Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Water use in China and the Middle East is an environmental Ponzi scheme

Damian Carrington in the Guardian (UK): Find water and you find life. This simple maxim guides scientists searching distant planets for aliens. But if the astrobiologists were to reverse their telescopes and look at our own globe, they would find a conundrum: billions of people living in places with little or no water.

That unsustainable paradox is now unravelling before our eyes in the Middle East and north Africa. The 16 most water-stressed states on Earth are all in that troubled region, with Bahrain at the top of the ranking from risk analysts Maplecroft. Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria follow not far behind.

All are built on an environmental Ponzi scheme, using more water than they receive: 700 times more in Libya's case. The unrest of the Arab spring of course has many causes, but arguably the most fundamental is the crumbling of a social contract that offered cheap water – and hence food – in return for subservience to dictators.

The region's population is rocketing – there are 10,000 new mouths to feed each day – just as grain production plummets. The deep, ancient aquifers that enabled crops to green the deserts are almost exhausted, and the oil that fires the desalination plants to make up the loss is dwindling too.

It's a perfect storm of water, food and energy crises and has arrived two decades sooner than even the most sober analysts expected. And while the Middle East is the first region to feel the wrath of that storm, across the world warning signs are flashing – from the sinking of Mexico City as its aquifers are sucked dry to the docking of freshwater tankers in Barcelona…

A ship in what used to be the Aral Sea, long since dried up. Shot by Staecker, who has released it into the public domain

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