28 December 2011

Catching up, new ventures, new year...

So my posting schedule sure fell off there once my first Ph.D. semester started at the University of Wisconsin... sorry about that.  Classes kept me busy, and I worked on a little bit of start-up research toward my dissertation program.  On a positive note, much of what I did this Fall semester will lay the groundwork for one or more ongoing collaborations and projects.

In one class I looked at flow records and calculated flow and flood statistics for the Athabasca River in Alberta, Canada.  It seems that not much has been studied that far north, but it's an important area for all of the retreating Rocky Mountain glaciers, expanding agriculture, uncertain boreal forest health, and burgeoning oil-sands mining in what was once an otherwise pristine, unregulated watershed.  More on that soon, as I rework my class project report into something of a publication draft for eventual submission with the course professor and my advisor.

In my other course this semester, we learned to process and interpret remote sensing imagery of some very interesting places around the world, one of which in eastern Europe experienced a high-wind event in 1995 that felled forests across the Carpathian Mountains.  The stress of this event and other conditions on the European forest led to a subsequent pest invasion, and determining the signature and extent of damaged forest area in an area of Romania was one of the results of my work on that class project.  With more work, that damage might be identified and tracked over time and, with ancillary data on climate and weather and local forestry practices, could help explain much of the forest health issues in that part of the world.

On top of coursework and my obligations there, I've identified a National Science Foundation opportunity that could very well help support the remainder of my Ph.D. program.  That idea is expansive, far-reaching, and staying (for the most part) under my hat for now while I work out the pre-proposal project description that I hope to submit to NSF by the middle of January.  If that is approved, I'll be writing a full proposal in the NSF style and may post some of my proposal materials here as I work through the topics and issues to be addressed.  That will be during the Spring semester, for which I'm planning a couple more classes that will either support later efforts or, again, lead to potentially publishable project work...

The book reviews will continue, albeit more slowly.  I'm still working my way through David Zetland's The End of Abundance: Economic Solutions to Water Scarcity and have received review copies of the AWWA's The Business of Water: A Concise Overview of Challenges and Opportunities in the Water Market edited by Steve Maxwell (co-author of The Future of Water, which I reviewed previously) and William Sarni's Corporate Water Strategies for this blog.  These titles should all work well together, though I'll probably write linked reviews instead of a much longer combined review.  Needless to say, I'll be looking into the economic theory of water in the resource commons, and that's not exactly an easy topic to wrap one's brain around...

Just recently, I've started a Tumblr mini-blog called "The Journal of Blah..." that is a collection of published articles with their on-line reference locations and abstracts.  Basically, I keep track of a lot of professional and academic journals, but I don't have time to read everything that looks interesting as soon as I see it published.  Instead of downloading articles and storing them indefinitely, then trying to find them again later, my new Tumblr serves as something of a public-access reference collection and management system, since I can include the abstracts and bibliographic information as well as my own tags on the subject matter.  Later, when I want some background on a particular topic, I can simply search the Tumblr to get me started, and go to more comprehensive databases (e.g. ISI Web of Knowledge/Science) from there for references and citations.  I put it out there to make it available to everyone, sort of an interest-oriented ongoing collection of journal articles that may end up mentioned here or used in my research, or just listed there because I find the subject fascinating and think someone else might be interested too.  Oh, and why did I call it that?  As I mention there, because it's a shorter title than "A personalized journal of select articles on hydrology, water resources, climate, weather, ecology, geology, forests, resource governance, fluvial systems, geomorphology, open-channel hydraulics, groundwater, engineering, mapping, remote sensing, complex networks, and so many other subjects that pique my interest."

And finally, following on my last book review before my Fall semester started, I've been talking a lot with Cynthia Barnett about her words and ideas in Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis and we are collaborating on a new Google+ page exploring some of the subjects from her research for that volume, primarily news stories and subject reports, as well as where things are headed for the establishment of a water ethic in the U.S.  I am the primary manager on that page, so if you have items that are worth sharing with that audience, please just send them along!  If you are on Google+ please add The Blue Revolution to one or more of your circles, and tell your friends and colleagues about us!

More soon, over this brief Winter break from classes...

23 October 2011

Book Review: “Blue Revolution” by Cynthia Barnett

“Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis”
By Cynthia Barnett
Published in 2011 by Beacon Press, Boston MA
ISBN 978-0-80700-317-6
Buy this book at Amazon.com (hardcover) or on your Kindle

Full disclosure: I solicited via e-mail and received a copy of this book for free in exchange for my promise of a published review.

I have racked my brain, and Google Maps, over the past weeks in a search for places in America that we humans have not altered the natural cycle and purity of our invaluable water resources. It makes me sad to find so few such places, so I often take heart that my chosen vocation as a hydrologist and water resource scientist is certainly secure, if not always appreciated for the level of education and dedication that this path demands. In that regard, Ms. Barnett’s new treatise on the emerging Blue Revolution is a welcome and appropriate summary of the challenges ahead of us, as both scientists and consumers amid the American landscape. We have much to remind us of how we got here; I have reviewed on this blog several books on the history of water use and misuse, allocation and subsidy, modification of whole river basins for our own purposes, and times when nature had its way with our species. To be sure, Ms. Barnett covers some of this material quite succinctly, but her focus remains on the present, on who is doing things right or, at least, is trying to do right by nature. An appropriate sample of imaginative solutions and cautionary tales are present, but the narrative approach is noticeably different here. It is not Ms. Barnett’s aim (as I perceive it) to dwell on the history in which we find so few salient, successful efforts and so many other works-in-progress, results TBD. She aims higher than a recapitulation of the usual stories from our past. As her subtitle suggests, it’s the past in which this crisis was made, and the same thinking won’t un-make the institutions and practices with which we’ve become accustomed over time.

Some outlets (e.g., The Economist and Scientific American) have addressed briefly the limited efforts at a “blue revolution” in aquaculture: coastal fisheries, like so many of our natural systems, are on the decline despite a perception of abundant renewability. In most cases, we have quite simply overestimated the natural elasticity of the resource and its systematic ability to recover from significant shocks. It’s not much different in freshwater resources, for that matter, and this is the fundamental focus of Ms. Barnett’s work. The concept of a “Blue Revolution” in freshwater grew from the global spread of the “Green Revolution” in agriculture, improving crop productivity around the world in various stages from the 1960s through the 1990s. Having reached almost every country by the end of the 20th century, that revolution comes back around more quietly now, with genetic crop modifications at the root of new improvements. Recognizing the pressures of exploding national and global populations, science seeks to feed the world in ways that traditional farming and agricultural practices likely cannot. The close connection between water and agriculture is also part of Ms. Barnett’s examination of present practice, in her discussion of consumptive water users and government subsidies, irrigation efficiencies and econometric approaches to supply reallocation and waste reduction. David Zetland, an author on water economics and fellow blogger that I have mentioned previously, appears in one of Ms. Barnett’s several interviews with current practitioners, and has much worthwhile to say on the ways forward. The economic approach to better water allocation is just part of the solution, however.

