Water


Severe droughts could devastate sub-Saharan Africa following a recent decades-long drought that killed 100,000 people in Africa’s Sahel region, scientists say.

Sub-Saharan Africa often suffers droughts, but the group of specialists reported on Thursday that global climate change will make these dry periods more severe and more difficult for the people who live there.

The prediction is contained in a study published in the journal of Science by the scientits at the University of Arizona, US.

“Clearly, much of West Africa is already on the edge of sustainability, and the situation could become much more dire in the future with increased global warming,” said Jonathan Overpeck, a climatologist and co-author of the study.

Via Aljazeera English.

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IN A DIRT TURNOUT ALONG BLACKSMITH RD., NEAR LESLIE, GEORGIA – I’ve come here to talk with you today about agriculture, and U.S. agricultural policy.

Someone was telling me today that they thought it was unusual for an independent presidential candidate to have a policy on agriculture.  To be honest, I think it’s rare even for a mainstream presidential candidate to talk about agriculture during the campaign.  Except in Iowa.  They come to Iowa, and they pronounce a few platitudes about subsidies and crop insurance, and as soon as the Caucuses are over, they forget they’ve ever heard of farmers.

Farmers, you see, aren’t much of a voting block.  ADM, Cargill, Noble Group, on the other hand – the big players in international agribusiness – they have a powerful lobby, and there’s no real need for a mainstream presidential candidate to go public with his or her agricultural policy when all he or she has to do is to call a few of the big boys over for cocktails and hash it out with them in private.  Cheney-style.

But that’s the real reason that I’m here to talk to you today about agriculture.  Washington politicians now seem to take it for granted that the true constituents of a national agricultural policy are the ADMs and Cargills of the world, with some lip service paid to the independent family farmer along the way. 

This top-down view of agriculture in this country is symptomatic of an even greater structural problem:  over the course of four generations, the natural connections between, and awareness of, the food that we choose to eat, the processes by which it is grown and prepared, and the land from which it emanates, have been all but erased from the American consciousness.  The only way most of us experience agriculture today is on the back-end of a shopping cart rolling down Aisle 3 at the Winn-Dixie, or in the drive-through at a Burger King – and with every order comes a heaping helping of denial.

Our lack of awareness about where our food comes from helps to mask serious systemic problems in American agriculture, what it is doing to our economy and our environment, and what we end up eating:

  • The current subsidy system in this country, which was designed in the 1930s to help farmers manage risk, now favors large agribusiness over small family farms — ten percent of all farms now receive almost three-quarters of all subsidies.  This inevitably contributes to the consolidation of farming activities in the hands of a small number of producers, disrupting rural community life and the health of rural economies.  As I’ve said before, absentee corporate ownership tends to suck the life out of communities, and can quickly kill what remains of a community when “external economics” no longer make sense for an absentee corporate owner to remain there.
  • Ninety percent of all subsidies go to the production of just five crops:  wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and rice.  The current subsidy system discourages crop diversity by rewarding the planting of this select group of crops — usually from a narrow group of generic varieties pushed by multinational seed suppliers — without regard to the practical desirability of crop rotation.
  • This generic, monocultural approach to agriculture is eroding biodiversity among both plants and animals.  About 7,000 different species of plants have been raised as food crops in the history of human agriculture, but only fifteen plant and eight animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food.  Why should we care?  When someone rips up huge areas of good land to plant generic seeds for sale into the international food processing supply-chain year after year, not only is the natural balance of the local ecology disrupted — which inevitably leads to the disappearance of certain varieties of plants and animals, and interferes with natural processes of pollination, soil regeneration and the building up of resistances to pests and disease — but in the end we find ourselves eating tasteless food, and gradually losing valuable technical knowledge, unique to our localities, of how we interact with, learn from, and can be nourished by, our local environment.
  • Synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, designed to enhance yields, are polluting our soil, our water and our air, to the detriment of our environment as well as to our health.
  • Apart from the pollution, industrial agriculture is also contributing to the erosion of soil and the consumption of water at unsustainable rates.  If you don’t think that’s serious, it’s worth noting that unsustainable uses of water and soil were among the primary reasons why the great ancient Mesopotamian civilizations ultimately failed.  Remember, they used to call that part of the world “the fertile crescent.”
  • And here’s the big one folks, the one that hits you where you live.  If none of what I’ve told you is troubling thus far, consider this:  agribusiness in the 21st century is almost irretrievably dependent upon fossil fuels.  It uses them in the chemicals it sprays on our food, it moves the Earth with them, and it burns millions of gallons of them hauling lettuce from California to Kalamazoo, or grapes from Chile to Chattanooga.  Oil went up over $90 a barrel today; and when fuel prices really bust through the roof, we will begin to see the price of fuel passed onto us in the form of higher prices at the supermarket, and we will begin to see certain staples disappearing from supermarket shelves.  This is inevitable within a system of agriculture which favors meeting consumer demand from geographically disparate regions of the Earth, almost to the total exclusion of local production for local needs.

