ says Pearce, ‘the countries around the Aral Sea – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan – occupy five of the top seven places in the world league table of per capita water users. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the two countries that take their water from the Amu Darya, use more water per head of population than any others on earth. The Aral Sea basin is very far from being short of water. The problem is the simply staggering level of water use.’

In every country where cotton is grown in dry regions people should know that cotton is a slayer of rivers. The warning should be heeded in Egypt (where I lived amongst the cotton fields of Beheira a long time ago) and in Pakistan where, as Pearce writes, the British, by building the Sukkur barrage, ‘established what amounted to one giant cotton farm’ to feed the mills of Leicester.

But Pearce also has some encouraging stories, including some from India. There is for example the interesting case of Pepsee, a kind of plastic tubing for ice candies. ‘Sometime around 1998, somewhere in the Maikal hills of central India, someone – perhaps a farmer with a sideline of selling ices – started using Pepsee rolls for another purpose: to irrigate the fields.’ This became a kind of indigenous drip irrigation technique that minimised the loss of water through evaporation. The idea caught on and Pepsee is now in wide use among farmers.

Pearce’s best stories are those of rainwater harvesting. ‘In China,’ writes Pearce, ‘it was Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution that began the revival of the ancient tradition of rainwater harvesting. In India, it has been a mixture of swamis and scientists, schoolteachers and even policemen.’

Pearce writes about many such figures: Haradevsinh Hadeja, a retired police officer who has transformed the village of Rajsamadhiya in Gujarat; Rajendra Singh, a government scientist in Rajasthan who gave up his job to dedicate himself to water-harvesting; G.N.S.Reddy, a Gandhian; Pandurang Shastri Athavale, a Vedic scholar who is known as Dada to his followers. These are the real visionaries and innovators of our day: if the world were a saner place they, and their movement, would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For a long time now the world has been in the grip of ideologies that celebrate ‘growth’ for its own sake.

One particularly powerful version of this is the neo-liberal iteration of a philosophy that has historically regarded air and water as ‘free goods’. Ironically this ideology has found some of its most enthusiastic proselytes in countries where water is in short supply – India, Pakistan and Egypt are good examples. Egypt and Pakistan are both dependent on single  river systems. But Pakistan, as Pearce writes ‘abstracts five times more water per person than Ireland does, Egypt five times more than Britain.’

How long can this go on? It is time to recognize that the idea of ‘unlimited growth forever’ is a fraud, a hoax. This book shows us why – the planet will not allow it.

When The Rivers Run Dry is an exceptionally readable and well-written account of the world’s water crisis. It should be on every bookshelf.


When The Rivers Run Dry: Water – The Defining Crisis Of The Twenty-First Century, by Fred Pearce (Beacon Press, Boston 2006; there is also a Kindle edition).

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