There are few books and fewer authors, especially in non-fiction, that still elicit a visceral reaction upon reading. If you read non-fiction on a regular basis, chances are that you also read from regular news outlets on paper or on the web, and it’s just possible that you are at times outraged at the seeming self-perpetuation of the status quo. You may even seek out a feel-good story of someone in power who is doing good for their constituents and right by the planet (or, failing that, give up on the news altogether for a time). This is exactly where Ms. Barnett’s background in investigative reporting and her deep interest in this particular subject matter come to shine. I consider myself an analyst, an observer on some of the topics covered on this blog, but an up-and-coming activist and potential leader when it comes to the water ethic that Ms. Barnett approaches here. Sometimes, and in the future, I (will) approach it as “National Water Policy” that is sorely missing from the federal agenda on natural resource stewardship in America. I’ve wanted to write on that myself, but it’s an exceptionally large issue around which to wrap a blog-length narrative. There is something more fundamental, however, that has stuck unexpressed in the back of my thoughts, and that Ms. Barnett’s work has helped to bring to the harsh light of reality: the problem is not a federal or even a state issue, though stronger environmental regulations certainly couldn’t hurt; it is, instead a movement to be grown from the roots in order to flower in a way that takes hold in our society and does not let go of our imaginations, our daily lives, and our work for the future. I follow the news on water issues from around the world with an almost religious fervor, so I think at times that I’ve seen quite a lot of discouraging and depressing stuff by now. There were moments, indeed whole chapters in Blue Revolution on the “Taproot of the Crisis” (regarding agricultural water-use practices) and the “Water – Industrial Complex” (regarding industrial and commercial practices), during which I expressed directly to Ms. Barnett that the tone of her narrative reached such depressing and discouraging depths, and that any positive outcome seemed in doubt. Such is the strength of her journalist’s near-surgical skill at reaching bare-handed in to the issues to pull them apart and expose the real guts of the problem, and then to suggest how we might address it at its root. Such also is the strength of her craft and encouragement that I kept reading, all the way to the positive and intensely thought-provoking payoff. But don’t get this book just to read the last couple chapters and think that you know what to do next; you would be deluding yourself, and cheating the world around you, if you did that…

In retrospect, those chapters (really, all these chapters) should be required reading in any high-school or college-level examination of American History, and especially in the environmental history of the United States. Ms. Barnett reaches into our history for the land ethic put forth by Aldo Leopold, a sound and stable (though seeming forgotten) basis on which our new water ethic might be founded. The esteemed Mr. Leopold, who established the very academic department at which I am now working on my Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, was a founding specialist on the natural ecology of a still-growing national frontier. He was, for that matter, an essential impetus for what I consider the third conservation movement in America and an author (A Sand County Almanac, among others) from whom we can draw continual and, indeed, practical inspiration. One of his sons, Luna Leopold, became a hydrologist and developed some of the fundamental standards of practice on which we still evaluate the form and health of streams, rivers and floodplains: his work with M.G. “Reds” Wolman and J.P. Miller on Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology (1964) remains a staple of the hydrologist’s graduate education. The history of what we might call the overriding American water ethic, up to this time, is skillfully outlined in Ms. Barnett’s early chapter spanning the time in the American West “From Reclamation to Restoration.” John Wesley Powell, with his own scientific specialties and his now-resurgent pronouncements on western water sustainability, expressed ethical and practical considerations that were roundly ignored in his own time. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read a narrative on water in America that chooses not to address Las Vegas as either the death or savior of American water practice within the first chapter. Actually, Ms. Barnett saves that topic for the exact midpoint of Blue Revolution, amid visits abroad to flood specialists in The Netherlands, drought specialists in Australia’s own southwestern region, and water recycling specialists that have literally rebuilt Singapore from the ground up. Many of Ms. Barnett’s thoughts and accounts are embedded within an overarching narrative on two distinctly American problems illustrating the history of engineering folly that has made this crisis and brought us to the point of needing a new, fundamental ethic for its solution: the aquifers and the Everglades of Florida, as part of Ms. Barnett’s own backyard, and the Sacramento – San Joaquin – Central Valley project complex of central California. As strange and different as the Colorado River Basin has remained from the remainder of the U.S. in terms of water policy and practice, even greater an outlier seem the paths of past and present water management in California.

It is ultimately the final chapters of Ms. Barnett’s work that lift her narrative from depressing, rage-inducing disgust at the status quo to a hopeful, forward-looking plan for the future in the establishment of a national, possibly universal, water ethic. I suppose that an author’s skill at inducing such a reaction that the reader is moved to action should be considered a compliment, as I hope Ms. Barnett takes my opinions on the subject matter under her pen. Her treatment of that subject matter is skillful and concise, with no wasted effort, and she gets at the heart of the problems and our potential solutions with a keen interest. We have, as Blue Revolution outlines, a three-fold path of intense commitment before us at all levels of decision-making, from grass-roots activists to state and federal budget-makers: (1) better protection for and restoration of our natural resources, including the essential treatment and upkeep of our natural water systems as an integral component of civilization’s infrastructure; (2) necessary reforms in the system of water allocation and pricing, with greater emphasis given to high-value uses just as much as to conservation in essential agriculture and urban/domestic services; (3) a relentless program for education in the natural sciences, from grade school through adulthood, in and out of school, in order to instill in our fellow citizens, at the least, an understanding of the world around them and, if possible, a deep reverence for the sources of our health and wellness as citizens in an increasingly interwoven community. Part of that reverence arises from a sense of respect for the people and the nature around us, the invisible infrastructures that make our lives possible, and part of it comes from a sense of responsibility to make sure that the natural infrastructure remains viable and untainted, so that our children will have the advantages of a cleaner world as well. We must keep in mind not simply the bottom line on this financial quarter or fiscal year, but the legacy that our actions now will impress upon our future, and that of the generations to come.  The status quo, and the manner in which that came about, is an insufficient and inexcusable legacy given the ideas and resources presently available to us.

In 2003, another no less esteemed leader than Kofi Annan, as Secretary General to the United Nations, sent a message on World Water Day to delegates attending the plenary session of the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan:
“It is often said that water crises and scarcities will at some point lead to armed conflict, but this need not be the case. Water problems have also been a catalyst for cooperation among peoples and nations... Scientists, local authorities, non-governmental organizations, private businesses and international organizations are pooling their efforts in the hopes of bringing about a much needed 'blue revolution' and to improve management of this vital resource. Whatever else divides the human community, whether we live upstream or downstream, in cities or in rural areas, water issues – the global water cycle itself – should link us in a common effort to protect and share it equitably, sustainably and peacefully.”
With Ms. Barnett’s book, a greater portion of that better way forward is illuminated. Following that path to respectful and sustainable treatment of our water resources won’t come without conflict and the angst of upheaval, but if we travel willingly and share the burdens equitably, such conflict will remain minimized and manageable. If just one person believes that a unifying water ethic is both possible and necessary, then there is hope that we can still turn away from the present course of decaying infrastructure, wasteful water practices and neglect of our natural heritage. If just one person expresses the desire to forge a better path, then that path immediately becomes a valid alternative to the destructive status quo. I know now that there are at least three of us...