If we choose to look at agricultural policy as food policy in this country, then the constituency suddenly becomes everyone who eats … rather than a few agribusiness giants.  And this is the first important point I want to make:  our national agricultural policy is not supposed to be some political afterthought, a bit of esoterica hashed out behind closed doors.  It means food, and it means life.  It is a fundamental, defining aspect of American culture.  And if it is sick, then we are sick — as a people.

The second important point I want to make is that to fix the system, we need not kill international agribusiness.  In fact, we don’t want to — our production of wheat, corn and soybeans, in particular, gives us global strategic rewards that we would be unwise to ignore.  But we do need to balance the structural advantages available in this country to large agricultural companies with a set of structural advantages that can be made available to sustainable, local agricultural enterprises.

What does sustainable agriculture look like?  What kind of agriculture do we want to cultivate, to balance the iniquities of industrial agriculture in this country?

  • First, and most significantly, it involves increasing the amount of local production for local use in our communities – for the ultimate improvement of our food security and for the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels.
  • Second, as a flipside to the agribusiness approach to agriculture in this country, sustainable agriculture is an ecology-based approach.  It can be but does not have to be purely “organic,” but it certainly must be low-input and regenerative — “farming with nature,” promoting biodiversity, recycling, conserving water, protecting soil from erosion … and making a modest profit.
  • Third, we have to take the manpower issue seriously.  Increasing the number of people working for a fair wage in agriculture in this country is not a sign of economic “backwardness,” but a gesture toward our future as a people.  We have some work to do to restore the nobility of farming as a profession within this country.

I think the first step, in order to promote the development of sustainable agriculture in this country, would be to cause the federal government to recognize the value of sustainable agriculture, to simply acknowledge that it is something that should be promoted within our country. 

Then I would begin to address structural advantages.  Much as I would bifurcate the securities regulatory schemes between large, multinational and small, community-oriented businesses, so would I bifurcate the regulatory schemes between large, multinational agribusiness and small, community-oriented sustainable farming enterprises – regulation needs to be scaled to the size of the enterprise so that the regulatory cost of small-scale farming does not overrun its feasibility; and there needs to be a significant component of community stewardship over sustainable farming activities.

In order to build a more robust market for the products of sustainable farms outside of commodity supply chains and corporate vertical integration, I would propose tax incentives for enterprises that sell a large percentage of agricultural goods from local sources.

Total U.S. agricultural subsidies number in the billions of dollars each year.  Taking even a small percentage away from the current subsidy system and creating a “sustainable farming capital enhancement fund,” to assist in the development of community-supported agriculture and small farmer cooperatives, and to promote, through community-developed educational programs, natural and sustainable farming methods, would have a tremendous impact on the development of sustainable agriculture in the U.S.

The entire population of the world is capable of surviving on the products of current world food production, yet even here in the U.S., we live with extremes of hunger and of obesity.  Our system is out of whack.  By bringing agriculture back to our communities in a sustainable way, closer to our own doorsteps, the process of managing our way back to equilibrium will begin.

In the meantime, try something new.  Buy from local farmers.  Make time to cook for yourself, with fresh, locally-grown ingredients; invite your friends over for a home-cooked meal.  Start a kitchen garden.  You won’t regret the way these little things will change your life.

I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.

Think of the geology beneath the Great Basin as a giant sponge. Mother Nature drizzles water into it in the form of rain and snow. The water creeps below ground from valley to valley in a huge regional aquifer that extends from Salt Lake City to Death Valley. This ground water sometimes comes to the surface in springs that quench desert ecosystems that are many millennia old.

Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, wants to withdraw a large portion of this ground water to slake its burgeoning thirst and fill its swimming pools. It wants to drill wells in east central Nevada and pipe the water 275 miles south to the gambling palaces and golf courses of Vegas.

But this scheme is an ecological crap shoot, something Nevada would know about.

Allocation of Nevada’s water is certainly Nevada’s business, not Utah’s, except for the fact that one of the areas whose ground water would be drained is Snake Valley, which straddles the Utah/Nevada state line and lies 70 percent in Utah. The Utah ranchers there are rightly afraid that the ground water tables will drop and their springs will dry up. Ultimately, this water mining could affect the springs elsewhere in Utah’s portion of the Great Basin as well.

Now comes word from a Nevada biologist that this whole pipe dream would be a nightmare. James E. Deacon and his colleagues argue in the journal BioScience that “large-scale ground water withdrawal in Nevada, the most arid state in the United States, poses a major underappreciated threat to biodiversity.”

Basically, they say that the huge aquifer is in equilibrium now, and if Vegas withdraws huge quantities of water that can’t be recharged by Mother Nature, the consequences for endangered plants and animals would be catastrophic.

See full article here. NBC Nightly News had a good package on the battle over the Snake Valley last night — check it out here.

SACRAMENTO – For years, environmentalists have promoted water transfers as a cost-effective, fish-friendly alternative to new dams. But a federal judge’s decision to protect a tiny, endangered fish in the Sacramento Delta could jeopardize north-to-south water sales when transfers may be crucial.

The last drought provides a lesson on the value of water transfers. California was rescued from the 1987-92 dry spell by a then-relatively new water market. The transfers provided a combined 815,000 acre-feet – enough to meet the needs of 1.6 million households – in 1991 and 1992.

