Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Solution to World Hunger Cannot be left in the Hands of Western Governments Again

Warning: This piece is long. It attempts to connect many dots on the way to making the point of the title. Hopefully you will bear with me.

The last "saviour" for the world hunger crisis
The Green Revolution (the brainchild of Dr. Norman Borlaug who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts) which dominated the efforts over the last half century to solve the world food crisis was literally manufactured by the burgeoning bioengineering industry of the U.S. and other western nations. It was built on the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, on massive, mechanized irrigation systems, too often using irreplaceable fossil water from deep underground aquifers, and on the new genetically modified food crops being turned out by agrifood giants like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto and Dupont.

While it bought us a few more decades of relative global food security it was also very much responsible for the virtual destruction of the natural fertility and food production capability of the world's commercial agricultural soils. It was an aspirin, offering short-term relief but still ending with severe long-term pain. But there was much more.

The strings attached to food and agricultural aid to poor nations and poor peoples by the corporate weapons of western capitalism (The World Bank, IMF, OECD, WHO, FAO and others) contributed to the unmanageable indebtedness of third world nations and ultimately diminished the ability of those nations to feed their undernourished populations. In most cases these strings included a demand for privatization and corporatization of the nation's water supply as well. The power-hungry multinational agrifood companies actually campaigned vigorously and successfully for decades to get control of world food production, making illegal, in many countries, the saving of seeds by indigenous farmers (as a condition of financial aid). The concentration of ever more limited, bioengineered crop varieties has contributed hugely to the destruction of a diverse plant gene pool, including native source crops.

This destruction has been released into the environment through cross pollination of native plants with genetically modified crops. Too often that cross-polination is transferring to native plants a terminator gene which prevents the plant from reproducing, having the potential to cause the extinction of some of those native species. How the introduction of those engineered genes into native species will affect future evolution of native plant species is totally unknown because such uncontrolled evolution of genetically modified species was never studied in the lab or in the field. We have, as a result, now turned the entire biosphere of our planet into an uncontrolled genetic evolution laboratory.

Most importantly for our near-term future, however, because of the move to large-scale, broad-acre farms to achieve efficient crop production, small farmers and indigenous farmers have been driven off the land that had sustained them and the communities around them for generations. Their small holdings of agricultural land are being consolidated into massive, managed, industrialized tracts. As a result, much of the knowledge and practice (including the facility to develop and maintain tools suited to that small-scale production) of small scale farming is rapidly being lost throughout the world. Long before the middle of this century those old ways (so critical as we slide down the other side of Hubbert's Peak) may be lost forever, having to be reinvented by a desperate and hapless population having, for the first time, to learn the art of survival.

Western Capitalism is a delusional destroyer of the environment
If western capitalist society has proven one thing since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution it is that it has chosen to be an enemy and destroyer of the environment which, it has forgotten, sustains it. And in that role it is functioning very successfully. We have also proven that we can easily convince ourselves that what we are doing is good, even when all of the evidence says otherwise. We have industrialized and systematized our propaganda machine and our tools of self-delusion just as effectively as we have the assembly-line production of widgets. We see what we want to see and are blind to that which we do not. In our virtual world perception has become reality. We see wealth in debt. We see nutrition and sustenance in empty calories. We see agricultural fertility in a bag of chemicals. We see reality in staged farces presented on our television sets. And we recoil in fear and loathing at all that is natural, reject the only true source of reality and beauty; nature. And we vilify and criminalize those who would dare to protect what little is left of nature from man's abuse and destruction.

Human population is unsustainable
Man's greatest threat to nature, however, is not our machines, nor our technology, nor our concrete and asphalt cities and roadways. Our greatest threat is our huge numbers, period. There are over 6.6 billion of us and our numbers continue to increase year after year. The rate of population increase has slowed but our numbers could, all other things being equal, double again well before the end of this century. Being the world's most successful omnivore, however, puts us unquestionably at the top of the global food chain. But natural food chains are a pyramid with micro-organisms at the bottom, then herbivores, then carnivores, then omnivores. But each level up the pyramid has to be smaller in number for the levels below to support it. Yet we, through our unnatural use of stored energy, have turned that pyramid upside down, temporarily at least. We are 6.6 billion fairies on the head of the pin stuck in the top of that pyramid.

THAT......... is unsustainable!

Feeding Ourselves
Whether it be natural or artificial, the most common and critical need of all 6.6 billion of us is food. But that food derives from and is critically dependent on the wide diversity of other living organisms with which we reluctantly share this planet. There may be many who do not recognize that reality, who think that food naturally comes in a manufactured plastic container complete with a printed best-before date. There may be billions on this planet who have never seen a cow being milked, never seen a potato growing in the ground, never actually seen a chicken lay an egg. They only recognize these things by their packaging and their location on the grocer's shelves.

But feeding our 6.6 billion population is an ongoing and increasingly serious problem as we monopolize, and destroy, more and more of the planet's life-support system to the exclusion of other species. More and more, however, that monopolization of the food producing capacity at the expense of others is now happening within our own species. With more and more people and less and less food, and less and less capability to produce it, larger and larger numbers of people are being left out in our game of musical-food (like musical chairs but with the reward when the music stops being enough food to keep you alive rather than just a chair to sit on). To paraphrase the old expression, you can't have an ever-expanding population and enough food for all too. (I think if Marie Antoinette had lived now and witnessed recent events in Haiti her new slogan would be "Let them eat mudpies!")

Economic system disconnect between ever-increasing needs and ever-declining resources
Western nations are bound to an unforgiving economic paradigm that is critically dependent on perpetual growth with a money supply grown on the ever-increasing issuance of new debt. This cannot be the source of solutions for a world that already has too many people, already scarce and constantly diminishing resources. It is just not possible to maintain a business-as-usual system where the demand side keeps growing and the supply side keeps declining. When the money that is the representation of the economy no longer has a tangible value within the economy then the economy survives only through the momentum of faith and confidence. It can no longer survive an eventual but inevitable loss of that confidence. Even today the Capitalist Church has a rapidly declining membership and may soon face an empty collection plate.

There may have been a time when we could have redressed the economic and cultural supply-demand imbalance by either increasing the supply or decreasing the demand. That option is no longer open to us. The supply can no longer be increased, except of course on the graphs and charts of economists. The resources with which to do so are rapidly disappearing. The only option left open to us is to decrease the demand.

There is some small latitude within the system to reduce the demand without serious impact on population. But even that option is seriously limited and very short-term. The simple and painful reality is that sooner rather than later our massive population is going to have to be reduced because there simply aren't enough resources to maintain us all, no matter what level of resource consumption and lifestyle we consider acceptable. As those resources are finite sooner or later that excess population will deplete them to a level below the minimum sustainable.

Is the Human species too big to fail?

As we have proven over the past couple of centuries, species go extinct. Some 99.9999% of all species that have ever existed on earth are now extinct. Extinction, it is now recognized by science, is a natural phase in the evolution of species. That suggests, therefore, that extinction at some point in the future is inevitable for the human species. From an evolutionary and biological point of view there is nothing particularly unique about our species that suggests any likelihood of our avoiding that eventuality. We may, before that extinction, evolve into a new species. We may, on the other hand, prove to be an evolutionary dead-end, as is the case with the majority of species that have existed. Evolution, despite our beliefs and best efforts to make it otherwise, is a crap shoot. Welcome to the real world.

With that evolutionary perspective I would like to suggest that the period we are entering into (probably covering at least this and next century) is, in fact, going to be a struggle for the survival of our species. Never in the history of our species has such a large population had to deal with such a massive shift in lifestyle and survivability as we will be facing as global energy declines over the coming decades. We have already approached extinction several times since we first evolved into being on this planet. We managed to claw back from the edge of the extinction abyss on each of those occasions. We may still do so several more times before our eventual demise. But we cannot take our continued existence as a species for granted.

Human species is in severe overshoot
We, as a species, have severely overshot the carrying capacity of the environment that sustains us, in our case, unlike most other species, being the entire planet. The resources upon which we critically depend for our survival are rapidly diminishing while our numbers continue to increase. This is a classic pattern of the transition into overshoot. Science tells us resource insufficiency due to overshoot is the most common cause of all extinctions throughout the history of life on earth.

But human overshoot in reality happened some time early in the Industrial Revolution. Many scientists believe that, without the support of the massive amounts of energy we have derived from fossil fuels, the global carrying capacity for the human species is, at best, between 1 and 2 billion. The massive added population that fossil fuels have allowed simply cannot be sustained without them. Whether we like it or not, as the global supply of fossil fuels diminish our human population will go into decline. The only question remaining, to which no one realistically has an answer, is how.