19 October 2011

World Water Week Statement to the Rio+20 Summit

Editor's Note: the following text is quoted verbatim from a statement issued by the convening organizations at the Stockholm World Water Week conference and exposition that was last held during 21 - 27 August 2011.  That annual event is organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which also hosts the UN Development Program (UNDP) Water Governance Facility (WGF) and the Swedish Water House (SWH).  The statement addresses the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, also known as the "Rio+20 Summit" in celebration (and evaluation) of the landmark UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio in 1992. 

The preliminary agenda for the upcoming UNFCCC COP-17/CMP-7 meeting in Durban, South Africa, indicates no recognition of water and related issues to be addressed there.  Our best hope to get water on the global political agenda, other than the annual meetings at Stockholm WWW and the 6th triennial World Water Forum, to be held in March 2012, is likely through the UNCSD process.  

That is, short of convening a regular UN Conference on Water Sustainability to concatenate and analyze in real policy terms the outcomes from all the other initiatives and conferences... 

The Stockholm Statement to the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20 Summit)

Water is the bloodstream of the green economy. Water, energy, and food are interlinked and interdependent; securing them is central to alleviating poverty and to creating a climate resilient and robust green economy. Population growth, expanding cities and accelerating economic activity increase the demand for energy and food and create unsustainable pressure on our water and land resources. By 2030, in a business as usual scenario, humanity’s demand for water could outstrip supply by as much as 40 per cent. This would place water, energy and food security at risk, increase public health costs, constrain economic development, lead to social and geopolitical tensions and cause lasting environmental damage.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012 (Rio+20 Summit) provides an opportunity for global leadership to harness economic activity at all levels to create new and sustainable development and eradicate poverty. The foundation for a resource efficient green economy must be built upon water, energy and food security – and these issues must be addressed in an integrated, holistic manner that values the natural environment and recognizes the carrying capacity of the planet. Action is critical at all levels to address inequities, especially for the ‘bottom billion’ who live in slums and impoverished rural areas and survive without access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient food and energy services. It is imperative to ensure that adequate water and sanitation services are available to the world’s population in accordance with the resolution of the UN General Assembly declaring these as a human right.

Accordingly, over and above achieving the Millennium Development Goals, we call for a universal provisioning of safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and modern energy services by the year 2030.

We call on local, municipal, and national governments and all major groups participating at the Rio+20 Summit to commit to achieving the following intervening targets by 2020:
  • 20% increase in total food supply-chain efficiency; reduce losses and waste from field to fork
  • 20% increase in water efficiency in agriculture; more nutrition and crop per drop 
  • 20% increase in water use efficiency in energy production; more kWh per drop
  • 20% increase in the quantity of water reused
  • 20% decrease in water pollution
In addition, we strongly urge that the following outcomes feature prominently within the Rio+20 Summit’s thematic focus areas:
  1. Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication
    • All governments commit to sufficient investments in safe drinking water and sanitation services and hygiene education for its people
    • The current measurements of economic performance are expanded and complemented by indicators on environmental and social sustainability
    • Economic and social incentives are created to promote water use efficiency and protect freshwater ecosystems
  2. Creating an institutional framework for sustainable development
    •  Commit to policy and institutional reforms that create an enabling environment for the coherent and integrated management of water, energy and food
    • Enact national legislation that guarantees access to water and sanitation for all and protect freshwater ecosystems
    • Create cross-cutting frameworks that bridge ministries and sectors, leading the way to water, energy and food security in a green economy
The achievement of the aforementioned targets and outcomes would help the global leaders assembled at the Rio+20 Summit to deliver a new model of human and economic development and ensure a real impact on human well-being across the world.

18 October 2011

The U.S. Clean Water Act at 39...

The Federal Water Pollution Control Amendments of 1972, also known as the Clean Water Act, became law in the United States 39 years ago today.  Early in the day I opened my Twitter account to find some strangely aberrant claims about what the CWA does (e.g., "drinkable waterways"), and what we should "do for its birthday."  Well, anything that was later suggested would come too late and far-too-long-in-process to help the CWA see a happy 39th, but we can still work to build a better 40th year and a stronger set of rules on water quality for the future...

So, as much as I could in 140 characters at a time, I had a little Twitter rant to voice my concerns.  It's kind of difficult to keep up the steam of a long rant with that kind of limitation reducing concepts to sound-bites.  Nevertheless, I'm reproducing those tweets here for those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, or Facebook (where most of my tweets get mirrored) for that matter. 
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act was enacted 39 years ago today by Congressional override of President Nixon's veto. We are now in it's 40th year.
  • Nothing good will come of the bills before our present Congress, so let's wish for (and work on) good things for it's 40th b-day, shall we?
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act aims for fishable and swimmable waterways and drinkable tap water, but we need to be willing to pay for all that.
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act provides for waterway protection by EPA regs and Army Corps of Engineers permit rules, but enforcement costs $$.
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act regulates how much wetlands can get destroyed + how much As gets into your tap water. The rules could be better...
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act needs real rules for protection of headwater streams and riparian wetlands, not mere "guidance" for permitting.
  • The U.S. Clean Water Act needs regulators willing to enforce, w/o negotiation or prejudice, the letter of the law on chem/bio contaminants.
  • And finally, the U.S. Clean Water Act needs an executive agency (EPA) tied to Dept. of Justice and fully funded to police its jurisdiction.
That was all.  I think I said what I wanted and needed to say about the CWA, at least for that moment in time.  By all means, submit your comments, thoughts, support and/or (dis)agreement!

P.S. and by the way, my post for World Food Day on Sunday was a ResearchBlogging.org Editor's Selection for the week!  Woo hoo!  Many thanks to the editors there and you all, my dear readers!

16 October 2011

World Food Day / Blog Action Day

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgToday is World Food Day, as designated by the United Nations on the anniversary of the founding of the Food and Agriculture Organization in 1945, and as such is this year's Blog Action Day on the topic of food. Last year around this time, I posted my commentary on the U.N. Resolution on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation on the occasion of the 2010 Blog Action Day on the topic of water.

Through the efforts and results of many organizations, activists and researchers we have begun to learn that these two topics are inextricably intertwined. For all the talk now of the water – energy nexus, there has been for thousands of years a more fundamental water – food nexus that we as humans have almost taken for granted time and again, to our detriment and occasional peril when the environmental circumstances change. To wit, the past couple of years of flooding and crop loss in Pakistan leading to a regional crisis that is still fermenting in the larger geopolitical context there, and the present famine and humanitarian emergencies in East Africa to which we have still paid inordinately little attention for the potential crisis that has been brewing for decades and will remain unresolved while first-world countries keep their eyes on their own internal issues.

So I seek to address to a large degree the issue of food, while maintaining the larger context of water that is the focus of this blog. It's an easier task than it might seem, with all of the tools linking our water usage and food needs that have arisen over the past several years. The Pacific Institute, led by Peter Gleick, has published six (soon to be seven) volumes of The World's Water, in each of which at least one section of their data collection has focused on agriculture and irrigation, which was featured most prominently in the 2000-2001 volume [1]. Those of us who get our food at the grocery store remain several steps removed from the reality of those numbers, with our consumables prepackaged and, often, ready-to-eat. The water we might think about is in what to have to drink with that meal, and then who gets to wash the dishes afterward. We recognize the needs of irrigation when we fly over the central states of the U.S. or read the occasional news article about drought in various regions of the world. Most often we read about an abnormally low-rain summer in some portion of the U.S. or Europe, when groundwater resources are tapped to supplement surface water sources. The news from places with chronic shortages of surface water resources, with nearly perpetual famine, seems almost to fade to the background for many of us. Life is too often tough enough at home without worrying about how much the kids in Africa and South Asia have to eat or drink, yes?

