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(Please pardon this awful machine transcription until we can manually edit this to something better)
[0:00] I'm David Torcivia.
[0:02] I'm Daniel Forkner.
[0:03] And this is Ashes Ashes, a show about systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.
[0:12] But if we learn from all of this maybe we can stop that the world might be broken but it doesn't have to be.
[0:20] Water is one of life's most important resources. The US calls water the common currency that links all of the organization's sustainable development goals. We need it for food production, we need it for human health in the form of drinking water and sanitation, we need it for our economies to function. We even get a significant portion of our electricity around the world from water. And when this resource is in jeopardy people lose their jobs, their homes and their lives. And right now there is a global water crisis unfolding.
[0:53] This crisis is being fueled by a number of factors, rapid population growth and development, climate change patterns, unpredictable rainfall, pollution, and limits to current infrastructure to meet rising water demands. And as a result of these factors droughts and water scarcity around the world have put major cities and countries on the brink of collapse. It has displaced people from their homes, exacerbated regional conflict, and in general these factors have set the stage for a more harsh and violent future.
[1:29] And this crisis is being felt all over the world. Much of the Southwest United States is in extreme drought at the moment in places like Oklahoma, Colorado, to Texas Panhandle, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah lower amounts of snowfall have affected the snowpacks and during the summer the storms that will come through, well, they're missing. And this is reducing river levels, impacting agriculture and ultimately threatening these areas as homes for humans.
[1:54] In Argentina, the world's third biggest exporter of soybean and corn, tremendous economic losses have resulted at the hands of current drought. Losses that have contributed to the need for Argentina to take out a 50 billion dollar loan with the IMF in May of this year.
[2:13] With strings attached I'm sure.
[2:14] As we discussed two weeks ago.
[2:17] And while Cape Town, South Africa has received a great deal of attention lately leading up to the so-called Day Zero when they'll need to shut off tap water because of water scarcity many more major cities all over the world are approaching their own day zero events. These are places that include São Paulo, Beijing, London, Tokyo, New Delhi, and many more as we'll see in the episode ahead.
[2:40] By 2050 up to 1 billion people will be affected by desertification alone.
[2:46] But before we discuss all these upcoming crises and how they're going to play out in the populations around the world maybe we should take a second to examine the climate changes that have led us to this point, where water that we once considered predictable and a resource that we depended on to build our current levels of civilization, well, now it's becoming unpredictable. It's becoming more extreme in both floods and in droughts.
[3:09] In fact, globally, water-related disasters have accounted for almost 90% of the most devastating disasters in the past 20 years. In some countries these water related disasters can account for as much as 40% of annual GDP in terms of their losses.
[3:29] And as this water becomes more unpredictable with some places seeing much more rain and some places seeing much less, we'll see events play out that are both droughts as well as major rain events like we just saw in Michigan, as of the recording of the show, where they saw 7 inches of rain in 4 hours, something their infrastructure was unprepared for or unable to cope with. It washed out roads, destroyed bridges, flooded homes and businesses, and left the Upper Peninsula a disaster zone.
[3:57] Of course, climate change is a huge factor contributing to the rise of water crises all over the world but it's not the only factor. Like we mentioned, unabated population growth and development is placing increased demand for increasingly scarce water resources. But also mismanagement of water Resources is playing a big role in this as we will see governments and businesses continue to treat water resources as something they can take for granted and it results in suffering for the people.
[4:27] And to understand why these things are changing why water is becoming less predictable and where it falls we need to look at climate change itself. As the Earth heats up as we put more energy into the system, well, it also means there's more water in the atmosphere as well. As extra heat evaporates all this additional water off the ocean off the large bodies of water, remember this is 3/4 of the world almost that's covered in water just mostly salt water that we can't use for agriculture for drinking.
[4:52] Wait so we've actually created the world's largest desalination process, David.
[4:57] Well, I mean that that is where we get our fresh water from this desalination process of the sun, but we've intensified that as we heat things up, as we make the sun and the temperature more intense it allows more water to evaporate and for the atmosphere itself to hold more this water. And water vapor itself is actually one of the more potent greenhouse gases so it becomes a feedback loop intensifying this process even more, but maybe that's a conversation for a different episode. But what is important here is we're seeing more water vapor in the atmosphere. So why are we seeing this play out in less rain in so many places?
[5:30] Part of it has to do, David, with the Hadley cell that is expanding, as we talked about in our heat episode, that huge cycle of convection very similar to your microwave oven.
[5:40] Exactly. As we pump more energy into the system it intensifies this Hadley cell process. Regions around the center of the globe that are historically dry are becoming drier. Regions in the extreme northern or southern parts of the globe towards the poles are becoming wetter. And that middle area where we have a temperate amount of rain, not too much not too little, well that area is shrinking and simultaneously moving farther to the polls. So that means places like the United States' upper part of the country is seeing much more rain while parts of the south are seeing much less. And this is playing out around the world in places like India, Australia, Africa, and the result is much less rain where there's lots of people around the tropics and up to the north where they're getting more rain, well, that rain comes much harder, much more intense and it causes its own problems. And this is a process that was supposed to play out by 2100 when those climate models finish their analysis. And remember climate change extends past 2100 though we often only talk about it in those contexts because that's what the models map out too but...
[6:38] It's also when I'll be too old to care, David, it'll be somebody else's problem.
[6:43] Yeah, hopefully we'll long and dead by then but...
[6:45] Or will I still be alive? Maybe we should be, maybe we should be modeling until 2110.