Overshoot ultimately local
Overshoot of carrying capacity, though it has species wide implications, is very much a local, regional phenomenon. Even today there are many regions and nations that can, within the resources available in their region, support their current population. This reality is masked not just by our use of fossil fuels but by the current efficiency of a global food distribution system. At the moment, and as long as there are fossil fuels (or other means) to maintain the distribution system, our carrying capacity has largely been averaged out to a global basis. Poor countries do not have higher levels of starvation and nutrition-related diseases because they do not have the agricultural carrying capacity to produce enough food. They simply cannot compete for that food in a global food distribution system that clearly favours wealthy nations and peoples. This is complicated by the unfortunate capitalist reality that much of the agricultural land of poor nations is currently being used, by large agricultural companies, to produce luxury crops like cotton, coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane for western markets.

As the global food distribution declines and ultimately fails, which it will, carrying capacity and food security will again become very clearly a local problem. Regions and nations will survive or fail based on their ability to produce the food needed to support the population within their region, and to control the level of population within their region. This local food security issue, of course, is clearly recognized by an increasing number of groups and grass-roots organizations around the world who are today fostering "eat local", "food miles" and bio-regionalism efforts.

Western Capitalism and the current global food crisis
Food self-sufficiency and food security has different components in different regions around the world. In North America and Europe the prime underpinning of our food security is wheat. In Latin America it is corn. Much of the poor diet of Africa is based on Casava and Taro (taro is also a key food in the Pacific islands, as well as fish). Asian food security is dominated by rice.

When nations supply food aid they tend to think in terms of offering that with which they are familiar. America offers wheat. Japan and China offer rice. The benefits from such aid are immediate and short term. But they create and reinforce a dependence on a foreign food source. It does not have long-term viability. It does not allow or facilitate the people or nation being helped to achieve long-term sustainability.

The real need is to help those nations and peoples strengthen and secure local self-sufficiency. In many cases, because of the consolidation effort during the Green Revolution, that may require extensive land redistribution, putting the small farmer back on the land. It needs a strengthening of development of that food resource (such as Casava in Africa) that naturally underpins the region's food security. It probably also needs a disconnect from the global debt economy, which may also need debt forgiveness to get those poor nations out from under the burden of unmanageable indebtedness. In a global economy and money supply grown by debt-issuance, the debt of not just poor nations but all nations can never be discharged. It takes new debt to pay existing debt.

Food crisis is not a technological problem, it is a population problem
Western capitalist nations approach every offer of aid and assistance as a profit-making venture and a technological challenge. Neither of these have long-term viability as solutions to the current global food crisis. This food crisis is not a technological problem. It is a population problem. Global population MUST be reduced.

This, above all else, is the reason that the global food crisis cannot be left to western capitalist nations. Every nation and region is going to have to determine what its local long-term carrying capacity is. Perhaps western nations can offer some assistance in this effort. Once that carrying capacity is determined, however, each nation and region is going to have to determine how to get their population below the level of the carrying capacity. Under no circumstances should western capitalist nations have a role in determining how this is achieved outside of their own borders. We have far different criteria than is needed. We value life very differently than most peoples and nations can afford. Whether we like it or not, life is brutal and tough, especially when the world is in overshoot and people are having to struggle for their survival. We cannot impose upon such a world our current unrealistic view of worth and value. We have spent far too long (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) living within the bubble of a virtual world. Our perceived reality does not an can not match the hard realities of the bulk of the 6.6 billion people and 200+ nations on this planet.

I don't know how the people of Botswana (just an example) will achieve equilibrium within their carrying capacity. I know, however, that they must figure it out, that it is not my problem to deal with. Yes, many countries and peoples will sort it out in brutal civil and inter-tribal wars, in revolutions. But if 3-5 people out of every six globally are going to be casualties it is unrealistic to expect this to be done nobly, humanely. As the money supply increases the value of that money diminishes. As the population increases, especially in overshoot, the value of each life diminishes. This is a reality we have thus far been able to avoid.

We have an unfortunate tendency to shoot the messenger, especially when the news he brings is bad. Believe me, I am not sitting back counting my piles of money and rubbing my hands in glee at the prospect of a global die-off. The next century or two are going to be a brutal struggle for survival. How quickly that struggle deepens into a battle I do not know. I don't think it is that far away. We can see the signs of an escalation in those struggles already. I am of an age and a state of health where I am content to know that I will not be around to face the worst of it. But our children and grandchildren will. And I fear for them.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes after Peak Oil

As we progress beyond peak oil and the world finds itself having to reinvent and adapt to a low energy existence once again, one of the key focal points is going to have to be rethinking community. At the moment we, at least we in the developed world, have the unrealistic and historically unique luxury, because of our energy-dependent technology, of not having to concern ourselves on a day-to-day basis about the source of the water we use. Once we pass peak oil, however, and readily-available, cheap energy becomes a thing of the past, all issues dealing with water will become critical to our very survival. They will also become increasingly and restrictively local.

The Great Lakes shared by the U.S. and Canada is the largest single depository of fresh water on the planet. It contains a full one fifth of the fresh surface water in the world. With the St Lawrence Seaway system ocean-going ships can navigate nearly 2500 miles inland to Thunder Bay at the middle of the continent. Both the US and Canada have built up their industrial and manufacturing heartland along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Managing flow levels
The water levels in both the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River are maintained by a significant amount of man-made technology and infrastructure. Principally Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence flow control is achieved through a series of three dams;
1) the international Moses-Saunders Hydro-Electric Dam at Cornwall Ontario and Messina New York,
2) the Long Sault Dam at Long Sault, Ontario which acts as a spillway when outflows are larger than the capacity of the power dam, and
3) the Iroquois Ice Dam at Iroquois, Ontario which is principally used to help form a stable ice cover and regulate water levels at the power dam.
There are also a number of additional dikes, levies and flood control channels and canals such as the 17km Beauharnois Canal which bypasses the Soulanges rapids and carries 84% of the water flow of the river to the Beauharnois power station.

The focus in and objective of all of this technology and infrastructure, however, has been to maintain the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes as a viable shipping route between the Atlantic Ocean and the lake head. This is to facilitate and speed the outbound distribution to the world's customers of crops, particularly grains, from North America's agricultural heartland, and for outflow of manufactured goods from the industrial and manufacturing heartland built up along the shores of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes as a source of potable water
The importance of the Great Lakes as a source of clean, fresh water has largely been ignored. Not because it isn't important. It has been ignored because of the vastness of the lakes themselves. We have cavalierly acted as though the lakes are so huge that we could not possibly pollute them to the point that they were unusable as a source of potable water. Only recently have we woken up not only to that possibility but that reality.

International Joint Commission
The International Joint Commission (IJC) established by the governments of the United States and Canada is charged with oversight responsibility for boundary waters shared by the two nations, most importantly including the Great Lakes/St Lawrence basin. It is arguably a model for international water rights agreements and control mechanisms. Part of their mandate is to, through controlling the flow through these various facilities, "regulate Lake Ontario within a target range from 74.2 to 75.4 metres (243.3 to 247.3 feet) above sea level." This involves, unfortunately, a number of variables over which the IJC has no control;
* Global warming is already causing a slight rise in global sea levels and is expected to cause significant rises in sea levels over the coming century, particularly with the anticipated partial or complete melt of the Greenland ice cap and the Antarctic ice cap. Does the IJC then continue to maintain Lake Ontario water levels relative to rising sea levels or does it "fix" the sea level relative to which Lake Ontario levels are maintained?
* Global warming could, additionally, have serious impact over rainfall and snow levels over the Great Lakes basin and the full area that drains into the basin. In this past decade alone precipitation levels in the region have changed significantly. Although the IJC charter allows for significant changes in future weather patterns and inflows, the specifics of how the IJC will respond have not been spelled out.
* The Great Lakes basin drains nearly half a continent. The IJC has no jurisdiction over rivers and tributaries feeding the Great Lakes basin which are wholly contained within either the U.S.A. or Canada, a significant shortcoming of the existing IJC mandate. These waterways, and any infrastructure on them that could affect Great Lakes inflow, fall under the jurisdiction of a hodge-podge of state, provincial, federal, county and municipal governments and their agencies.
* Controlling the levels of Lake Ontario does not automatically control the flow through the St. Lawrence. That is dependent on inflows to the Great Lakes. But St. Lawrence river levels are also affected by other major inflows downstream from the control infrastructure, such as the Ottawa River and Richelieu River.

Post-Peak Infrastructure maintenance
Worrisome from a post Peak oil perspective is the long-term viability and maintenance of this massive water-control infrastructure. This concern has been expressed by the IJC itself. In a recent IJC report entitled Unsafe Dams? the IJC stated "In recent years, the Commission has reviewed the terms of some of its Orders of Approval for the construction of such structures. It has become aware that some of its Regulated Facilities are in need of repair and that some existing programs have not ensured that these repairs were made. ..... Existing legislation, regulations, practices and government oversight are insufficient to ensure that Regulated Facilities are safe." Specifically included in this concern are the three dams through which Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River water levels are managed.