The trouble is, we've come to distance ourselves from the water sources for growing our food to the point that we’ve taken both for granted in many parts of the world, and they’ve begun to run out. There is increasing academic and international attention to the complementary notions of water and food security, joining our long-running political and economic notions of energy security. We are witnessing subtle shifts in the manner and orientation of government support for agriculture, not least in the United States, where biofuel crops are subsidized as "alternative energy" and irrigation water costs the farmer little, if anything. Many researchers and academic observers, including my blogging and author friend David Zetland, call for the right-pricing of water resources in order to help a real water market grow, as the concept of water shifts in many places from commons resource to scarce commodity. If any econometric approach to such a personal issue can be considered heartfelt and genuine in its orientation and application, his End of Abundance certainly addresses the issue of emerging water scarcity in our global community, especially where competing interests in agriculture, urban growth, and industry have placed extraordinary pressures on the water and food resources. Not being an economist or statistician, I'm not afraid to admit that it is difficult reading at times, but Mr. Zetland's approach to the subject is reasoned and reassuring, and when I have finished the book I will certainly attempt to present a thoughtful and coherent review of his work on this blog. The economics of water and food, in such a transition to scarcity allocation as the growing global population spreads both renewable and nonrenewable resources across greater areas and higher demand, are such a tool for the treatment of emerging issues.

Subsidies and tariffs, so often our ad hoc and legacy approaches to economic control of national interests and international markets, do not necessarily apply as intended when it comes to the water – food nexus, and especially at subsistence levels of water supply and food production. In the subject of humanitarian aid, economics goes right out the window... but I’ll get to that another time. The 2008 Stockholm Water Prize, a sort of Nobel Prize in hydrology and water resources (since there still isn't a Nobel for Earth Science), was awarded to Prof. John Allan for his development of the virtual water concept:
"The water is said to be virtual because once the wheat is grown, the real water used to grow it is no longer actually contained in the wheat. The concept of virtual water helps us realize how much water is needed to produce different goods and services. In semi-arid and arid areas, knowing the virtual water value of a good or service can be useful towards determining how best to use the scarce water available."
In citing this achievement, the Stockholm International Water Institute recognized that
"Virtual water has major impacts on global trade policy and research, especially in water-scarce regions, and has redefined discourse in water policy and management. By explaining how and why nations such as the U.S., Argentina and Brazil 'export' billions of liters of water each year, while others like Japan, Egypt and Italy 'import' billions, the virtual water concept has opened the door to more productive water use."
The concept has led to the calculation, sometimes in great detail, of the "water footprint" of our food and the various organic and inorganic commodities in our lives. The results — how much we really depend upon water for necessities such as food and, especially in consumer societies, for our luxuries — are astounding and often frightening. Without this easy access to cheap water that many of us enjoy, what would life look like? We can make a fair guess at the answer to that question: America might look more like China, China more like India, India more like Ethiopia, and so much of the developing world more like Somalia...

In every one of these places, the primary use of water is for the production of food. The three largest countries by population (China at 1.35B, India at 1.3B, and the U.S. at 312M) are also those that have dedicated the largest arable areas to farming and food production [2, 3]: 137M hectares (ha; 1 sq km = 100 ha) in China, of which 37% is irrigated; 161M ha in India, of which 33% is irrigated; 176M ha in the United States, of which 13% is irrigated. In each case, seasonal rains comprise a major source of "green water" for farming and both surface water and groundwater are exploited, often to the point of overuse, as "blue water" sources for irrigation. We know well in the U.S. of highly productive areas that exist only by the allocation of blue water from distant sources, such as the Imperial Valley in southern California. Similar areas are supported by legacy practices in both China and India, much to the dismay of residents who often feel that the water could be better allocated to domestic uses, not to mention fellow farmers with lesser allocations by virtue of location or rights.

The mechanism of water allocation and rights varies considerably from one country to another, as do the levels of efficiency in irrigation practice and the economic value given to commodities for consumption and trade. The relative volume of food production for internal consumption and export also varies: much of U.S. grain production is exported while much of the meat remains in-country; China and India feed their own burgeoning populations with the grains and, increasingly, meat from their domestic production. However, the constant of necessity remains in every area of the world, and we are reminded time and again that nature makes a drought, but only humans can make a famine. Following on the present rising awareness of the water – food nexus, we may see a quiet revolution in the allocation of water to higher uses, whether that is food production for the pressing population growth of one country or trade for the economic development of another. These outcomes are not mutually exclusive, of course, and competing interests for resource allocation constitute the foundation of national economies and the international market system.

Food and water are, and will remain, the most important and fundamental of these interests as countries work toward security of both in an increasingly competitive and globalized economic system. The improved yields of new crop varieties and irrigated lands ensure that some of the best thinking is put into practice. My own Ph.D. advisor at the University of Wisconsin, Mutlu Ozdogan, currently participates in an integrative project led by USGS scientist Prashad Thenkabail and supported by the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis:
"Global climate change is putting unprecedented pressure on global croplands and their water use, vital for ensuring future food security for the world's rapidly expanding human population. The end of the green revolution (increase in productivity per unit of land) era has meant declining global per capita agricultural production requiring immediate policy responses to safeguard food security amidst global climate change and economic turbulence. Global croplands are water guzzlers, consuming between 60-90% of all human water use. With urbanization, industrialization, and other demands (e.g., bio-fuels) on water there is increasing pressure to reduce agricultural water use by producing more food from existing or reduced areas of croplands (more crop per unit area) or increasing water use efficiency (more crop per unit of water). Our team will evaluate potential water savings that may emerge from: (i) replacing current crops with those that consume less water; (ii) increasing water use efficiency; (iii) altering human diets toward less water-consuming food; and (iv) emphasizing rainfed crop productivity to reduce stress on water-intensive irrigated croplands. We will create a "knowledge warehouse" to facilitate global food security in the twenty-first century by identifying and making available an advanced geospatial information system on croplands and their water use. Such a system will be global, consistent across nations and regions and provide information including: (a) crop types, (b) precise location of crops, (c) cropping intensities, (d) cropping calendar, (e) crop health/vigor, (f) watering methods (e.g., irrigated, supplemental irrigated, rainfed), (g) flood and drought information, (h) water use assessments, and (g) yield or productivity (expressed per unit of land and/or unit of water). Such a complex system requires coordination between multiple agencies leading to development of a seamless, scalable, and repeatable methodology."
This is, of course, an international effort. Dr. Ozdogan is from Turkey and has worked extensively on the representation of agriculture in remote sensing and hydrologic models. Most recently, he published on the issue of the contribution of irrigation to agricultural productivity [4]:
"...irrigation has the potential to increase carbon uptake by global cropland areas... especially in heavily irrigated semiarid areas such as northern India, the Indus River Valley, northeast China, the western United States, and the Nile River Valley. When accumulated across all irrigated areas and years, the total contribution of irrigation could exceed... a value equivalent to the total [productivity] of U.S. croplands..."
It is certainly a significant result that, when properly applied, irrigation of croplands in various locations around the world could yet improve global agricultural productivity by an amount equivalent to adding another United States to the world food supply. Such advancement must come about responsibly, however:
"One outcome of this study is that irrigation has an important role in boosting primary productivity of croplands in water-limited areas. However, in the absence of good management practices, irrigation also has the potential to severely degrade the soil and water quality through waterlogging and soil salinization, and quantity through groundwater depletion. These forms of land and water degradation could have severe consequences for increasing crop yields with further concerns for income and employment in the long run. For example, large parts of formerly productive irrigated areas in India, China, and the United States are being abandoned due to deteriorating soil and water quality... So, while irrigation has the potential to substantially improve crop yields in arid and semiarid regions, these improvements may be eclipsed by degradation of resources that make cultivation possible in the first place. Therefore, irrigation along with good management practices is required to globally sustain and increase crop productivity in the coming decades."
Food security for a growing global population is certainly one of the most prominent challenges facing our generation, but some of our best scientists are already at work on it.


