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This Parched Earth

February 20, 2004

This Parched Earth

Juliette Jowit
Environment editor
Saturday February 14 2004
The Guardian

Water is life. Nothing can exist without it - not humans, not animals, not plants, not food, not even dreams. As Marq de Villiers, author of Water Wars, put it: 'Millions have lived without love. No one has lived without water.'

For most of us, this does not matter. We turn on our taps, flush our lavatories and water our plants with barely a thought. Yet our seas, rivers and even rainfall are under siege from pollution, waste and man-made destruction.

Forget the bold talk of attempts to colonize space before the Earth expires. The great race of our time is already under way all round the world. Unseen and unreported, teams of specialists are working on controversial projects to replumb the planet and avert the deepening of a catastrophe that is already claiming the life of one child every 15 seconds.

Water makes up 70 per cent of the surface of the globe (and the same proportion of the human body). That sounds like a lot of water. Unfortunately, however, only 3 per cent is fresh. The vast majority of that is locked in the polar icecaps or too deep underground to reach. Less than 1 per cent of all water is fresh and 'accessible'.

Human use of fresh water has quadrupled since the 1940s and is still growing fast, driven by population growth and more affluent 'water-hungry' lifestyles with household appliances, golf courses to tender and a taste for year-round fresh food.

According to the United Nations, the total amount of fresh water available for humans and eco-systems is 200,000 kilometers cubed, or 200,000,000 billion liters. Others say the amount of accessible, renewable water for mankind is just 15,000,000bn liters. The strain on many ground water reserves and rivers has caused pollution to what little is left. Experts believe the world is already using 30 to 40 per cent of this 'blue gold'.

This presents policy-makers with two of their biggest global problems. One-fifth of humanity - 1.1 billion people - has no access to safe drinking water. This, together with lack of sanitation for 2.4 billion people, causes a child to die every 15 seconds and five million deaths a year.

But the environmental cost of providing more water has been devastating. Six out of 10 of the world's biggest rivers have been seriously or moderately fragmented by dams, diversions and canals.

Half of the planet's wetlands were lost during the twentieth century, in part due to these pressures, while ground water supplies are becoming polluted and running out.

Look anywhere in the world and the crisis is laid bare. Britain is the most 'water-stressed' country in Europe and an official drought was declared this winter. In other countries, the situation is more drastic.

Five times in the last decade the Yellow River in northern China has failed to reach the sea and some underground stores in rocks have lost 90 per cent of their reserves.

Widespread drought in southern India two years ago caused huge political pressure for national action, the Aral Sea in the former Soviet Union has dried up and Lake Chad has dropped 90 per cent since the mid-1960s.

In America, the Government wants to buy the contents of Canada's Arctic rivers for Los Angeles and other desperate cities.

The human impact is shocking: billions of people - normally women and children - are walking an average of six miles a day to fetch water. The water they collect is often carrying disease.

'It doesn't have the impact of starvation - which is visible and terminal - but this is one of the silent emergencies at the roots of everything,' says Ravi Narayanan, WaterAid's director.

And still it is getting worse: in fewer than 25 years, says the UN Environment Programme, two-thirds of the world's population will live in 'water-stressed' countries where there is not enough water per person to be sure in future of secure supplies and healthy rivers and lakes.

The estuary of the River Ebro juts out from the south of Spain into the Mediterranean like a huge roughly hewn arrowhead. This is a landscape from another time: home to more than 350 bird species, supposedly protected by a fistful of international treaties, and described by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds as 'one of the important places for bio-diversity in Europe'. The delta is also a living museum of traditions: people live in thatched homes, tourists stop to photograph old women on bikes, workers go home for lunch, and families tend rice paddies at the weekend or fish for sardines, anchovies and shellfish.

Rice is not natural to the Ebro delta, but it was first planted by monks in the seventeenth century and is very much the way of life, says farmer Jordi Prats. Rice has even shaped the language. 'Even the younger generation who have started to work in other places, the colloquial expressions they use are still related to the land,' says Prats. 'If it's a bad day, they say "it's a bad day for the rice" or "the storms are going to play havoc with the rice".'

