Water Security

There are interesting signs that the public is awakening to the urgency of ocean and fresh water issues, to understanding the crisis of supply, degradation, and governance that has long been the purpose of  the World Ocean Observatory and many other organizations concerned with these urgent challenges to our environment.

One such sign is the more and more frequent use of the word "security" in the context of water and ocean, a term that adds a peculiar emphasis that puts the issue to the front of the line, asserts a gravitas that must be addressed, and implies consequence more threatening and real than reports of climate change, glacier melt, sea level rise, acidification, depletion of fish stocks, indifference to extant policy, failed enforcement of legislated regulation, and confused or insufficient governance. While we have been talking about these conditions for years, it has been difficult to penetrate public awareness in any meaningful dimension, the message lost in the cacophony of contradiction, disaster, and diverting entertainment.

From the beginning, the World Ocean Observatory has declared its primary mission "to expand public awareness of the implication of the ocean for the future of human survival." Survival: a stark term, a precise term, an urgent word that states the truth as life or death. On many occasions, that mission statement has been challenged as too extreme, too dire, too alarmist. I have always rebutted those comments as purposeful denial of overwhelming incidence and evidence, naïve response to the depth of crises known, unrealistic understanding of the extent and consequence of our indifference, and fearful unwillingness to accept and implement the change required to sustain the earth and to survive.

A stunning example may be found in a recent short article generated by ClimateWire that points to the area around Lijiang, Yunnan Province, China, typically a heavy rainfall district, but where over the past four years precipitation has dropped by 70% to drought conditions that have already critically diminished agricultural and hydro-electric production, the productivity of local wells and aquifer, and, yes, the survivability of a provincial population of some 45 million that has grown 12% and quadrupled economic output per capita since 2000. In the face of that growth, according to the article, available water resources per capita have dropped by half.

"Yunnan is known as Asia's water tower because many important domestic and international rivers start from here," explains Duan Changqun, an ecologist at Yunnan University. "Drought means less water flows in the downstream, sending a blow to the ecosystem of other parts of China as well as South Asian countries."

It is a vicious cycle: atmospheric circulation change affects rainfall, creates drought, hydro-electrical distribution locally and regionally, collapses the freshwater fish stocks, negates the $1.8 billion tourist industry  and limits household water supply in the capital, Kunming, to four hours a day. Local media has estimated the economic loss since the drought began in 2009 at $4.2 billon. Add to that the retreat of the local glaciers (70% of which are predicted to disappear by 2050 due to increased average temperature) and the extreme pollution of the remaining water by unregulated waste disposal, sewage, and fertilizer and manufacturing run-off, and you have a truly toxic recipe that does not bode well for security or survival.

To solve the problem, the article suggests the Yunnan government is introducing water-saving technologies and proposes to construct "new water reserves of 3 billion cubic meters, a 30% increase in capacity, at untold cost, but it does not indicate from where than water will come.

So, this is an example of the water cycle interrupted at every turn: reduced glacial supply, no re-generating rain, diminished aquifer, dry rivers, polluted reserves, collapsed economy, and catastrophic local and downstream consequences beyond provincial borders to other regions, other nations, to the coast and, finally, the ocean. It is a case of "hydraulic society" destroyed at every level by a conspiracy of human causes, all the essential value of water and its distributive, generative power dried up, poisoned, insufficient -- depriving individuals, businesses, communities, regions, nations, inter-nations of water, the most essential element of human life. And Lijiang is not the only example to hand. It is a matter of survival. And when you consider all this, add it all up and confront the integrated reality, IN-security is the word that comes to mind, and that does not bode well for anyone.