When water runs out
There is one very important non-renewable resource we are depleting which is very rarely alluded to: water. this recognition of the problem is slowly changing; the last James Bond film had as its villain someone trying to control this most precious resource. Critics of the film scoffed that it seemed a strange manifestation of megalomania compared with previous Bond villains, but this displays a lack of appreciation of the impacts of water supply.
When you’ve spent months in the Botswana bush, carrying your water on your back for many miles from the nearest borehole back to your camp as I have, you very quickly acquire a respect for its importance.
In theory we can’t deplete water as, thanks to the water cycle, it is continually being evaporated off the oceans and deposited on land as rain. But in many dry parts of the earth, 100s of millions of people are dependent on underground water stored in aquifers. The trouble with water stored in aquifers is that it is fossil water i.e. water that has percolated down through the overlying land and accumulated in underground reservoirs over thousands of years. It is therefore, in our lifetimes, a non-renewable resource. About half the world’s people live in countries with falling water tables, including India, China and the US. Marc Reisner, in my book ‘Cadillac Desert’, writes very well about the ticking time-bomb that is depleted fossil water in the American West. California has for many years had an unsustainable (in terms of water) lifestyle. Indeed, if we’re using film influences, I could cite the 1974 Jack Nicholson film Chinatown, which had as its core the control of the water supply. The southwestern US is heavily dependent on depleting aquifers, depleting due to too many people living in a desert regime that surface water cannot sustain, and growing high water needs crops: oranges are not a sensible crop in California.
One of the few overland sources of water here is the Colorado River. this exotic river is a watery conveyor belt, bring melted snow deep into desert regions. It winds its way for 1,450 miles from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, helping human life to flourish in low rainfall areas. Its importance was recognised with the 1922 Western States Water Compact, which specified how much water each state was allowed to take from the river as it passed through. The fledgling Grand Canyon National Park was not a signatory, and so even today it is still not allowed to draw water from the river that flows through it. As a Ranger colleague of mine put it: “Around here water flows towards money, it has nothing to do with gravity”.
But in less developed parts of the world, depleting aquifers pose a huge threat to basic food production. Food may not be the limiting factor to the extra 220,000 born each day who sit down to eat each night at the earth’s table: it will be the water required to make the food grow.
This is just one of the stories from my environmental talks