[1] P. Gleick et al.: The World’s Water 2000-2001: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Volume 2 in a ongoing series by The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. Published in cooperation with Island Press, ISBN 9781559637923.

[2] U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): Statistical Yearbook. Available on-line at http://www.fao.org/economic/ess/ess-publications/ess-yearbook/en/.

[3] P. Gleick et al.: The World’s Water 2008-2009: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Volume 6 in a ongoing series by The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. Published in cooperation with Island Press, ISBN 9781597265058.

[4] M. Ozdogan, 2011: Exploring the potential contribution of irrigation to global agricultural primary productivity. Global Biogeochemical Cycles, v. 25, paper no. GB3016, doi: 10.1029/2009GB003720.

Additional resources:

M. Black and J. King, 2009: The Atlas of Water, Second Edition: Mapping the World’s Most Critical Resource. University of California Press, ISBN 9780520259348.

05 September 2011

Hello, Again!

So, it's been a little while since my last post, that long examination of Brian Fagan's "Elixir" into which I delved so deeply and with such care that I've worked my way backward into some of his earlier works, including his absolutely fascinating "Long Summer."  More about those later - you will definitely see pieces from "The Long Summer" later as individual vignettes here, with such a wealth of eco-anthropological touchstones from which we can still learn today.

In the meantime, since that last post was in process, I was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin - Madison for my Ph.D. in Forestry.  After a quick move, I'm now working in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, my side of which was founded long ago by our patron saint of land ethic in the United States, the still-highly-esteemed Aldo Leopold, on whom (and in whose honor) seminars are conducted and lecture halls dedicated and coffee-shops named across the western side of the UWM campus.  It's wonderful, to work amid such a tradition of conservation and preservation.

And as it happens, I'm working with an advisor that I met several years ago during my work at NASA-GSFC around Washington, DC.  That was when and where I started my blog, now nearly four years ago, while I was in the Hydrological Sciences Branch at GSFC.  Mutlu, a Post-doc Fellow at the time working on remote sensing and land surface modeling of irrigation practices in the same Branch, was an acquaintance at the time and we developed something of a mutual respect for each other's work then.  It was a fluke (or destiny?) that I found his name again while searching for something to do with myself earlier this spring and found an open opportunity in Forest Hydrology in his relatively new research group at UWM, and with a visit in the late northern winter I was hooked on the idea of working here and finishing out my degree efforts.  It was certainly a long summer, filled with book reviews and time with my daughter in remote southern Missouri, a flood in the spring and hot days through the summer with anxious, sleepless nights wondering where I was really going next.  But it worked out, and here I am after a quick move north to Madison.

I've found a local Starbucks again!  It's within walking distance from my new home, sharing house with two pretty cool bird-oriented zoologists who met years ago doing field work in Costa Rica.  It's a good situation, very relaxed, a couple of Costa Rican expat cats around (actual cats rescued from CR, not the zoologists :-) and great food all around.  They liked my cooking for dinner last evening, so that's a big plus!

In the meantime, and as my principal focus, I'm working again!  Why a Ph.D.?  Well, many reasons, really, but primarily because it's work in Forest Hydrology, all of my background brought together, a real challenge to define and make progress on the issues of land cover changes in the forested parts of North America and their relation to climate change.  I'll be working with one of the professors here who developed over several years a model for forest succession, and obviously bringing my water-oriented focus into a more ecology-focused group, but I'll learn so much from my colleagues here that my natural interdisciplinary approach will expand even more.  Even working at GSFC, I never had formal education in remote sensing, but I'll get a good dose of that here.  Even working in resource mapping while on the AHIS project in Arizona, I never had formal education in Geographic Information Systems, but I'll get some of that here.  I also have the opportunity to stay connected to my past activities in Atmospheric Sciences and, of course, Hydrology by working with others around the University here, bringing them in on my ideas for my dissertation research, maybe having some of them on my graduate committee.  Other interests, including the USACE Cold-Lands Research group for whom I interviewed more than a year ago (and from which invitation I do still hope to post my interview presentation here, as it remains relevant to my present work) will be contacted, old friends and colleagues from NASA GSFC and elsewhere will be met and engaged again...

It feels like I'm returning from a self-imposed exile, and while I have some regrets about the circumstances of my time away from academia and the moves I've made around the country in the past several years, this is a new time in my life with new opportunities to do something worthwhile, and it won't be wasted.

You'll still see some book reviews, especially from those authors that I engaged during the spring and summer and from whom I am still receiving new review volumes.  I really look forward to those, some very related to my academic work, and some outside of my academic pursuits but still very much within my overall career interests.  You'll see more posts about journal articles in hydrology, foresty, and related disciplines now that I have institutional access to periodical archives again.  You'll still see some long and multi-part posts about what's going on in the world as it relates to hydrology and water resources, as there is so much in the news these days and I have a list of things to catch up on: drought in the US Southwest and Southeast, the linkage of Hurricane Irene with global warming, ongoing famine and humanitarian strife in East Africa, renewed conflict between Pakistan and India over water resources in the Indus River basin, new levels of conflict between India and China over Nepalese water sources, new revelations from China's massive but neglected networks of dams and reservoirs...

The list goes on and on, and I'll cover what my time allows, and I'm cutting my Twitter time down (but not entirely out) in favor of time spent online in research and analysis and synthesis.  My dissertation is my primary task and responsibility for the next couple of years, and since I plan to publish throughout this process, I'll be working out a lot of my ideas right here in this forum.  As always, your comments and questions and suggestions will be welcome, encouraged, acknowledged and engaged.  You'll begin to see components and products and the progress of that work almost immediately.

28 July 2011

Book Review: "Elixir" by Brian Fagan

"Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind"
By Brian Fagan
Published in 2011 by Bloomsbury Press, New York NY
ISBN 978-1-60819-003-4
Buy this book at Amazon.com

Full disclosure: I solicited via e-mail and received a copy of this book for free in exchange for my promise of a published review. 

Author's note: A consolidated map including many of the locations that pass through Mr. Fagan's narrative is given for the reader's ease of reference, though the text should be consulted for details and additional locations not noted here.  Any mistakes made here in the location of sites of interest, and in the quotation of dates and events from Mr. Fagan's text, are my own.  I can only hope that my meager review lends some small service to the magnitude of Mr. Fagan's great work.  If that itself is not enough of an endorsement for you, read on...

