July 13, 2009

Reading Old Magazines – “A Question of Birthright”

Nearly 45 years ago, Time magazine reported on the growing global demand for the planet’s fixed quantity of freshwater in an article entitled “A Question of Birthright.” At the time, chronic droughts in traditionally arid environments like the Sahara and parts of the Middle East had begun to appear in unsuspecting countries like the Koreas and Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
Reporting from October 1965, the article projected that world demand for water would double in two decades, creating “an expanding challenge to scientific ingenuity.” Solutions had to be found. Tongue in cheek, the author claimed that “dowsers, who used to roam the land with their unreliable witch-hazel divining rods, are no longer adequate” as guarantors of water supply. No disagreement there.

One of the article’s central observations remains true today: simply, that throughout the vast span of geologic time, including all of human history, the amount of water on the planet has remained fixed.  The sixties, though, saw a broadening realization that a burgeoning world population and rising living standards placed increased demand on this finite resource than in decades and centuries past. Since then, population levels and relative consumption have risen even higher and will continue to do so, making the issue of water security that existed in 1965 even more pressing for countries today.

The Time article highlights the role of water security in international relations. In fact, the author notes that the very word “rival” derives from a term in Roman law to describe disputes between “those who shared the water of a rivus, or irrigation channel.” In 1965, for instance, Mexico and the United States were in the midst of a dispute over salt-polluted irrigation runoff, while Israel and Jordan quarreled over access to the Jordan River. Today, disputes over water rights continue to play a role in international politics. Tempers still flare over incongruous water availability in the Middle East, while access to water may serve as a future flashpoint in Central Asia.

The most interesting feature of the Time article, then, is its implicit, and perhaps even inadvertent, narration of water’s centrality to a nation’s or region’s welfare; in other words, its natural security.  Reporting from the 1960s, the author describes how the consumption and regulation of water is of fundamental importance to state livelihoods highlighting the cases of Israel, Kuwait, Aruba, and, yes, the United States.
At the time the article was written, the American Southwest was experiencing water shortages, threatening the region’s agriculture. In order to secure a vital industry, California was looking into desalination, which the author says, “according to Aristotle…is one of the oldest methods” to satiate water demand.  But easy solutions are few and far between. For example, scaling up desalination to meet the needs of modern society comes with unintended and unsavory consequences.
Aside from risks to sea life and marine ecosystems more generally, critics of the California project cited the enormous energy demand for the desalination process, which often uses double the energy to create freshwater than it does to later treat the sewage it becomes. Detractors of the movement also questioned the disposal mechanism for the noxious solid salt waste left behind.
To varying degrees, all those challenges remain significant hurdles in 2009. Instead of producing ever-increasing quantities of desalinated, potable water, future solutions may need to focus on greater efficiency in order to lessen demand.

Today, many countries, the United States included, have a long way to go before adequate water supplies are guaranteed. But kudos to Time for laying some of the conceptual piping for water’s role in natural security.

Meanwhile, the debate about the relative merits of desalination wears on.  Just last month, plans were announced to build the largest desalination facility in the Western Hemisphere.  Where? Huntington Beach, California.