This, though, is a way of life under threat from a plan by the Spanish government to build enormous pipelines to take water from the Ebro north to Barcelona and south to the semi-arid regions of Valencia, Murcia and Almer, up to 500 miles away. It is a mind-boggling scheme, but only one of a great many ever more ambitious projects by politicians and engineers. For generations, they believed they could, with ingenuity and money, re-engineer the hydrological cycle to their needs.

For most of the twentieth century this was the prevailing view, and dams and diversions were built all over the developed world, like a sprawling international plumbing system. From the 1970s the scale of the environmental damage and human displacement in flooded valleys forced decision-makers to question whether there were more 'sustainable' ways of tackling the problem.

But still another generation of schemes is now under construction - and they are bigger than ever before.

The Three Gorges Dam in China is perhaps the most famous mega-dam in the world at the moment, but it is not the biggest. The Chinese government has started to build a 750-mile channel to take water from the Yangtze River in the south to fill up the Yellow river - which, when complete, will transfer 50 cubic kilometers a year, or three times the total water used by England and Wales.

In India a plan to bring water from the rivers of the Himalayas to the arid south will move a similar volume of water but cost several times as much. In Australia there have been calls to divert the northern rivers across the outback to the drier south. In Africa, the Congo, the world's second largest river, is threatened by two diversion projects: five countries in Central Africa have agreed to dam a main tributary and feed it north to the drying Lake Chad; in Namibia politicians want to divert the great river south to their land. And Libya is building a multi-billion-dollar pump to mine water stored under the Sahara for up to 70,000 years.

Next to these the River Ebro diversion looks rather modest, but to move a river up to 500 miles is ambitious by any measure. The Ebro project is also a microcosm of the dilemmas, promises and threats which have made such big engineering projects so controversial.

The plan to divert the Ebro is just one of the most controversial proposals in the National Hydrological Plan by the Spanish government. In total, it is due to cost and covers 836 separate projects, including more than 100 dams, several water transfers, channeling, reforestation and improvements to water supply and waste treatment. The European Commission has been asked to contribute 30 per cent of the cost. The impacts of the plan will be felt across Spain. Many communities will benefit, but there will be many losers too, including people in the Pyrenees threatened with eviction by new dams and a stretch of the St James's Way pilgrimage route, which is supposed to be protected by Unesco as a world heritage site.

The Ebro, though, has a special place in the hearts of many Spanish: the name - Ebre in Spanish - gave its name to the whole Iberian peninsula, and it is one of Europe's greatest rivers. It has become, therefore, a rallying point for opposition to the plan from all over Spain, and indeed Europe.

There is another side to this story: the plan was conceived to help areas such as Almera, in Andalusia, which with its 200mm of rain a year has 'a little more than the Sahara, but not much', says Antonio Pulido Bosch at Almera University.

Twenty-five years ago Almera was one of the poorest regions of Spain and generations of children were forced to leave the region, often the country, to seek work. Today Almera has a booming tourist industry and acres of plastic greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables the year round.

But the summer glut of tourists and the huge irrigation of the 'growing' industry have caused underground aquifers to drop and salt water to leach in. A water recycling plant opened five years ago, but there simply isn't enough 'dirty' water going into the system to supply their needs. A desalination plant has been built but to supply the whole region with desalinated water would need more electricity than the entire national grid, says the Environment Ministry in Madrid. So, say community leaders, the water from the Ebro is essential to their future.

It is easy to argue that such industries seem unsustainable in the closest thing Europe has to a desert. It is much harder to tell a community scarred by the memory of hardship that it should give up its newfound success.

'Water is to survive, to carry on,' says Andrs Solerrquez, who is marketing director of vegetable growers Vega Caada in Almera. 'What we're asking for is not to get richer and richer, but to maintain what's been achieved. If we don't have water we can't produce, and if we can't produce we can't get any money and we have to emigrate again.'