In his newest work Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind, Brian Fagan does not pretend to tell the future of water on our planet.  There are enough books already trying to do just that, many released in the past year or so, some of which I have already reviewed here.  As Mr. Fagan recounted in an e-mail to me before I began reading this new work, this is likely the most difficult book he has written thus far, which is saying something given his long list of publications on the intersections of anthropology, sociology and climate.  In Elixir, however, Mr. Fagan has brought together some of the finest and most accessible scholarship on the interpretation of our human history since the rise of agriculture around 12,500 years ago, together with his own investigations and those of numerous others into the origins and fates of historical societies and the relation of those events to the way we have approached our most fundamental natural resource: freshwater.  This is a work of history, sociology, agriculture, hydrology, climate, resource sciences, innovation and humanity that is every bit as relevant to our globalized society today as we could hope, if only we are willing to learn the lessons provided by our checkered past.

Why was this particular book so difficult to write?  First, of course, there is little effort required in order simply to add another voice to the recent "tidal wave of books on the current water problem."  To distinguish his narrative, Mr. Fagan focuses on the long history of water management, a subject well within his grasp though not yet addressed directly and comprehensively within the Fagan oeuvre.  Second, and related to that focus, Mr. Fagan recognizes both the local scale and global scope of water management among various civilizations over the course of millennia.  Our heightened awareness, and lack of coherent response, to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century series of water crises around the globe is not the first such episode in human history, and likely won't be the last.  The issue to be addressed is, most importantly, will we figure it out this time, and not just for the survival of humanity, but in a manner that helps our descendants over time as well?

Mayan ruins at Tikal, Guatemala.
Photo by Chen Siyuan via Wikimedia Commons
Mr. Fagan's third objective in the development of Elixir has been to demonstrate that water management methods and outcomes from the past are not so far away as we might like to believe.  As many water-savvy civilizations have fallen to conflict (e.g., many Mesopotamian societies) and attrition (ancient Greek culture and society, eventually subsumed by the Romans) as have seemingly disappeared due to climate change and anthropogenic effects on water scarcity (e.g., the Mayans, most famously).  Mr. Fagan indicates in his Acknowledgements, as a matter of personal motivation, that it was during an exploration of Mayan water history with a colleague that his interest in producing such a work came to the surface.  No matter how much we may see on the fate of Mayan civilization, and how incredible the history remains, the puzzle of that cultural demise is still not yet entirely solved.  We can thank works like Jared Diamond's popular Collapse, Mr. Fagan's earlier work in Floods, Famines and Emperors and The Long Summer, and now his exploration of contextual events in Elixir for valuable pieces of the puzzle and hints toward the understanding of our own human past.

It is sometimes recognized that water and its management, and the course of our human story, are vitally intertwined, though more conventional historians like to point to higher-level factors that seem to shape history:  land, religion, resources (such as oil and precious metals), science, politics, and personal power seem to have driven many of the great shifts in civil structure over time, at least according to our history teachers in high school and college.  In another recent work, Steven Solomon's Water attempts to cast the course of the rise of modern society in terms of water-related innovation, both at home in many of the world's great civilizations and across the oceans in several ages of exploration.  Mr. Fagan's work takes a much more decidedly practical approach:  without water and sporadic related management and technological innovations for use in agriculture over the past 12,500 years, there might be no politics, few land and resource struggles, and little civilization at all.  Without basic science and innovations related to the recognition of water's inherent uses in the production of energy, just within the last couple hundred years, there would have been no Industrial Revolution.  But these evolving uses of water have altered our human connection with this most vital natural resource, and not necessarily for the better.

Mr. Fagan organizes his narrative on the history of our connection with water in terms of three stages and around three broad themes of technological progress, though these are not mutually exclusive in the course of his cultural explorations.  The first stage of this history extends from the distant past to the present and visible future, in which water is recognized as "an unreliable, often scarce, and always valuable resource, so precious that it was sacred in almost every human society" [emphasis mine].  The suggestion remains that, in some societies, this is still the case, while many others societies have deviated dramatically from that viewpoint.  Hence the second stage, which encompasses the general turn of water to a manageable (though not necessarily fungible) commodity and extends from approximately the turn of the Common Era (here BCE to CE, traditionally BC to AD) through the present.  This viewpoint, expressed most pointedly in the exploitation of water resources without regard for sustainability, has dominated "western" society for the better part of the past two millennia.  It is amid the accumulating impacts of this commodity-oriented econometric approach that we quickly approach a third stage where, in Mr. Fagan's words, "we are finally realizing that water is a finite resource, something to be conserved and treated with respect, even reverence, that we haven't displayed in a long time."

The overlapping themes provide a structure on which Mr. Fagan's narrative is more closely based, beginning with the simplest modes of human water use and ending with the most complex.  Loosely tied to the historical progression of our human relationship to water, he begins this account with simple gravity-based methods.  Mr. Fagan takes us around the world through space and time looking at the various early civilizations that started with simple flood irrigation of agricultural lands and in some areas moved to furrow-based field irrigation in flat areas, while others retained the flood-based method for terraced hillsides, and in some cases developed mixed methodologies to raise farm productivity.  The number of sites, civilizations and examples brought forth my Mr. Fagan is impressive.  Readers of Jared Diamond's Collapse, but not well-versed in the academic literature of archaeological research, may be familiar with some, but not likely all, of these (as for this reviewer, I am not afraid to admit).  Among these gravity-oriented users of water are those we have frequently, though not necessarily correctly, dubbed the "hydraulic societies" of the ancient and near-prehistoric agriculturalists in our human past.  However, there are certain ideas in and implied by that turn of phrase that Mr. Fagan turns deftly on their heads, and to which I will return here in a short while.

View "Elixir" Locations in a larger map

Map of the Khmer metropolitan complex at Angkor [1].
The second theme addresses the bulk of Mr. Fagan's exploration in this work by way of the close relationship, most in antiquity and generally fading over time, between ritual and water management of all variety.  Though ritual permeates daily life, both for those long-gone societies as well as our own lives today, the term often evokes ideas of religion, and it may be an underlying dispensation toward this equivalence that guides the anthropologic study of so many cultures that have disappeared:  the Maya (1,000 BCE – 1,050 CE) and Aztec (~1,500 CE) of Central America; the coastal Moche (200 BCE – 650 CE) and Chimu (800 – 1,470 CE), the altiplano Nasca (400 BCE – 1,000 CE) and Tiwaniku (400 – 1,100 CE), and the upland Inca (~1,400 CE) of South America; the Hohokam (1,500 BCE – 1,500 CE) of southwestern North America; the Khmer around Angkor Wat (1,113 – 1,431 CE) in Southeast Asia.  The Maya civilization grew from an older Olmec society in Central America to a collection of warring city-states in the 1st century BCE and finally to a coherent society of its own around the turn of the Common Era, but along its lifetime suffered one devastation after another in long but seemingly regular cycles of floods, drought, and famine that were well-recorded by the elite scribes serving ever more demanding and divine leaders.  Such records from the Maya are an outstanding example, however, and it is only because of our present ability to correlate artifacts with various scientific dating methods that we can piece together the histories of some of these lost civilizations and societies at all.  The most prominent of their artifacts, the pyramids of Central America, the temple at Angkor, and the ruins of such places as Cuzco and Machu Picchu have been marked as sacred spaces and drawn the attention of historians and anthropologists for centuries. 

