First off, this is the shortest title I’ve ever used for a column. Second, it may be the most important one. Those of us who live in Arizona are a lot more sensitive to water issues than our fellows living in, say, Vermont. Or Suriname, or Gabon. But we have a lot in common with folks who dwell in those similar climates: Nevada, or Burkina Faso, or anywhere in the Middle East. Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades. Not so. It has all been hit and miss and on a small scale (at least in this country). Not enough folks are talking about water as a global problem.
Time to start.
Just because Arizona is perennially short of water doesn’t mean the issue shouldn’t be discussed in New Hampshire, or Minnesota, or other water-rich places. Because what affects one part of the country or one part of the world eventually affects us all. How does the water shortage in Mali affect citizens of Arizona? Well (no pun intended), if there’s no water there, people will move to a place where there is. Humans have been doing just that for thousands of years. Just ask the Anasazi. If there’s no water in Burkina Faso, eventually its inhabitants will have to move where the water is. Maybe New Hampshire, or Minnesota.
We don’t have to let them in, you say. These water refugees. But the need for water exceeds that for any other condition. Food, work, anything. No water, no life. Physiologically, everything else is peripheral.
The sad thing is that there is lot that can be done to deal with the problem. And I don’t mean just by fixing climate change. Might be too late for that. Truth is there’s plenty of water. The problem is that most of it is not usable. But it can be made usable, and can be used much more efficiently. As an example of how not to use water resourcefully, consider the growing of almonds and avocados in California, two hugely profitable crops that use vast amounts of water. Two others in the same category are rice, also grown in California, and sugar cane. Realistically, the world could probably do without three of the four, and the water savings would be substantial.
Don’t blame Arizona cotton. Most cotton is not grown using irrigation. But agriculture does account for 80% of the water use in Arizona. Cut that by a quarter and you double the amount of water available for human use. Nor is Arizona an exception when you parse similar figures around the country. The percentage of water used for agriculture is even higher in New Mexico.
Water is a problem so obvious you would think that enormous resources have been devoted to dealing with it for decades.
This gives us a cushion, some time to deal with the real water scarcity that may be coming. Alarming articles in the media won’t solve it. What might are engineering and science. If there is one thing that Arizona, Burkina Faso and other water-scarce countries usually possess, it’s sunshine. Sunshine means solar power, and power provides the means to desalinate ocean water. Many countries in the Middle East not only have access to solar, they have alternate sources of the necessary energy in the form of oil and especially natural gas. That’s why there are no water restrictions in hotels in Dubai, for example. Desalination.
But it takes political will along with the availability of natural resources to promote this process. A good, or rather bad, example are the water riots currently taking place in Iran. These represent the kind of conflict that scientists (and science-fiction writers)have been predicting for decades.
What underground water there is in Iran has been siphoned off to feed large farms, many of which are owned by the Revolutionary Guard. So when local people protest that they haven’t got enough water to drink, let alone to irrigate their small plots, they tend to get shot. What is sad is that Iran possesses not only copious amounts of solar potential, but vast reserves of gas and oil capable of powering those aforementioned desalination plants. They just lack the expertise and engineering know-how to put it all together. And which country in the Middle East has more experience with and knowledge of both technologies? Israel. Just ask farmers in Ecuador, where Israeli water experts have been active for decades.
So because of politics, Iranians go thirsty.
They won’t be the last to do so. The same problem of over pumping of ground water and too little rain exists all over the world, from central Asia to north Africa, to the west coasts of North and South America. You would think given the ubiquity of the problem that governments would hurriedly be preparing for the worst. Especially since we’re starting to see the beginnings of the worst right now. Water wars are old news in the American West. Given the current situation in Oregon, maybe not so old.
Drink up. While you can.
Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.