[6:51] Why 2110? You got an extra 10 years in you is what you say?
[6:56] I'm feeling good, David.
[6:57] And as intense rain that we're seeing right now in the tropics has been increasing, well, that's going to slowly peter out and in fact we've already started seeing this process play out. You can see maps that NASA has mapped over the past couple of decades showing a decrease in rain in many areas around the center of the globe around the equator and up to the mid latitudes, and an increase in rain up in the northern latitudes. It's already happening even the climate models didn't estimate this happening until later on the century. Well, when you look at the numbers this is already playing out and it's just going to get that much worse.
[7:27] David, the models that predict and track changes in global climate can be very technical but the results of all this change is being felt very acutely by people all over the world right now.
[7:41] About 36% of the world's population, or two and a half billion people, live in areas that are strapped for water. And by 2050 that number could rise to 4.8 billion people, or about half of the population. And because of this water scarcity within the next 12 years 700 million people will be displaced from their homes if nothing is done.
[8:05] But it's not just an issue of water itself. It's about access to water and, more importantly, access to clean water. In 2015, 2.1 billion people lacked water services that meet new UN standards including 159 million who compelled to drink untreated water directly from surface water sources.
[8:24] And when you're forced to drink water that's not safe it results in illness and death. Every single minute a child dies as a result of contaminated water. And a lot of this stress comes from the demand on water resources that we simply cannot supply with current infrastructure and current practices of extraction. As we see more and more people push towards urban populations, 7.3 billion by 2050, there will be even greater demand for water to serve the needs of these people. Global water demand is projected to increase by an additional 33% by the same year. And what that means is that up to 5 billion people could struggle to access water. And speaking of cities, David, like we mentioned Cape Town in South Africa has gotten a lot of attention recently. And its has managed to delay its so-called Day Zero, that moment when all tap water will be turned off due to water scarcity. And it's now projected to occur sometime in 2019. But to afford this delay the city has reduced water consumption to the point where citizens now consume around 85% less water than the average American. And despite all the attention that Cape Town has received in recent months this is a reality that threatens to bring cities all over the world to their knees and some cities that are already experiencing extreme, water stress.
[9:53] Real quick, Daniel, Day Zero. That's something we've mentioned a couple times through this episode already and we heard it a lot like you mentioned with the coverage in the news about Cape Town and about some these other cities so maybe we should define that explain what it means both as like a term to discuss politics but also what it means for the people who live in the cities that find themselves facing Day Zero.
[10:16] Okay, David, so if Day Zero is bad that means we must be, in some places, on like day 100, right? I'm assuming this is something that we're counting down to.
[10:26] Exactly. Day Zero is a zero countdown so a lot of these cities can look at their reservoirs, they can look at estimated waterfall, they can look at all their water reserves and say we, at current usage, have 100 days of water left. Or we have 50 days of water left, or we have 30. And as droughts continue at the rain doesn't fall and its consumption continues, those numbers tick down and it's a countdown. You find yourself at 20 days of water then 14, then 7.
[10:54] And if an unpredictable rainstorm comes through as a result of this increased water in the system that you mention, David, I'm guessing then that would affect the number of days left until Day Zero.
[11:04] Right, it kicks back up at that point so you say, Oh we got a lot of water coming in the freak storm. We have got two weeks of water so now we're back up to day 30 again, but eventually you will hit that Day Zero. And that's the day that you have no more water to pump. And this is the crisis day that Cape Town has been preparing for and other cities might find themselves facing soon. So the question becomes what was Day Zero going to look like for Cape Town? And we all thought we were going to hit it this year this summer but some additional rain and these water conservation efforts that Daniel pointed out, were able to push it off, at least they hope, until next year when the seasonal rains return, replenish the reservoirs and hopefully kick the can down the road a little bit. But what it meant is that they were going to be bringing in trucks, constant streams of trucks filled with water. And they were going to set up something like 10 or or 20 pumping stations around the town. And you would show up and you are allowed 25 L of water a day, and you would bring your own things to fill up. You would have like 90 seconds or two minutes to fill up your containers and then you would go home and that's all the water you had for that day. And then you could return the next day.
[12:10] And, David, I think they planned for a city with close to half a million people 200 collection points where citizens can show up to fill their buckets and take it home with them.
[12:20] Yeah, which if you start doing the math 200 collection points and each one had something like 12 to 20 spigots, I think, filling water continuously basically all day. If everyone was in line constantly and all these pumps are running perfectly 24 hours a day I think that meant every single person could get their 25 L. But that's a lot of if's and but's and hopes everything's working correctly and much less not considering the lines and the fact that people would be queuing up for hours to get their water often times in the middle of the night which might be better so you're not standing outside in the sun waiting to get water. You can see how this would destroy town from tourism, people aren't going to want to come, to the economic impact of people having to spend most of their day waiting for water, to all the businesses that depend on water, restaurants, laundromats, anything that uses water in their day-to-day operations which is basically everything, all that is impacted and destroyed by this need to constantly import water to what is an unsustainable population that can't depend on the water reserves that they normally should have.
[13:18] Well, not to mention potentially sparking violent conflict as people fight over something that is seen as an unpredictable or maybe a fragile source of water resources in a place that we talked about a couple weeks ago, David, that still experiences a high incidence of inequality and injustice. But, David, like we already alluded to Cape Town isn't the only place that is experiencing extreme water stress.