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan in Bali, Indonesia.
Photo by Chen Siyuan via Wikimedia Commons
There are exceptions to such disappearances, of course:  clues to the lifestyles of the Maya and Aztec peoples remain visible in native Central Americans today, though distilled by the conquering influences of western European cultures in the latter half of the second millennium CE.  It is thought that some of the Hohokam traditions related to water live on in the indigenous farming practices of native tribes in the American Southwest, including the modern O'odham communities of Arizona.  Even further, the Hohokam did not necessarily equate ritual with "religion" so much as "community," as evidenced by the numerous ball courts excavated in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona, that are associated with known irrigation canal systems as well as discovered ceremonial mounds in the area.  It is surmised that regular community challenges between families and villages were carried out on these ball courts in a basketball-like game, with family and friends standing around the raised perimeter, as part of festival celebrations tied to particular times of the year such as planting and harvest seasons.  In sharp contrast, Mr. Fagan spends a chapter in an idyllic tropical setting to describe for us the organization and living ritual of terraced rice irrigation on the island of Bali, where water is blessed and imbued with heavenly significance from the highest lake to the last tenah.  The traditional Hindu Balinese call their religion Agama Tirta, or "Religion of the Water."  In few other stories among Mr. Fagan's narratives is the connection between water and formal ritual more palpable than in his description of the Balinese blessing of the waters and the fields, a practice in the management of abundant (rather than scarce) water that has remained essentially unchanged over the past several thousand years.

Finally, the third theme of Mr. Fagan's work here addresses the delicate and often narrow balance that humans have attempted to navigate between technology and sustainability.  Technological progress has often come at the expense of natural resources, disturbing the sustainability of natural systems that we have more recently recognized for their "ecosystem services" provided to consumers, not limited to the humans in the environment.  It may be helpful to provide here, in this reviewer's terminology, a couple of definitions:  sustainability is the capability of a human endeavor to keep doing as it was intended, despite its offenses against nature and other humans; resilience is the ability of a human or natural process/system to keep doing as it was intended, despite inflicted human or natural offenses.  As the reader can see, the terms are related intimately.  Given the vagaries of weather and climate and their role in the provision of freshwater for agriculture and human needs over much of our history, it seems odd that these two terms are only just now entering the lexicon of discussions on the human condition.  Nevertheless, the ideas behind these terms have been in operation for millennia, and are essential for a basic understanding of our present situations around the world as well as for planning the future of water-based system progress.

The Pont du Gard aqueduct in southern France,
constructed around 19 CE by the Romans.
Photo by Chris O. via Wikimedia Commons
Stretching the observation of technology back to the beginning of agriculture, Mr. Fagan calls out numerous examples that worked with the environment instead of against it: qanats and step-wells for access to groundwater in arid regions, the human-powered shaduf and Archimedes' screw for field irrigation alongside rivers, the animal-powered saqiya (horizontally-driven water wheel) and eventually the self-propelled noria (vertically-driven water wheel) for raising water from one channel to another and later for driving grain mills, inverted siphons for bridging wide valleys, and the aqueduct networks of the Greeks and Romans.  In an irony of history, we sometimes know the Romans best for their massive aqueducts and water works, but both this technology and the surveying methods required to plan and construct such accurate slopes for efficient conveyance were both borrowed from the forerunning Greek civilization.  It is recognized and pointed out by Mr. Fagan, however, that such systems for the service of Rome's water needs were in constant operation, with few long-term reservoirs for drought or low-flow supplemental storage.  The water system that served the center of the Roman Empire provided abundant freshwater to both elites and commoners, through bath houses and fountains and even in-home service, but the tap was always open, and the water flowed constantly.  This was good for sanitation:  Rome remained one of the cleanest cities in the Empire, because excess and discarded water was always overflowing the fountains and washing waste from the streets into a sewer system that emptied into the Tiber River.  It was not at all, however, a long-term solution with regard to conservation and sustainability of the city's precious freshwater supplies.

Even more basic technologies were applied over long times to the agricultural fields, at first the basic orientation of villages and communities themselves, and much later around centers of commerce and trade.  Flood irrigation of crops alongside rivers eventually gave way to furrow irrigation, which applied less water more efficiently to the base of crop plantings and, along with long-distance irrigation supply canals, were able to conform better to hillside planting areas.  In all of these cases, gravity reigned, and it was the task of the farmer and his (her) community to work with gravity in order to serve the purposes of all involved in the sustainability of the community.  The system had to remain flexible and adaptable to the availability and timing of water supply, a point that Mr. Fagan draws to a sensible conclusion:  agricultural sustainability was best served by organization of farming communities at a low level, with the capability for rapid compromise and action on needed changes according to the condition of water supplies and needs.  Collection and control of agriculture by a central authority served most often to reduce the responsive nature of the human organization with respect to the resilience of the natural system, as when floods threatened to wash away vast areas of crops or when drought crept through a vast community that was already dependent on large water works projects.  China has seen so many of these shocks, against which little defense could be mounted effectively, but the state has remained sustainable due to the wide area and diversity of its agricultural systems.  Smaller regions, like those under Mayan control, collapsed in stages more than once, and then entirely around 1,050 CE, under the pressure of decades-long drought episodes.

By no means are the collapsed, scattered or otherwise failed societies of antiquity the only sources of valuable lessons for our present and future course of water management, however.  Mr. Fagan dwells on the valuable lessons of two lasting civilizations in particular:  the Chinese over approximately the past 6,000 years, and Islamic culture over the past 1,300 years.  These examples have endured hydroclimatic and societal conditions radically different from each other and throughout their own histories, but are connected across the contiguous lands of South Asia by a common experience:  the summer monsoon.  The wind-borne rains on which southern China, much of Pakistan and India, and modern Yemen depend for their subsistence over the subtropical summer once also nourished the upper Tigris and Euphrates River basins, until approximately 4,000 BCE when the tropical monsoon pattern shifted almost entirely from that region.  This was not a local, isolated occurrence, but a global climatic event with widespread causes and effects that I hope to address in another post.  It may be salient to suggest one other note about the timing of this event:  it was around then that agricultural development took hold along the lower Yangtze River in China, supported by the Southeast Asian monsoon as well as regular flows from the Tibetan Plateau.  Meanwhile, the long-established benevolence (in normal years) and malevolence (in drought and flood) of the water gods in early Sumerian civilization turned rapidly to simple malevolence.  Desertification quickly took hold of the Mesopotamian region, save for careful irrigation by canal systems under constant maintenance through many changes of leadership and into modern Middle Eastern civilization.