… Before reaching Los Angeles and San Diego, supplies from the north must flow through the Sacramento Delta’s 1,100-mile maze of waterways. Two-thirds of the state’s drinking water, including nearly 40 percent of all deliveries to San Diego County, meander through the delta.

In his Aug. 31 ruling, Judge Oliver Wanger ordered state and federal water managers to significantly reduce pumping from the Sacramento Delta to protect the 3-inch delta smelt.

Wanger’s decision threatens to reduce deliveries by as much as 2 million acre-feet – enough for 4 million households a year – to keep the delta smelt from being drawn into the pumps near Tracy.

California is in the throes of a dry spell that will squeeze supplies tighter unless desperately needed snow arrives along the Sierra Nevada and the Colorado River basin this winter.

Full article here.

Scientists monitoring the Yenisey, Lena and Ob’, Arctic rivers comparable in size to the Mississippi that push fresh water from the Arctic into the north Atlantic, are concerned about potential climate changes (via NPR) — ironically, an ice age produced by the melting of glaciers in the Arctic due to global warming.  As explained by Thom Hartmann:

[I]f enough cold, fresh water coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown return of the last ice age – in a period as short as 2 to 3 years from its onset – and the mid-case scenario would be a period like the “little ice age” of a few centuries ago that disrupted worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts, worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world.

Here’s how it works.

If you look at a globe, you’ll see that the latitude of much of Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia. Yet Europe has a climate more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia. Why?

It turns out that our warmth is the result of ocean currents that bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they’d be covered with ice. The current of greatest concern is often referred to as “The Great Conveyor Belt,” which includes what we call the Gulf Stream.

The Great Conveyor Belt, while shaped by the Coriolis effect of the Earth’s rotation, is mostly driven by the greater force created by differences in water temperatures and salinity. The North Atlantic Ocean is saltier and colder than the Pacific, the result of it being so much smaller and locked into place by the Northern and Southern American Hemispheres on the west and Europe and Africa on the east.

As a result, the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters. Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a whirlpool of falling water that’s 5 to 10 miles across. While the whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).

This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific. Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and salinity) that it often doesn’t surface in the Pacific for as much as a thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.

The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it’s known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it arrives near Greenland, it’s cooled off and evaporated enough water to become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.

These two flows – warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river – are known as the Great Conveyor Belt.

Amazingly, the Great Conveyor Belt is only thing between comfortable summers and a permanent ice age for Europe and the eastern coast of North America.

Full article, from 2003, here.  With the as-yet unmeasured effect of the melting of glaciers in Greenland, says Jonathan Overpeck, a professor of geosciences and director of the University of Arizona Institute for the Study of Planet Earth, “… you are talking about quite a bit more fresh water than we have now, and I don’t think anyone can say with confidence that we’re safe from a large scale, abrupt change in the north Atlantic.”

On the subject of water, one of my favorite topics, this week is “World Water Week” in Stockholm, an annual conference whose aim is to serve as “the main arena for an exchange of views and experiences between members of the scientific, business, policy and civil society communities in order to advance efforts related to water, the environment, livelihoods and poverty reduction.”

Jason Godesky on The Anthropik Network, has this to say about it all:

“Water, water everywhere,” as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” bemoans, “Nor any drop to drink.” This is World Water Week, and though more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered in water, 97.2% of it is contained in five oceans of salt water. 90% of all the earth’s fresh water is locked in the Antarctic ice sheet. Global warming has caused droughts, the loss of glaciers, the evaporation of whole lakes, and ultimately, a global water shortage.

The result of such shortages, of course, would be water wars. This is no hypothetical possibility; Israel’s recent invasion of Lebanon was fought for access to the Litani. Israel is not alone in its dire need for water; the whole Middle East, Africa and Sri Lanka are in the same dire straits. Even wealthy nations are beginning to feel the pressure. China, India and even the United States’ own Colorado River are becoming serious concerns.

Good reading here.

This is so irresistible, I think I’ll just print the whole thing — from ABC News Online (Australia):

Beattie forecasts farmers’ watering ban in ‘armageddon’ situation

Growers in the Lockyer Valley, west of Brisbane, could be paid to stop farming for up to 12 months if south-east Queensland’s water situation worsens.

The idea has been raised by Premier Peter Beattie on the campaign trail in the Darling Downs city of Toowoomba.

But Mr Beattie says the plan would only be used as a last resort.

“We’re not going to see those farmers lose out, those farmers are not going to be disadvantaged financially,” he said.

“We’ll do it on a farm-by-farm basis but we’ve made no decision to do it.

“They would only be consulted through this process if this was an armageddon situation.”

But the State Opposition is outraged by the suggestion.

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg says it is a bad idea.

“This would never have happened under a Coalition government ever,” he said.

“We would have build the water pipelines, we would have built the dams and this wouldn’t have happened.

“But now because of Mr Beattie and this Government’s neglect, we’re not going to have a water crisis, we’re going to have a fruit and vegetable shortage.”

Let’s hope they sort everything out before the missiles are launched.

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