[13:41] In fact, right now in India people are experiencing the effects of this water crisis more acutely than any other place in the world. According to a 2018 water aid report over 163 million people in India right now lack access to clean water that is near their homes, but that doesn't tell the whole story. 70% of the country's water is contaminated. And 1/3 of waste water is untreated. Half of all rural residents lack quality water access and currently 600 million people in India are victims of high or extreme water stress. And 40% of India's water comes from groundwater and it is being extracted at alarming rates and there are very little efforts to restrict extraction to a more sustainable rate.
[14:32] I really want to drive this number home because it's so shocking. So this groundwater depletion it's going to cause 100 million people to lose access to water in cities across India, including places like New Delhi, in just 2 years by 2020. That's a year and a half actually from now. I can't even imagine. And India and the world just isn't prepared for the situation.
[14:54] And if nothing is done about this groundwater depletion 40% of the entire population in India will go without access to drinking water in the upcoming years.
[15:05] So how does a country of 1.3 billion people find themselves, very shortly, within years facing a situation where there is no access to drinking water or any water really at all? And the answer is complicated it's multi-faceted and I don't want to sound like I'm pointing fingers though the Indian government has repeatedly failed to address this concern though they're aware of it and hope that it's just going to resolve itself with a change of climate patterns in the future. Unfortunately, the patterns have been changing against them throughout this time. The rains that India depends on, the monsoon seasons, are becoming later their becoming shorter and their becoming less regular than they used to be. The snow in the north that feeds the rivers that drip down through all of India are becoming smaller, are falling less frequently, are falling less thick. And that means less water in the snowpack that eventually becomes the rivers that keep the state of India alive. Add to this a huge growth in population and add to that a huge amount of industrialization to bring modern living standards to the 1.3 billion people of India. Modern living uses much more water than a rural lifestyle. The conveniences that we enjoy our home means we use much more water than somebody who lives in a farm and subsists by themselves. This triple pronged effect - climate, population, and industrialization - is leading to a situation where India has used their water unsustainably, drained it from the ground, and it's not being replenished fast enough by nature. It's purely just unsustainable. And it's going to play out sometimes violently in the next few years.
[16:32] You're absolutely right about industrialization. And while it's true as individual residence and citizens we do use more water in urban settings, agricultural actually is one of the major consumers of water around the world and in India. But there's a big difference, like you mentioned, between a rural farmer who employs subsistence farming to take care of himself or herself, their families, their communities, and what has now become the global norm of this industrial agriculture that is not suited for local subsistence but for markets around the world. And as we talked about in our fashion episode India's economy depends a lot on these crops that are exported to foreign markets like the cotton that is grown for the fashion industry which is an extremely water-intensive plant. But other crops as well, like sugarcane and rice. But all this is not exclusive just to India but the region as a whole. Water scarcity is going to force millions of people from their homes not just in India but also in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and China in the coming years. And these people who will be come migrants will add to the tension that already exists between these countries and this region. Bangladesh and Pakistan regularly accuse India of unfairly capturing water that flows downstream into their respective countries. And India itself accuses China of monopolizing water upstream across its northern border. But these types of water disputes don't occur across international borders alone but within national lines. Just like here in the United States lawsuits over water occurs between states like we see in the water wars between Georgia, Florida and Alabama. And like the dispute between cities Flint and Detroit in Michigan which led to the Flint water crisis. Well, in India right now there are seven major disputes ongoing related to river water use that spans 11 Indian states. And of course these disputes are exacerbated by general water shortages in the whole South Asia region.
[18:33] For India alone water demand will soon double the available supply. And as we see many cities on the brink of water crises as they now depend on dwindling groundwater supplies but continue with their heavy industrialization. So let's look at a specific example. In May of 2018 just last month residents of Shimla, a popular city in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India, had to wait four days to get water. Schools were shut down for the week and tourists for asked not to visit. But Shimla is not the only city feeling the weight of the country's worsening water crisis. In fact, not a single city in India at this point can provide drinkable water from the tap.
[19:13] And these factors that have contributed to the Water Crisis in India, like we talked about, David, they're only going to get worse. Like the exploding population growth, well, that's projected to reach 1.7 billion people by 2060 and that's assuming the fertility rates drop. Which will cause India to surpass China as the most populous country on Earth putting additional stress on the demand for water.
[19:37] And speaking of those crops, that industrial agriculture like the cotton required for the fashion industry which we've discussed before, these water-intensive plants account for 90% of all water consumption in India. And this industry makes it difficult for India to manage its water as their population grows and climate change worsens the competing demand for water and crops increase and the choice will often have to be made between supplying and drinking water or irrigation for these fields.
[20:05] Which is a decision, David, that a government in Western India actually had to make just a couple months ago in March. Water levels in a dam were critically low and the government decided to stop water from flowing to farmers so there would be enough water for residents to drink. And, unfortunately, these are the types of short-term decisions that many places are going to have to act on - Well, we need food for the long-term, which we're going to need water to grow our crops but if we don't redirect this water right now people are going to die because they don't have drinking water. And at that point you don't really have the option anymore to think about long-term options. You kind of just have to make that decision and pray for the best, that maybe you'll get some additional rainfall and hopefully things will improve.