But sending water south to feed golf courses and intensive agriculture is only encouraging unsustainable development, claim the objectors, who want more done to cut down demand by limiting future development and cracking down on illegal greenhouses. The Almerans say they treat water like 'gold', but Pulido Bosch estimates that even here 20 per cent is 'wasted'. Around the world, the UN estimates up to two-thirds of all water used for irrigation and up to 40 per cent of urban supply is lost through evaporation or leakage.

In Spain, however, the government says the diversion of the Ebro is a logical move to share water from the 'wet' north to the 'dry' south. This is how the growers in Almera understand the problem: 'They [the rivers] throw millions and millions of liters of water into the Mediterranean each year,' says Emilio Martnez Parra, another director at Vega Caada.

Rivers are constantly evolving, but campaigners are worried about the scale and speed of change if so much water and - just as crucially - sediments stop flowing down the lower reaches of the river. As evidence, they cite a 'mini-transfer' from the Ebro to the regional center of Tarragona in the 1980s.

Since then, the drop in fresh water floods has caused salts to build up in the land, which is getting harder to cultivate and allowed algal blooms to flourish, killing off fish and shellfish. Meanwhile, scientists supporting the objectors calculate that sediments - crucial to replace erosion of the delta by the sea - have dropped 99 per cent. As a result, the delta is receding by up to 100m a year and subsiding by 3mm a year, says Susanna Abella, a protester who also works for a local water treatment company.

'There was a huge amount of algae all along the river, a plague of zebra mussels played havoc with the water pumps and pipes, fish catches dropped dramatically, and shellfish farms lost millions. If that was to happen every year it would be the end of a way of life.'

Faced with a growing and increasingly noisy backlash against engineering projects on the one hand, and continuing water shortages on the other, international agencies, such as the World Council on Dams, are counseling against many big engineering projects, forcing governments and local communities increasingly to turn to other solutions.

These fall into two categories: 'making' water and saving water. The first set are, basically, the cousins of the great dams and diversions: mostly big capital investments in water desalination plants, water recycling works, mining water from deep underground reservoirs, and even - somewhat comically - the idea of towing icebergs from the polar regions to desperate places like Australia and California.

Some have big environmental problems of their own to worry about. Desalination and mining need masses of energy, which would mostly come from carbon-emitting sources. Desalination also produces a briny discharge that is harmful to sealife. And mining more water than can be recharged only exacerbates pollution.

Experts also believe big engineering projects have encouraged people to assume water will always be provided and caused many communities to forget traditional ways of farming and conserving a scarce resource.

Governments are being encouraged to invest in more efficient irrigation and mend or replace creaky distribution systems. They are also being pressed to reform agricultural subsidies, which encourage farmers in Spain to increase yields by watering olive trees which have spent millennia adapting to thrive in dry climates.

Increasingly, the policy-makers are studying what they can learn from ancient civilizations and lost traditions. In Australia the desperate government has called in Aboriginal elders to explain how they coped for centuries with a water supply which the 'settlers' have all but used up in 200 years,

In India and other countries villages have started to harvest their own water using the roofs of their houses, yards and giant nets to 'catch' the vapor available in the air.

'It's only in the last 50 years we have abused our water resources in this way,' says Professor Mike Edmunds at Oxford University's Center for Water Research. 'Now people are coming to realize the folly of their ways and are saying, let's turn back and begin harvesting schemes and conservation schemes.'

For all these good intentions, though, the scale of the global problem (and perhaps the politics of persuading people to use less water) means more big projects will have to be built in future. They crucial thing is to make them more responsible, says David Smith of the UN Environment Programme.

'Civil engineering projects to transfer water to users are absolutely vital,' he says. 'That is not the issue; the issue is how to ensure the most appropriate civil engineering projects in economic, environmental and social terms are chosen. For example, if it is cheaper to fix leaks in pipes or promote rain water harvesting, why isn't that happening?'

Adrian McDonald, of Leeds University, an adviser to the World Water Forum in 2000, said: 'When it gets down to it, people need water first, then they need food; and people want a glass of water before they want a more diverse habitat.'

Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited


 

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