These facilities have now been in existence for several decades. This presents an obvious concern which the IJC have echoed, "Some Regulated Facilities were built early in the century. With aging facilities, maintenance programs are an absolute necessity. Continuing maintenance programs are being implemented in some cases. Monies that owners budget for maintenance work are, however, sometimes not spent." In the case of the U.S. portion of the Moses/Saunders hydroelectric facility, much of the electricity generated is sold off to two key industries; the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) and General Motors Corporation (GM Powertrain). Most of the rest is sold off at cost to electric supply utilities across New York State. Should either or both of ALCOA or GM fail (GM's survival is even now in serious question again as a consequence of the 2008 global recession), considering that maintenance and inspection are even now questionable, where will the economic motivation be to maintain the facility?

It is important to note that, at this time, the Canadian Federal government and the Ontario Provincial government have no established Dam Safety Program, though the Ontario Government is said to be working on one. Many of the major river systems feeding into Lake Ontario and the rest of the Great Lakes are controlled by a series of dams. The Trent River system feeding into Lake Ontario at Belleville/Trenton is a good example. In the lower reaches of the Trent River alone, from Frankford down to the Bay of Quinte, there are more than half a dozen major dams. Each of these dams holds back from 30 feet of water or more. Should any one of these dams fail, especially a dam further upstream, the volume of water released would simply inundate any dams further downstream, possibly leading to a domino/cascade collapse of dam after dam (see my article; Cascade Failure in River Systems with Multiple Dams). The impact on Belleville, Trenton and all of the low-lying areas of Prince Edward County would be devastated.

Whether the Ontario Government is working on establishing a Dam Safety Program is, of course, a moot point in the face of a pending peak in global oil production and the potential severe impact on the global, American and Canadian economies. All dams, especially as they age, require significant ongoing maintenance and regular inspection. This is particularly so in a cold climate such as that in the Great Lakes basin with its severe seasonal variations and stresses on infrastructure, particularly dams. Whether the funds for inspecting and maintaining such infrastructure will be available in a collapsing economy is a reasonable question. Whether what funds are available will be spent on the appropriate inspection and maintenance is just as fair a question. Maintenance is always one of the first things to suffer when budgets get tight. There's no profit in maintenance.

In my article The myth of permanence: post-peak infrastructure maintenance, I explored the potential of future infrastructure maintenance problems on a broad range of societal infrastructure. Nowhere, in my opinion, is this more critical than with regard to dams and other water management infrastructure. The Great Lakes contain a full 18% of the total surface freshwater on the planet. All of that water is kept in check by hundreds of dams controlling both outflow and inflow. That is a tremendous amount of aging infrastructure that will need increasing amounts of energy-intensive maintenance to remain viable. The energy that was available during the era when all that infrastructure was built won't be available when it all has to be replaced or decommissioned. The results could be catastrophic.

Post-Peak use of the Great Lakes as a source of Drinking Water
As we progress beyond peak oil the importance of the St. Lawrence Seaway as an inland route for ocean-going ships will diminish drastically and, eventually, disappear. Ocean shipping is critically dependent on oil and other fossil fuels. Even recently, with the 2006-2008 rapid escalation in the price of oil the amount of trans-oceanic shipping declined dramatically. Once we start down the serious downslope in global fossil fuel supply trans-oceanic shipping will decline to a very expensive trickle. Traffic on the Great Lakes will become increasingly local and alternatively powered. We might even see the re-emergence of the freight canoe.

The importance of the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water for drinking and agricultural irrigation will, however, increase at the same time as life becomes more localized. It is probable the population growth along the shores of the Great Lakes will continue with an increased inflow of people wanting to be near a large, strong, reliable source of fresh water.

But the continued reliability of the Great Lakes as a source of fresh water should not be an assumption but rather a responsibility of those placing their reliance on it. The massive mechanical pumping systems that deliver that water from the lakes to nearby communities will either cease to function or have to be converted to an alternative power source. The massive sewage and water treatment plants that clean the waste from the massive communities along the Great Lakes shores before the cleansed water is released back into the lakes will either cease to function or have to be converted to some sustainable alternate power source. And the massive infrastructure that manages the inflow to and outflow from the Great Lakes will have to continue to be maintained or gradually and carefully decommissioned. Doing all of this without the cheap, abundant energy that we have come to take for granted will be a tremendous post-peak undertaking.

The inflow of toxins to the Great Lakes system will, fortunately, decline with the decline of fossil-fuel-driven industrialization. Over time the Great Lakes will cleanse themselves of those toxins. Until that time, however, continued care will have to be taken in the use of water from the lakes for sustenance and irrigation. The need to maintain lake levels for shipping may diminish but allowing lake levels to drop significantly increases the dangerous concentration of the built up toxins in the water used. The technologies and energy required to adequately filter and clean the water before it is used will, at best, be scarce and expensive.

Delivering that water any distance from the shores of the lakes is going to be a growing problem as energy supplies diminish. Great Lakes water is today often delivered by pump and pipeline hundreds of miles away from the lakes themselves. There is little likelihood of being able to continue this practice for very long into the future. Gravity is the low-energy system for moving water from one place to another. Gravity won't move water uphill. How will we move water to the top of 30, 40, 50 storey buildings with energy-dependent mechanical pumps?

Taken for Granted
Once we pass peak oil - realistically it should be the case today - we can no longer take for granted the availability and delivery of water, no matter the source of that water. It is not uncommon in dry, third-world countries for people to have to walk 5, 10 or more miles each day and carry home the water they need for their daily usage. You develop strategies, under such circumstances, to minimize your water usage.

As a boy I had to carry the family's daily water from a hand pump two blocks away on a neighbour's property. Two blocks was close enough I often made multiple trips per day, carrying two large buckets, one in each hand. Baths were taken in a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor with water from the rain barrels (melted snow in winter) heated on the large, kitchen wood stove. Believe me, I learned not to take water for granted and I can still connect to those feelings today of the importance and preciousness of water. It is a lesson that, as we pass peak oil and industrialized water systems become increasingly unreliable, that we are all going to learn. It will be a very difficult lesson for most.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Amazon: ICU Patient or Environmental Casualty?

It is difficult not to think of the Amazon in human physiological terms. The Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world by far (if it were a country it would be the ninth largest in the world) is often called the lungs of the world, the world's respiratory system. And the Amazon River is the rainforest's circulatory system, if not the key to the circulatory system of the entire world. The Amazon releases one fifth of all the river discharge into the world's oceans (up to 300,000 m³ per second in the rainy season), a discharge greater than the next 8-10 largest rivers in the world combined. The Amazon is also arguably the world's longest river, a claim that is, to many experts, negated by the Nile River. Both are, nonetheless, well over 4000 miles in length.

But the Amazon, like most of the world's other major rivers, may soon have to be put on life support!

Most of the Amazon river's rapidly increasing problems are due to the intensive, government-encouraged and government-supported deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Each year an area up to the size of Texas is denuded of its old-growth forest cover. The Amazon rainforest has become an involuntary heavy smoker and the lungs of the planet are struggling. The trees cut down in the deforestation effort are not converted to lumber to satisfy the world's increasingly desperate need for that commodity. They are burned in the field, the massive smoke plumes clearly visible from space. below for video..........
Deforestation of the Amazon River basin has followed a pattern
of cutting, burning, farming, and grazing

Remaking Amazonia

Most of the deforested land in Amazonia is converted to pasture for cattle for Brazil's still-expanding beef industry. A lot of it, however, is used to grow high-income corn, soy and sugar cane, most destined for the skyrocketing biofuel industry (Brazil has become a world leader in biofuel production and usage). Much of the deforestation is carried out, often illegally, by indigenous, subsistence farmers escaping the ghettos surrounding Rio de Janiero, Sao Paolo and other major Brazilian cities.

But all of these efforts run into the same problem: the poor quality of the Amazon rainforest soil. The heart of the Amazon rainforest is in the forest canopy. The soil on the forest floor serves little purpose beyond holding the roots of trees. Even the incredibly complex and vibrant animal life of Amazonia (more than one third of all species in the world live in the Amazon rainforest) is predominantly made up of canopy dwellers, dwarfing the number of ground-dwelling species.

When the forest is cleared and the canopy opened up that nutrient-poor soil on the forest floor is exposed to the relentless onslaught of the tropical sun (the mouth of the Amazon is on the equator). The sun dries it up and it becomes an impermeable surface hardpan that plants can't penetrate with their roots. When the rainy season comes the dried, weak, unconsolidated soil is washed away by the torrential rains. The nutrient-poor and biologically-deprived soil does not hold water, most of which runs off into the nearest river, all of which lead to the Amazon.