[20:52] And in a lot of places they're going to have to make choices between, Do we have water for our residence to drink, to fill this immediate need that we need to survive, the need for water, or are we going to allow this water to be used by farmers, a lot of times for crops that are economic crops like cotton? Well, if we were instead to try and be more sustainable and say all water is only supposed to be used for agricultural crops that we can eat, well, first off you wreck the economy of these farmers. They're not going to be able to support themselves. So that is an economic impact, a devil's choice you need to make. But then also if droughts get bad enough you have to decide, Are we going to have the water that we need to water the crops that we need to feed our people or are we going to use this water to drink and survive off that? And it very quickly devolves into this place where there's no good choices where you have to make short-term decisions because the only other answer is death.
[21:44] And like we mentioned, 700 million people could be displaced by 2030. And up to a billion people affected by desertification by 2050. And part of the reason that this displacement and the forcing of people from their homes is a huge problem is because of the current border system that is established and enforced around the world. Migrants pose challenges to the risk of global conflict and even civil war as we have seen with the Syrian refugee crisis that resulted in large part from drought causing Eastern Syrian Farmers to push into Western cities and towns, and sparking civil war. But borders create problems for the management of water itself long before refugees result from these water crises. So right now we have 40% of the entire world population that depends on river basins that are shared across borders. And up to 90% of the world's population live in countries that have to share waters that cross international borders.
[22:46] So what does that mean? Let's simplify this down very simply. Daniel, we both have countries. And we're neighbors right? and you you have this country that's down there on the coast and my country is up here in the mountains and there's the rain.
[23:03] Come on down to my country! We got the best beaches. We've got the sun all year round. We got those little shacks on the water that sell boogie boards and surfboards. Come on down. It's great place to come to.
[23:17] It sounds beautiful, Daniel, but the thing is is you have all that, but I have these mountains. They're beautiful. They're tall and gorgeous but, more importantly, the moist air that rolls off your coast, across your country and into mine it hits these mountains and it starts to rain or it starts to snow and it deposits all this clean, fresh, beautiful water that I need to drink to grow my crops and it rains down on my nation within my borders. It deposits snowpacks in my mountains that feed the rivers, that flow across my lands, across our border, through your beach paradise, and eventually into the ocean. So we share this water. We share these rivers. They feed both of our nations. They allow both of our nations to survive. But, you know what? I'm going to build a dam.
[24:01] Hmm, is that going to affect my businesses?
[24:05] Well, you're beach houses aren't going to be affected. They still have the ocean but they're not going to have any water to give to all your tourists. They're going to have to import bottled water. You're going to have to import food from somewhere else because you're no longer going to be able to grow crops because I've decided that my damn is more important, that I need electricity from this, and eventually after I've fully flooded this damn, you know, you'll get a trickle of water back out but that could take years. It could take 3 years, 5 years, 10 years even depending on how big this basin that I'm making is. And in that time could your country survive without a few years worth of water?
[24:37] No, David, I don't think they could. We can shred some waves but we got to be hydrated.
[24:42] Well too fucking bad because the water is all in my land! It comes from my mountains. It falls from my rain. And you have no say because I'm upstream. It sounds like an extreme example, right?
[24:54] But is it, David?
[24:55] This, quite literally, is playing out all over the world right now.
[24:59] That's a river example and if you're going to build a dam in the mountains, David, I feel like it's pretty obvious and I'm going to see it happen. But perhaps a little bit harder to track, and therefore harder to keep accountable between different countries, are the aquifers and just general groundwater that's under the surface of the Earth that a large portion of the population depends on, but maybe it's not always clear who's taking more than their fair share.
[25:25] This reminds me of that scene from There Will Be Blood at the end when he's yelling, "I drank your milkshake!" or whatever. We're doing that to each other's aquifers right now.
[25:37] Yeah, 600 aquifers right now cross borders between countries. And your example is simple, David, but the more I think about it the more silly it seems to divide the world up among these made up political lines trying to control all the activity within them, and then completely ignoring the fact that all the systems that we depend on for life, these environmental flows, don't obey the same borders. It seems like if we had borders at all they would have naturally come about according to these environmental flows but for whatever reason that's not how we organize the world.
[26:10] Right, that's really the case although in some places rivers are borders or used as dividing lines but that can introduce problems with their own. So if we both have rights to drain this river, and I'm drinking more than you are and now you're mad but you drink more instead to get back at me and you find yourself in conflicts none-the-less even following these natural systems. But the Earth and the environment does not respect our political borders. The water's going to fall where it falls. It's going to drain down whatever rivers that goes down. The animals that live within the systems are going to move across these borders freely, at least until we fill them up with walls. And there is no respect from nature of our political systems that we've created to try and define regions, land, states, whatever. And maybe because of this we've failed to look at the systems as holistic things. We examine the rivers the aquifers within our lands as something that exists independent from any other natural system. That makes water sustainability extremely difficult because these things need to be looked at as entire water systems. But if I only have control over a small portion of this system then that's all I can focus on. And though international agreements do prop up where you're trying to organize among the community often times it ends in arguments, political conflicts, and even times military aggression.
[27:21] But what I was surprised, David, to find out is that even within countries where the system is entirely contained, even then we still struggle to look at these systems holistically, like you said, as we'll see with Australia. So it's not a surprise then that when different countries have to share water there's a huge challenge in coming up with agreements that actually reflect appropriate extraction levels for the way the system naturally operates.
[27:48] So let's look at a specific example where this is playing out right now and has been for decades really.
[27:55] Ever since 1929 an agreement between Egypt and Sudan has been the justification for the two countries to take the lion's share of water in the famous Nile River. Egypt and Sudan have historically captured almost 90% of this river's water but now Ethiopia is in the process of changing everything. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, once completed be the largest dam in Africa and it's being built on the Blue Nile, which delivers almost 85% of the water that eventually passes through Egypt, and will potentially cut Egypt's water supply by 25%.
