Sunday, August 31, 2003

Pilot study shows human water use significantly threatens freshwater ecosystems

A joint study by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the World Resources Institute (WRI), the Center for Environmental Systems Research of Kassel University (KU) and IUCN-The World Conservation Union warns that excessive use of water in the world's major river basins threatens the collapse of many local economies and communities, potentially affecting the lives of over 1.4 billion people who live in the river basins.

Another report, Groundwater and its Susceptibility to Degradation: assesses the problem of shrinking ground water supplies and options for management by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report paints a worrying picture of this critical, hidden, natural resource, as growing and thirsty cities, industries and agriculture take their toll.

"In Arizona, United States, 400 million cubic metres of groundwater is being removed annually, which is about double the amount being replaced by recharge from rainfall. Almost a fifth of the water in storage in the huge Ogalla/High Plains Aquifer of the Midwest of the United States has been removed. In recent decades, the water table there has fallen by an average of 3 metres, and upto 30 metres in some places.

Other countries highlighted include Mexico, where the number of aquifers considered over-exploited has jumped from 32 in 1975 to nearly 130 by the 1990s, says the report. Impacts include contamination by salt as seawater seeps in to replace the freshwater loss and contamination from the surface caused by pumping. Land subsidence causing damage to property and infrastructure has been recorded in several states including Mexico City, Queretaro and Celaya, as a result of the falling water table.

In Spain, more than half of the nearly 100 aquifers are over-exploited. "In the important Segura river basin of eastern Spain, the ratio of groundwater storage depletion to available renewable water resources has increased from less than 20% in the mid-1980s to 130% by 1995."

The risks of over-exploitation can be catastrophic in economic terms, especially in rural areas dependent on irrigation. Freshwater can become contaminated with salt making it unfit for human consumption and most agriculture. Removing the salt is costly and energy-intensive, making it too expensive for many developing countries to consider.

The growing water crisis is an indication that the world is reaching its carrying limit for human civilization. And the problem is being aggravated by climate changes.

Drier than normal weather conditions in regions around the world - including near-record droughts in some countries - have sparked growing concern about the state of the world's drylands. Heavy use is stretching the limits of the world's drylands, which are home to more than 2 billion people, one-third of the earth's population.

"More than 40 percent of the world's poorest countries consist largely of drylands. Farming, raising livestock, and other means of making a living in these countries are often inextricably connected to the health of the land. But heavy demands on these lands are reducing their ability to support large populations. The United Nations estimates that the livelihoods of an estimated 1 billion people in 110 countries are threatened by drought and desertification.

A number of countries around the world are experiencing the worst droughts they have seen in decades, and drylands have been among the hardest regions hit. Parts of the United States are now seeing dust-bowl like conditions. Starvation is a threat for tens of thousands in drought-stricken southern Africa. Massive numbers of livestock are dying of thirst in dry regions in Asia and the Pacific."

We are entering an age of limits. One way or another we will spend this century learning to live in harmony with nature. The lessons may be hard.

Saturday, August 30, 2003

Matt Simmons, an oil industry expert who has advised the Bush administration on energy policy, has grown increasingly pessimistic about our chances of avoiding a major energy crisis, both in terms of natural gas and oil.

In a recent interview Simmons was asked what the solution was to the problem of natural gas supply. Simmons replied; "I don't think there is one. The solution is to pray. Pray for mild weather and a mild winter. Pray for no hurricanes and to stop the erosion of natural gas supplies. Under the best of circumstances, if all prayers are answered there will be no crisis for maybe two years. After that it's a certainty."

Commenting on world oil supplies, Simmons said; "I have for years described two camps: the economists who told us that technology would always produce new supply and the pessimists or Cassandras who told us that peak was coming in maybe fifteen or twenty years. We may be finding out that we went over the peak in 2000. That makes both camps wrong.

Over the last year. I have obtained and closely examined more than 100 very technical production reports from Saudi Arabia. What I glean from examining the data is that it is very likely that Saudi Arabia, already a debtor nation, has very likely gone over its Peak. If that is true, then it is a certainty that planet earth has passed its peak of production."

If an insider like Simmons believes this, it is certain that others in the industry and the administration are aware of the magnitude of the problem. It's an open question how much this has influenced administration policies, but it certainly must be in the background of all decisions about the Middle East.

Friday, August 29, 2003

It’s a certainty that the future will be Green; more in balance with nature, less pollution, based on renewable resources. What is uncertain is how painful the process will be and how much, if any, control over events we will have.

One of the driving forces for this change will be when we reach the peak of oil and gas production worldwide and rollover into decline, which will occur sometime within the next few decades, perhaps as early as this decade. Oil is the most important form of energy we use, making up about 40 percent of the world energy supply. No other energy source equals oil’s intrinsic qualities of extractability, transportability, versatility and cost. The twentieth century revolutions is transportation, industry and food production were fueled by oil.

The practical beginning of the age of oil began in 1901 with the discovery of the Spindletop field in Texas; the first giant oil field ever found. Giant oil fields have driven the industry. Today, the fourteen largest oil fields produce twenty percent of total production; 120 fields produce nearly half of world supply. All of these fields are old and many have already rolled over into decline. The last oil field discovered that was capable of pumping more than a million barrels a day was at Prudoe Bay in the 1970s. Today it produces less than half that amount.

Natural gas poses an even more difficult problem because it cannot easily be shipped overseas like oil; it needs to be chilled to liquid form and then regassified upon arrival. In the U.S. we are essentially limited to what we can produce in North America, and this supply seems to have peaked, in spite of record levels of drilling. Compounding the problem is the fact that most new power plants are designed to use natural gas, giving a big boost to demand.

The most important question for our economic future is when will the production of oil and gas peak and what renewable sources will we replace them with. Virtually everyone in the industry agrees that oil production will peak. The optimists believe we have another twenty or thirty years before peak, but most analysts believe the peak will come in this decade. A few more pessimistic voices believe we have already reached peak.

There are a few possible replacements. Wind generated energy is the fastest growing source of electricity in both the U.S. and Europe although it still makes up a very small percentage of total supply. Automobile companies are pouring tremendous amounts of money into developing a fuel cell powered car, but serious technical difficulties remain to be solved. New advances in photo voltaic cells have made them much more efficient but so far they not competitive with other sources of energy.

Our future is very much a gamble at this point, depending on oil and gas production to keep up long enough for us to develop alternatives. It is not at all clear that we will win the gamble. But it is certain that the future belongs to renewable, nonpolluting energy sources that will mean a much greener world.