WATER SHORTAGES: SOLUTIONS AND INNOVATIONS

WATER SHORTAGES

The World Meteorological Organization regards drinking water shortages as among the primary obstacles to sustainable development. Currently one third of humanity experiences permanent water shortages. Two thirds may experience the problem if population and global warming trends continue.

Water shortages are a global problem and are particularly serious in arid regions. Causes of water shortages include swelling population, depletion of groundwater, wasteful irrigation, waste, pollution and global warming. In many places agriculture relies too much on ground water for irrigation. In urban areas many people illegally tap into water supplies without paying for it. In places where there is ample water is wasted in leaky pipes and other substandard infrastructure. Fixing leak pipes is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor that can take decades to complete.

Reports: The U.N. World Water Development Report 2009 by UNESCO; India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future and Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Worry by the World Bank; and Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s water Future .

Consequence of Water Shortages

The consequence of water shortages include drought and famine, loss of livelihoods, the spread of water-borne disease, forced migrations and even conflicts.

Poverty expert Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute of Columbia University wrote: “many conflicts are caused or inflamed by water scarcity. The conflicts from Chad to Darfur, Sudan to the Ogaden desert of Ethiopia to Somalia and it pirates and across to Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, lie in a great arc of arid lands, where water scarcity is leading to failed crops, dying livestock extreme poverty, and desperation.”

“Extremist groups like the Taliban find ample recruitment possibilities in such impoverished communities. Governments lose their legitimacy, when they cannot guarantee their populations’ most basic needs: safe drinking water, staple food crops, and fodder and water for animal herds on which communities depend for their meager livelihoods....Politicians, diplomats and generals in conflict-ridden countries typically treat these crises as they would any other political or military challenge. They mobilize armies, organize political factions, combat warlords.”

The United States and Europe often spend ten or even hundreds of billions of dollars to send troops or bombers to quell uprisings or target “failed states,” but do not send one-tenth to one-hundredths that amount to address the underlying crises of water scarcity and underdevelopment.

Solutions to Water Shortages

Among the solutions to water scarcity are better water management, improved technologies to increase efficiency, higher prices for water to decease waste, conservation, investments by governments, the private sector and communities in basic water infrastructure, and cooperation among communities sharing water sources.

Sachs wrote: “Most governments are poorly equipped to deal with serious water challenges. Water ministries are typically staffed with engineers and generalist civil servants yet lasting solutions to water challenges require a broad range of expert knowledge about climate, ecology, farming, population, engineering , economics, community, politics, and local cultures. Government officials also need the skill and flexibility to work with local governments, private businesses, international organizations, and potential donors.

The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank are all involved in funding water projects around the globe. Private companies are also involved. In Senegal, the world’s leading pipe maker JM Eagle donated 100 kilometers of piping that is used to bring water to tens of thousands of people.

Water Pricing and Waste-Water Recycling

Pricing water to make it more dear is increasingly being seen as the primary solution to the world’s water problems. When water prices were significantly raised in the United States in the 1960s and the money was used to improve irrigation, push low-capacity toilets and build water treatment facilities and the like, per capita water consumption fell by more than a quarter. In the developing world, however, it is hard to take similar measures because people are simply too poor to absorb any increase in water prices.

In the developed world where water shortages are acute, governments are increasingly looking into waste-water-recycling plants that can recycle sewage into a drinking water. One such plant in Orange County, California cost $480 million to build and requires $29 million annually to run. At this facility dark brown sludge that enters the system first goes through vertical tubes filled with polypropylene tubes that thickness of dental floss that are filled with holes 1/300th the size of a human hair that filters out many bacteria and protozoa as well as nasty “suspended solids.” Every 20 minutes are so there is a backwash or water and air blasts the tubes clean.

After that the water is pumped into the reverse osmosis chambers where it is mixed with sulfuric acid to lower the pH and pushed though several sheets of plastic membranes that removes salts, viruses and pharmaceuticals. After this hydrogen peroxide, a disinfectant, is added to the water which is then zapped with ultraviolet light, and decarbonized. For a final step lime is added to raise the pH. The result: clean water.

Water-Extracting Methods and Low-Tech Water Technology

Low-tech technologies used to collect water in arid regions include: 1) fine mesh “fog catching” nets stretched between poles that collect usable water from fog; 2) “rooftop harvesting” using pipes that divert rain from rooftops into a cistern; and 3) desalination cones placed in saltwater. With the latter sun evaporates water, which condenses on the cones inner wall and trickles down into collection areas around the bottom edges.