[28:34] This is pretty much exactly that scenario you gave me. Ethiopia is in the mountains, Egypt is on the beach. And historically Egypt, a more economically powerful country, has commanded the majority of this river's resources. But now a country upstream that has somehow managed to get the funding necessary to build the largest dam in Africa is going to challenge Egypt's right to that water.
[28:58] Exactly. I think you might be seeing where my fictional example was inspired by. And so just like our example the purpose of this Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is to produce electricity, about 6000 megawatts during peak rainfall months, and spur economic growth in the region to the export of this electricity. Additionally, the damn may reduce the risk of flooding downstream for countries likes Sudan who stand to benefit from the dam unlike nations like Egypt. And all of this has led to increased tensions and conflict in the region. In fact, in 2010, leaked emails from private security firms in contact with Egyptian official suggested that Egypt wanted to build an air base in Sudan that would allow Egyptian Special Forces to sneak across the border and destroy parts of the dam. Or maybe simply just bomb it with jets.
[29:48] I'll give you one better than that, David. A few years ago, in 2013, Egyptian political leaders were convening with the president to discuss some things and they were caught on live television discussing with the president potential military retaliation to Ethiopia's dam building. With one leader calling it an act of war. Well, the suggestions they were throwing around including, Hey, you know maybe we should airstrike Ethiopia. We can send some Commandos over there. It's just like scuba dive under and blow the dam up, or Hey, maybe we can sell some weapons to some local rebels to fight the Ethiopian government. And none of us knew that this conversation was being televised publicly. And once they discovered that fact all the political leaders were really embarrassed. They said, "We never would have said those things if we knew the public was listening. And the president sent an apology. What do you think the apology said, David?
[30:42] Um, dear Ethiopia I'm so sorry for threatening to blow up your dam, attack your country, and potentially kill your people," at least I hope.
[30:52] No, David, he was apologizing to the political leaders saying, Sorry I didn't tell you guys that this was a televised event. We'll be better next time. I think it really highlights the value of water as a resource and when we think about country's going to war with each other over resources the image that comes up in my head is always something like oil maybe diamonds.
[31:15] Or land itself.
[31:16] Yeah, land itself for agriculture or for expansion. But the idea that water is something that can cause war, and just building a dam within a country that is being financed fairly, according to international rules, by that country can be seen by someone else downstream as an act of war.
[31:36] And sometimes that land that I mentioned as one of the reasons for war, well, the reason it's important is because of the water access on it. So right now Israel is occupying an area called the Golán Heights or Golan Heights, which used to belong to Syria but they took control during the conflict between those two nations. They are there still there. They've been there for decades at this point. And the large reason why Israel has refused to return this land and continues to occupy it is because this area, a mountainous region of extinct volcanoes, supplies almost a third of the water to Israel. And these water rights are just too important to give up. And in fact you'll probably see, the later this year, the United States recognizing the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights making it more less officially part of the nation at least under the US's Vision which is really all that matters when it comes to geopolitical conflicts at this point.
[32:24] But I guess I have to take back my comment earlier about how we design borders without considering the natural environmental flows. Maybe we'll see new ways of drawing borders as a result of some of these shifting water patterns around the world, but these types of tensions these conflicts it's not always a result of countries versus countries but a lot of times business itself is the culprit of so much of the pain that we experience from water scarcity. So the UN has called access to water for drinking and sanitation is a basic human right and in May of 2017, last year, a UN water expert visited Mexico and concluded that many rural, indigenous, and other people on the outskirts of cities have no access to adequate water, and that the government has failed to meet this basic human right for large swaths of the population.
[33:20] And one thing to note actually is that access to water is not just a human right according to the UN but it's actually enshrined in the Mexican constitution as something, a basic right, that every individual living in Mexico as a Mexican citizen should have.
[33:34] And although Mexico has expanded their water infrastructure generally oftentimes these projects merely redirect water away from communities for the benefits of businesses and wealthier districts. And so this UN expert witnessed one neighborhood in Mexico City which is their capital, and found that many people rely on donkeys to deliver their water. And many natural sources of water used by indigenous people are either contaminated by unregulated mining and other industry, or that water is drying up from extractive industries like commercial drink bottling plants.
[34:12] At the same time while the poorest people in Mexico are the ones paying the most for access to water, water that is commonly unsafe, companies like Coca-Cola have been profiting handsomely from practically unlimited access to water resources in the south of Mexico, in the region that borders Guatemala, there is plenty of natural water resources to go around. But it's not being shared. Coca-Cola bottling plants have deep wells that extend more than five times deeper into the ground than the wells that the surrounding indigenous and rural citizens rely on. And many of these shallow wells have dried up as a result leaving locals with no good options for access to water. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola has a single bottling plant in the region that produces up to 7% of all drink products sold in Mexico. In April of last year 1500 locals protested outside this bottling plant but it will take more than local pressure to change the current system that makes Mexico one of the most viable regions of production for Coca Cola.
[35:10] So many of the counter arguments to the need for regulating these enormous businesses that pilfer our public resources comes down to, Hey, if we regulate companies then we're going to disincentivize them to do business. It's going to hurt economic growth and we're all going to suffer and we won't have jobs. I mean what kind of world do we live in where it would be a bad thing to get rid of Coca-Cola? Why do we need Coca-Cola? It's one of the most destructive companies on the earth. We're facing a global water crisis. We don't need companies that are pumping water out of the ground to make sugar drinks. We need water so that we don't die.
