January 2023
Alan Dean Foster

The Big Dry

I’ve written frequently about ecology and the state of the world. Other worlds, in addition to this one. Certain books, like Midworld, Icerigger, Sentenced to Prism and others, are centered on xenoecology. You don’t need to “believe” that all life is interconnected. All you have to do is follow the science. Above the water, below the water, in the air, everything is part of one giant interconnected Nature, whether on this planet or another. Remove one bit from the equation and the world isn’t doomed. But it’s hurt. Hurt it enough and things begin to fall apart. The current state of the Amazon is probably the most extreme current example.

We don’t have to go as far as the Amazon to see what’s happening. Big article today about how the Mississippi River is drying up. And it’s not just the Mississippi. In Europe the Danube and the Rhine are in equally big trouble. In Pakistan the Indus, which is as important to that country as the Nile is to Egypt, is not just drying up: it’s convulsing. Most recently, floods of biblical proportions have inundated a significant portion of the country’s farmland. When the floodwaters recede, people will rejoice. Which they had best do while there’s still water in which to splash around because the glaciers up in the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, are receding as rapidly as glaciers everywhere else. There will come a time all too soon when people will remember when water so abundant that it overflowed the land, and thirsty children will look up at their grandparents in awe.

The real problem? The one people like to dance around?

There are 233.5 million people in Pakistan, and Pakistan is a little bigger than Texas. Pakistan is approximately 70% semiarid to arid. Here in Arizona we know all about arid. We have far more tech and money and knowledge to move limited water around to feed and sustain ourselves, and we’re still having problems.

Right now Pakistan is dealing with historic floods. Next will come desertification, with hundreds of millions of lives at stake. Where will those people go? Not to India, with its 1.4 billion souls and counting.

What might help retain that vital water? Forests.

Pakistan’s total tree cover is an unsustainable 1.63%.

Back to the Amazon, where the deforestation rate is insane. Can you imagine the Amazon drying up? It’s happening, as more and more of the forest is cut down to grow soybeans and make grazing land available. Brazil is starting to see water shortages where such a thing was inconceivable only ten years ago. To save water and generate power, a large dam-building program began decades past. But a dam is pretty damn useless if no water is running into its basin.

The equation is not complicated. No forest = no transpiration = no rain = desert. Brazil still has a chance to save a fair chunk of the Amazon, particularly in the north and west. The old-new president (remember the song by The Who?) says he intends to do just that. We’ll see.

It’s not going to be easy. As I’ve said in columns previously, after traveling through more than a hundred countries over the past fifty years, if there’s one universal it’s that money trumps everything. This is especially true in poor countries. The Amazon and Europe and the US get all the press, but horrific deforestation is taking place in Africa and Southeast Asia as well. The people there know what is happening, but seem powerless to stop it. Cutting back on methane and CO2 emissions will help the atmosphere, but they won’t do enough for the Amazon.

Since nobody asked me, here are my suggestions on how to begin.

Education is the foundation on which change is built. Education about why conserving the forest is so important, and how conserved forests can make more money (remember, it’s all about the money) than forests that are cut down. Education about birth control. Percentage-wise, Gabon is the most forested country left in Africa. It also has, compared to its neighbors, a very small and manageable population. Fewer people, fewer trees cut down, plenty of water available.

This isn’t rocket science.

Reserves and parks. These not only make money for locals as well as governments (Mamiraua in Brazil is an excellent example of how this works, as well as famous conservancies in Africa), they maintain the forest and the animals that depend on them. To make them work you need much larger ranger forces, better trained and equipped. Rangers who are well paid are far less likely to work in tandem with poachers (oh, money again).

While we’re at it, let’s continue to restore more of the American tall-grass prairie, which holds soil and releases water more slowly. The Mississippi and its tributaries will thank us. There’s a lot to do and not a lot of time left in which to do it. I’m 76, no kids, and there’s no reason I should give a damn. But I do.

It’s my planet, and I care about its future, even if I’m not going to be around to share it.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.