'Peak water' could flush civilisation

A farmer takes water from a dried-up pond to water his vegetables in China's Jiangxi province. Population growth and desire for western lifestyles put immense demands on water in countries such as China and India.

A farmer takes water from a dried-up pond to water his vegetables in China's Jiangxi province. Population growth and desire for western lifestyles put immense demands on water in countries such as China and India.

Sat, Jan 23, 2010, 00:00

Early civilisations prospered by taming rivers, but as water gets scarce in some regions, populations rise and lifestyles remain the same, we might not be far from warring over water, writes SYLVIA THOMPSON

FORGET PEAK OIL. Forget climate change. Peak water is where it’s at, according to Scottish journalist and broadcaster, Alexander Bell, who has just written a fascinating book, Peak Water(Luath Press, Scotland).

“It’s the coming issue of our age,” says Bell. “Civilisation is thirsty. It has never stopped to think about what would happen if the water ran out.” And while Bell acknowledges tackling climate change is important, he firmly states peak water would have happened with or without it.

“You could say that it’s a re-framing of the climate change [issues] and what we are doing with the planet. With climate change, we’ve become conditioned to the idea of disaster but by focusing on water, you can’t say there is nothing you can do. Water is a precious resource that is running out in various parts of the world and even if it’s not running out in Ireland or Scotland, we will lose food, clothing and stability of the world order as we know it because of water shortages.”

Writing for the non-expert reader, Bell offers a fascinating journey through civilisations, charting how important access to water was in their growth and, in many cases, their demise. He brings us back to ancient civilisations in Persia, Egypt, China and Peru, with details of canal transport, aqueducts, dams and irrigation schemes. Bell argues that when humankind began to lose its connection to the river, we got the water to follow us rather than us following it.

“The triumph of the early empires is that they tame unpredictable flows but from about 1,000 BC on, civilisation begins to take the control of water for granted and something that has been magical becomes a given. It is still the source of power and the determinant to an empire’s success but the gradual process of burying water under the complexity of the state begins,” he writes.

This process, according to Bell, was evident in Greek and Roman civilisations where the source of food moved farther from the cities, and water became more associated with cleanliness than with basic survival.

“Two thousand years ago, places to wash in Rome were as common as coffee shops today,” he writes. “And a whole body of jurisprudence existed to govern the ownership and rights to water flow.” Some of the current problems with water shortages stem from our luxurious approach to water, particularly in places where there is very little. Bell is particularly fascinated by Dubai, which “has the highest water consumption per capita in the world. It sucks up water for construction, agriculture and industry. It gulps in the name of luxury and cleanliness,” he writes.

He also cites the excessive use of water in the US, particularly in places such as Las Vegas where there is very little. “In gated communities, huge structures look out over green lawns and rolling golf courses and artificial lakes. Never mind that the water for Las Vegas is piped from miles away – this is 20th century civilisation, where water follows man – no matter the lunacy of the destination.” And while he acknowledges that the Las Vegas city council now offers incentives for planting desert grass and fines for wasting water, Bell predicts that cities such as Las Vegas will die by ecocide.

The great rivers of the world are already running dry. The Colorado doesn’t make it to the Pacific Ocean for half the year. The rivers that made China, the Yellow and the Yangtze, also fail to reach the sea for stretches of the year. It’s the same story with the Nile and the Ganges. As Bell puts it, “the iconic rivers of our imagination are drying up. The rivers are the visible, potent symbols of our deluded belief in water control. With them come wetlands, flood plains, natural irrigation and the steady, if slow, replenishment of underground water reserves.”

Bell argues that while the great empires of the east used water to establish a consistent food supply, the northern countries used it “to lubricate the growth of capital.

“In the east, water control meant simple social structures of a ruling elite and a labouring class. In the north, water helped create a more complex hierarchy, based on wealth and skill. This liberal society found water could drive the mills that kick-started major industries. This created factories and the lure of urban living and higher wages to draw people from the countryside. It could move barges full of coal and cotton. Steam powered larger engines, pumps, trains and then ships.” And while Bell acknowledges that some of our current crises are caused by global warming, he argues that unsustainable water usage is a key reason the ways of the world have to change.

LIKE BELL, MANYwriters have raised the point that when population growth in places such as India and China is coupled with the desire for a more western lifestyle, this puts further pressure on natural resources including water. This is where the idea of valuing water as a precious resource links right into the same issues raised by climate change.

In fact, the idea of an individual water footprint has already been raised. A water footprint encompasses the reality that we affect water beyond our borders when countries that have a short supply of water grow and make things that have a heavy demand on water.

Bell suggests that revaluing water across the globe would take a radical shift. He explains how, because water is growing scarce in traditional wheat-, rice- and maize-growing areas of the US, India and Pakistan, it should be possible that the wet north could replace production, in part.

He also suggests that the north European (and now North American) model of industrialised, liberal, capitalist society may be best suited to wet countries. Secondly, he suggests we are quite used to making naturally occurring materials such as coal or oil into assets, so why not water? There is already a price on water in some places but putting a price on water that changes people’s usage habits (both personal and agricultural) is a broader issue.

Bell says: “We should be the ones who build new houses with composting toilets and reed beds to clean the waste water. We should instigate rainwater collection on a large scale . . . We should ensure that more food is grown for local consumption. The wet world should grow vital food for the dry world.”

BELL ALSO BRINGSup the widely held belief that the next wars to be fought in the world will be over water. In fact, he states that such wars have already occurred in some places – for example, between Pakistan and India. And the investment bank Goldman Sacks has dubbed water the petroleum for the next century.

“With the Cold War over and the threat from mass nuclear deployment apparently gone, we have switched our fears to a water war,” he writes.

According to Bell, what both threats show is that we fear our capacity to self-destruct (many would argue that much of the rhetoric around climate change comes from the same place).

He adds: “the reality of changing our water use is colossal. It calls for a new kind of civilisation built on global co-operation. The penalty for not doing this will be widespread social chaos.”