Among the low-tech water technology used to provide water and make it safe are: 1) filtration straws that trap disease-causing bacteria allowing people to safely drink untreated water (already over two million especially use such straws, which cost about $3 each, See LifeStraw,); 2) folding fine-weave clothing like an old sari four times to filter out pathogens like the cholera-causing bacteria; and 3) bamboo treadle pumps made up of inexpensive local materials that help farmers tap ground water to irrigate small plots of land.

Iceberg Catching and High-Tech Water Technology

Scientists are beginning to seriously study things like transporting icebergs as a way to alleviate global water shortages. Icebergs that have reached a size of 160 kilometers long, 70 kilometers long and 250 meters thick have been observed. A large iceberg can take eight to 12 years to melt completely. Winds and currents often carry them 40 to 50 degrees south latitude.

Technology currently exists to “catch small icebergs up to 0.1 cubic kilometers in size, and tow them to the African coast with powerful tugboats, The biggest obstacle to overcome is wrapping the iceberg in a protective film to keep the ice from thawing en route. Another idea is breaking up the icebergs where they are found and loading the broken ice into tankers.

Others are exploring weather modification. A wind powered spray turbine mounted on an anchored platform in the ocean sucks in ocean water through pipes then filters and sprays fine droplets into the sky. The humidified water produces clouds and rain.

See China

Obstacles to Combating Water Shortages

One of the main obstacles to combating water shortages is that government prefer to spend money on other things. Peter Rogers, a Harvard environmental engineering professor, told U.S. News and World Report: governments and the private sector “want to invest in energy, telecoms, highways, high-speed trains, you name it...the problem is [water] yields social benefits, so no one individual can afford to do it.”

Money is on water is drying up. In the late 1990s, public spending on water and sanitation was 2 percent of the GDP of most countries, By the late 2000s it had dwindled to less than 1 percent as countries devoted more money to education, roads and other needs. Foreign assistance for water-related issues has stagnated at about $15 billion a year. The World Bank has said a minimum of twice that amount is needed. The United States spent about $1.7 billion on water-related aid from 2003 and 2005, with a good chunk of that going to Iraq and Afghanistan.

One paradox with water is that efficiency can make matter worse on an economic level. The more water that is conserved the less money is earned by utility company that use their revenues to improve water infrastructure. Some policy makers say the solution to this is to creating a public fund for water like the one that finances highway construction with a tax on gas.

Desert Agriculture Innovations

Some have recommended that farms install more rain saving devices and reduce waste on irrigation by finding leaky pipes, replacing water ditches with pressurized taps, and using trickle-down agriculture that deliver small, steady amounts of water directly to the roots of plants.

Low-tech hydroponic schemes pioneered by Brazilian engineer Jose Roberto Fonseca include: 1) sprouting plants in water laced with nutrients held in plastic Coca-Cola bottles feed with ultra thin tubes; 2) using seawater desalinated with a solar-powered desalinator; 3) catching water from a well on a hillock and using gravity to deliver it to gardens below; 4) storing water in underground cisterns; 5) pumping water with solar-powered pumps; and 6) using recycling systems that avoid evaporation and reduces waste.

So-called resurrection plants---grassy plants such as Xerophyra viscosa found in the Drakenburg range in South Africa that can survive long periods without water and burst to life when it rains---are being mined for genetic material that can be inserted into corn and other crops that can help them grow in dry climates, with little or salty water and few fertilizer. Xerophyra viscosa is being studied because it can grow on rocks at high altitudes, in thin souls in a variety conditions and very little water.

To make the most of available water, scientists are experimenting with super absorbent polymers, or hyrdrogels, invented for disposable diapers. They are designed to help aid villagers with farms on sandy soils in arid climates retain water. The advance was initially ignored as too expensive for poor farmers in developing countries but now is generating some interest in richer, desert countries. Among the types being used are Stockabsorb produced by the German company Creasorb and TerraCottem, made by the Belgian company by the same name. TerraCottem sells for about $2 a kilogram, which makes it okay for landscaping but too expensive for agriculture.

Buying and Renting Agricultural Land Abroad

Some countries with large tracts of desert and limited agricultural land are increasingly looking into buying or renting land in other countries to use for agriculture. Saudi Arabia has held discussion with Thailand, Indonesia , Kazakhstan and South Africa about using some of their land. The United Arab Emirates has talked to Egypt, Sudan and Yemen is pursuing a $3 billion deal with Pakistan. South Korea has negotiated with Russia and Sudan about land and China is reportedly seeking deals with the Philippines, Australia and Africa. The terms of the deal vary. In some cases the land is bought outright. In other cases it is leased in return for development money. Many of the deals have stipulations to hire local workers and rules on where the food goes after harvests.

