As a means of further refining my knowledge of water consumption, usage and general freshwater issues, I decided to focus upon environmental stories relating to the abstraction and sustainability of freshwater sources.
I found various examples which reinforced the significance of these issues, highlighting various critical aspects of the over use and abstraction of water and wider implications and effects of this both on a national and international scale. Much of which calls for greater awareness and management of freshwater sources, some highlighting the need to change water laws which are outdated and lack consideration for massive increases in population and demand, others aim to reaffirm the use of alternative energy sources or the ambition to create artificial dams/reservoirs as means of synthesising the conditions of wetland environments.
There is also an eagerness to reaffirm that water is a natural life source, essential to the survival of all life forms and the importance of preservation and management of freshwater sources that supply drinking water for people and animals (including cattle) thus food, allow for crop growth and sustain general well-being. After years of severe demand upon water through agriculture and industry, including over abstraction and pollution, we are reaching a stage of cultural awareness that the sustainability of water is failing, creating wider concerns than much of the warfare and conflict we often focus upon within the media. A common agenda must be met if we are to survive, as well as maintaining the gradual decline in wildlife that thrives within water based environments. If not for the sake of other life forms, as a means of preventing severe floods and droughts within our surrounding landscapes.
In some ways, such national issues of water maintenance begin with cost cutting governmental procedures and neglect from significance water companies, whose agendas in the past have caused much of the pollution in UK rivers and freshwater sources through poor management of waste water (sewage) and little consideration for the implications of such actions, which we now have come to understand have at times devastated native species of wildlife and trees. There has a result been an eagerness from such institutions to reassure that the changes to the UK water bill will not exaggerate this further as well as a priority for eco-friendly measures that will ensure that areas that source our water supplies will not drop to unsafe levels.
We once again find a conflict between the development of industrial and economic growth of humanity against the well-being and survival of other life forms, we must find a way of living within our own means or the consequences will be severe for everyone and everything else on earth.What really drives me within this issue is the sheer scale and division that can be discussed within such a broad subject and yet much of this all serves as a cohesive and relevant discussion of such an important subject that affects all life. This all served to reaffirm the scale and importance of this issue and reassured me that this issue is topically relevant and news worthy.
Why is Europe failing to take the energy-water connection seriously?
Concerns are intensifying in the US about the troubling interdependence of the economy’s water and energy needs. In particular, the vast quantities of water (about 40% of national water withdrawals) needed for cooling US power plants are making headlines, and proposals to build thirsty new generation plants in drought-stricken states like Texas are under heavy scrutiny. Hydropower is also under strain from climate change, as more and more “one in a hundred years” droughts are reducing rivers to a trickle and power generation to a near standstill.
But in the EU, this growing collision between energy and water resources has been strikingly absent from public discussion, let alone from the EU energy agenda.
That’s not to say scientists aren’t trying to put it there. I recently had the pleasure of seeing John Matthews, director of freshwater and climate change at Conservation International, wake up an otherwise sleepy crowd of Commission staff and MEPs in Brussels with this powerful imageof Las Vegas’ dwindling Lake Mead and America’s most iconic – and soon to be stranded – hydro-power asset, the Hoover Dam. The southwest US is painfully close to losing an important energy source for 1.3 million people living in Arizona, Nevada and California.
Which is why utilities in this region are scrambling to cut water use. Arizona Public Service (APS), for example, is using treated wastewater for 62% of its cooling water. California-based PG&E is partnering with local water utilities to combine customer rebates for purchases of water-efficient household appliances. In 2012, PG&E’s program was estimated to save more than 1.3bn gallons of water and 12m kilowatt hours of electricity.
Still, I wasn’t sure if European legislators and investors in Brussels would relate to these challenges 5,000 miles away. Judging from the chorus of gasps to Matthew’s slides, the point was driven home.
And it’s not just scientists and NGOs prodding the regulators on these trends. European utilities such as Enel are also voicing concern. Enel is a multinational heavyweight in the power sector, with generation and distribution activities in 40 countries. Of the company’s 98GW of installed capacity, a whopping 31% comes from hydropower. The company is also under strict carbon emissions targets in the EU, and a stable, low-carbon hydropower portfolio is critical to meeting them. For Enel, the water-energy collision is much more than an interesting catchphrase.