Silting up the Amazon

Despite its massive water volume and the high volume of silt the Amazon river carries, at it's mouth the Amazon is not even in the top five of the world's rivers in terms of silt by volume of water. And that is a very telling symptom of the Amazon's present and growing problem. Over the course of its travels to the Atlantic Ocean the Amazon may carry as much or more silt than any other river on the planet. But a very large volume of that silt never makes it to the sea.

The lower reaches of the Amazon are navigable up to Iquitos, Peru, 2300 miles from the Atlantic. In that 2300 miles the Amazon drops only 106 meters (348 feet), an extremely gradual rise. In that 2300 miles the Amazon meanders and twists and turns through a wide flood plain which, during the rainy season, can see the river swell to over thirty miles in width. The river itself is widening by up to several meters per year. This is, in part, being caused by the breakdown of the soft river banks by the wakes from boats and ships able to navigate the river up to Iquitos.

The constant twisting and turning, the gradual gradient and the tremendous length of the river all combine to cause the majority of the silt the river carries to be deposited during its journey, rather than carrying it to the sea. The upper reaches of the Amazon have some of the best and most extensive river beaches in the world. This in-transit deposition of silt is why, despite its massive volume, the Amazon does not have a delta at it's mouth. Most of the silt that would build up into a delta has been deposited further up river. It has at its mouth, however, created over geological time the largest river island in the world, Marajo Island, which is roughly the size of Switzerland.

The problem worsens

This depositing of such massive amounts of silt along the whole 2300-mile length of the lower Amazon means that, over time, much of the river will eventually silt up from the increased run-off from deforested rainforest. The river become unnavigable except during the rainy season. Many of the over 1100 tributaries could eventually be blocked by silt build-up, all of which could eventually reduce the volume in the Amazon. The greater the silt build-up the more the Amazon will spread out during the rainy season, possibly destroying large tracts of forest not evolved to surviving much of the year in flood conditions. Already many tributaries of the Amazon are, for the first time in memory, drying up during the dry season because of silt build-up. below for video..........
Amazon dries up

As well as silt, the Amazon carries significant volumes of toxins from mining operations on its upper reaches and of untreated sewage from the numerous growing communities along its bank (Iquitos has a population of over 370,000). These toxins, like the silt, settle out long before the Amazon reaches the sea, causing a toxic build-up in the river bottom and in the soil along the shores of the river. These toxins are having an increasing impact on the freshwater species in the river and its tributaries and on the land species that live along its shores.

The changes being inflicted by man on the Amazon river and rainforest are having an increasingly serious impact on the global biosphere. The rainforest is one of the major carbon sinks of the world and their destruction is; speeding the onset and severity of global warming; impeding the planetary hydro cycle and contributing to changing global weather patterns; decreasing the nutrient density of the Atlantic Ocean (the Amazon distributes nutrients hundreds of miles out to sea at its mouth) seriously affecting the survivability of ocean species in the Atlantic Ocean.

Physician, Heal Thyself

The Brazilians, of course, are doing nothing different with their rainforest than Europeans, North Americans, Africans, Australians and Asians haven't already done with their forests. What right, they can and do argue, does the rest of the world have to expect them to forego the benefits they arguably receive from its destruction? It is not unlike asking China to curtail its CO2 emissions, at serious economic cost, because of their impact on the global atmosphere.

Brazil's problem - And China's and Africa's - is a global problem. The cost of remedying it must be global as well. If we cannot establish a global outlook on environmental issues we are never going to stop the destruction of the global biosphere, because all such destruction is essentially local. For Brazil to halt its destruction of the Amazon rainforest has a global benefit but, at the moment, a strictly Brazilian cost. That is a basic disconnect.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Peak Oil IS About Peak Food

There is something that is very important for people to get their heads around. Peak oil is not about the oil, not about gasoline and diesel and heating oil and jet fuel. It's not about cars, SUVs, vans, trucks, buses, trains, planes or ships.

Peak oil is about food and our progressive inability, especially in the couple of decades after we pass the oil peak, to produce enough of it to feed our 6.5+ billion global population. Even now, every day over 40,000 people worldwide die of starvation, malnutrition and other nutrition related diseases. Each 1% gap between global demand and global supply will increase those deaths by 10-25%.

Food production in today's world is critically dependent on oil (for pesticides, herbicides, agrochemicals, agricultural irrigation and distribution fuels) and natural gas (for artificial fertilizers) and clean water from ever-scarcer and shrinking lakes and rivers and ever-shrinking underground aquifers. A shrinking global food supply is not just a problem for the third world. Everybody has to eat and we in the developed world tend to like to do that far more than those in the third world have the luxury of doing. Reversion to organic farming methods not dependent on artificial fertilizers and pesticides will not be as easy as the casual observer may think. Our commercial agricultural land is essentially toxic and sterile through our overuse of petrochemicals and limited-nutrient artificial fertilizers. Fertilizers are essentially Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus. Plants, like people, need a full spectrum of dozens of different minerals and soil nutrients.

Commercial agriculture is essentially an export business, exporting the nutrients from the soil on which we grow the crops and never re-importing those nutrients. If the agrochemicals on which commercial agriculture relies were to disappear tomorrow, it is reliably estimated that those same commercial soils will produce only between 5-20% of the crops they do today, assuming even then that there is sufficient fresh water to irrigate them. It is estimated that it would take 10-20 years or more to rebuild the natural fertility of those commercial soils. Without those agrochemicals that means a drop of 80-95% in the productivity of those soils until their natural fertility is restored.

The other key factor, of course, is crop pests. Without oil-derived pesticides crops will be susceptible to invasion by those pests in numbers possibly never seen before. We have, through our use of pesticides, helped those pests evolve unprecedented resistance. Commercial farmers today use 33 times as much pesticides as just three decades ago and yet lose 25% more of their crop to pests than they did then. We are already losing the battle against crop pests. When the pesticides are gone we will lose the war.

That same use of pesticides has also prevented our crops from evolving their own natural defences against pests. Our current crops generally have very low survival potential without those pesticides. All of this, of course, parallels our own weakened immune systems because of the overuse of antibiotics, vaccines and other modern medicines, all of which take over the immune response rather than strengthen the immune system.

People will not really get it about peak oil and its serious implications for their own and their children's survivability until they get their heads away from worrying about transportation fuels and understand the implications for food in our world of 6.5+ billion people. We cannot simply wait until we are well past peak oil and on the decline downslope to start adapting to our changed circumstances.

Our current ability to feed most of our 6.5+ billion population has become dependent on a virtual carrying capacity. Modern, industrial agriculture has become increasingly and critically dependent on the production and application annually of millions of tons of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers, all derived from oil and natural gas. In the process we have destroyed the natural fertility of those soils. It will require decades of effort to rebuild that fertility to allow those soils to produce significant crops of food without those petrochemicals. If we wait until the feedstocks (oil and natural gas) for those agrochemicals are already in decline the tremendous loss of life while we rebuild the world's soil fertility will be unavoidable.

Agricultural Capacity and Utilization in a Post-Peak World

Agricultural Capacity is affected by a number of important variables; crop variety, water (both rainfall, sub-surface saturation and irrigation), natural soil fertility, artificial inputs, climate, and length of the growing season.

Of the total global land mass, about 35 percent is arable land, 31 percent forested and 34 percent is either desert, tundra and permafrost (permafrost areas are rapidly shrinking under the assault from global warming) or dedicated to other uses such as urbanization and other human activity such as mining. Globally there are about 7.8 billion acres that are potentially arable of which 3.5 billion acres are known to be productively in use producing food.

Subsistence Farming
Statistics are scanty from poor nations (statistics tend to focus on areas that are part of the global industrial/economic system) where the bulk of farming activity is at the subsistence level. The unused potential land is generally in areas lacking essential transport for moving product to market or infrastructure needed for the maintenance of commercial food production.(1)

An unknown portion of this is in use by indigenous peoples for subsistence agriculture. Subsistence farmers have a proud tradition and facility of making the most of often poor farming conditions; poor soil, poor climate, water insufficiency, unstable or even dangerous geopolitical climate and more.

There is a tendency to view subsistence farmers as staunch survivalists focused tightly on the survival and support of only themselves and their family. This is a serious misperception. Subsistence farmers generally are tightly integrated to the surrounding community of kindred subsistence farmers, always willing to lend a helping hand, willing to share with those fallen upon hard times and more. They very much appreciate that their survivability is far more certain as part of a sharing, self-reliant community. Often this cooperation includes some degree of individual crop specialization suited to individual farm potential and reciprocal sharing of the output from this specialization.