The idea is not new. The Romans did it. European nations practiced it on a large scale in the colonial era to produce profitable cash crops. Some are alarmed that “mother country” and neo-colonial arrangements could emerge again. Others are worried about greedy governments selling and renting land used by villagers to feed their families. In any case, as population grows, especially if global warming marginalizes agriculture areas, there will be additional pressures to consider such strategies.

Desert Irrigation and Pumps

Spate irrigation is a system that diverts flood waters into dry areas. Used for thousands of years in the Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, Mongolia and Latin America, it involves building dams from riverbed sand to channel flood waters into adjacent fields. The system require constant attention and maintenance as flood waters often overwhelm or damage it.

Efforts to replace spate irrigation with concrete dams often causes more harm than good because the flood deposits large amounts of sediment that clog the gates and canals.

Pumps are important for irrigation. In the old days water wheels and manual labor were needed to lift water from wells, rivers, canals and ponds to agricultural land. Now gasoline- and diesel-powered pumps do much of the work. Pumps may be noisy but are a relatively cheap and efficient.

Studies in South Asia have shown that a traditional treadle water pump---operated by a person on a device that looks a bit like a Stairmaster stair climber---can increases the income of farmers by 25 percent. First introduced to Bangladesh in the 1980s and now widely used in Asia and sub-Sahara Africa, these pumps are easy to install and simple to operate and often deliver higher crops yields than those obtained using diesel pumps.

  • Karez Tunnels
  • 20080306-Xinjiang irrirgation Karez Perrichan.jpg
    Karez tunnel

    Karez and Qanat Tunnels

    Karez Tunnels underlie large areas of Turpan depression and are found througout Xinjiang in China . One of the ancient world’s great engineering feats, they are underground canals and boreholes used to carry water---from melted snow, springs and water tables under hills--- from the highlands to farming areas. Some date back to the time of Alexander the Great.

    Karez tunnels follow slopes down hill and are built underground so the water doesn't evaporate in the hot sun. From the sky they look like a long rows of gopher holes, giant anthills or donuts. These holes are outlets for vertical shafts that provide ventilation, and a means of excavating material. Dirt is piled around the entrances to prevent potentially-eroding rainwater from entering the system. Most of the holes are about 10 to 30 feet deep but some drop down almost 100 feet.

    The karez system in Xinjiang ranks with the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal in terms of time and labor spent building it and may exceed them as an engineering feat. The tunnels carry water, much of originally snow melt from the Tian Shen Mountains, to oases like Turpan. The combined length of all the karez canals in Xinjiang is around 1,900 miles, with about 60 percent of them still in use today.

    Karez tunnels have largely been dug by hand from head wells on high ground near the source of the water to places where the water is used. It is believed millions of hours of forced labor was needed to build them. The long, downward slopping tunnels were dug using the vertical holes to reach the underground tunnel from the surface.

    Karez technology was imported from Persia (Iran), where the wells are called qanats. The tunnels have traditionally been communally owned, with villagers splitting the cost of building and maintaining them. Holes used to dig the tunnels are used by laborers today to reach the underground canals, which from time to time have to be cleared of dirt and rubble.

    Digging the tunnels and maintaining the karez system is hard and dangerous work. The men who do the digging, repairing and cleaning have traditionally been highly skilled and well paid. To repair the tunnels workers climb down the entry shaft to the tunnels. There they clean out the tunnels and stabilize weak sections with ceramic hoops. The work is often done by lantern light in extremely cramped conditions---most of the tunnels are barely large enough for a man to crawl through.

    20080306-Xinjiang irrirgation Karez Perrichan.jpg
    Karez tunnel

    Qanats and Karez Tunnels

    Karez Tunnels underlie large areas of Turpan depression and are found througout Xinjiang in China . One of the ancient world’s great engineering feats, they are underground canals and boreholes used to carry water---from melted snow, springs and water tables under hills--- from the highlands to farming areas. Some date back to the time of Alexander the Great.

    Karez tunnels follow slopes down hill and are built underground so the water doesn't evaporate in the hot sun. From the sky they look like a long rows of gopher holes, giant anthills or donuts. These holes are outlets for vertical shafts that provide ventilation, and a means of excavating material. Dirt is piled around the entrances to prevent potentially-eroding rainwater from entering the system. Most of the holes are about 10 to 30 feet deep but some drop down almost 100 feet.

    The karez system in Xinjiang ranks with the Great Wall of China and the Grand Canal in terms of time and labor spent building it and may exceed them as an engineering feat. The tunnels carry water, much of originally snow melt from the Tian Shen Mountains, to oases like Turpan. The combined length of all the karez canals in Xinjiang is around 1,900 miles, with about 60 percent of them still in use today.

