WW3 will involve water and/or Israel

A wintery reflection in the Macclesfield Canal

A wintery reflection in the Macclesfield Canal

I think World War Three (WW3) will be fought over access to water; and one of the most obvious flash points for conflict would appear to the occupied West Bank outside Jerusalem. I am grateful to Christine over at 350orbust.com for alerting me to the new feature-length film Last Call at the Oasis; and to the comments of film critic Christopher Campbell who suggests, amongst other things, that it is “necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water”. The film includes contributions from the inspiring, real-life, eponymous environmental activist Erin Brockovitch; made famous by the 2000 film featuring the wonderful Julia Roberts in the title role. Water – either too much or too little of it – has a tendency to make headlines; mainly because both problems have a tendency to be deadly. However, as a hydrogeologist, I would be inclined to add that groundwater is probably our most important resource but, because it is also the least obvious (i.e. “out of sight and out of mind”), it is also the resource we are most likely to take for granted, over-exploit, and/or corrupt (knowingly or otherwise). With the exception of karst limestone terrains such as those found in China and Vietnam (i.e. home to the World’s largest cave), groundwater does not travel through underground river channels: It is much better to think of some types of rock (called aquifers) as being like enormous sponges; capable of holding vast quantities of water and helpfully transporting it from where the rain falls to where we live the sea – and if we’re lucky we can make use of it in between. Sometimes, of course, people choose to live away from both the rainfall and the sea (e.g. Las Vegas), in which case artificial storage reservoirs like Lake Mead have to be constructed. Such structures also tend to act as early warning systems (i.e. record low water levels year-after-year should be taken as an indication that an area is over-populated and/or that the climate is changing). These are the sort of issues the film explores: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4EtVA8b-lzw As I have said on Christine’s blog, this film therefore tackles an issue to which attention is long overdue: It is the reason I first became a hydrogeologist – and yet it will undoubtedly be dismissed as yet more environmental “alarmism”; as has been every attempt over the last 40 years to assert that limits to growth exist. However, I think it is the ultimate arrogance of The Enlightenment that humans believe they can master their environment – rather than accept that they are part of it – that may well be our downfall. As I said nearly six months ago: “When you live in a wilderness, it is probably safe to treat a passing river as your source of drinking water, washing room, and toilet. However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Mumbai slum, this will almost certainly contribute to causing your premature death.” We may not all live in a Mumbai slum but, as over-population is a function of the capacity of a population’s environment to support individuals, one person can constitute over-population in a desert and, as such, the Earth is clearly already over-populated. Of course, cynics and/or sceptics will question what over-population means and/or ask for it to be numerically defined. However, as I said to someone called Klem on Christine’s blog who did just that (for the record Klem got banned from this blog months ago for being a troll):

Unlike you, Klem, I do not second-guess genuine experts; or claim to be one. However, I do consider myself very fortunate to have spent and entire year in full-time education studying the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems. Mmmm, that phrase sounds strangely familiar to me… As I said, over-population is not a number; nor is a density: It is species-specific; and dependent upon the complexity and resilience of the ecosystem that supports it. Our problem as humans is that many of us don’t recognise the value of the global ecosystem that is currently failing to support us; and which we are therefore continuing to degrade… In nature, populations generally do not exceed the carrying capacity of their environment because food supply limitations or predation intervene to stop them. However, human interference (such as the sudden removal of a predator or prey species) – can suddenly have that effect – resulting in overshoot and collapse of a population. Have you noticed humans have no predator (apart from disease) to control their numbers? Far more importantly, of course, humans have used technology to help support a global population that has already exceeded the Earth’s ecological carrying capacity and – in our hubris – some of us continue to believe that technology can solve all our problems. In 1968, Garrett Hardin warned us [i.e. in ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’] that the battle to feed all of humanity was over (i.e. we had lost). Malnutrition, starvation, and death are not a failure in food distribution; they are a consequence of regional over-population. Furthermore, charity is not the answer; nor is milk powder or disease resistant GMOs (from which only multi-national companies benefit). The solution is fewer people; and this will only be achieved through better education (so that people stop thinking of children as a permanent healthcare insurance); and the emancipation of women (so that they can control their own fertility). I think it is Joyce Meyer who once said, “Your charisma can get you to places your character cannot keep you…”; and I think humanity is about to learn the lesson of this truth by a fall – not from grace but – from supremacy.