Expecting a significant movement toward subsistence farming in western nations ( a new "return to the land" movement) is, in my opinion, unrealistic in the present political climate. Governments and the legislation they pass have consistently moved in a direction that negates that possibility. (See my article The right to pursue powerdown: seeking alternative lifestyles post-peak in my blog Oil, Be Seeing You.) In order for that to happen there needs to be significant grassroots movement to convince all levels of government that the development of alternative, small scale agriculture is critical to our survivability and sustainability on the other side of peak oil.

That, of course, requires that we first get them to recognize, understand and accept the reality of peak oil. My sense is that the recognition is already there. My sense is that there may be a prevalent fear in politics of the implications of peak oil, that it is a crisis that must not be recognized or spoken of, that ignorance or at least publicly professed ignorance is preferable. To openly recognize and accept peak oil will, they probably believe, impose on our politicians an expectation of a solution, a solution they cannot see. The only course they are capable and willing to pursue is to proceed with business as usual, keep the wheels on the bus as long as possible and let the next government deal with the results and realities.

Global utilization of arable land
Of the 35 percent of the total global land mass that is arable or suitable for agriculture, 24 percent or about two thirds is pasture or meadowland used for animal production. Another 10 percent (about 350 million acres) is used for grain and cereal production (75 percent or about 270 million acres), much of that also used for animal production, and for annual root, tuber, vegetable and fruit crops (about 25 percent or 80 million acres). Despite the global attraction of and growth in permaculture, only 1 percent of arable land is dedicated to permanent crops such as fruits and nuts. Essentially, all of human food production, excluding meat, dairy and sea food, is grown on less than 400 million acres. Each of those acres is, therefore, feeding about 15-17 people.

All of our food crops are produced on about 400-million acres out of a total global land mass of about 20-billion acres. That is at once a very discomfiting statistic and a clear sign of hope for the post peak world. It is discomfiting knowing that the entire 6.6 billion human population is dependent on such a small portion this planet for producing its food. And we are systematically destroying the natural fertility of that land through unwise agricultural practices.

It is hopeful in that there are 4.3 billion acres of potentially arable land not currently in use under managed agricultural practices. If, as many experts generally concur, our agricultural productivity will, at least temporarily, be reduced to 10-20% of our current levels with the loss of fossil fuel based agrochemicals, there is cause for hope in that the land currently producing our non-animal foods is less than ten percent of the potentially arable land not currently in use for agricultural production. If we bring all of that land into agricultural production, however, with the same patterns as at present (85%+ for food-animal support) we would net very little additional food-production land (about 600 million acres) to offset the 80-90% drop in productivity on those current 400 million acres. This would barely allow us to absorb the impact of a 25% drop in productivity.

The unused land isn't where the people are
But there is one other simpler and overriding problem. The unused potentially arable land is not in the same place as the 6.6 billion of us for whom it could reduce the impact of soil productivity loss following peak oil. That unused potentially arable land is not sitting there in some undiscovered country which can be populated by billions of food refugees. It exists in pockets within the boundaries of already sovereign nations throughout the world, nations which themselves may be impoverished and unable to currently produce enough food for their own people. Much of it may be in extremely isolated mountain valleys, in need of massive reclamation projects, in national parks and wildlife preserves, in areas where there are extreme water shortages. Much of it is in private holdings intentionally held back from agricultural production in order to facilitate future expansion.

For this land to be brought under agricultural production as a solution to the post-peak food crisis, assuming it is even possible to do so, without some form of global population redistribution, would still necessitate the maintenance of a heavily-energy-dependent global food distribution system (in an environment of declining energy availability) to move that food to the people who need it.

It is this same global food distribution system that is already taxed to the limit moving food from those few nations that can and do produce surpluses to the more than half the planet's countries that are seriously dependent on it for survival. To create and maintain the additional infrastructure that would be necessary to bring these additional lands into productivity would add considerable cost to the global production of food. In all likelihood, based on current patterns, developing these lands would far more likely be focused on high-profit crops such as corn, soy and sugar cane that can be used to produced bio-fuels in a world increasingly deficient in fossil fuel energy.

We are currently only at the leading edge of the conflict between using agricultural and to feed an ever-expanding population and using it to produce the fuels needed as the global production of oil goes into serious decline. As long as money and the economy are the driver of human activity; as long as we persist in trying to maintain our industrial western society; as long as western society attaches a different, much higher value to a life in western society compared to that in poorer, third-world nations; as long as there are greedy, despotic leaders and governments in those third-world nations that can be bought with western money, the demands on that agricultural land to produce fuel will probably trump the nutritional needs of the planet's poor and hungry.

Additional reading:

1. Agribusiness in a Global Environment Comparing Global Agricultural Production Systems
2. Global Water Shortage Looms In New Century
3. To Fertilize or Not to Fertilize .. That is the Question$department/newslett.nsf/all/wfbg7088
4. Global study reveals new warning signals: Degraded agricultural lands threaten world's food production capacity

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Soil Fertility and Carrying Capacity

Earth, the living planet
Earth's life-supporting environment was created by the very life dependent upon it. It is a symbiotic relationship with both halves of that partnership critically dependent upon the other. Without earth's benign and supportive environment there would be no life. Had plant life never arisen the oxygen atmosphere upon which all animal life is dependent would not exist.

As we near the end of our fossil-fuel age, the heartbreaking truth we must endure is that our dream of reaching out to the stars is likely never to be realized. We evolved as an earthbound species and will, I believe, be forever constrained to that reality. We, myself included, desperately want to believe there are other planets teeming with life. The reality is that, despite an incessant search, the only planet in all the universe that we know contains life is our own earth.

Like so many others I desperately wish SETI would receive that elusive signal from other intelligent life. Perhaps that would convince us all of what we have in common, that we are one us in a universe of them. But there are so many more reasons that we will never receive that signal than reasons that we might. Regardless, the reality is that we will continue to be dependent upon this planet for our existence.

Our solar system is a closed system. Our earth is a semi-closed system, receiving input from only our sun as it, like all stars, slowly consumes itself. The resources this planet contained before life arose are finite. Most of the resources since created by earth's living processes are renewable, not infinite but perpetually recreated by living organisms. Most of those renewable resources are themselves created from earth's finite resources. Life constantly recycles those elements through one living organism after another.

Converting inorganic matter to organic
Some of those organisms convert raw minerals and other elements into a form that they themselves and other organisms can utilize. They are made available to the roots of plants which make them available to animal species who eventually return them to the soil when they die. Then the microorganisms start the process all over again. Nature wastes nothing.

Life is still critically dependent on these organisms for extending and maintaining the carrying capacity of the planet. Every ounce of raw planetary resources converted by them to a bio-available form extends and maintains the amount of life this planet can support. In these first few billion years of terrestrial life the most readily available and easily obtained of these finite resources have continuously been drawn upon by earth's life forms.

All finite, non-renewable resources being consumed will eventually be used up, at least in their native form. Consumption will generally be at it's maximum at the point where about half of that resource has been used. This is the peak, just like Hubbert's Peak which describes the point of maximum consumption of the world's crude oil supply. Oil, though created from living organisms, is a finite resource. It is renewable only in that the same processes that created the oil we now use can recreate it. But the timescales involved are so long, on the scale of millions of years, that in human terms we must consider oil finite. I am, of course, discounting the abiotic oil theory which argues that oil is continuously created in the earth's mantle.

Resource dependence
The agent using a finite resource builds a dependence on it consistent with the rate at which that resource is being consumed. That dependence is at maximum when consumption is at maximum, when that resource has reached peak and is half used up. As that resource passes peak and its availability declines so too will the agent responsible for its consumption. That is not limited to finite resources. Dependence can also be built around a renewable resource. The number of Koala an area can support is dependent on the rate at which the Eucalyptus trees on which they feed reproduce. Pandas are dependent on the reproductive rate of bamboo. Cheetah's rely on the breeding rate of Thompson's Gazelles. Oil can be reproduced but the rate of regeneration is far exceeded by the rate at which we humans consume it.

We consume and destroy earth's resources at a rate far exceeding that of all other life forms on the planet. Our activities, unlike those of any other species, are systematically destroying the life-support capability of the planet. Vigorously carried on long enough we will destroy the planet's ability to support any life at all, ourselves included.

Life's critical dependence on top soil
Earth's life-support system consists of various components and sub-systems like the water cycle and the carbon cycle. The one component, however, most critical to land-based life, the engine of their life-support system, is top soil. That is the thin layer of dark, organically rich soil in which plants spread out their roots and upon which animals walk, urinate, defecate, give birth and die. It is in this thin, vital layer of soil that microorganisms convert raw resources and make them available to the myriad forms of life around and above them.

The human body contains trace amounts of almost every mineral on earth; carbon, calcium, sulfur, phosphorus, potassium, gold, silver, zinc, copper, iron, aluminium, molybdenum, chromium, platinum, boron, silicon and more. These are derived from the soil through our food. The amino acids that our body's proteins are made from contain only carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. Our bones are constructed mostly of calcium, silicon, and boron. What are all of those other minerals used for?