Restored Islamic-era noria on the
Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, Spain.
Photo by Graham Colm via Wikimedia Commons
The deceptively short history of the Muslim religion hides the fact that Islamic culture is built upon the traditions of the longest-cultivated lands in the world, those of the earliest Mesopotamian civilizations on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers ranging back to 10,500 BCE.  That history continued through the Wadi Faynan culture in what is now southern Jordan (~5,000 BCE) and Egyptian civilization on the lower Nile River (~4,500 BCE) and into the Fayum Depression (~2,000 BCE) to the west.  To the east, agricultural traditions in ancient Persia brought to wider civilization the groundwater-tapping qanat (predating 700 BCE), one of the lasting developments in water resources management in mountainous and semi-arid regions.  Even farther east, the massive scale of agricultural development in the lower Indus River basin originated with the Harappan civilization (~2,700 BCE) and continues in modern Pakistan.  In Southwest Asia, a succession of empires and cultures managed the Mesopotamian region over the centuries, from the Sumerians and Assyrians through the Babylonians, Cyrus the Great and Alexander, and the Sassanians up to the time of the Islamic rise in the Middle East (~630 CE).  A vast region of the world came under the influence of Islamic culture, including its founding culture of scholarship and innovation as well as its religious leadership, from Andalusian Spain (~711 CE) through northern Africa, the Middle East including the Arabian peninsula, and into South Asia.  It might be said that, under Islamic cultural and commercial influence, more ideas and practices for water management were brought together, combined, and spread over again a larger area of the known world than at any other time in history, exceeding even the Roman Empire at its height.

Map of China's South-to-North Water
, Eastern Route Project.
The Chinese, taking on an early philosophy of Confucian dominance over nature, developed a culture of large water works for the support of massive populations that is far greater in historical depth than the recent focus on mega-dams and water transfer projects might suggest.  Flood control on the Huang He (Yellow River) was more difficult long ago, before the river's sources began to dry up from diversion and agricultural uses; now, "China's Sorrow" hardly reaches the sea, a common condition among the largest and most over-allocated rivers of the world.  Flood control activities have shifted in China to the Yangtze River in the south, where collections of large dams provide hydropower, year-round water resources for agriculture, and seasonal flood protection in downstream areas.  These dam cascades have also provided, as we have seen recently, ecological problems of their own, the impetus for forced relocation of citizens, and the tendency for leaders to think of water projects on even larger scales.  China's great South-to-North Diversion Project intends to bring the water wealth of the southern region to the populous north, where groundwater and rivers are failing all too often to meet the needs of citizens.  The eastern branch of the Project follows the historical route of the 1,800-km Grand Canal, begun around 600 CE and finally completed by 1,300 CE, and is thus the easiest phase of the present project to complete.  The western and middle (central) routes, however, remain in planning and construction phases (respectively) with significant technical and practical obstacles to be overcome.

Some of the problems with technological solutions were the same as we see today in many areas of the world.  Using flood-based irrigation for agriculture in arid and semi-arid regions, soil salinization eventually plagued Mesopotamian, Harappan and Hohokam cultures alike, as we see now in central Iraq, lower Pakistan and the American Southwest, respectively.  In these cases, the needs of the civilization have simply outrun the resilience of the natural system, which over time and with proper cultivation practice is perfectly able to handle the build-up of soil minerals so that crops are not adversely affected.  Had we learned from the past, practices would be different now, but instead we are reaching the point in many parts of the world where humans' overwhelming dominance of the capacity and resilience of the natural system is finally feeding back on the sustainability of our own practices for food production.  In drought periods we now fall back on the reliability of massive storage dams, which have altered the hydrology and landscapes of entire river systems.  And where surface water is not readily available, groundwater mining using pumps developed during the Industrial Revolution provides an ever-diminishing source for marginal croplands in plains areas and domestic use in dense urban regions.  Be we are just beginning to recognize that these technological solutions are not sustainable, for many reasons of their own maintenance and suitability as well as their collective impact on the natural system, which seems to have a diminishing resilience to these human offenses.  At the same time, faced with massive and potentially rapid climate change, we are finally beginning to question the methodology behind the planning of such artificial systems in an attempt to develop more flexible and sustainable systems for the future.

Map of China's South-to-North Water
, Middle Route Project.
When completed, the Chinese South-North Diversion Project may be the largest example of deliberate geo-engineering in human history.  Other examples of accidental geo-engineering abound, but remain marginal in the scope of this book and review, except for one: it remains to be seen what impact the present pace of climate change will have on the seemingly abundant rivers of southern China, and if the Diversion Project could eventually be rendered moot for a critical lack of source waters as Himalayan glaciers disappear and a shift in monsoon patterns becomes more likely.  Successful or not, and only time will tell, the Chinese remain the most enduring societal example of centralized administration over projects of all sizes for the control and use of water within its territory.  For such large undertakings, only state-level control for the provision of strategic planning, labor, wages, and materials would be sufficient.  The methodology and technical application is little different from that used to build the Roman aqueducts, but the scale and scope of the projects are far larger.  The remainder of history, as Mr. Fagan points out, has generally tended toward decentralized water control over reasonable, more human-oriented and less state-level expanses of space and time.  The same tracts of history are littered with examples of regional control on water works, generally oriented on the support of centralized leadership and a proto-urban elite.  Such societies generally disappeared, possibly collapsed under the weight of various tribute and taxation systems, possibly driven to more suitable climates.  In many cases, it seems, the build-up of trust in the ruling elite was eventually dashed by a short-term anomaly in the climate and hydrologic conditions of the otherwise complacent society.  For a religious leader or emperor who claimed a divine source of elite power, there were few accessible others on which drought and famine could be blamed.

There are lessons in the tales of history that Mr. Fagan brings together here, instructions for ways to deal with water scarcity and its impacts on agriculture and society in times of environmental stress, climate change, and poor legacy management of vital resources.  We are given here powerful lessons on the history of our species and humanity's trend away from our connection to the most life-giving of Earth substances, and toward objectification of that resource.  Some of these lessons remain puzzles that are yet to be solved in scholarly anthropological circles, but the growing confluence of social and hard sciences will eventually contribute to a clearer picture of our past.  With these lessons generously given, the present and rising generations of scientists and social engineers can no longer lay the blame for the state of the planet and our increasingly global civilization at the feet of our ancestors and intellectual forbears.  Now, if we fail to do something about it so that the next generations inherit the same or worse, we can only blame ourselves.  In the preface, Mr. Fagan quotes Rachel Carson's Silent Spring to significant effect: "In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference."  The alternative, as difficult as it may seem to some, is to learn and evolve as better stewards of our environment, and to develop a philosophy and means of human and agricultural sustainability that operates within the resilience capacity for the most fundamental of our natural resources.


[1] Evans, D., C. Pottier, R. Fletcher, S. Hensley, I. Tapley, A. Milne, and M. Barbetti, 2007: A comprehensive archaeological map of the world's largest preindustrial settlement complex at Angkor, Cambodia.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 104, no. 36, pp. 14,277 – 14,282, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0702525104.

25 July 2011

MGhydro on Twitter, 20110725 edition

Continued from the previous edition, these are items appropriate to this blog that I have tweeted, RT'd, MT'd, or HT'd in the past few days up through the evening of the date in the post title.  You can follow me on Twitter to get these in real time, and I welcome contributions by comment, e-mail and @MGhydro

21 July (Thursday)
22 July (Friday)
23 July (Saturday)
24 July (Sunday)
25 July (Monday)