“Water is core to our business – we need to protect it to deliver power, meet our business goals, as well as keep our carbon footprint down,” Andrea Valcalda, Enel’s head of environment, told a recent forum of EU lawmakers.
That’s one reason Enel is joining APS and other US utilities in shoring up its water risk management strategy using the Aqua Gauge a tool Ceres and WBCSD developed to help companies improve their performance and better navigate water issues in an age of climate change.
One important action area the Aqua Gauge identified for Enel relates to the water impacts of the company’s fossil fuel supply chain – specifically, coal and natural gas. Marianne Wenning, director for water issues at the European Commission, has been particularly vocal about the uncertainties of potential shale gas production on Europe’s water resources. (Again, Texas provides potential lessons: hydraulic fracturing of shale oil and gas is booming and in many parts of the state is using massive amounts of water from wells and underground aquifers.) As estimates of new shale energy reserves increase every day in France, the UK, and Poland, she and other EU policymakers would do well to improve upon the wild-west fracking experiments in the US.
And it looks like indeed they might. Just last month European lawmakers approved legislation that would require energy companies to carry out rigorous environmental audits before using hydraulic fracturing technologies.
Surely though, this is in some ways just the opening salvo of a broader debate on the water-energy collision in Europe. Let’s all take note, and begin managing and investing towards a future that protects our water resources, our climate, and our energy security.
Water is too precious a resource to be squandered
As environment minister in the spring of 2012, I was warned that the chance of avoiding a massive drought was about 3%. The two preceding winters were so dry that levels in reservoirs and the aquifers were dangerously low. Anything approaching normal summer rainfall that year meant a huge economic, social and environmental nightmare. We had been planning for the impact of the drought for 18 months before this conversation but as the summer drew near I started to wonder how we were going to keep the taps flowing as the world looked to Britain for the biggest sporting event on the planet.
While the thought of the jubilee celebrations and the Olympic Games in a city whose parks were brown and where the trees were prematurely leafless was a worry, the real problem would be a third dry winter. If that had happened, we would by the spring of this year have been facing the spectacle of the sixth biggest economy in the world having standpipes in the street. Businesses would be closing because they could not get the most basic raw material they needed for production. But then it started to rain. Soon, my attention was diverted to flooding. As I trudged through the stinking misery of flooded homes and businesses, it was hard to imagine such extremes in such a short space of time – or that we had just dodged a bullet that was a 97% certainty.
It is staggering how short our memories are. The drought showed us that much of the south and east of England has at best a precarious watersupply. A region that has one of the most dynamic economies in Europe risks being brought to its knees by a lack of the very substance most people here and abroad think we have in abundance.
So how do we get out of this hole before the next drought? It needs a bit of vision and that was not very apparent in parliament earlier this month when we debated water issues. The debate centred on the important matter of keeping bills down for hard-pressed households. What was missing was an understanding of the need for more investment in our water infrastructure. The debate focused on just the perfectly virtuous but short-term concerns of keeping bills low in the next few years and the daft call from some that renationalisation of the water industry was the answer.
One of the successes of privatisation has been the £116bn investment in water and sewage infrastructure. If we are going to have a water industry that is resilient to our changing climate, just talking down the water companies and talking tough about how we are going to constrain them in the future means the investors could shy away from the UK regulated sector. I am happy to attack dodgy corporate models that allow unethical tax avoidance, but I am not sure a very good case is being made by those who claim there is something totally wrong about our water industry.
Unlike some in the House of Commons, I am delighted when a sovereign wealth fund, an international private equity company or a global pension fund invests in our water sector. There are many other places and sectors around the world where they could go. We are only going to see new reservoirs, water mains or much-needed innovation if we take a long-term view on presenting the water industry as a safe place to invest. The key point is that investment is not only good for fund managers – it is good for the customer.
