Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Economist Special Report : Water March 2, 2019

With the subtitle, Thirsty planet, the Economist addressed water from multiple perspectives. In addition to a general introduction, the other subtitles included, Surface tension, Subterranean blues, Desalination, Waste Not Want Not, and the Conclusion, Hard and Soft Solutions.  The authors explained the purpose of the report: "It will look at the state of the world's freshwater and at the increasing demands on it, and consider the ways they can be met (p. 5)." Given that 70 percent of human and Earth's composition is water, the article focused not on quantity but on water management, "or more precisely, how to withstand economic, cultural and political pressures to mismanage water" (p.5) This premise assumes that managers have a holistic rather than a fragmented, national, or regional view of water resources.  Public sentiment, from The United Nations (UN) to other governmental bodies, view water as a fundamental human right.

The introduction mentions climate change, the cheapness of water in the developed world, and the devastation of natural environments as the major threats to water quantity and quality. The authors cite the UN's "water development report" (p. 6) that documents the decline of the availability of water and its increased use, a sixfold increase in one hundred years. The three factors of "population, prosperity, and climate change" (p. 6), the authors argue, will increase demand, with a 20 to 50 percent increase from current levels by 2050. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperature change of "a 2 degree C rise, an additional 8% of the world's population in 2000 will be exposed to new or aggravated water scarcity by 2050" (p. 7).

Since agriculture requires 70 percent of the world's water, the authors speculated on the effect that climate change would have on water availability. They acknowledged the current occurrences of extreme weather events, from rising ocean temperature. Their concern, however, focused on the shortage of water and drought with declining stream flows in rivers.

Regarding surface water in rivers and streams, the authors added this subtitle, "poisoned and over-exploited, many rivers are in a parlous state" (p. 7). Human pollution, industrial waste, hydroelectric and other dams threaten water flows. Some remedies include "large scale infrastructure to bring water from elsewhere; flow-management through digital monitoring and the use of economic levels" (p. 8).
The authors cite examples of India's Ganges, Israel's Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake), and Australia's Murray River as examples of governmental approaches to water management.

Ground water also suffers from chemical and other pollutants from "landfills, septic tanks, leaky underground gas tanks and the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides" (p. 9). As mentioned previously, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water use. The authors listed the main extractors of ground water: "America, China, Iran, and Pakistan, account for 67% of total extraction worldwide" (p.10). Food production demands the majority of this water.

To solve the problem of insufficient surface and ground water, some countries, especially Israel, have resorted to desalinated sea water. By pumping sea water over a one kilometer distance and purifying it through reverse osmosis, one water treatment plant, the Sorek desalination plant, supplies Israel with one-fifth of its water use. Of the estimated 15,906 desalination plants worldwide, Israel has five,  fewer than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. The cost of the process reflects the ability of these countries to pay for it.  The cost of transport and the energy required to desalinate makes this the most expensive way to produce potable water. A cheaper option, reuse of water and treated sewage, are alternative methods employed by Israel and Singapore, as illustrated by the authors.

Conservation of water, especially by agriculture its largest user, can result from drip irrigation and sensors that "monitor weather, soil and plant conditions and calibrate how much water is delivered" (p.11). The public can control water use in the selection of what foods we eat and what we waste and the water footprint that we create. Technological enhancement can also assist in reducing food waste. "Remote sensor technologies, such as near-infrared spectrometers and hyperspectral imaging, capable of evaluation the perishability of individual items" (p.12) could solve this problem. Leaky water pipes and "non-revenue" water, water used without a cost frustrates the desire to conserve. A local utility in Denver attempted to achieve 'net-zero' water consumption at its newly built waste water treatment plant. Commercial companies, such as Nestle and Unilever,  continue to strive to reduce water consumption.

In conclusion, the authors refer back to the three forces driving water decisions, "economic, cultural and political pressures to mismanage water" (p.5) . They recount the large projects undertaken throughout the world, for example, Israel's National Water Carrier and the Three Gorges Dam in China. However, to achieve the UN's goal on water and sanitation, money is needed, estimated at $114 billion. Equitable pricing of water offers another challenge, as does the issue of allocation. Countries would have to face their current laws on water to establish a regional or collective doctrine.

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