Peak Water Civilisation and the World’s Water Crisis
Luath Press 2009
Hardback 208 pp
If oil supply peaks and begins to decline times will be hard. Standard of living will decline and people may go hungry but they will be able to adapt by powering down and making do with less.
If water supply- for domestic use but also for irrigation- peaks and declines people have no option but to migrate.
UK journalist Alexander Bell spells out his thesis starkly in this fascinating and clearly written book: many of the world’s major regions are past or on the brink of peak water and face growing populations with declining supplies.
The rich world will not escape the catastrophic effects of this as they depend on vast quantities of “virtual water” imported for the most part from the global South in the form of food and goods. They will also have to deal with increasing numbers of water refugees in the future.
Bell begins by tracing the link between water control and the development of civilisation.
Civilisation is a model of living that suits itself to societies that control water
Six thousand years ago in Mesopotamia the Sumerians became the first to experiment in large scale water control by keeping back the floods of the Tigris and the Euphrates, allowing both productive agriculture on the fertile flood plain and a store of water for irrigation in the dry periods.
Ever since then water control has been both a prerequisite growth of cities and a symbol of the power that water can bestow on emperors and rulers. The spectacular viaducts of the Romans were more for bathing and recreation than irrigation, providing a potent symbol. The hubris of the doomed city of Las Vegas with its fountains in the desert provides a contemprary example.
Bell make the interesting point about the other way in which control of water has become the mark of a civilised society in the use of sewers and flush toilets. Our modern use of clean drinking water to flush away our bodily wastes may be the ultimate symbol of an unsustainable culture.
The control of water however takes enormous effort as the canals need to be constantly dug out to remove the silt, and this need for labour has formed part of the cycle of water supply, irrigation, and increased population:
An important thing happens when humans stop moving from place to place in search of water, food and safety. They have more children.
The other difficulty with constant irrigation is the build up of salt. Irrigation in hot countries leads to considerable losses in evaporation, leaving the mineral salts brought down from the mountains behind on the land. In many of the world’s major agricultural regions, as water supplies dry up the land becomes useless.
For millions, water supply in the future is threatened by climate change which is melting the glaciers which have provided steady supplies for millenia, causing first floods and later, permanent water shortages.
In the modern era, governments and presidents have used the mega-dam as a show of strength and independence.
One example is the High Aswan Dam built by Nassar in the newly independent country. This too has been victim to evaporation, but political reasons have made it impossible to make a better arrangement of building dams in the cooler mountains of Ethiopia. Thus Egypt is arming itself against the thirst of its poorer neighbours with growing populations and less ability to sustain themselves as the deserts spread and the planet warms up.
Many other areas are facing potential water conflicts: Israel and Palestine; Pakistan and India. Bell explains that historically the struggle for control of water has not usually lead to war because people feel they have to co-operate at least to some degree over water rights, but comments grimly
The idea of a water war has become commonplace. It may happen like the scenarios above, but I suspect the world has to face up to a more horrific future. Not one of war as we understand it in 20th century terms, but a state of ongoing global trauma as people witness civilisation decay when the water runs out. How we respond to that catastrophe will be the mark of the human race. Almost certainly it will mean the end of civilisation as we currently know it.
Peak Water is a valuable contribution to our understanding of human ecology providing a broad sweep of the human predicament of overshoot: our thirst for control of water has been historically the core issue for civilisation, but as we have extended our temporary control over nature we have increasingly taken it for granted as just the stuff that comes out of our taps. Perhaps even the environmental movement, with its recent preoccupation over peak oil and climate change, have also been lulled into a false sense of security over this vital resource, forgetting that no degree of adaptation can adjust to water shortages.
Alexander Bell has written a great book to remind us that we are soon going to find out just how long a society can survive without enough water.