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Truthdig Radio: Keep McChrystal Retired
Posted on Apr 13, 2011
Sandra Postel: Yes, that’s a very good point. There are two … you can think of this scarcity issue in two different forms. One is where we’re overtapping water, and so we’re using more than is sustainable. The second is what you might call economic scarcity, where we haven’t put the infrastructure in place to meet everybody’s basic needs for water. And so much of sub-Saharan Africa, [and] poor parts of South Asia, are in this economic scarcity situation where people don’t have access to safe drinking water, something we take for granted every day. And there’s more than a billion people in that category now. Something like 2.7 billion without adequate sanitation. So this is a leading cause of disease and death in poor parts of the world, and it’s a solvable problem; it’s not about technology; the technology, of course is there; the water is there. We’re not talking about there not being enough water; there is; it’s access to it. It’s being able to access safe drinking water. And so it’s putting in the pipes, and the wells, and the treatment to get safe drinking water to everybody, to meet basic needs. And that’s, as I say, a doable, solvable, problem; we just haven’t had the political will and the, put the financial resources there to get that basic need met.
Josh Scheer: Just in the last few days, the Indians are announcing they have a new water policy, and I heard that the Chinese are going to spend $600 billion over the next 10 years to kind of make themselves have clean drinking water. Until they have this kind of water issue solved, will they be able to be, consider themselves first-world countries, if we still use that term, or do they still need to deal with their water problem?
Sandra Postel: You mean China itself?
Josh Scheer: In China and India, yeah.
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Josh Scheer: Peter, I want to jump on this point, because about security, because—well no, because the U.S. Congress is talking about water being security when we’re going to have wars for water, possibly, right? I mean, that’s what a lot of scientists have said, that we’re going to have an issue in years to come with war. So this is a security issue, not just for China or India, but also the U.S. and everybody else. Right?
Sandra Postel: Yeah, I think water is a source of conflict when it’s not divided up fairly and when people’s needs aren’t getting met, whether that’s their food needs, or their drinking-water needs, or what have you. So absolutely, if we don’t figure out how to share the water we have, and meet everyone’s basic needs, there will be tension and conflict over water. I’m not so worried about there being outright wars over water. I’m more worried about the sort of social destabilization that will occur as you have lack of water, rising food prices; I mean this is one of the pressures we saw that led to the situation in North Africa that we’re experiencing now. The fact that two years ago, food prices skyrocketed, and there were riots in a dozen or more countries, because people now couldn’t afford bread. And this is partly a water-stress factor; it’s partly oil prices; it’s all connected. And so water stress and climate change on top of that is going to, I think, manifest through rising food prices and food shortages and water shortages on top of it. So this will be very destabilizing unless we get a handle on it and begin to prepare and adapt to this new future that’s coming.
Peter Scheer: Would you—I mean, would you compare it to oil in terms of—in that sense? In terms of destabilizing, and …
Sandra Postel: Absolutely, I would. Yeah, and I think in some ways it’s more a concern, because water has no substitute. We have the option right now to shift away from oil and coal and the fossil fuels that are driving climate change; we have the option to shift to renewable energy sources, to solar and wind and other renewable sources. We don’t have any option to shift away, to transition away, from water. We have the options to use it more productively, share it more equitably, make sure the environment gets what it needs to stay healthy; we can make those choices, but we can’t shift away from water. It’s how we use it and manage it and value it that’s going to make all the difference.
Peter Scheer: Do you see a future where, you know, Canada becomes a great world power because of its water resources? Other countries like that?
Sandra Postel: Well, the thing with water is it’s very different from oil in the sense that we can’t ship it around the world in large quantities. It’s way too bulky, it’s way too expensive, to move it in large quantities around the world. What we do do, and how we do trade water, is to ship it indirectly in the form of grain. This is the way—in a sense you can think of grain as the currency by which we trade water in large volumes around the world. It takes a thousand tons of water to make one ton of grain. So when Egypt is importing half of its wheat, it’s doing that because it doesn’t have the water to grow the wheat. So for every ton of wheat, it’s importing a thousand tons of somebody else’s water. So I think North America, especially the United States and Canada, will be looked to more and more in the future as suppliers of food, and therefore indirectly as suppliers of water, because we are very fortunate to have an abundance of water, both to grow crops and to meet other needs. And much of it isn’t even irrigation water. You know, if you look at the United States, most of our food production is produced using rainfall. So managing our agricultural lands well, and preserving them for the future, is really, really, important. So I think, yes, other parts of the world will look toward Western Europe, North America, Canada and the U.S. to be major suppliers of food in the future. That said, I do think that a lot of effort has to go into food self-sufficiency at the grass roots—you know, basically in the villages where the food is needed. There’s a lot more investment that can happen in affordable irrigation and agricultural practices that improve the productivity of these low-productivity lands, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which are going to be hit hard, unfortunately, by climate change.
