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Priceless Water

By PAM BERNS
This time of year Chicagoans can look out over the harbor and soak in the beauty of the sailboats on the horizon. Most of us take this indulgence for granted. We are situated on one of the largest bodies of fresh water in the world. We swim, sail and drink from this amazing body of water. The world yearns for our water. Population in cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles are predicted to double in the next few decades, and with that, fresh water will not be adequate. Chicago’s fresh water will be eyed by developers who will probably like to siphon off our precious resource.

Despite claims by global warming deniers, large portions of the world are facing the dire consequences of a climate that is becoming drier and hotter every day.
  
According to Thomas Friedman, the Middle East is on the edge of the impending crisis, with Tunisia, Syria and Yemen running out of water, as their leaders secretly are digging wells in their own backyards. He writes in the New York Times that environmental, population and climate stresses are driving the Arab Spring as much as the political and economic stresses.
  
Friedman writes that Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell of the Center for Climate and Security reported that from 2006 to 2011 “up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced one of the worst droughts and most severe set of crop failures in its history.” The United Nations reported that more than 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods wiped out by droughts. Most of us only see the violence and the protests. These people have been suffering for a long time with problems that are too big for most to solve. Climate change and water management require worldwide cooperation between countries and their leaders. With the upheaval of the Middle East and the projected population booms (a predicted 132 percent by 2030) in nearly every Middle Eastern country, we must deal with this urgent problem immediately. Water supply in Asia is expected to exceed its supply by 40 percent in two decades.
  
Friedman reported that the Earth Policy Institute president, Lester Brown, wrote two decades ago that “the Saudis tapped into an aquifer far below the desert to produce irrigated wheat, making themselves self-sufficient. But now almost all that water is gone, and Saudis are investing in farm land in Ethiopia and Sudan, but that means they will draw more Nile water for irrigation away from Egypt, whose agriculture-rich Nile Delta is already vulnerable to any sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.”
  
Around 50 percent of the world’s freshwater is controlled by a handful of countries. According to the Wall Street Journal, by 2009, water had become a $500-billion-a-year industry in America. Water entrepreneurs such as T. Boone Pickens saw potential for profits. Businessweek reports that in 2011, Pickens and his Mesa Water Inc. sold the water rights to 4 trillion gallons of water beneath 211,000 acres of land for $103 million. The water came from the Ogallala Aquifer that lies beneath eight states. The Ogallala Aquifer supplies 30 percent of our country’s grain-fed beef, and supplies drinking water for millions.
   
Droughts, overgrazing and federal corn-based ethanol production have degraded aquifers, according to Alex Prud’Homme in The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-first Century. He writes that one problem is a meat-centric diet. It takes 634 gallons of water (for cattle feed, mostly) to produce an 8-ounce piece of beef.
  
Prud’Homme writes that creativity by industries can result in incredible water savings, citing Intel’s water conservation
system. He quotes Robert Glennon in Unquenchable, “It takes roughly 135,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of alfalfa, but it takes fewer than 10 gallons to produce [an Intel] Core 2 Duo microprocessor...Each acre-foot [of water] used to grow alfalfa generates at most $264. That same acre-foot used to manufacture Core 2 Duo chips generates $13 million.”
  
Privatizing water has become increasingly used in many parts of the world, from South America to China, and has been supported by loans from the IMF and the World Bank. But that does not mean that it is the equitable system to serve the poor who may be unable to find clean water.
 
Prud’Homme writes that the right of all people to have access to clean water has been sacrosanct. But, says water law expert James M. Olson, “The idea that water can be sold for private gain is still considered unconscionable by many. But the scarcity of water, and the extraordinary profits that can be made, may overwhelm ordinary public sensibilities."

Energy and Water
There is a stong link between energy and water. The future source of our country’s energy now involves fracking to access natural gas. But a single hydrofracked well consumes between 3 and 8 million gallons of water per day, says Prud’Homme. Mix that water with formaldehyde, xylene, benzene, toluene and boric acid. The waste water left over from fracking goes back into the environment. A cycle with a long-term price.

Desalination
But what about desalination? According to Fred Pearce in his When the Rivers Run Dry, the newer technology of reverse osmosis holds promise for regions like the Middle East that have the ability to generate energy easily by burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels. But the process extracts salt from the seawater, and the wastewater contains a brine solution and corrosive waste which can build up in the desalination plants. These pollutants eventually get dumped into the sea. Pearce writes, “It is also hard to see desalination ever penetrating the agricultural market, where the majority of the world’s water is currently used...Like enormous engineering projects for shifting water around the planet, it is a supply-side solution to a demand-side problem.”

Published: June 10, 2012
Issue: Summer 2012 Issue

Comments

Poor Journalism and Lousy Science
This article lacks scholarship and is poor journalism. Methane in water is old news. 50 years ago as a kid we amused ourselves with lighting the water coming from the faucet. There is zero science in your article. Don't you even make an attempt to see if your sources are sound?
Gene Redlin, Aug-18-2012
Priceless Water
So do we just assume that water is unlimited when new technologies are thrust upon us - like fracking? We could use a lot more transparency when it comes to divulging how much water is consumed to deliver a product or service. How about including that on the label so that as consumers we can make more intelligent decisions when it comes to this planet's most valuable resource.
Don Gordon, Jun-11-2012