Around two-thirds of our rivers are failing ecosystems. Much of the cause for this shaming statistic is over-abstraction. We suck aquifers dry to provide cheaper water for an increasing population in the south and east of England. Most of the water we use comes from out of the ground or out of our rivers. But unsustainable abstraction ultimately costs the very households we want to protect. Dry aquifers mean greater cost down the line if the taps are going to continue to flow. We need a relentless drive to use less water through increased demand management. Southern Water‘s universal metering project should see a reduction of water use in most households by around 10%. Other water companies and policymakers should be watching this project closely.
So how do we avoid the standpipes in the street? How do we avoid the image being flashed around the world of the country that developed state-of-the-art water engineering being reduced to the shambles you might find in a sub-Saharan dictatorship? Well, luckily, the policy work has been done. In Defra, we produced a water white paper that was almost unique in terms of government policy. It was welcomed by green NGOs, the water industry, both sides of the political divide and the regulators. All that is now required is for it to be implemented. There is a water bill that will be debated in parliament in the coming weeks.
This will, among other measures, create new incentives for companies to enter the water sector with innovative new water and sewage solutions. It will see benefits for customers by greater competition.
But the bill is only part of the solution. For the sake of the water company customers of today and tomorrow, and the environment that supports them, we need meaningful abstraction reform, proper demand management and increased investment in reservoirs, pipes and other infrastructure. Politicians need to do something alien to their default position of looking at a five-year time scale. This is the time when we can and must invest for a long-term sustainable water sector.
Richard Benyon is Conservative MP for Newbury
Water shortages may make fracking impractical, industry says
Fracking may be impractical in parts of the UK due to the scarcity of localwater supplies, and in other areas will have an impact on local water resources, the water industry has admitted, in a deal struck with the oil and gas industry.
The controversial process of shale gas and oil extraction uses hydraulic fracturing technology or fracking, where water and chemicals under very high pressure are blasted at dense shale rocks, opening up fissures through which the tiny bubbles of methane can be released.
But the quantities of water required are very large, leading to cases in the US – where fracking is widespread – where towns and villages have run dry.
In a memorandum of understanding published on Wednesday, the water trade body Water UK and the UK Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG), which represents fracking companies, agreed to cooperate on expanding the number of fracking sites in the UK.
But in their agreement, noting “the pressure on local water resources”,Water UK acknowledged: “The quantities of water needed vary by site and throughout the gas exploration and production process, but the demand could have an impact on local water resources. This demand may be met from a number of sources, including the public water supply, direct abstraction, water transported by tanker from other areas, or recycling and reuse of treated flowback or produced water.”
They added: “However, where water is in short supply there may not be enough available from public water supplies or the environment to meet the requirements for hydraulic fracturing.”
Water can be brought in from other areas, but this is costly, causes a nuisance to residents, and in large quantities would be impractical. It may be possible to use seawater in some areas. UKOOG said dealing with such issues was one of the purposes of the memorandum. Water UK told the Guardian there could be risks to the water supply particularly in the south-east, where the pressure of population puts supplies under stress.
The Environment Agency admitted at a public meeting in Balcombe in Sussex – where the fracking company Cuadrilla has been drilling for oil – that pressure on local water supplies could raise serious problems. An official told local residents: “The big question mark is over cumulative demand for water in the south-east should this industry take on a much bigger size.”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of UKOOG, said the agreement with the water industry “should give reassurance to local communities that the development of shale gas in the UK can proceed with minimal impact upon the local water and waste services”.
But the potential need to abstract water from underground sources or rivers has raised concerns. The new water bill is likely to lead to a large increase in the amount of water taken by water companies from rivers and streams, and has been criticised by campaigners for enshrining very lax controls on how much they can take. This could lead to water courses running dry, with dire effects on wildlife. If water companies are under pressure to supply more for fracking, this could put even more pressure on resources.
Tony Bosworth, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “This new industry report raises concerns about the impact fracking could pose to water-stressed southern England. Draft guidance from the Environment Agency is full of holes and doesn’t adequately address the risks to water supply and quality. The desperate search for shale gas and oil must not be allowed to cause water shortages for critical public purposes, and increases in hosepipe bans.”
