We are made of water, and water is essential to every aspect of our existence. Fortunately our Earth has an abundance of water, but unfortunately only a tiny part of that is available to us as fresh water usable for drinking or the creation of food. Usually our water supply has served us well, but sometimes what sustains us gives us deadly problems. Water is a deep and complex subject, and Steven Solomon‘s book Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization covers it from the historical perspective of its profound impact on humanity.
What lessons did I learn from reading this book? Without water we are all dead. But without a smoothly functioning modern society, half of us would soon be dead, and modern society is dependent on the super-efficiency of our transportation of goods over the sea. Our lives are dependent on the earth and upon the level of technology we can bring to bear, and when either of those two fail, for whatever reason, human population must quickly drop back to what can be supported.
The most recent efficient mover of goods is the Maersk Triple-E container ship.
Maersk, the largest container shipper, has 2,500,000 TEU containers in its supply line of the total TEU’s of 28 million. What worries me is that this super-efficiency is based on the free and safe movement of all of the ten thousand ships now at sea, and that is dependent on the US navy providing protection. That means we are dependent on ten deployed US aircraft carriers to protect the entire system. When a serious conflict arises, and things do happen, and these ships are otherwise occupied, the commerce at sea will be exposed to piracy. Today that threat seems absurd, but what isn’t absurd is that human population is continuing to explode, and so are their needs. Arable land isn’t expanding, and what there is must be cultivated using power and fertilizer provided by the perfectly functioning system. The problems are worsening because many basic ones are coming to a tipping point simultaneously. When a single famished country decides to divert (pirate) a passing container ship to save its own people’s lives, the whole system may instantly collapse, because there will be many other similarly desperate people. The very smoothness of the distribution system means the desperation will be spread worldwide.
This book, WATER, comes at many similar problems of human usage of water. Water is an absolute essential to our well-being and survival. There are other critical things like soil, air, minerals, but water is easily observed and discussed to the point of failure, from which there may be no recovery before a collapse. It is shown that all of our water resources are being over-exploited to the point of catastrophe. Another example is rivers of the world, that are already largely dammed, and providing most of what they have to offer; but they are silting up and losing efficiency. Also, the rivers are no longer diluting our waste, so there must be created sewage treatment plants, so there isn’t much more to be delivered from the rivers themselves. Many rivers are totally consumed before they reach the sea. One-time-use mineral groundwater is being mined to create food, and water tables are dropping, requiring more power to bring the water up for agriculture, but at current usage that groundwater mining can’t last for the life expectancy of a newborn child, while usage is accelerating and the power to pump it is running out. Even the oceans are being polluted and are not providing humanity the buffers they once did by diluting and consuming our excesses and waste.
One might hope that humans could work out their differences and balance the problems so that everyone could live a comfortable and peaceful existence. Unfortunately there needs to be some overriding force compelling coöperation, like the US navy, but often exactly the opposite is the case, and the overriding force created by natural processes is to create conflict based on personal self-interest. Another example: there are many rivers that flow from one country to another and the downriver country needs the water. Egypt has for five thousand years depended upon the Nile for all of its water, and thus food, but nearly all of that water comes from Ethiopia, and those now economically poor and physically starving Ethiopians can, with modern technology, easily build dams to use that same water at their homeland and thus create their own food, electricity and modern society. The four million Egyptians of ancient times living on the natural behavior of the Nile, has now grown to eighty million, because of modern technology already in place, such as the Aswan high dam. Unfortunately for the Egyptians a single terrorist attack might breach that dam, and the ensuing flood could destroy much of modern Egyptian civilization to below early civilization levels. There are 40,000 large dams and 300 giant dams in the world, and they look powerful, and they are, but they are also fragile. Water is at the core of our civilization in so many ways. I have mentioned a few, but read the book for a deeper understanding.
Our whole civilization looks powerful, and it is, but it is also fragile, and stressed.