Enzymes and Hormones in living organisms
All living organisms are vitally dependent on two particular types of proteins that control metabolism, conversion of food to cellular material, functioning of the nervous system, cell regeneration and more. Hormones are the body's internal messaging system. They control, for example, your body's rate of cell reproduction that controls your growth, your nervous reactions, cell division, immune responses and the contraction of muscles. Enzymes are responsible for the conversion of material from one form to another, the physical construction, maintenance and division of cells, the conversion of glucose to energy, and much, much more. There are literally tens of thousands of different types of enzymes responsible for virtually everything that happens in your body.

Enzymes and hormones are built to exacting specifications contained in your DNA. An enzyme may be responsible for combining together a carbon atom and an oxygen atom or splitting apart two joined sulfur atoms united by a disulfide bond. Each does only one very specific function. Most enzymes require a catalyst that acts as an agent in speeding up a chemical reaction (getting the carbon atom and oxygen atom to link or getting the two sulfur atoms to separate). These reactions would otherwise take place at such a slow rate that life could not function. Movement would not be possible. Your body would be unable to build replacements for your damaged or worn out cells. Food could never be transformed into usable material in your body or converted to energy to drive your muscles and nervous system. Enzymes quite literally are the key to life.

You may be aware of the handful of your body's digestive enzymes. But most of the tens of thousands of enzymes in your body are contained within your cells. They are generated there, do their function there, are broken down and recycled there, never exiting the cell in which they are created. Your food may be acted upon by hundreds, even thousands of different enzymes (like workers on an assembly line) from the time it enters your mouth until it is used in various bodily processes or built into a cell.

How catalytic enzymes function
The key to the enzyme's ability to do it's job, like the assembly line worker, is the tools it has to work with, the catalysts. That catalyst may be a particular vitamin, an atom of oxygen, or more likely an atom of a particular mineral like iron, gold or silver. The minerals in your body not used in the structure of your bones, cells, nerves and muscles are used by hormones or by enzymes as catalysts in completing the chemical reaction they are responsible for. Without it's required catalyst, like the assembly line worker without his tools, the enzyme cannot do its job. If one enzyme in a series of reactions doesn't work the whole series of events shuts down. The enzymes after that can't get their materials. If the body, for example, does not have functioning amylase enzymes which break down starches, all of the bodily functions dependent on the nutrients in starches will not be able to function because their materials are, in a sense, held up at the receiving dock.

It is through our food that we get all of the minerals and other substances that our enzymes and hormones need as building materials and, most importantly, as tools to do their work. The body may still be able to generate the enzymes from instructions contained in the DNA but without their catalysts they are as productively useless as the workers sitting in the cafeteria.

Destruction of critical soil micro-organisms
Plants get those minerals from the soil through the help of an army of microorganisms that convert them into a form, very often an oxide, that the plant can use and making them available to the roots of the plant. We are systematically destroying the microorganisms upon which all life is dependent and the overall fertility of our soil. We are doing so;

* through our use of agricultural pesticides which kill soil organisms as well as the insects and other pests that we intend to destroy,
* through intensive deforestation resulting in millions of tons of critical top soil (and the microorganisms and minerals in that soil) being eroded away,
* by exposing forest soil microorganisms that break down dead and fallen material on the forest floor to construct new soil,
* through intensive irrigation which leaches vital mineral content of the soil down to levels where it is no longer accessible,
* with air pollution which results in toxic chemicals being absorbed into the soil where it kills those microorganisms,
* with industrial scale plowing and tilling of the soil resulting in millions of tons of top soil being dried up and blown away every year,
* by creating an impermeable layer of hardpan just below the top layer of soil which prevents both plant roots and soil microorganisms reaching the mineral nutrients in the subsoil,
* in turning over the soil with the plow which brings deep topsoil organisms to the surface where they are killed by exposure and driving aerobic microorganisms from the top layer of soil deeper underground where they are killed for lack of air, water and heat from sunlight,
* with our systematic destruction of the balance of soil nutrients through continued application of artificial fertilizers containing only nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus,
* by systematically changing soil ph levels which makes it an inhospitable environment for many of these critical soil organisms,
* by systematically changing the symbiotic relationships of soil organisms and plants by destroying the native variety of plants and replacing it with massive tracts of monoculture.

Clearly we cannot continue the destruction of this life-support capability upon which we and all other terrestrial life depend. We must begin making drastic changes now, before it is too late. Sooner or later we will push that system to a tipping point beyond which recovery is not possible. We do not know where or when that tipping point will be. We can only hope that we have not already passed it but we must still proceed with the assumption we have not.

Focusing on food security
The focus of our effort must be food security. The most critical aspect of our ability to feed our massive population is soil fertility. We must ensure that the balance of the mineral and other elemental content of our soils is rebuilt and maintained and that the soils are repopulated and maintained with the critical microorganisms that convert those elements and make them available to the other living organisms, including ourselves.

We cannot use those processes that allow us to feed over six billion people but destroy earth's life-support capability and at the same time help the planet regain it's optimum carrying capacity. The two are mutually exclusive. The longer we use those destructive processes the greater the risk we will push the life-support system beyond the tipping point leading to its eventual and inevitable collapse.

If we pass that tipping point the worst-case scenarios of population collapse become increasingly probable. The global population will inevitably contract, with or without peak oil, with or without global warming or any of the other global crises looming on the horizon. When and how badly depends upon how soon and how seriously we begin to rectify the problems we have created and move toward a sustainable modality of interfacing with this planet's natural systems. Continuing to push the limits of that life-support system while continuing to live in denial of that reality almost guarantees the worst possible outcome, eventually.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Peak Water

(See previous article The Global Freshwater Crisis[10] in the blog.)

The real impact of the peaking of any finite resource is that long-established demand continues to rise while the supply goes into terminal decline. This is the nexus of a crisis. In our growth-addicted global society it means that growth of whatever sectors of the economy and society rely on that resource must cease. There is much discussion and debate about peak oil and the broad impact it will have on our energy-hungry global society. But we are facing another peak which will ultimately have even more devastating consequences.

Peak water!

There is a not unreasonable tendency to think of water as an infinite, renewable resource. Seventy-five percent of the earth's surface, after all, is covered with it. And the planet has a very efficient hydro-cycle where water is constantly recycled and recirculated. The rain that falls on a field of Kansas corn rose as water vapour from the vast warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. But salt water is largely unusable and the surface freshwater contained in lakes and rivers is only a minuscule 0.3 percent of the water on the planet and about ten percent of the total freshwater which is only 2.5% of the planet's total water supply. Ninety percent of the world's freshwater is locked up in ice caps and glaciers or sequestered in deep underground aquifers. In fact, according to the Worldwatch Institute "Some 97 percent of the planet's liquid freshwater is stored in underground aquifers."[9]

Aquifer depletion
Over half the freshwater usage in the world (estimates are as high as 75% and growing) comes from these underground aquifers, water that is replenished, if at all, over slow geological time frames, not seasonal replenishment like surface water. "Water that enters an aquifer remains there for an average of 1,400 years, compared to only 16 days for rivers."[9] The average replenishment cycle for aquifers, in other words, is 1400 years. Many of the world's major aquifers that are heavily relied upon for agriculture, like the Ogallala Aquifer in the western U.S. (about 400-million cubic meters of drawdown per year)[1], the Arabian Aquifer and the deep aquifer under the North China Plain (the shallow aquifer is replenishable but has largely been sucked dry)[7], are non-replenishable, fossil aquifers mostly formed during and after various past ice ages. Once such an aquifer is depleted it is gone, forever. With replenishable aquifers there is generally at least the potential for aquifer recovery if the aquifer has not been contaminated and the rate of drawdown is reduced to below the replenishment rate, generally a small fraction of the aquifer's capacity per year. Coastal aquifers, however, can become increasingly contaminated, not surprisingly, from salt-water intrusion if the drawdown exceeds the natural replenishment rate. Once that happens, as is the case in much of the middle east and central Asia, the aquifer, though it may be full of water, is no longer suitable for human use, including agricultural irrigation.

But there is increasing concern that vital aquifers everywhere are becoming contaminated with toxins. A new study from the Worldwatch Institute reveals that "this first global survey of groundwater pollution shows that a toxic brew of pesticides, nitrogen fertilizers, industrial chemicals [plus radioactive material], and heavy metals is fouling groundwater everywhere, and that the damage is often worst in the very places where people most need water."[9] "Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States-34 billion liters per year of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials-is injected directly into deep groundwater via thousands of "injection wells." Although the EPA requires that these effluents be injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some have entered underground water supplies in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma."[9] This is often due to the fact that these injection wells were sunk before it was realized there was a deep fossil aquifer deep below the drill site.

