Path of destruction: what happens when the water runs out

Posted June 3rd, 2011 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Tough to reconcile that headline with the mantra with which I begin each post – fostering ecological hope. The fact is, and I really believe this, that hope rests firmly on clarity of vision about our predicament. If we don’t see what’s wrong with the way we humans construct our lives here on this planet, how will we stop ourselves?  And if we see it, and see where it is leading us, but throw up our hands about doing anything differently, or changing our whole approach to stave off disaster, are we merely reckless, lethargic, helpless, or is some greater malfunction of the species at work?

Desertification vulnerability - US Department of Agriculture

Pretty grim way to start this post, but I was really struck – with deep, deep dismay – by a couple of stories in the NY Times this week about China. As you know, China is dealing with its explosive industrial growth, climate change impacts,  and population challenges by undertaking massive engineering projects that are changing how the Earth works in that region. From cloud seeding to bulldozing whole areas for housing construction to massive dirty industrialization to enormous dam projects, the country is on a road of vast ecological destruction with inevitable catastrophes to come as a result.

It’s one of the things that happens when you decide to bring a western-style industrial-based economy to the biggest population in the world, and do that in the space of a couple of generations.

So much could be written about that that is beyond the scope of this post, but I want to offer this example of what I mean: Plan for China’s Water Crisis Spurs Concern. That modest headline hardly anticipates the first shocking line of Edward Wong’s article, “North China is dying.” Why isn’t that the headline?  Sure would get more attention.

So, many of you know that huge areas of China have sunk into a long, pervasive, possibly permanent drought. Desertification is underway in some of these areas. Meanwhile, the population is undergoing a massive shift into urban areas, and a city like Beijing is growing exponentially.  These hundreds of millions of people need water, as do all those factories and coal-fired power plants, and more. Major rivers are drying up, and the Three Gorges Dam is proving do be the predicted environmental catastrophe many had feared.

So the government is once again embarking on a monumental engineering project to move water from the south, already parched by drought, to these urban areas, especially Beijing, in the north.

Areas facing water supply crisis by 2025 - Source: US Dept. of Interior

Well, read the article. It is sobering stuff. Water is becoming an issue all across the planet. We are overusing what the Earth has to offer – one of its most generous gifts being wasted, abused, squandered – while climate change is shifting precipitation patterns, bringing deluges some places while other regions are drying up.

In this country, we are depleting aquifers to feed artificially created industrial agriculture economies and to spur population growth in areas like the southwest, Texas, and Florida, and this unsustainable push to grow these regions economically is heading us straight towards water crises in the immediate future.

Industrial agriculture in Kansas - Source: NASA Earth Observatory

But try to tell powerful agricultural interests in the Central Valley of California that their industry is no longer viable in a thirsty world and that it is time to return the desert to its natural state – and then see what happens. Try to tell Big Ag interests in Oklahoma or Nebraska or Kansas, or all those developers feeding off population growth in Texas and Oklahoma, that the High Plains Aquifer on which they depend for water is being quickly depleted and may run out sometime this century, sooner in its southern stretches, and watch the reaction.

And then see if you can find a single politician with hopes of holding elected office talking about this Day of Reckoning just ahead of them.

Then see how soon we will find people talking about stealing water from the Great Lakes through a massive pipeline to the Southwest, as former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson so famously tried to do in his quickly aborted run for president back in 2007.

But the evidence of groundwater depletion around the globe is becoming evident even from outer space – or especially from there with new tools developed by scientists to measure what is happening. The article linked here notes that satellites looking into groundwater tables have detected the coming Central Valley crisis.

…from October 2003 to March 2010, aquifers under the state’s Central Valley were drawn down by 25 million acre-feet — almost enough to fill Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.”

The reaction from California water managers? “Skepticism.” When science bumps up against our economic way of life, that way of life seems to win every time. Since water is the underpinning of enormous parts of our economy, just see what happens when you try to tell people that the sky is indeed falling.

CA Central Valley groundwater depletion - NASA/Grace image

One last water story, seemingly unrelated, but not really. This one is about the Mississippi River, about which we have written here numerous times, and to which I devoted a good chunk of chapter one in my book (see sidebar). This story is about how our poor treatment of the river meets up with the toxic contamination of industrial agriculture to create a gigantic mess as the flooded waterways descend on the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists are predicting the biggest dead zone ever to appear in the Gulf.

“The United States Geological Survey has found that nine states along the Mississippi contribute 75 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus. The survey found that corn and soybean crops were the largest contributors to the nitrogen in the runoff, and manure was a large contributor to the amount of phosphorus.”

Corn and soybeans – mostly not cultivated as food, but as fuel for our cars or feed for the cows we eat in inordinate amounts. Take a drive through central Illinois to get a good sense of what industrial agriculture looks like – what happens when farms turn into a mega-industry to provide biofuels instead of family farms growing food.

Then see what happens when you suggest that we can’t allow this to continue, that the destruction has become too vast.

This is a really important article for understanding something essential about how economy and ecology meet in ways we can no longer avoid – our economic model, our way of doing economies, whether here or in China or Russia or wherever – must, must be changed if we are to address the ecological challenges that threaten us all.

That’s a tall order, my friends. And in this country right now, it feels like an impossible one.

Ecological hope – it means we go on creating the new way of life despite that impossibility, right?


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One Response

  1. D.Bheemeswar

    It seems since the industrialization the priorities have shifted for the wrong side of the development, that is individuals gains. Society is not for an Individual but for a group of people, that too everybody is human in nature bit their development may be different, depends on their background. With out understanding the ecology and environment were introduced the same way nuclear powers. Just like every atom has a nucleus each and every life do have a nucleus, which is the origin of the mankind, depending on the time and position on the land there may be some changes in this nucleus, which makes the entire difference across the people. Water harvesting which was used by our ancestors has gone into the dust bin, even with so many modern techniques we can implement this much better than earlier. Leaders of the countries have lost interest in the common people and divided them with race religion and others. It is very saddening that even at this stage some thing can be revived and the ecology and environment can be saved and the life on this earth. It seems when it comes to the dooms day people never listen to any good advices, it is just useless, but it our responsibility to rise the issue ask and request for peaceful settlement; despite knowing that they may not agree.