Article by Kyle Boulden
Water – without a doubt one of the most vital substances on the earth. This life-giving liquid is so important to humanity, and yet it is often treated with the same short-sightedness that plagues our handling of so many other resources.
Water is needed for people to drink, as habitat for plants and animals, to irrigate crops, and even to power hydroelectric dams, but ultimately there are limits to how much fresh water is available in the world. Unfortunately, decisions are made so often without taking this into consideration, focusing only on short-term needs, rather than judging the long-term costs and benefits that might result.
Perhaps the most glaring example is the sad case of the Aral Sea, once the fourth largest lake in the world, now known simply as “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters.” In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union decided to divert the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea in order to irrigate the nearby desert. The plan was to create an agricultural industry where there has been none before, focusing particularly on growing cotton. The plan succeeded, in the short term, but without enough water flowing into it the Aral Sea steadily began to shrink.
Today, satellite pictures tell this tale of epic environmental disaster, as the sea has shrunk to 10% of its original size. Most of the lakebed is now a desert covered with salt and toxic chemicals, littered with the rusted hulks of old fishing ships. And yet, this result was not a surprise to many. As far back as 1964 Soviet scientists were warning their bosses that this massive project would eventually destroy the Aral Sea, but such matters were swiftly dismissed in the name of agricultural production.
In North America, we have our own water issues. While Canada is blessed with large natural reserves of fresh water, to the south many parts of the United States are not so lucky. Much of the Southwest United States has developed beyond the capacity of the environment to support its demands on water supplies. Droughts are becoming more and more common, leading to severe groundwater depletion. More water is being pumped out of the ground than can be replaced naturally, causing a litany of long-term problems.
The issue of groundwater depletion has popped up in the media over the past month after a study was released by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin on the impact irrigated agriculture is having in rapidly depleting groundwater resources in parts of the Western United States. Among the conclusions reached in the study was that if current trends continue, 35% of the southern High Plains that currently supports irrigated agriculture, mostly in the Texas Panhandle and western Kansas, will be unable to do so within a few decades. The vast fruit and vegetable growing fields of California’s Central Valley are at significant risk as well.
While groundwater depletion may be less of a concern for Canadians, water issues cannot be ignored. Even take a look at many of the fruits and vegetables in the grocery store and you’ll find a significant amount come from water-parched climates like California and Mexico. When it comes to humanity, it’s all more closely related than you might think. Meanwhile, eight million Canadians use groundwater, including four million in urban areas. From the potential effects of climate change on water resources, to the risks posed by bulk water exports to the United States, it’s important to be aware of how our present decisions affect us in the future.
The crucial concept to remember is that water is a finite resource, just like oil or timber. When making decisions like irrigating agricultural land, building dams or tapping aquifers, the future consequences of any choice needs to be taken into consideration. It may be something as simple as realizing that an arid climate might be better suited to crops like sorghum, than say cotton or rice. When instead the enduring health of people and ecosystems is set aside for short term profits, the world gains more catastrophes like the Aral Sea.