The U.S. EPA estimates "that about 100,000 gasoline storage tanks are leaking chemicals into groundwater. In Santa Monica, California, wells supplying half the city's water have been closed because of dangerously high levels of the gasoline additive MTBE."[9] A close personal friend in Australia with a permaculture farm found that the groundwater below their property had been contaminated from just such a source, a petrol station just up the road with leaky storage tanks.

Freshwater use accelerating
Over the last century while the world population has tripled global freshwater usage has increased more than six-fold with the bulk of that increase being ground water from deep aquifers. And it is estimated that as much as 90% of the global population increase to the middle of this century will be in areas that are already facing critical freshwater supply constraints[5] either as a result of surface water contamination ("Some two million tons of waste per day are disposed of within receiving waters, including industrial wastes and chemicals, human waste and agricultural waste" according to the UN)[1], or aquifer depletion[9].

Where the minimum daily water availability per person established by the United Nations is ten gallons, these water-challenged areas have daily water availability now of less than three gallons per person, many of them 1.5 gallons or less. "Unless population growth can be slowed quickly by investing heavily in female literacy and family planning services, there may not be a humane solution to the emerging world water shortage," states the report Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages.[5] Nearly 1.7 billion people do not have access to sufficient water for basic personal hygiene. "Infectious waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera are responsible for 80 percent of illnesses and deaths in the developing world, many of them children. One child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease; 15 million children a year."[1]

On average agriculture is responsible for over seventy percent of the freshwater a nation consumes. It is reliably estimated that with current agricultural irrigation practices every ton of wheat or corn produced, for example, consumes 1000 tons of freshwater. About sixty percent of that usage, however, is wasted through losses from leaky irrigation ditches, run off and field evaporation.[1]

Importing water
When nations begin to run into serious water constraints they have to make up lost agricultural production with imports, particularly of grains. "This can be seen with Iran and Egypt, both of which now import more wheat than Japan, traditionally the world's leading importer. Imports supply 40 percent or more of the total consumption of grain--wheat, rice, and feedgrains--in both countries. Numerous other water-short countries also import much of their grain. Morocco brings in half of its grain. For Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the figure is over 70 percent. Yemen imports nearly 80 percent of its grain, and Israel, more than 90 percent."[5] As the report Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages says, "Since a ton of grain equals 1,000 tons of water, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. World grain futures will soon in effect become world water futures."[5]

But grain imports are already becoming increasingly problematic. The numbers involved are massive. According to the report, Aquifer Depletion, "Overall, China’s grain production has fallen from its historical peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. For perspective, this drop of 34 million tons exceeds the annual Canadian wheat harvest."[7] With the combined impact of global warming, surface water pollution, aquifer depletion and continuing population increases the ability to make up agricultural shortfalls in the world market is diminishing. The global emergency food grain reserves, on which the poorest of the world's poor are dependant, have over these past several years fallen from a marginal 119-day supply to a critical 52-day supply and those reserves are still declining. In fact, with the increased demand for seed grains driven by the rush for biofuels that decline is accelerating.

Dependence grows, Availability declines
Agriculture, of course, is not the only use we make of fresh water. Industry consumes 20% and residential consumption accounts for ten percent. In the arid nations currently experiencing or facing near-term critical freshwater shortages, however, agriculture is responsible for ninety percent of all freshwater usage. With the combination of demand for agriculture and that of domestic and industrial use in growing cities, the aquifers - many of them non-replenishable - underlying the larger cities in many developing countries - on which those cities are totally dependant - are depleting at rates of 3-8 meters per year and may be totally exhausted within the next 20-25 years.[5] "Nearly one third of all humanity relies almost exclusively on groundwater for drinking, including the residents of some of the largest cities in the developing world, such as Jakarta, Dhaka, Lima, and Mexico City."[9]

As surface water in lakes and rivers becomes increasingly polluted and as surface water sources dry up under the impact of global warming future generations may have to increasingly rely on groundwater sources for their very survival. It is our responsibility to protect it for both those future generations and ourselves. Where a steadily flowing river may flush away toxins in days, sometimes hours, a replenishable aquifer (not a non-replenishable fossil aquifer) may take 2000 years or more to flush itself clean. "Groundwater contamination is an irreversible act that will deprive future generations of one of life's basic resources," said Payal Sampat, author of Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat of Groundwater Pollution. "In the next 50 years, an additional 3 billion people are expected to inhabit the Earth, creating even more demand for water for drinking, irrigation, and industry. But we're polluting our cheapest and most easily accessible supply of water. Most groundwater is still pristine, but unless we take immediate action, clean groundwater will not be there when we need it."[9]

The following were important sources of material and research for this article.

1) UN Highlights World Water Crisis
2) A Global Water Crisis
3) Water Crisis - World Water Council
4) Water Deficits Growing In Many Countries
5) Water Shortages May Cause Food Shortages
6) The Ogallala Aquifer Depletion
7) Aquifer depletion
8) Report: Water crisis hits rich countries
9) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis
10) The Global Freshwater Crisis

Mining Water

(See also my article The Global Freshwater Crisis in this blog.)

The term "mining water" is increasingly used to refer to the extraction of groundwater, usually by mechanical or electric pumps, from underground aquifers. The term, I believe, was originally coined by Maude Barlow, chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, and recently appointed senior water adviser to the United Nations. Maude has been a tireless campaigner on water rights issues and is, herself, strongly concerned about global freshwater pollution and depletion and the impact global warming will have on freshwater resources.[7]

Get used to the term "mining water". At the rate we are polluting our surface water in lakes and rivers, and the rate at which freshwater sources are drying up under the assault of global warming and human development, it may soon be the only potential source of clean drinking water we or our children and grandchildren have left. It is an appropriate term in many ways.

Water is a finite resource that is constantly recycled, like the metal in beer cans. Many of the underground aquifers from which we extract it are, however, non-replenishable, called fossil water. Once the water in these fossil water aquifers is gone, like a vein of ore, it's time to shut off the pumps and go home or move on to another aqua-motherlode.

Changing aquifer replenishment rates
Even those aquifers that are replenishable, however, have a long-established, generally-low rate at which they will replenish. "Water that enters an aquifer remains there for an average of 1,400 years, compared to only 16 days for rivers." [5] Extract more water than the rate at which it will refill and you start the process of depleting, and possibly irreversibly damaging, the reservoir. The land over many aquifers that have been over-exploited shows clear signs of sinking and compression due to the collapse of the underground void left as the water is extracted.

Changing weather patterns generally, and the more pronounced changes being brought on by global warming, and the persistent human habit of draining marshes and wetlands for development, many of which are the source of replenishment for underground aquifers, are also changing the rate at which many aquifers replenish, usually negatively. Unless aquifer replenishment rates are tracked with changes in the climate and local development ("The Yellow river in China, Colorado River in North America, and the Murray River in Australia are amongst the Earth's major rivers that are regularly sucked dry." before reaching the sea)[1], those dependent on an aquifer for water may find their wells suddenly dried up even though they have not increased their own water extraction.

Water rights licenses
There is another aspect to the term "mining water" that is particularly worrisome for the future. Water rights to surface water in most areas today require a water rights license, even if the water runs through or touches your property. That license spells out what source of water you have access to and how much water from that source you are permitted to use. If the term and concept of "mining water" works its way into government bureaucratic lexicon you may also be required to obtain a license to access the groundwater beneath your own property - some jurisdictions already require it - a license that similarly specifies how much of that water you have a right to use. In many areas requiring water licenses for access to groundwater, such as some states in India, it is becoming increasingly common for farmers to be hauled into court for water theft by extracting above the limits of their water license.

In international trade agreements, and in the conditions attached to IMF, OECD and Worldbank loans to developing countries, water services and water rights are a commodity that is increasingly required to be open for commercial trade. It is possible, as clean surface water sources become increasingly scarce, that your groundwater may become an important tradeable commodity for which you are going to have to compete against the highest commercial bidder, even against some of the world's largest commercial water services companies. With the majority of aquifers already under pressure from over-exploitation governments everywhere may decide that growing demand for commercial groundwater access is exactly why there is a need for government control and private access restriction. In so doing, history very strongly suggests the reason for government control and restrictions will not be to protect your interests but rather those of the giant water service companies. Money talks.

My personal water mining story
For me, in addition, the term also has a strong personal meaning which, I believe, clearly illustrates a broader issue. The southeastern Ontario community I grew up in was a mining town. A mile southeast of home, the constantly-growing, flat-top mountain of slag clearly visible from anywhere in town and the surrounding area, there was a large, open-pit iron ore mine that was the town's main employer during my growing-up years. When they had tapped out the economically-recoverable iron - there was still plenty of iron but they would have had to go underground to get it - the mining company shut off the pumps that kept the pit from flooding and walked away. They even ripped up their rail line that once delivered tons of crude ore to Lake Ontario for shipping across the lake to a Pennsylvania processing facility. They left behind a massive hole in the ground over 600 feet deep and a mile across.

