The Weekly Carboholic: Not a drop to drink…

Posted on June 4, 2008



People without water will do anything – Wendon, The Ice Pirates (1984)

Deprived of water, people die within days of dehydration. So do livestock. Crops wither and, if the fields produce at all, the yields are cut dramatically from normal. And now we’re beginning to hear stern warnings about the availability of cheap potable water.

“We once assumed that water is free, air is free and power is cheap. The latter is clearly no longer true and we are increasingly realising the truth about water,” argued MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Sarah Slaughter in a May 2008 paper.

According to a USGS estimate, 96.5% of the available water is in the oceans, 1.7% is frozen into icecaps and glaciers, 0.8% of the water is in freshwater aquifers, and about 0.0072% is available in freshwater lakes and rivers. Generally speaking, humanity relies on that 0.0072% for all of its direct consumption and agricultural uses. But most (about 2/3rds) of that available freshwater is tied up in just a few major bodies of water, namely Lake Baikal, Lake Tanganyika, Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron (which will be threatened by Western development well outside their drainage basins), and the Amazon River. This means that, for the majority of humanity that is unlucky enough to not live next to one of those bodies of water, rising populations and a hotter climate are gong to put pressures on the availability of potable water.

As an example, the Spanish city of Barcelona is literally shipping tankers full of millions of liters of water to slake the public thirst. The problem is that a growing population, more agriculture, and an extended drought has left Barcelona’s main reservoir at only 18% full. So the city is paying 22 million euros to ship in six tanker ships of water from other regions around Spain over the next few months. The problem is that this can’t be sustained. Not only is all of Spain dealing with water shortages that make shifting water from region to another a logistical and political nightmare, but Barcelona is a city of 1.6 million people. According to the Guardian article, those 23 million liters are enough for 180,000 people for only one day. At that rate, if the reservoir were to run dry, Barcelona alone would need 9 tankers of water every day. At the quoted rate of 22 million euros for 6 tankers (or 3.67 million euros per tanker), that would be about 33 million euros every day just for water. If we scale Los Angeles (population: ~4 million, total city budget ~$6.5 billion) down to estimate Barcelona’s city budget (~$2.6 billion, or 1.73 billion euros), then importing the city’s entire water needs would cost about 7x more than the city’s entire budget. Thankfully it’s not that bad, because the city still has water in it’s reservoirs, but it doesn’t take many shiploads of water to make constructing multi-billion dollar desalination plants and the associated power plants a viable option.

And that’s just for one Spanish city in the relatively wet north of Spain. According to The New York Times, there are water wars between developers and farmers in the much drier south of Spain, and the climate of southern Spain is coming to resemble that of north Africa. The Times reports that a large part of the problem is mismanagement of existing water supplies, especially the drilling of hundreds of thousands of wells that have sucked the groundwater so dry that, combined with droughts caused by global heating and poor land use, large tracts of southern Spain are literally turning into a desert.

The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent feature article about limitations on water (“Is water becoming ‘the new oil'”). According to the article, while there is plenty of freshwater for human use, the combination of waste (watering Kentucky Blue Grass lawns in semi-arid Colorado, for example), global heating, and pollution has left water supplies stretched. Add to this the fact that, as a result of global heating, weather patterns will change enough to dry out some presently wet areas and simultaneously soak currently dry regions, the management of water will be a major challenge in the next century. And access to freshwater is expected by the UN to be a major source of conflict:

In January, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon cited a report by International Alert, a self-described peacebuilding organization based in London. The report identified 46 countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion people where contention over water has created “a high risk of violent conflict” by 2025.

In the western United States, we have a saying supposedly coined by Mark Twain that, unfortunately, is coming to apply far more broadly than just in the West: “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” (Source:


While much of the rest of the world is looking at anthropogenic global heating (AGH) as a threat to their water supplies, crops, and even directly to life and limb, The Scotsman reports that the 56,000 residents of Greenland are actually looking forward to a warmer isle. Their reason? AGH is expected to dramatically improve the economic fortunes of the island via shipping through the Northwest Passage, offshore oil and gas extraction, and greater tourism. All this economic growth may also enable the self-governing Danish territory to declare full independence.


Source: EPA

If sea levels rise as much as expected this century, significant portions of southen Florida will be flooded unless the government (state, local, even federal) does something to prevent it. And if that flooding occurs, lots of presently developed land will be submerged and rendered part of the Atlantic Ocean instead of part of the state of Florida. According to a Miami Herald article, the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition (FCOC) is recommending, against the opinion of the state’s largest coalition of real estate developers, that coastal lands most likely to be submerged be left development-free:

The group is calling on state and local government to minimize beach front development in light of the possibility that today’s beaches could be in tomorrow’s ocean.

The state could target its program for buying environmentally sensitive property toward buying more beach front land, [David Godfrey, executive director for one of the group’s member organizations, the Caribbean Conservation Corp.] said. It could also offer tax incentives for developers to shun beaches for more inland areas.

According to the article, more than 80% of the state’s population lives within 20 miles of the coast, and the actual report estimates that losses from the average IPCC estimate of sea level rise (about 1 meter by 2100) would cost Florida a least $327 billion in economic damages.

As with all reports like this, the devil is in the details. For example, that $327 billion in losses assumes a worst-case IPCC “business-as-usual” scenario that combines the impacts of hurricane damage, reduced tourism, real estate losses, and costs of additional electricity for air conditioning. The actual loss directly attributed to sea level rise is just the real-estate losses, and that’s expected to be “only” $56 billion, or 17% of the total. Still a lot of money, but MUCH less than the total from the original Tufts University study quoted by the FCOC (and, not coincidentally, commissioned by FCOC member organization Envirionmental Defense Fund.)

I applaud the FCOC for directly tackling the issue of what sea level rise will do to southern Florida. The problems are serious enough that they need to be well publicized so that the Florida state government can address them directly and in the open. But the problems are also serious enough that the FCOC shouldn’t have resorted to numerical hyperbole – the unexaggerated numbers are bad enough already, thanks.


Global heating deniers have long pointed to the “fact” that satellite and radiosonde (weather balloon) data recorded little or no increase in upper troposphere warming as an example of why global heating predictions were wrong. Most climate scientists involved in trying to measure heating in that part of the atmosphere knew that their data (and thus the data quoted by the deniers) was so full of errors that making any conclusions was effectively impossible. Now, though, a new paper in Nature Geoscience and reported by has shown that the upper troposphere has actually warmed as most climate scientists expected.

In the new study, climate scientists Robert Allen and Steven Sherwood of Yale University use a more accurate method to show that temperature changes in the upper troposphere since 1970 — about 0.65 degrees Centigrade per decade — are in fact clearly in sync with most climate change models.

Rather than measuring temperature directly, which had yielded inconsistent results, they used wind variations as a proxy.

A proxy is an indirect measurement of something else. In the case of ice cores, for example, since it’s not possible to travel back in time hundreds of thousands of years and make direct temperature measurements, scientists use the amount of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) in the water as a way to estimate the temperature. In this case, though, wind speed (measured by the movement rate of the radiosonde) was found to be a good proxy for temperature in the upper troposphere. Since the errors were lower by a factor of 10, the radiosonde’s speed data was used to look back to 1970 and estimate the temperature rise in the upper troposphere – 0.65 degrees Celsius, or very close to what climate models have predicted.

The new study “provides … long-awaited experimental verification of model predictions,” [Peter Thorne of Britain’s Met Office Hadley Centre] wrote.

Image: Ship brings water – Source: BBC

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