[35:47] It pains me to say this as a native Atlantan, somebody who grew up with Coca-Cola, drinking Coca-Cola, but you're right Daniel. Preach it.
[35:55] Maybe one thing we can consider that might go a long way in stemming some of the irresponsible practices of companies like Coca-Cola would be to simply make it mandatory public knowledge to disclose what companies pay to access natural resources. This is one of the reasons why Mexico is attractive to Coca-Cola because it doesn't have to disclose how much it's paying for the water it's extracting. We do know from many of the bottling operations in Mexico that they pay as little as $150 per permit that they have to drill for water, but I think it would go a long way in helping us to keep these companies accountable if we knew how much they were paying for the resources that we all depend on.
[36:38] But the problem with that, Daniel like we've discussed in this show many times, is that once you start doing that, once you start tabulating all these externalities these natural resources that are being used, we quickly find out that if we factor in the unsustainability of this operation, well, it's not profitable. Coca-Cola's bottling plant isn't profitable because while it may provide us with affordable sugary drinks, it does that on the cost of denying the natural resources to the native people of the land and ultimately impacting their lives and in many cases ending up taking those lives.
[37:10] Perhaps this isn't the place to get into how unhealthy drinks like Coca-Cola is but it's worth pointing out that in many rural areas and indigenous communities in Mexico Coca-Cola intentionally keeps the price below the price that these people have to pay for water, ensuring that the only thing they drink is Coca-Cola which is arguably a large contributor to chronic illnesses like diabetes and congestive heart failure. But maybe that's a discussion for another time.
[37:40] Or episode #14, “Sweet Release: On The Dangers of Sugar”. But maybe we should turn our conversation back to some things where we can actually look at real costs, the prices that we pay to build up the infrastructure to supply us with this water, to supply us with sanitation and all the things that we need for a modern industrialized society.
[37:59] So, as the United Nations points out, the lack of investment in efficient and effective water infrastructure around the world has caught up to us and is now costing enormous restraints on economic growth. It's estimated that financing needs, by 2030 in terms of water infrastructure, will reach $6.7 trillion and by 2050 that could balloon to $22 trillion. And there's a lot that goes into water infrastructure, everything from desalination to sanitation and wastewater treatment to just the pipes that run water to tap sources. And like we talked about in our infrastructure episode a long time ago how water is leaked at enormous rates from LA's water systems and like we've seen in Flint, Michigan where water infrastructure and bad calls have resulted in lead poisoning for many of the tap water in that city, without proper infrastructure in place all of these problems that we're talking about just get that much worse. And like we mentioned how so much of our natural disasters are water-related, well there is a large amount of money set aside by countries and international organizations specifically for disasters around the world but so much of that money, over 90%, is earmarked for reactions to disasters which means that less than 10% actually goes into preparation. And because reacting always is more costly than better preparation we need a global shift in mindset into better infrastructure that's more efficient that leaks water less and is more resilient to disasters like floods when they happen, and things like drought, so that we can be a little bit less reactive to some of these problems. I think a good case study for this can be found, or is continuing to be found, in Australia.
[39:52] In 2008 Australia faced a crisis. For 10 years Australia had been in the grip of the worst drought in over a hundred years. Water restrictions were in effect in all cities. Farmers had experienced bankruptcy. And because of the lack of rainfall, one of the countries most important river systems the Murray-Darling, which at the time supplied water for 40% of the country's grain, vegetable, and fruit crops, was drying up rapidly. In 2008 rainfall to the river system was the lowest it had been in over 115 years. And as bad as this was things looked as though they were only getting worse. To try and buy time the government put together a $3.6 billion plan to improve infrastructure, to reduce evaporation and pipe leakage. And in 2012 the Australian government implemented the Basin Plan which, for the first time in Australia's history, puts limits on how much water can be extracted from the total water system. The idea is that each year municipalities all along the river system report rainfall, water storage levels, and other other flows that affect the stock of available water. Then the Murray-Darling Basin Authority determines the maximum amount of water that can be extracted for consumption so that the natural water flows are not destroyed and can be maintained well into the future.
[41:09] And in terms of practical implementation of this basin plan and its impact on society the government set up market incentives to help price the available water for extraction. There are water entitlements that can be permanently traded and water allocations that act as seasonal rights to water that can also be traded. And the plan also incentivizes efficient irrigation projects but of course there is an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of this plan some of which has become politicized as you might expect. Some farmers are harmed by the uncertainty of pricing. There has been a measurable decline in agricultural jobs as a result of water restrictions. And the effectiveness of some of these infrastructure projects is challenged but I don't think, David, that we should go into the politics of Australia here but rather focus for a second on this concept, the idea that you can target a sustainable extraction rate and consumption level when it comes to our water resources.
[42:11] Because although these resources that give us life and support the societies that we have built and the uses of these resources, in general, have become complicated by some of these issues we've discussed like borders, like trade disputes and violent conflict and like to push for short-term economic growth. Well, at the end of the day these systems are still pretty simple. We have finite stocks in our world. Stocks of oil, stocks of arable soil and stocks of water. And there is a rate at which these stocks increase from incoming resources and a rate at which they decrease from outgoing flows and uses. And we as humans can have tremendous influence over the outgoing, or the depletion rate, of these resources and sometimes even the inflow depending on certain projects that we implement. But if we don't monitor these flows and if we don't target a rate that balances the stocks that we depend on then we're going to lose them. And so for that reason I think that the Australian Basin Plan, as a concept to monitor and adjust water extraction levels, is a step in the right direction but it also highlights how late to the game we are as part civilized humans because this plan that Australia implemented was the first of its kind in the country's history and it came about through reactive necessity. And at the end of the day it may be too little, too late. And all over the world we continue to neglect the nature of these very simple systems that we depend on, their incoming flows, the level that we have for consumption and the rate at which they decline. If we do not make up for that absence of thought very soon we're not going to have these resources anymore.