For the past forty years that "hole" has been filling up with clear, blue water, draining every aquifer in the area. Whether they are replenishable I don't know since no appropriate survey of local aquifers has ever been conducted, though they are currently being studied as part of a broader, provincial groundwater survey. There isn't a well within miles, nonetheless, that still has water in it. The community, fortunately, takes its municipal water from the river that runs through town but the water mains end at the town limits. The timing of the building of that municipal water system and the shutting off of the mine pumps has always been suspicious.

The farmers and other rural residents in the area over aquifers that are draining into the mine, being all those south and east of the town, have been left without a water supply. Perhaps, in another hundred years or so, when the water level in the "mine" comes up to the level of what was the local water table, those wells may produce water again, if they are replenishable and the flow characteristics of the aquifers haven't been irreversibly damaged. The periodic tremors in the area since the mine closure are a sign, unfortunately, that some such damage may be occurring as the aquifers drain, or may have occurred as a result of the tremendous blasts while the mine was in operation.

Growing global dependence on Groundwater
A full two thirds of the world's people already rely almost exclusively on underground aquifers for their drinking water. Over half of global agricultural irrigation now uses groundwater. But a third of the world's population lives in areas that are already seriously water-stressed. Where the UN established minimum daily requirement is 10 gallons of water per person these areas have an availability of only 1-3 gallons per day. Much of their daily challenge and activity revolves around how to acquire water. Water for sanitation and basic hygiene is one of the greatest challenges in these areas. Thousands die every day from infections and water-borne diseases. According to the UN, "One child dies every eight seconds from a waterborne disease; 15 million children a year."[4]

Overall as many as half the world's aquifers are already over-exploited. They are being drawn upon at a rate greater than they can be or are replenished. Too often a slowly-replenishing aquifer that has served the needs of local farmers and residents for centuries comes under pressure from high volume extraction for commercial use. This, for example, was the case for one aquifer in India where Coca Cola built a plant in the area and drew on the aquifer for the water to make their soft drinks and for their bottled-water product line. Hundreds of wells in the area went dry, wells that had been in continuous use for hundreds of years. The replenishment rate on the aquifer could not keep up with the traditional demand plus the high volume commercial extraction. Repeated law suits consistently came down on the side of the soft drink company. In fact, courts and the legal system in India have been so protective of commercial water rights that "The state government has booked nearly 2,000 farmers in drought-stricken Bundelkhand on a rare charge — that of stealing water."[6]

However, some sanity and humanity seems to be creeping back into the Indian legal system. A recent court decision forced a major multinational water company to close its operations in one Indian state because of their impact on water availability for local agriculture. As this was a non-replenishable fossil aquifer, however, the damage has already been done. If each of these battles has to be fought in the courts individually with poor peasant farmers going up against powerful, wealthy multinationals the prospects are not good at all. The rapidly growing global demand for clean bottled water is putting major pressure on many aquifers worldwide, most of them deep, pristine non-replenishable fossil aquifers.

Water in an aquifer, like oil in a reservoir, generally does not exist as a unified body like a vast underground lake. But it can. More commonly, it may saturate a layer of sand underground, like the oil in the Alberta tar sands, or it may trickle slowly through cracks and cavities in a rock formation. Look at the face of any rock cliff and you will generally see the telltale vertical dark streaks where water is oozing out of these cracks in the stone. Aquifers may be vast in terms of their overall size, like the Ogallala aquifer - a non-replenishable, fossil aquifer - which covers most of the U.S. midwest. Or they may cover only a few thousand square meters or less. And they may be just a few feet below the surface or a mile or more down.

Our romantic image of a water well is the picturesque round bricked well with the peaked roof and a pull-up rope wound round a hand-cranked pulley. The vast majority of wells, however, and most of those developed over the past half-century, are drilled wells with a pump, sometimes a hand pump, sometimes a windmill, but most often a mechanical pump run by electricity or a gasoline engine. It is these powerful electrical and gasoline-driven pumps that have allowed us to exploit ever deeper aquifers, some over a mile deep, in ever greater volumes (while global population has tripled in the past century global water usage has grown more than six-fold, most of that growth from underground aquifers).

China's growing water deficiency
Under China's arid north plain, where much of the country's vast quantities of wheat and other grains are grown, there is a shallow aquifer that has been relied upon for centuries to supply water to mostly hand-dug wells. The replenishment rate is slow, due to low rainfall, but for many centuries the amount of water being used from it was below that recharge rate. Now that aquifer has been seriously over-exploited and has been, effectively, sucked dry.

But there is also a deeper aquifer under the north plain that is now being tapped thanks to powerful new mechanical pumps. The problem is this deep reservoir is a non-replenishable aquifer. The fossil water in it has been sequestered there for thousands of years. With more and more wells sunk down to this deep aquifer it too may be sucked dry within just a few decades. This will leave China's breadbasket, that feeds much of her 1.6-billion people, without a source of much-needed irrigation. China's grain production, in fact, has already fallen - while half a billion people have been added to the population - from its "peak of 392 million tons in 1998 to an estimated 358 million tons in 2005. For perspective, this drop of 34 million tons exceeds the annual Canadian wheat harvest."[2]

An aquifer, like an oil reservoir, covers a large enough area that multiple wells can draw from it at the same time. In India, for example, the relatively few aquifers in the country are being tapped into by more than 22-million wells. And like oil, each additional well drilled into an aquifer increases the depletion rate and has the potential, and often does, decrease the water available to the other wells. This becomes seriously apparent when the extraction rate of all the wells exceeds the replenishment rate of the aquifer. This vast mining of aquifers in India, for example, is taking its toll and is "lowering water tables in most of the country. In North Gujarat, the water table is falling by 6 meters (20 feet) per year."[2]

There are literally thousands of legal agreements worldwide covering the right of use of surface water in lakes and rivers. But as much as 97% of the world's liquid freshwater is not in these lakes and rivers but rather in underground aquifers. There are essentially no existing agreements covering the use of groundwater, even though many aquifers cross national borders and their over-exploitation on one side of the border is a strong potential source of conflict and even war. Those few agreements that even mention groundwater cover it as an aside and something to be dealt with in the future. But that future is now, if there is to be a future for the world's aquifers and drinkable water for future human generations.

Our abuse of our water resources
We are taking our underground water sources for granted and treating them with the same reckless abandon that we treat our lakes, rivers and the oceans. "Toxic chemicals are contaminating groundwater on every inhabited continent, endangering the world's most valuable supplies of freshwater,"[3] reports a new study from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based research organization. Just a few U.S. examples, which are similar to examples from other continents, will illustrate the depth and breadth of the problem.

* "Water utilities in the midwestern United States, a region that is highly dependent on groundwater, spend $400 million each year to treat water for just one chemical, the pesticide atrazine. According to the U.S. National Research Council, initial cleanup of contaminated groundwater at some 300,000 sites in the United States could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years."[3]

* "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that about 100,000 gasoline storage tanks are leaking chemicals into groundwater. In Santa Monica, California, wells supplying half the city's water have been closed because of dangerously high levels of the gasoline additive MTBE."[3]

* "Sixty percent of the most hazardous liquid waste in the United States - 34 billion liters per year of solvents, heavy metals, and radioactive materials - is injected directly into deep groundwater via thousands of "injection wells." Although the EPA requires that these effluents be injected below the deepest source of drinking water, some have entered underground water supplies, especially in deep, fossil aquifers, in Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Oklahoma."[3]

Water is life
Man is the only species on this planet able to, and in the practice of, exploiting earth's sequestered resources like oil, natural gas, coal, minerals, and water. Apart from the fact we claim an exclusivity that shuts out other species with whom we reluctantly share this planet, we also, particularly in this past century, seem to have no sense of responsibility for sharing them with future generations of humans, our own children and grandchildren. The resources they will need for their very survival are being voraciously gobbled up and discarded as an assumed birthright in our greedy demands for support of our increasingly decadent lifestyle.

If this robbing from future generations were accidental, because we did not understand the long-term implications of over-exploitation, it would be bad enough. But it is not accidental. We do understand. Our governments and industrial organizations pump out reams of statistics every day detailing our crime. And yet we continue on, as if to say to our grandchildren, "To hell with you. I'm going to have a good time as long as I can and it's your problem to figure out how to survive on what's left when our party is over."


Additional reading material:

1) A Global Water Crisis
2) Aquifer Depletion
3) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis
4) UN Highlights World Water Crisis
5) The Hidden Freshwater Crisis
6) Latest to be ‘stolen’: precious water- UP charges nearly 2,000 farmers with theft in drought zone
7) Water crusader Maude Barlow gets UN post