So… Next time you use drinkable water to flush the toilet, wash your dishes, or launder your clothes, consider this: 97% of the water on the surface of the Earth is seawater; and two-thirds of the remainder is frozen. Furthermore, ice is probably best considered to be a non-renewable resource (as most of it will disappear into the sea before we can make use of it). And to the cynics and/or “sceptics” that dismiss talk of limits to growth as having been proven by history to be misguided “alarmism”, I will just borrow a phrase from the money-fetishized world of the financial services sector: “Past performance is not a guarantee of future success”. Furthermore, if there is a better definition of unsustainable development than that exemplified by groundwater mining (i.e. abstracting groundwater from any aquifer faster than it is being replenished by rainfall) I have yet to think of it.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Consumerism, Economics, Environment, Intergenerational Injustice, Limits to Growth, Money Fetishism, Photography, Scepticism, Sustainable development and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to WW3 will involve water and/or Israel

  1. pendantry says:

    I’m sure you’re not wrong. I was amazed to hear not so long ago (as usual, can’t recall where) that we humans are doubling our usage of fresh water every twenty years. (If you live in a desert: get the hell out, while you still can). Me: I’m doing my tiny bit. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow: if it’s brown, flush it down.” Meanwhile, naturally (!), anyone visiting the water closet after me probably thinks I’m a disgusting pig… Fracking should be outlawed simply on the grounds that it has the potential to harm aquifers.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks Colin. Three responses (one to each paragraph): 1. One must remember that most water use is non-consumptive (i.e. most water can be and is recycled; albeit on a variety of cylce-lengths). Nevertheless, I agree that, although their may be enough water in the Nubian Sandstone aquifer beneath the Sahara to last for centuries, it is still effectively a finite non-renewable resource and, the more people that tap into it the faster it will run out – exponential decay curve alert! Talking of which, it should be no surprise that the rate of ice melting is also doubling – some say every 10 years – Hence one of my unanswered questions to Richard Lindzen was, “At what stage should we re-name Glacier National Park in Montana?”… 2. That quotation of yours puts an unpleasant image in one’s mind but, in the absence of retrospectively-installed greywater recycling and/or rainwater harvesting (i.e. the kind of thing footballers should be doing rather than building personal indoor aquariums), it is just about all the average citizen can do (apart from putting a brick in your cistern to reduce all flush volumes). 3. Fracking should be outlawed because if we proceed to burn all the Earth’s hydrocarbons, a runaway greenhouse effect that has made Venus 90 times hotter than Earth (despite all the cloud cover) is a “dead certainty” (Hansen). Therefore, in terms of both an immediate and a delayed impact, it is insane because, we are like pigs defecating in our own pig pen.


  2. JZK says:

    Rick, How could it be possible to have a world war over water? Certainly one could imagine a regional war over water, perhaps two countries battling over the use of a river, etc. But what would a country have to gain from joining a global conflict over water? Surely they could just desalinate from the ocean (if they are coastal) or even buy water from a country that is, before they would justify the expense of engaging in a world war halfway around the world.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Good point, John. A number of regional conflicts is far more likely. However, if Israel is involved, things could easily get quite nasty. I am pretty certain that the guy that shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 would have been surprised by the carnage his act ultimately precipitated. What do you think of the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review? See: https://anthropocenereality.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/worlds-biggest-watermelon-found-in-washington-dc/


      • pendantry says:

        “… the guy that shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914Eradicating ecocide by Polly Higgins:

        An international conference [about pollution] was held in 1911 and American reformers joined their British counterparts. Information, reports and scientific data were shared and disseminated. Conversations about strategy, tactics and insights stoked the fire of reform and change. Industry argued for efficiency and technological fixes. Jevons’ paradox was quietly ignored and engineers were put to the task of researching and inventing more efficient installations. The government faced two choices: ban the use of coal or impose further restrictions. […] Something had to be done, and the government knew it. So the government stalled for time and proposed an enquiry. An enquiry was indeed set up in 1913, but external events played their hand. The intervention of World War I brought the death of thousands, which curbed the appetite for the fight against coal.

        Exactly a century ago. Did the guy who shot the Archduke (precipitating WWI) get paid? (and if so, by whom?) Is history repeating itself?


      • Rick Altman says:

        Me thinks you have mentioned this before and I have overlooked it? If so, thanks for making this incredibly important point once again. Now it can be seen why The Club of Rome decided to get a bunch of MIT researchers to write the first ‘Limits to Growth’ report in he 1970s: In the likely absence of global warfare, they saw that the writing was back on the wall once more…


  3. Pingback: Confront scarcity now (or pay later?) « Anthropocene Reality

    • My father & grandfather were hydro-engineers in California. My great-grandfather was the keeper of the gate (water), at Lake Tahoe, CA. My last art installation was titled, ‘Water’. I live in the Central Valley, CA. My water gets recycled every day. I bathe, hand pump the water into a container, and drop it into my washing machine. When the washer empties, I channel it outside as grey water….also, I have that same container in the bathroom, and use buckets from it to flush. Also, I have a water barrel outside my bathroom, and pump bathwater into the grey water barrel, from which I run a hose to my garden. I love water! I have great muscles in my arms!


      • Rick Altman says:

        Even though I have never visited, I think California is an amazing place. Having read the first few chapters of Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, I am struck by the possible parallels between the Central Valley in CA and the Bitterroot Valley in Montana: Both now feeling the effects of being over-populated. You must be (understandably) worried about the long-term drought affecting SW states. If by some crazy chance, you have not read the book, please read my two posts on it, start (with the post including my photos form the Australian outback) here: Collapse or Ecocide – which will it be? (14 Feb 2012)


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