[43:59] And I want to bring up just one thing here, Daniel, and that the concept that these resources, these stocks, these underground aquifers that hold the majority of our water can in fact be destroyed. So when we think about aquifers we think, Well, we'll just recharge them as a water flows back down, if you use less it'll refill that aquifer and given enough time we'll have those resources once again. But aquifers aren't that simple. As we drain them more the ground compresses and it erodes the ability of these aquifers to hold as much water. We see this very dramatically on the top of the land in subsidence where the land itself starts to sink as he's aquifers are drained the space that this water was once filling has been emptied and is compressed by the weight of all this soil, of this dirt, of this rock above it and slowly shrinks the size of these aquifers making them smaller, making them less capable and making them harder to recharge. This is a non-renewable resource if we drain them too quickly. If they're well managed though it will last us into the indefinite future.
[44:58] So one thing we should do is put pressure on our policy makers, and put pressure on ourselves to consider every resource we depend on as a system that must be maintained through a balance of inflows and outflows and implement actual policies and efforts to monitor and control these flows and we might make mistakes in the process like many argue with Australia's Basin Plan, but we can only learn by trying.
[45:25] You know what's one group of people that maybe did really respect this natural water systems understanding the flow of water from one area to the other and how to carefully manage that and that was the Romans, actually. They built these huge aqueducts, many of which are still standing today, that responsibly and sustainably carried water all across the Roman Empire to places from where it originated from to where was needed. That's why these aqueducts still carry water today. But, unfortunately, the modern Italian government and the people living in Rome today have not learned the lessons from their ancient forefathers.
[45:59] In July of 2017, last year, lake levels that supplied much of the water for Rome was at critical levels and the government had to make the call to impose water restrictions. It would affect up to one third of city residents at a time. And this rationing would rotate among neighborhoods and it involved completely shutting off the tap for 8 hours every single day.
[46:22] So because of this rising heat, like we discussing episode number 25, and the decreased rainfall that results from climate change, like Daniel mentioned, the lake that supplies much of the city's water had been dropping an alarming rate. But even worse as we talked about in our infrastructure episode Rome's water infrastructure is incredibly leaky. Almost 44% of the water that goes through its aging pipes is lost!
[46:45] But David they narrowly avoided the crisis. The government stepped in at the last minute and saved the day. Do you know what they did?
[46:53] Uhhh was it cloud seeding, Daniel?
[46:57] Close. They decided No, we're not going to turn off the tap water. Our people need water so we're going to keep pumping the lake.
[47:04] Well, that doesn't sound like it solves anything at all. That's just kicking the can down the road and hoping it rains eventually.
[47:10] And that summer was bad for Italy everywhere. Combinations of that high heat and reduced rainfall resulted in drought across the country. And that lake that feeds into Rome? Well, it ultimately retreated 60m just a couple months later. But hopefully, David, this summer won't be quite as bad.
[47:28] I'm pulling up the Rome weather forecast right now. Well, it's 90° in Rome today. It's supposed to rain tomorrow though so I'm sure they'll be fine.
[47:39] And if Rome continues to pump this lake, if the drought continues forcing the lake levels to retreat eventually leading to a lake that is gone completely, well, that's just going to be another lake in the long list of lakes that have disappeared because of poor water management and increasing drought across the world. We saw this most notably with the Aral Sea, which because of poor water management went from the fourth largest lake in the entire world to now just 10% of that size with the remainder becoming an abandoned desert.
[48:08] David even here, in the United States, California lawmakers have decided to redirect water away from the 350 square mile Salton Sea to help meet the water needs of surrounding cities. At least a third of the sea is expected to dry up as a result and this comes with some pretty serious risks. In addition to the hundreds of species of migratory birds that rely on this lake for survival, there's been a number of toxins that have accumulated in the bottom of this lake including DDT, arsenic and other chemicals from agricultural runoff that have taken place ever since the 1970's. Well, as this lake dries up those toxins are going to become exposed to a very dry climate that will pick them up and deliver them into dust storms that already are a problem for this region. It's one of the reasons that has some of the worst air quality in the entire United States. And that's going to expose people to breathing in toxins that are going to be bad for their health.
[49:06] So the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California, has been polluted by industrial agriculture like Daniel mentioned, all this runoff from the fields that lead to this Lake and then ends up polluting it and destroying the local ecosystems. And agriculture is the largest user of water in the world and in many places this comes at a cost.
[49:24] That's right, David. Again in the Western United States the high plains aquifer, or the Ogallala, has been drying up at an alarming rate as a result of over-pumping of groundwater which is affecting streams that are drying up at a rate of 6 miles a year. And the aquifer itself has shrank twice as fast over the past few years as compared with the past six decades. And, specifically, this over pumping is coming from agriculture. This aquifer is one of the world's largest underground bodies of freshwater. And the result of this draining threatens to turn swaths of traditionally very fertile American farmland into desert. States the benefit from the aquifer, well, they don't have any agreements in place to govern depletion at all. And, in fact, Colorado has been pumping water out of this aquifer and into a local river to avoid lawsuits with Kansas over river levels.