    Karez tunnels have largely been dug by hand from head wells on high ground near the source of the water to places where the water is used. It is believed millions of hours of forced labor was needed to build them. The long, downward slopping tunnels were dug using the vertical holes to reach the underground tunnel from the surface.

    Karez technology was imported from Persia (Iran), where the wells are called qanats. The tunnels have traditionally been communally owned, with villagers splitting the cost of building and maintaining them. Holes used to dig the tunnels are used by laborers today to reach the underground canals, which from time to time have to be cleared of dirt and rubble.

    Digging the tunnels and maintaining the karez system is hard and dangerous work. The men who do the digging, repairing and cleaning have traditionally been highly skilled and well paid. To repair the tunnels workers climb down the entry shaft to the tunnels. There they clean out the tunnels and stabilize weak sections with ceramic hoops. The work is often done by lantern light in extremely cramped conditions---most of the tunnels are barely large enough for a man to crawl through.

    Desert Wetlands

    Carl Hodges, a environmental scientist at the University of Arizona and friend of the actor Martin Sheen and the late Marlon Brando, is major proponent of utilizing sea water to make the desert bloom, provide energy and combat global warming.

    Hodges has proposed setting up massive artificial seawater farms in which seawater is delivered to coastal deserts by canals. Under the scheme sea water first flows into shrimp farms and then, loaded with nutrients, it is directed from the farms to wetlands with mangrove forests and salicornia---a plant that grows well in salt water and can provide food or material for biofuels. One of the advantages of the plan is that it doesn’t eat up valuable agricultural land needed to grow crops. Water is naturally filtered as it returns to sea. Heavy seawater also helps raise the freshwater table.

    The system also helps combat global warming by providing carbon-dioxide-sucking plants and canals that can drain water from the oceans as sea levels rise. Hodges has concluded that 50 such seawater farms---capable of diverting the equivalent of three Mississippi Rivers---would be enough to absorb the sea level rises generated by global warming. A seawater farm that follows this plan is planned for the Kino Bay area in the Sonora Desert in Mexico west of Baja California. One was built in Eritrea in 1999, achieving several of its goals, before it was undermined by wars between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

    Growing Mangroves in the Desert

    Also involved in this kind of project has been Gordon Sato, a cell biologist and cancer-drug pioneer who developed a breakthrough cancer drug in the early 1980s and since then has devoted himself to reducing poverty and making the desert bloom using mangroves. The thrust of his scheme is growing mangroves in salt water and feeding the foliage to sheep and goats (camels were known to eat the leaves) and provide food and a means for making a living to thousands.

    Sato began his project by planting thousands of mangroves along the Eritrean coast of the Red Sea. All the saplings died. Sato then a closer look around and noticed that mangroves were growing naturally where freshwater was diverted during brief seasonal rains. He then determined that the mangroves grew there not because of freshwater but because the freshwater supplied minerals---namely nitrogen, phosphorus and iron---that the seedlings needed but sea water lacked in sufficient amounts. Sato then developed a low-tech means of delivering these minerals: each seedling was planted with a small piece of iron and a small plastic bag, with holes punched in it, containing a fertilizer rich in phosphorus and nitrogen.

    The saplings were planted using this method in 2001. As of 2007, 700,000 mangroves were growing on a formally treeless shore of Hirgigo, a few miles down the shore from the Eritrean port Massawa. Sato named the project Manzanar, after the World War II internment camp in California desert where thousands of Japanese-Americans were interred, and coaxed crops from barren soil. Describing the site in 2007 Kennedy Ware wrote in National Geographic,”many of the mangrove trees are now well above head height, and the yellow-green coats of ripe propagule are beginning to split open, showing the plump green leaves within. The mangrove mud is sprouting pneumatophores, as if someone had planted crop of pencils. Barnacles and oysters have started to settle on them, and crab and winkle trails crisscross the sediment.”

    Since the planting began fisherman have begun catching small fish such as mullet that they didn’t catch before as well as bigger predators that feed on mullet. In villages nearby sheep feed on mangrove propagules and leaves, which are nutritious but don’t provide all the nutrients animals need so a small amount of fish meal is necessary to make up the difference.

    Global Warming and Water Shortages

    See Global Warming

    Image Sources:

    Text Sources: World Almanac, United States Geological Survey (USGS) Minerals Resources Program, Investopedia Industry Handbooks, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy National Geographic articles. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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    © 2009 Jeffrey Hays

    Last updated March 2011

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