The world water crisis

Pat Ohlendorf December 13 1982

The world water crisis

Pat Ohlendorf December 13 1982

The world water crisis


Pat Ohlendorf

In the Soviet Union there is an abundance of wild, tumbling rivers but, for human purposes, many of them flow in the wrong direction. Each year, as billions of tonnes of fresh water pour down the Ural Mountains and into the Arctic Ocean, the steppes of the central U.S.S.R. lie parched. As long ago as the Stalin era, a breathtakingly ambitious plan was drawn up to wrest the Siberian rivers from their northward courses and divert them south into grain-growing Kazakhstan and cottonproducing Uzbekistan. In the western United States drought and the dramatic fall of the region’s water table have led to increased calls for water conservation and the consideration of huge schemes to resculpt the course of rivers to get dwindling water stocks to where they are needed by man. In Canada visionaries consider plans that would reverse the flow of the Yukon River and turn James Bay into a freshwater lake in order to pump Canadian water to the United States. And in

China engineers are laboring to reshape the vast Yellow River to supply water to its parched cities. Around the world, massive schemes in various stages of development—from pipe dream to completion—are being marshalled to move water from places where it is abundant to the alarming number of areas where it is becoming critically scarce. So great is the concern that conservationists fear fresh water may soon become the planet’s most precious—and threatened-resource.

Although droughts and severe water shortages have always accompanied human civilization (Australia is currently entering the second year of a drought), today’s burgeoning population, with its attendant pressures for more water, more food and more industry, is, most experts feel, precipitating a global water crisis of almost unimaginable proportions. By the year 2000 the world’s population will have increased by more than 30 per cent to 6.1 billion, forcing more arid land into cultivation by irrigation and putting even greater pressure on present acreage where water sources are already strained to capaci-

ty. The most distressing question is where that additional water is to come from.

Nowhere is the problem more pressing than in North America. The amount of water available for every person on the continent is dwindling at an alarming rate. This week U.S. officials warned that New York City could face an acute water shortage—a “drought emergency”—before Christmas unless there is unseasonably heavy rainfall. That and other shortfalls are not merely due to increasing population but to the loss of usable water itself, as industrial chemicals continue to pollute fresh water, as acid rain continues to fall, and as major underground sources of water for cities and agriculture literally dry up. The three water reservoir systems that supply New York City are now only 52.1-per-cent full. As thirsty Americans look north for help, Canadian water experts are scrambling to assess this country’s water resources, fearing that the economic temptation to sell water south of the border would eventually leave Canada unable to meet its own water needs.

To avert, or at least limit, the damage that will be caused by the coming water crisis—which most experts predict will become severe by the year 2020—analysts believe that comprehensive and perhaps drastic water management policies must be hammered out now. But a major problem in even formulating conservation programs or engineering solutions is convincing politicians and consumers, whose taps are still running freely, that shortages are around the corner. “Water is simply not visible until people are without it, ” says Peter Bourne, president of Global Water, a Washington, D.C.based organization created last year shortly after the United Nations declared the 1980s “The Water Decade.” Adds Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, an international research centre devoted to global environmental problems: “We are at the stage with water [supply] now that we were with oil 20 years ago.”

One way of dealing with the crisis, many engineers and farmers believe, is a megaproject solution like the Siberian river diversions. Still,

economists gasp at the price tags attached to the designs. And environmentalists shudder at the possible consequences of such massive tampering with topography. That is not a fear that can be easily allayed. The most dramatic effect of the Soviet river diversion scheme may be on the world’s climate. Some scientists fear that the globe will literally cool off if the huge flow of warmer water (100 billion cubic kilometres per year) into the Arctic is curbed.

Historically, engineering answers to water problems have been as much a part of human civilization as droughts and floods. In ancient times the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Chinese constructed sophisticated canals for navigation, flood control, city water supplies and irrigation. And remnants of the Roman aqueducts that once laced Europe are still standing. Advanced engineering technology, however, has made far more ingenious and intricate schemes possible. The city of London recently ended its long battle against the flood-prone

Thames by erecting a $l-billion series of massive hydraulic gates to control the river’s level. And the Netherlands is now completing a 30-year, $3.3-billion solution to its endemic flooding problem which should hold for at least 200 years—63 giant steel gates that can be raised or lowered to regulate water flow.

