Our current water crisis is often perceived as symptomatic of climate change, itself debated as a human, global, or cosmic occurrence. “Droughts are almost always reported as the result of climate change,” says Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians.
But, says Barlow, linking our water crisis to a global environmental phenomenon such as climate change can also distract us and, for some, alleviate us from our individual responsibilities in the crisis. This singular focus does not consider that droughts and water shortages have been caused by civilizations since ancient times.
Massive water diversions and over-exploitation of groundwater have been the hallmark of explosive populations throughout the world for millennia in a “rule over Nature” paradigm of hubris. Angkor flourished for six centuries through the ingenious water collection system of the Khmer; but resulted in deforestation and desertification – and eventual collapse of the empire. The more recent desertification of the Aral Sea basin – reducing what was once the 4th largest lake in the world into a mud puddle – represents one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. One precipitated entirely by humanity’s actions, which has, in turn, greatly affected the local climate and hydrological cycle of the greater region.
“The destruction of the Aral Sea and Lake Chad – once the fourth and sixth largest lakes in the world, respectively – was not caused by climate change,” Barlow says. “It was the result of relentless extraction for commodity exports.” She describes the drought crisis in California as the result of massive water exported as “virtual water” embedded in export commodities. The Ogallala Aquifer is being depleted not by climate change, adds Barlow, but by excessive extraction, mostly for corn ethanol.
How We Affect the Water Cycle
The water crisis on this planet, and its accompanying water shortage in various parts of the world, is ultimately a function of a water cycle crisis.
The water cycle – the path by which water in its three forms cycles throughout the planet – proceeds through a finely balanced interaction of ecological and geological phenomena. The cycle essentially describes the movement of water throughout the planet: moving as vapor into the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration then condensing and precipitating back to the Earth to infiltrate into groundwater and flow as surface water through various reservoirs such as lakes and oceans only to start again.
This water cycle balance is significantly influenced by vegetation, ground, landscape, and atmosphere. We impact the water cycle not just through diverting water from one place to another but – more importantly – through our activities that impact how that water cycles on Earth. One reason why this is so important to understand is that it is also at this level that the individual can act – and make a difference.
We impact the water cycle, and water availability in a watershed, through two principle means:
- Removing and Diverting Water: from one watershed to elsewhere.
- Removing Vegetation / Deforestation and Creating Impervious Surfaces: through development.
Removing and Diverting Water
We remove water that naturally cycles within a water-retentive landscape called a watershed either directly or indirectly (virtually). Our direct removal of water from its natural watershed is often through diversion (e.g., through canals, aqueducts, pipes, etc.). We may directly remove water from its watershed as commodity, such as in the water bottle industry, which takes water literally from one watershed and sends it to be consumed elsewhere. We similarly remove water in significant amounts from a watershed through export commodities such as fruit and vegetables or other industries that use lots of water (e.g., paper industry, metal mining represent highest users).
When water is removed from its natural watershed, the natural water cycle in the watershed is disrupted. With less in that “water reservoir”, less water is being cycled and less recaptured in that watershed.
Removing Vegetation / Deforestation & Creating Impervious Surfaces
Trees are highly evolved water management specialists, writes Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Plants Trees. “A forest is a soft carpet on the landscape that allows a downpour to reach the ground gently rather than in a torrent.” This one fact reminds us of Nature’s intricate fabric of intelligence and how water works with all the components of our natural world.
Trees and forests are the highest functioning members of ecological society, Robbins tells us. Trees “create rain, render … toxic wastes in the soil harmless, neutralize harmful air pollutants in their tissue, offer shade, and provide medicine. They sustain wildlife [with] food and shelter.
Trees are the planet’s heat shield, slowing the evaporation of water and cooling the earth. They generate vast clouds of chemicals that are vital to … the earth’s ecosystems and … to our health and wellbeing. They are natural reservoirs. As much as a hundred gallons of water can be stored in the crown of a large tree. The water they release is part of a largely unrecognized water cycle.”
When vegetation is removed from its natural watershed – through deforestation for agriculture or land clearing for development – the natural water cycle in the watershed is disrupted. Less vegetation means less evapotranspiration. Removal of trees reduces the water retentive quality of the ground, creating hardpan. Exposing hardpan to rain creates massive surface runoff that is lost to the system and washes away minerals and nutrients along with it. The cycle speeds up. It becomes unruly and precipitates flash flooding on the one hand and drought on the other.
Barlow reminds us that five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a historic resolution to recognize water and sanitation as fundamental human rights. The Council of Canadians established the Blue Communities Project that gives people the tools to encourage their local governments to recognize water as a human right, promote publicly financed water and wastewater facilities and ban the purchase and sale of bottled water in public facilities. In 2014, the Council of Canadians celebrated Tay Township in Ontario, Cambuquira, Brazil and Zurich, Switzerland all becoming Blue Communities. The Council of Canadians also worked with local organizations to promote international attention to places such as Detroit, Michigan, where thousands of people unable to pay their soaring water bills, faced water shut-offs.
Ten thousand years ago, the land along the Mediterranean was covered in mixed forests of conifers and oak, Bartholomew shares. Lebanon’s forests provided timber for the exploring ships of the Phoenician empire in the third century BCE. North Africa, a fertile forest two thousand years ago, is now a desert. A thousand years ago, three quarters of Europe was forest. Today forest and woodland cover only one fifth of Europe. A reduction in water vapor, otherwise generated by natural forests, creates an imbalance that promotes greater contrast between water-abundant areas and those without; this results in flooding on the one hand and desertification on the other. Dominick Spracklen and his colleagues suggest that, given the role of trees as the planet’s “air conditioners,” one of our primary climate mitigation measures – and a measure to re-instate a healthy global water cycle – should include planting indigenous trees.
How We Can Make a Difference
Researchers reported by Science Daily recommend additional actions to curtail the global water crisis:
- Improve energy efficiency
- Better research on alternative cooling cycles
- Registering how much water power plants use
- Massive investments in wind energy
- Massive investments in solar energy
- Abandon fossil fuel facilities in all water stressed places (which means half the planet)
These are aggressive actions. Global water conservation will require a global conversation. It will require forthright and creative cooperation. How we choose to deal with water will ultimately determine the fate of the entire human race. Will it bring us together or separate us?
As for water, water is water. From when the dinosaurs roamed the pre-Cambrian swamps to the crystal pools of our new cities, water has been on the planet in some form. It will continue to be water: flowing, transporting and depositing; filling; scouring; destroying and creating; transforming, invigorating, taking and giving life.
Water – always changing – will never change. It will prevail – even if we perish.
Some see water as a commodity like everything else that can make them rich; they will claim it as their own to sell. Yet it cannot be “owned” or kept. Constantly flowing, water slips through your fingers, leaving only a fleeting “kiss” of wetness. Ultimately, water will do its job to energize you and give you life then quietly take its leave; it will move mountains particle by particle with a subtle hand; it will paint the world with beauty then return to its fold and rejoice; it will travel through the universe and transform worlds; it will transcend time and space to share and teach. Then move on.
Water flowing. Water is magic.
This is an excerpt from “The Story of Water”, a reflection on how the short story in Mincione Edizioni’s bilingual publication came to be. The Way of Water is available in Italian and English on Amazon and other online bookstores, including its.it,
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist, limnologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.