Thursday, April 12, 2012

Water, water everywhere and a lot of murky reasoning

The other day I was browsing through the Washington Post, looking for an article I expected would be published on Saturday, written by an old friend, R.C. Barajas. The article is about a woman from Trinidad who works at the NIH by day, and runs a Capitol Hill bakery by ... even earlier in the day. The photo's yummy enough that I might have stopped by when I was last in D.C., had I only known.

On my way to my friend's article, I ran across an opinion post written by Charles Fishman titled Five Myths about Water. It was a water-focused week. The Associated Press had just run an article describing states' readiness (or not) for changing weather patterns; you can see it in the on-line Wall Street Journal: States' readiness ranked in face of water threats. Then the SF Chronicle ran an editorial on Sunday: California's water wars could heat up. So I took a look at the Fishman post.

Wow. Talk about murky reasoning. I mean, you expect the wacko conspiracy theorists, like WSJ on-line commenter Paul Merrifield, who responded to the AP article as follows:
Is threatening my kids with a CO2 demise going to make anyone vote Liberal? CO2 crisis fear mongering could keep Republicans in power forever. Climate change wasn’t sustainability, it was a 26 year old death threat to billions of children. If there were real legal consequences for you remaining climate blame believers in condemning our children to a CO2 death, none of you bed wetting, drama queen baby talk intellectuals would still be shooting your mouths off like this. You climate cowards didn’t love the planet; you hated humanity for real planet lovers are happy, and not disappointed the crisis wasn’t real because it was exaggerated. [...]


But Charles Fishman? Charles Fishman blogs about water over at National Geographic, and he published a book called The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. You'd think he'd have something serious to say. But three of his five "myths" are ... kind of gee-whiz, really; and the two that suggest historical consequence are out-of-focus.

Charles Fishman's myth #1: "We're running out of water." The lie in Fishman's rendering of this myth is a textbook exercise of getting the facts right at the expense of the truth. Fishman writes, getting the fact correct as I understand it, "The amount of water on Earth isn’t changing, and as a planet we’re in no danger of running out." But he doesn't get anywhere near the truth until paragraph six of six on myth #1:
The problem is that we’ve built our communities, our farms and our reservoirs in places we expect water to be. The scarcity we’re seeing is a result, in part, of a shifting climate — it’s still raining, but it may not be raining in the watersheds of our reservoirs. Water scarcity is also a result of population growth; more people need more water. And it is often a hidden cost of economic development. As people get wealthier, they use more water for things such as bathing and running the dishwasher, and more energy, which requires huge volumes of water.
Well, yes. And therein lurk the sort of problems that could use government-scale attention, because the only way they'll 'solve themselves' is through scarcity-driven disease and conflict in areas where water is needed but isn't available in sufficient quantity, irrespective of the number of water molecules distributed here and there on our lovely planet.

And thus to Fishman's myth #3: "This is going to be a century of water wars." A myth, Fishman thinks? He argues that "Water is simply too cheap to fight over, and too hard to move around the world on demand." But is water as a resource to control, store, hoard, and ship over great distances -- as humans do with oil, to which Fishman compares it in the Washington Post piece -- the driver for anticipated so-called water wars? No, probably not. But lack of fresh water may well cause collapse of agricultural economies, means of energy production, and urban infrastructure at a scale that invites political upheaval and power vacuums that have been the tinder to war's flame for as long as humans remember.

The odd thing on doing a bit of digging is that Fishman does seem to have a handle on the big picture.

Here, for example, excerpted from a National Geographic blog post of 1 March 2012, When It Comes to Water, We’re All Maya Now:
It’s possible that the stunning Maya civilization — with mastery of mathematics and astronomy, farming, water management, pyramid building and city planning — was undone by summer rain. Not enough summer rain. Undone, in fact, by exactly the kind of rainfall changes we ourselves are starting to experience — small shifts in rainfall that persist, and end up having an outsized impact.

And from his book's cover flap:
Fishman vividly shows that we’ve already left behind a century-long golden age when water was thoughtlessly abundant, free, and safe and entered a new era of high-stakes water. In 2008, Atlanta came within ninety days of running entirely out of clean water. California is in a desperate battle to hold off a water catastrophe. And in the last five years Australia nearly ran out of water—and had to scramble to reinvent the country’s entire water system. But as dramatic as the challenges are, the deeper truth Fishman reveals is that there is no good reason for us to be overtaken by a global water crisis. We have more than enough water. We just don’t think about it, or use it, smartly.

Did the Post water down Fishman's ideas? (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Or does the newspaper piece reflect that good old we-can-engineer-our-way-out-of-anything-we-engineered-our-way-into mentality (about which I've written unsympathetically before, in Digging deeper holes, for example).

It's a tempting trap, masquerading as a solution of the "oh, the experts'll fix it" variety. Fishman writes, "We have more than enough water. We just don’t think about it, or use it, smartly." As if it were nothing at all to 'just' think and be smart.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Pacific coast watersheds
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes
Things fall apart

The image in this post shows MacArthur Burney Falls just south of Mt. Shasta, about which I blogged in Pacific coast watersheds this past October.

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