It is in developing countries, however, that some of the most ambitious water schemes are being planned or built. One such project, the Salto Grande damspanning the Uruguay Riyer between Uruguay and Argentina—was finished in 1979 and has since become a Latin American showpiece. Requiring 35 years and $450 million to build, the cooperative project has tripled Uruguay’s electrical power, opened up 247,000 new acres of irrigated land, added 144 km to the navigable portion of the Uruguay River and enabled the two countries’ railway systems to be joined for the first time.

Much larger national water development projects are now being built in China, a nation notoriously vulnerable to the destructive cycle of drought and floods. Already, $1.5 billion has been spent on resculpting the Yellow River to minimize flooding, as well as to divert water to the thirsty industrial city of Tianjin. Large projects to hold back the encroaching Gobi Desert through irrigation and to transport water to such drought-ridden cities as Beijing are under way—as is a revitalization of a 2,400-year-old canal linking Beijing and Hangzhou.

Meanwhile, the same kind of grand plans are on the drawing boards for North America. But whether the proposed colossal engineering feats are as crucial to North American water supply as similar schemes in developing countries is a matter of debate. At first glance,Canada, at least, appears blessed with an abundance of water. The country’s lakes, rivers and streams constitute fully nine per cent of the world’s total supply of fresh water. Still, Canadian water experts are far from complacent. Declares University of Victoria geographer Derrick Sewell, coauthor of the recent book Water: The Emerging Crisis in Canada: “In Canada most of the water is in the wrong place all of the time.”

Sewell argues that there are already areas in Canada where water is scarce, and three of them—the Prairies, southern Ontario and the British Columbia Interior—are major agricultural centres.

Since the mid-1960s various Alberta governments have toyed with the possibility of bringing northern Alberta water to the south. So far, none has acted. Another major cause of Canadian water scarcity is pollution. Because so much fresh water is contaminated by toxic waste or ruined by acid rain, less water is available for agriculture and cities.

In the United States, however, the water crisis, projected to reach dramatic proportions by the turn of the century, has already begun. The lush agricultural productivity of the western United States—which provides the major portion of the country’s grain, fruit and vegetables—depends almost entirely on irrigation, and the sources for that water are drying up. The Ogallala Aquifer, an enormous reservoir of groundwater stretching from Nebraska to Texas, has for decades been “mined” twice as fast as it can be replenished by rain and runoff. The western U.S. water table is sinking at a rate of almost one metre each year, with the cost of

pumping it up rising steadily. Even optimistic experts give the Ogallala Aquifer only another 40 years of use.

Above-ground water sources are also endangered. The Colorado River, which is drained for irrigation by seven states, has become little more than a trickle, laden with salts from agricultural runoff by the time it reaches the Mexican border. (The U.S. government was forced to install a $400-million desalting facility in Arizona to deliver drinkable water to Mexico.) California—a bewildering maze of irrigation canals, pipelines and aqueducts that supplies

southern agriculture and cities—will become even thirstier in 1985, when it must surrender its intake from the Colorado to Arizona under the terms of a court ruling made in the early 1970s. As in the central west, the water table there has been sinking alarmingly—by as much as nine metres in parts of California’s San Joaquin Valley during the past 50 years. “One thing the East fails to understand about the West is how little water there is,” Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm recently told reporters. “We live in an oasis civilization in which one out of five people gets water from more than 100 miles away.”

Either because of the prohibitive costs of pumping groundwater or the glistening salt deposits on overirri-

gated fields, millions of acres of farmland in the western states have already been withdrawn from cultivation. So acute are the shortages in Arizona that the state government is buying up farmland to remove it from production, and it is now a felony in that state to dig a well.

