Water: Too Much or Too Little?

There’s a concept in prepping called the Rule of Threes: it’s a rule of thumb that says you can survive for 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food. This correctly indicates how important water is to life – far more than food!

One challenge with water is that there are too many of us needing clean drinking water for the available supply. In the UK we’re very fortunate to be able to expect clean fresh water falling out of our taps all day, every day – barring the occasional broken mains pipe. In fact the UK has  a very sophisticated system of water management, with an abundance of reservoirs, water treatment pipes, aquifers, canals, rivers and water mains pipes across the whole country. Even where there’s no mains water supply, there’s usually clean water not far underground, so a well or borehole is generally quite possible and most older properties do have wells or boreholes already.

This is not the case in the majority of the world, particularly the developing world. There, millions of people have no access to clean water or even water at all.

My feeling is that clean water is far too precious to life to risk contaminating it, even in countries where treatment facilities are plentiful. This is the biggest reason I oppose fracking in the UK (or anywhere!) as it risks contaminating groundwater, and aquifers that provide vital drinking water, for generations to come. Fracking also gives access to hydrocarbons we can’t afford to burn as they’ll add to the carbon in the atmosphere, of course, so that’s two strikes against fracking!

In the USA, there’s considerable trouble brewing over potable water supplies. The various cities that rely on the Columbia River and its various dams for water supplies are all now aware that at the time they sat down and divided up the water rights, the Columbia drainage basin was experiencing unusually high rainfall and now, in more usual rainfall conditions (let alone in the megadrought hyperarid conditions that climate change may bring, coupled with the loss of winter snowpack that feeds the Columbia!) there simply isn’t enough water to go round.

Texas has the same problem, though there it’s not rivers but the aquifers that hold water beneath the ground that’s causing concern. The Ogalalla aquifer, which provides 40% of the drinking water for the state and is so vast it crosses 8 states, has dropped significantly in recent years due to more water being pumped out than can percolate into the layer of porous rock that is the aquifer. There are already law suits in Texas over water rights.

The latest IPCC report, Assessment Report 5 (AR5), indicates that the general trend for the coming decades is that wet places will get wetter and dry places will get drier. Bad news for Texas and the Columbia River basin, sub-Saharan Africa, the Mediterranean, Australia, central Asia and parts of China! Perhaps less serious in northern Europe….

But do we really expect the large populations of those drought-stricken areas just to sit there and die of thirst? Would you? I wouldn’t. I’d be trying to move away, to find a place where I could get water. And so will they. They’ll be environmental refugees, searching the world for a new place to live. How do we deal with that? Can we accomodate those millions of people in better-watered areas? Certainly not at our current rates of water consumption! Yet is it morally acceptable to close our borders and force them to die?

The moral dimensions of the water problem is something we will have to face up to in the future. Those affected by water shortages will attempt to adapt by migration, if they can’t find alternative water sources in their own locations. How can we mitigate the problem?

There are two ways to approach the challenge here. One is to conserve water, to use less. The other is to find and capture new sources of water, to reduce the load on existing water supplies.

The other problem with water is that sometimes there’s too much of it in the wrong place – in other words, flooding. Whether it’s caused by rising ground water due to heavy rain, rivers bursting their banks, storm surges coming ashore or rising sea levels overtopping coastal defences, too much water can be as much of a problem as a lack of water!

Here is where I discuss adaptation and mitigation strategies for floods and droughts.

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