[50:17] Well, this aquifer actually has a really interesting history. And so those States that this covers - South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico - is really the center of this country's agricultural production. So most of the corn, most of the soy, most of the wheat that we grow as a nation is because of water directly removed from this aquifer. The soil in this land has always been very fertile. It was settled very early by farmers who recognized the fertility of the soil and immediately farmed. What part of the problem was this area is prone to cyclical droughts. And these farmers, early on before they had tapped this large aquifer, would fall victim to these droughts and eventually it ended up culminating in the 1930s dust bowl that ravaged the middle part of this nation. But following advances in well and irrigation technology after World War II, this aquifer was tapped, it was drained, it was irrigated and what is more or less a desert portion of the United States has turned into a vital fertile agricultural land that enables the United States to feed itself and feed much of the world at the same time. But this comes at a cost, like Daniel mentioned, as we drain this aquifer at hugely unsustainable levels.
[51:26] Right and all this pumping, well, its harming Farmers economically because it has resulted in increased costs for farmers whose pumps have to work even harder to extract water the deeper it is. It has resulted in catastrophe for fish species that cannot adapt to these changing river patterns that result. And of course, looming over all of this, is the threat of desertification and crop failure. But farmers are actually aware of this problem and have been for a long time. There have been many efforts in eastern Colorado for example to retire farmland so there's less extraction of groundwater and of course many experts are pushing new technologies like drip irrigation which can do more with less water. But David, as we discussed in our episode on climate techno fixes, technology alone is not going to solve this problem. This is a broken system that ultimately depletes water resources faster than that water can be recharged. And the depletion is coming in large part from unsustainable industrial agriculture. It is not enough to only address technological innovation in this area but maybe the whole system needs restructuring.
[52:36] So a lot of stuff we laid out. And we could go into a lot more depth with a lot of these stories. There are so many water tragedies playing out across the world constantly both in the past as well as right now and then very much looming near in the future. We could sit here all day discussing these but maybe it'd be more productive at this point to turn the conversation too, well, what can we do?
[52:55] That's a great question, David.
[52:56] One of the things we always here when we start talking about water is think about our own water use. This conversation of water conservation always pops up. Say, Oh take shorter showers, or that rhyme growing up about toilets, If it's yellow let it mellow if it's brown flush it down, to try and save a little bit of water from your toilets, installing low-flow toilets, not leaving the faucet running when you're not using it, little things like that. And that's, in my experience, has always been what the water conservation conversation has been about. But unfortunately the impact that we as individuals have in terms of the large water use that is primarily industrial agriculture is limited at least within our homes. Much less if we live in an area that doesn't face these waters shortage problems then these types of activities really don't make any impact at all. But there are things that we can do. And one of the largest users of water we've identified is agricultural use. And not all agriculture is created equal. Livestock and meat production is heavily water dependent and uses for more water than equivalent plant-based calories. If we want to address this issue as a global population we need to start seriously looking at a world that is predominantly vegetarian. This would do a huge part in cutting global water use down to levels that could begin to approach sustainability.
[54:10] And on agriculture, David, a system that relies on exporting and importing across long distances will always be unsustainable. And the more we can shift towards local agriculture, local consumption, seasonal availability of crops, more diverse farms, more local farms, farms that are smaller and more farmers on the land, the more resilient our agricultural will be the better the soil will be at handling changes in climate and the less water intensive our farms will be. There's a lot of benefit that comes from changing the system of agriculture that we have right now.
[54:46] But this also means responsibly pricing our water resources and not allowing companies like Coca-Cola, like Nestle to basically use these resources for minor political cost and no actual economic or environmental pricing. The fact that these companies can draw this water with basically no consequences for just a minor fee is contributing to the problems of these water-stressed areas. Of course this means fixing what is often times already corrupt governments. So in the meantime we as individuals can tell people these stories, tell people about the actions of Coca-Cola, of Nestle, and refrain from buying those products.
[55:23] And the soda tax that was imposed on certain drink products in Mexico, I think it actually had a measurable impact on sales for Coca-Cola and other sugar drink products.
[55:33] Probably why the Mexican Government was spying on soda tax activists as we discussed in previous episode.
[55:40] Right, but I do think it highlights that the consumption of these products does make a difference even if we as individual consumers don't have a lot of power in our individual choices, some kind of broad regulations that can help lower the incentives for consumers to purchase these products could possibly go a long way. But again, David, that means going up against any entrenched political interest that are married to these corporate interests.
[56:06] And again trying to look at water from a systems perspective, ignoring borders, ignoring political boundaries and working together as people interested in protecting the water systems as a whole across nations, across states is going to be something that becomes very important as these water systems get more stressed in the coming years.
[56:26] But David, it's a big problem so solutions are going to be complex but at the end like you said systems thinking will go a long way because ultimately these are simple systems that we, through our human activity and through our desires to extract as much as possible, we have complicated what should be a very simple equation. Less water out than what goes in means water for a long time.
[56:52] But in the meantime I'll be standing outside with buckets every time it rains hoarding my water to keep it all away from you other money grubbers for when the water apocalypse comes.
[57:01] That's a lot to think about, David.
[57:02] As always. And think about it we hope you will. You can find more information on all these topics, resources, facts and other details as well as a full transcript of this episode on our website at ashesashes.org.
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[57:58] Buh bye.