The eastern United States has not been exempt from water shortages. Recent years of drought, combined with polluted water sources, have forced such states as New Jersey and New York to take drastic water-rationing measures. And falling water tables have opened huge sinkholes in Florida and elsewhere.

Since the early 1960s, two visionary megaprojects have been proffered to solve North America’s water problems. Forty-two per cent of the renewable water supply in the United States is found in Alaska. The North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA) scheme, the brainchild of a Californian, the late Ralph

Parsons, would pull two north-flowing Alaskan rivers, the Yukon and Tanana, south to the western United States —with a courtesy diversion to the Canadian Prairies along the way. The key reservoir—800 km long and 16 km wide—would occupy an area of the Rocky Mountain

£ Trench in British Co-

Í lumbia. In that area,

*according to Nathan

Snyder, manager of technology at the huge California-based Ralph M. Parsons construction company, there are now “only a few small settlements and an old railway.” Proponents argue that NAWAPA would boost U.S. agricultural and industrial production by $40 billion per year and that even waterlogged British Columbia would benefit from slightly higher temperatures and a stimulus to settlements that the enormous reservoir would provide.

The other competing megafix proposal is made in Canada and is even more startling. The “Grand Canal” concept has been advocated for 20 years by St. John’s engineering consultant Thomas Kierans, cousin of former postmaster general Eric Kierans. Kierans’ plan calls for “recycling” the eastern rivers that empty 11,350 cubic metres of water a second into James Bay. A 145km-long dike across the entrance to Hudson Bay would turn James Bay into a huge freshwater lake, preventing the loss of the river water to the sea. A huge canal would then transport the James Bay water to the Great Lakes, for release to the Prairies, the United States and even Mexico, as needed. “The whole continent will profit from the Grand Canal,” says Kierans. “But Canada will be the greatest beneficiary because we will sell the water.”

The main obstacle to getting the project built, in Kierans’ view, is the inability of politicians to comprehend the magnitude of the coming water crisis and the necessity to begin building now. Both NAWAPA and the Grand Canal would take at least 20 years to complete. But, says Frank Quinn, head of water planning management at Environment Canada: “The NAWAPA and Grand Canal schemes are absurd.” They are astronomically expensive (as much as $300 billion each), he adds, and they are likely to have devastating and irreversible ecological effects. They could become white elephants before completion, and both are based on the exporting of water, an idea that Quinn feels most Canadians find “repugnant.” The issue of Canada selling its water to the United States is indeed a hot topic on both sides of the border. “About 60 per cent of Canada’s water runs into the oceans,” says Kierans. “It just makes good sense to recycle some of it back for human use and to sell the excess.” But Canadian water experts, such as Sewell, who believe that Can-

ada, too, is facing its own water shortages, argue that exporting water would only precipitate the crisis.

Even more powerful than the practical arguments against exporting are the emotional associations with the water issue. Water, believes Environment Canada’s Quinn, is like land. “It’s part of the character of the country. Why not just sell the Americans a great chunk out of the Northwest Territories?” he declares.

Meanwhile, south of the border, similar arguments are put forth on both sides of the debate.

Republican Senator Frank Moss of Utah, for one, declares, “If Canada did not supply us with water, it could be regarded as an unfriendly act.” Still, other Americans staunchly believe that the solution to the U.S. water crisis must be found within that country’s own borders. Patricia Paylore, of the office of Arid Lands Studies at the University of Arizona, says firmly:

“Don’t you Canadians ever think of exporting your water to us. Once the pumps and pipelines are in, it would be impossible to stop. You will need every gallon in your own country.”

Federal governments on both sides of the border officially disapprove of water export. Neither NAWAPA nor the Grand Canal has been or is being seriously considered by either government. Says John Roberts, Canada’s minister

of the environment: “We are opposed to I the idea of diverting our water. We be-£ lieve that all of our water is being used g usefully in Canada.” However, he says, 8 the future of Canadian water resources! is becoming a national concern. “Wei must use our water wisely. People haveï been merrily planning away on the assumption that air and water will be there to infinity. But, if we look 20 years down the track, there are severe limits.”

