Sunday, July 13, 2014

A future of drought, unless we invest now

California is currently suffering from a drought as severe as any we could imagine happening in such a developed country as the USA. Eighty percent of the entire state is estimated to be in ‘extreme’ drought conditions, with 36% in ‘exceptional’ drought, an even worse condition. Meanwhile, the hot and dry conditions have begun to cause wildfires – with one in the Napa Valley region currently requiring 1,000 firefighters to control it, and forcing the evacuation of 500 people from their homes. This isn’t a sudden development either – the entire state has been considered to be in severe drought since April.
At times like this, the glamor of California slips away and the state begins to look increasingly unsustainable. Many people have long claimed that California’s enormous debt makes it economically unsustainable, but the natural physics of the area itself can be just as much of an impediment. There is a lot of seawater, but a relatively small amount of freshwater for such a large population; and as we are finding out now, the often-gorgeous weather can very quickly become brutal.
California is not the only place that will suffer in the coming years as climate change intensifies. The logic of settling much of the western part of America is now starting to look rather silly. Inland states like Arizona and Nevada are eventually going to run out of clean, fresh water to sustain their populations. They were already deserts when we built cities there, and they aren’t getting any closer to the necessary water sources – Las Vegas has recently suggested building a $15.5bn pipeline just to transport water from one of the few available aquifers in Nevada.
But we’re in this situation now, and we can’t really get out of it easily – the logic of trying to relocate millions of people from these drought-ridden states to more climatically friendly ones just doesn’t work on any level. The west must stay populated, and something else must be done to stem the crisis. What we can hope is that the increasing prevalence of these crises can have a positive stimulatory effect on the research and development of new technologies. In the next decade or two, we could well discover new, highly efficient techniques for water desalination and develop new models for water sharing and conservation, as well as seeing populations increasingly comfortable with the idea of restricting their own personal consumption. But all of this will only happen if the government commits to making it happen.
If the US government is bold enough to commit to such a program of technological development and behaviour change, there could be further knock-on effects. Such technology could and should be shared with people in other parts of the world where it could be of immense value – such as the Sahara and the Sahel, extremely dry places that could massively benefit from increased fresh water resources. In that way, the US could, over time, turn a crisis into an opportunity for improving lives around the world.
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