Peter Scheer: Maybe you can clear this up for me, because you were saying that water is a finite resource, it’s irreplaceable, but that there’s a lot we can do; it’s a solvable problem, there’s a lot we can do to get it out and address these concerns. What are those things that we can do to address this problem? And I guess my concern is, do we ever end up in a situation where we’ve so polluted our resources, or we’ve so exploited them for luxury items, that we run out?
Sandra Postel: Just to be clear about the water cycle, it’s—you know, water is renewable. It’s a renewable resource, but it’s finite. You know, there’s only so much that’s made available by the water cycle in any given place.
Peter Scheer: I see.
Sandra Postel: So we can expect, you know, the water cycle to speed up as climate change comes along; we’re already beginning to notice this, and that’s partly what’s going on with the likelihood of more floods and droughts. So it’s a renewable supply; it’s going to rain every year. Not the same every year, but on balance, it’s going to rain every year, in about the same amount. But it’s only in a finite quantity. And so these signs of unsustainability, that we’re overtapping groundwater, the calculations that I and others have made, suggest we have a bubble in the food economy right now, because we’re overpumping groundwater. So as much as 10 percent of the world’s current food supply depends on the overpumping of groundwater, the unsustainable use of groundwater. And if we’ve learned anything in the last 10 years, it’s that bubbles pop. You know, the dot-com bubble popped; the housing bubble popped; we’ll see a pop in the food economy as groundwater depletion proceeds, and wells go dry, and farmers take that land out of production. It won’t be one big pop all at the same time; it’ll happen gradually in different places; but this is something we have to reckon with. So it’s that sense that water is renewable, but finite, and we’ve got to figure out how to live more sustainably within it. The keys to doing that really are looking at how to use water more productively. Actually, two things: the important thing, in my view, is that we allocate enough water to ecosystems, to the rivers, to the wetlands, to maintain the important services we get from them. Because right now, they’re taking the hit. We’re overextracting water, and ecosystems are dying around the world, from the Aral Sea to the Colorado Delta to the many, many rivers in the western United States that are now basically depleted for periods of time, to the Yellow River in China. So there’s an enormous amount of harm being done to ecosystems we benefit from. And so that’s the first piece, is to make sure we give the water that ecosystems need to be healthy. And then that begins to unleash a whole set of ways of improving water productivity. You know, drip irrigation in agriculture, soil- and water-conserving agricultural methods, reducing the amount of water that’s used to make our products, internal recycling within factories. We have so much slack in the water system, because we haven’t been giving the users of water, whether it’s farmers or factories or homeowners, the right incentive to use water efficiently, to conserve it and use it more productively. And as we get those signals right, and as we begin to dedicate water to the environment and realize—ah! we only have this much to use for ourselves, we’ll get a whole lot more efficient and productive with it. We just haven’t sent those signals out right.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you very much, Sandra, and again, next time we’ll have to talk about desalination, because I know that’s a big part of it too [Laughs] …
Peter Scheer: That’s Josh’s—that’s Josh’s pet project.
Josh Scheer: No, no—I’m a big water fan, and I’m glad you came out and talked to us about it.
Sandra Postel: OK, my pleasure.
Peter Scheer: Sandra Postel is one of the world’s leading authorities on fresh water. She is the founder of the Global Water Policy project and the author of “Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity,” among other books. Take care.
Sandra Postel: OK, take care.
Peter Scheer: Sandra Postel is head of National Geographic’s freshwater initiative. Learn more at NationalGeographic.com/freshwater.
Kasia Anderson: Welcome back to Truthdig Radio. I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. And I’m here with James Harris, who is host of many a Truthdig podcast, and, I must say, possessor of an excellent radio voice. And we’re talking with Daniel Denvir; he’s a Philadelphia-based journalist and a regular contributor to Salon, AlterNet and The Guardian.
So why don’t you just set up the scene for us a little bit with your Salon article? It’s “The 10 Most Segregated Urban Areas In America.” What kind of sparked you to this project, and what were your major findings?
Daniel Denvir: First of all, the census numbers that are released every 10 years are sort of a gold mine to look at where we are as a country, in terms of issues like race. And race is an issue that, when it’s discussed in the U.S., is often not discussed in a very coherent or productive fashion. So the census allows us to sort of look at the situation with some objective aid and say, you know, there’s still a lot of problems; notably, Americans still tend to live in very different neighborhoods that are segregated by race.
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