A federal commission is now mapping out a nationwide strategy for managing Canada’s freshwater supplies, says Roberts, and early next year it will present its recommendations to cabinet. For their part, U.S. officials deny that they are looking covetously at northern water. “There is no serious consideration being given to E any scheme of getting í water from Canada,”

^ says Tom Hughes,

5 spokesman for the * U.S. department of the interior.

Nevertheless, many observers believe that Washington will begin pressuring Ottawa to sell Canadian water before the end of the century. All across the U.S. West, states from Montana to Texas are as dry as the bleak days of the dust bowls 50 years ago. Additional sources of water within the United States are limited, and U.S. government plans to increase rainfall by cloud-seeding are viewed skeptically. Porter Ward, an official with the U.S. Geological Survey, predicts that the future will see more and more water moved around. “You might say water flows toward money,” he says. “I think we will see interbasin transfers and we will also have to look to see if we can get water from Canada.”

Wherever macroengineering watermoving projects are being considered —whether as far-off visions in North America or practical solutions in the Soviet Union and many developing nations—their long-term consequences weigh on planners’ minds. Many view Egypt’s Aswan High Dam—now more than 15 years old—as an important test case. Massive irrigation of the Nile Valley has brought soil salinization in its wake. Snails that carry the debilitating disease schistosomiasis thrive in the new irrigation fields, and Egyptian officials estimate that as many as 90 per cent of Nile Valley residents may suffer from it. And, because the Nile no longer flushes sediment far out into the Mediterranean in annual floods, the delta is plugging up with silt. One casualty has been Egypt’s formerly lucrative shrimp industry.

Many of the current megaproposals are far more ambitious than Aswan, and ecologists fear even more dire consequences. “The traditional way of dealing with water [supply] problems has been to look over the next set of

hills,” warns Derrick Sewell. But, because of environmental considerations, the high costs of diverting distant water sources and the fact that conflicts inevitably arise with neighbors coveting the same water sources, many experts now are questioning the megaproject-megabucks approach and are emphasizing conservation instead. Steps can be taken in combination, Sewell and others argue, which would mean more efficient use of the water resources already available. Those measures include reusing irrigation water, switching to crops that require less water in the arid regions, curbing North American eating habits (much of Canada’s irrigation water is used to grow alfalfa, a cattle-feed crop), and patching deteriorating municipal water systems. At the same time, steps can be taken to clean up polluted water and encourage such advanced agricultural techniques as drip irrigation, which uses perforated pipes to deliver only as much water as a plant needs. Most importantly, water planners argue that consumers must be forced to pay a higher cost for water to stop waste.

The conservation approach may be best suited to industrialized countries, where the infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts and irrigation canals is already in place. It may be less appropriate for developing nations. The Third

World still lacks basic “plumbing” for cities, industry and agriculture, and the megaprojects may be worth the cost and the ecological risk. “The Egyptians knew all the consequences of the Aswan Dam ahead of time, with the possible exception of the effect on shrimp,” asserts David Hopper, vice-president, South Asia region, at the World Bank. “It was a trade-off. Without the dam, Egypt would forgo substantial gains in electric power, flood control and agricultural productivity.”.

Whether similar trade-offs will prove necessary in North America—ushering in grand schemes for claiming water “over the next set of hills”—may depend on how quickly national policies can be devised to ensure the most efficient use of water on this side of the hill. And in Canada that means that representatives from the provinces and the federal government, who are already involved in heated negotiations over other resources—energy, forests, fisheries— must again roll up their'sleeves to formulate management plans for the country’s most abundant, most ignored and, some fear, most jeopardized national resource.

With Daniel Bur stein in Peking, Jackie Carlos in Toronto, Keith Charles in Moscow, William Lowther in Washington and Suzanne Zwarun in Calgary.

Daniel Burstein

Jackie Carlos

Keith Charles

William Lowther

Suzanne Zwarun