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Energy, Water, Climate Change and Equity

Paul Kando

United Nations scientists estimate that by 2030 worldwide demand for water will outstrip supply by 40%. Indeed a plurality of world population lives within 30 miles of stressed water supplies.

Ships in the former Aral Sea, now gone
photo credit: Yes Magazine

Twenty-one of Earth’s largest aquifers are no longer sustainable because of excessive water withdrawals for human uses. More than half of China’s rivers have disappeared since 1990. In Central Asia the Aral Sea, Earth’s 4th largest lake, is virtually depleted by withdrawals for agricultural irrigation. Ditto for Africa’s Lake Chad, Earth’s 6th largest. Brazil uses over 2 Trillion gallons of water in the production of sugarcane-ethanol. Meanwhile cutting down the Amazon rainforest reduces rainfall.

In the US, the Ogallala Aquifer will soon run dry due to heavy withdrawals – mostly for corn-ethanol fuel production — the USDA has warned. In drought-stricken California over-extraction of water to irrigate Central Valley crops has led to a large number of dried up wells. Still Californians use 150-200 gallons of water per person per day; 5 times what Israelis, Australians and Spaniards use.

Climate change also seriously impacts water supplies. Meager snow packs and melting glaciers deprive rivers of their seasonal water flow. Large, previously verdant areas are subject to prolonged periods of drought. Maine had one of its driest summers on record this year. The Great Lakes’ shoreline is receding.

Increasingly powerful storms dump huge amounts of precipitation within a very short time – water the landscape is unable to absorb. Much of this deluge of badly needed fresh water causes heavy damage, only to run off into the salty sea. Humans are responsible here as well: climate change is due to excessive carbon emissions – an “externality” of burning fossil fuels for energy.

Some blame overpopulation, a partial truth that’s a distraction. Surely, the reasoning goes, with my only child I am not responsible for overpopulating the Earth. OK, but I certainly am, for my share! When I designed a summer cottage powered by (then still expensive) off-grid solar power, my first design task was to carefully analyze the family’s water needs, because the single largest electrical load was running the deep-well pump. To minimize electric power demand, I had to find ways to conserve water.

We, Americans, must rethink such water-wasting practices as growing water-hungry crops in water-poor areas (e.g. almonds in bone-dry California); irrigating export crops, (while indigenous local farmers are dispossessed of their livelihood); exporting bottled water; contaminating water tables by fracking for fossil fuels; and golf courses.

As homeowners, we must likewise rethink our water use. Caring for our lawns, just like golf courses, is water and fertilizer-intensive, and wasteful of fuel. Fertilizer runoff can contaminate ground water. Our private swimming pools are a wasteful luxury that may compete with essential water uses. Flushing toilets (the single largest household water use) with potable water is another extremely wasteful practice, especially since there are viable alternatives.

Water is not a commodity, but a public trust. It is high time our thinking about laws, and energy policies, reflected this simple fact.