The fracking industry’s deal with water utilities comes as iGas, which along with Cuadrilla is one of the few companies with plans for fracking in the UK, unveiled details of proposed drilling at its Barton Moss site, near Manchester. The company now has planning permission from Salford council, at a site about the size of a football pitch, where a vertical exploration well will be drilled, taking about eight to 12 weeks. No fracking will take place in the initial phase, as engineers will take samples for analysis to discover whether fracking might be necessary to recover any gas found.
A small protest is taking place at the site, with protesters from Frack Free Greater Manchester staying in tents, near Barton aerodrome and the M62 motorway. The BBC reported on Tuesday that a man had been arrested on suspicion of causing an obstruction, as the drilling rig arrived at the site.
Nature ‘is worth billions’ to UK
The UK’s parks, lakes, forests and wildlife are worth billions of pounds to the economy, says a major report.
The health benefits of merely living close to a green space are worth up to £300 per person per year, it concludes.
The National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA)says that for decades, the emphasis has been on producing more food and other goods – but this has harmed other parts of nature that generate hidden wealth.
Ministers who commissioned the NEA will use it to re-shape planning policy.
“The natural world is vital to our existence, providing us with essentials such as food, water and clean air – but also cultural and health benefits not always fully appreciated because we get them for free,” said Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman.
“The UK NEA is a vital step forward in our ability to understand the true value of nature and how to sustain the benefits it gives us.”
The economic benefits of nature are seen most clearly in food production, which depends on organisms such as soil microbes, earthworms and pollinating insects.
If their health declines – as is currently happening in the UK with bees – either farmers produce less food, or have to spend more to produce the same amount.
Either way there is an economic impact; and on average, the costs are growing over time.
Without the environment, we’re all dead – so the total value is infinite,”
“Humans rely on the way ecosystems services control our climate – pollution, water quality, pollination – and we’re finding out that many of these regulating services are degrading,” said Bob Watson, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and co-chairman of the NEA.
“About 30% of the key ecosystem services that we rely on are degrading.
“About 20% are getting better, however – our air quality has improved a lot – and what this report says is that we can do a lot better across the board,” he told BBC News.
The 1940s saw the beginning of a national drive to increase production of food and other products such as timber.
What are ‘ecosystem services’?
- The UN recognises four basic categories ofecosystem service that nature provides to humanity:
- Provisioning – providing timber, wheat, fish, etc
- Regulating – disposing of pollutants, regulating rainfall, storing carbon
- Cultural – sacred sites, tourism, enjoyment of countryside
- Supporting – maintaining soils and plant growth
Although that was successful, the NEA finds there was a price to pay – England, for example, has the smallest percentage of forest cover anywhere in Europe, while many fish stocks are below optimum levels.
The report says the problem arises largely because currently, only material products such as food carry a pricetag in the market.
By calculating the value of less tangible factors such as clean air, clean water and natural flood defences, it hopes to rebalance the equation.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) welcomed the assessment.
“The traditional view of economic growth is based on chasing GDP, but in fact we will all end up richer and happier if we begin to take into account the true value of nature,” said its conservation director, Martin Harper.
“Of course no-one can put a pounds and pence value on everything in nature – but equally we cannot ignore the importance of looking after it when we are striving for economic growth.”
The NEA seeks to include virtually every economic contribution from eight types of landscape, such as woodlands, coasts and urban areas.
It also provides some local flavours by looking at variations across the UK.
Some figures emerge with precision, such as the £430m that pollinating insects are calculated to be worth, or the £1.5bn pricetag on inland wetlands, valued so high because they help to produce clean water.
Other aspects of the evaluation are less precise because the costs and benefits are harder to quantify, and may change over time.
Ian Bateman, an economist from the University of East Anglia who played a principal role in the analysis, said that putting a single price on nature overall was not sensible.
“Without the environment, we’re all dead – so the total value is infinite,” he said.
“What is important is the value of changes – of feasible, policy-relevant changes – and those you can put numbers on.”
The full 2,000-page report is stacked full of such numbers. The government intends to use some of them in its forthcoming Natural Environment White Paper and other initiatives that could reform urban and rural planning.
The chief scientific adviser to Defra, Bob Watson says development proposals in urban spaces need to be assessed more accurately
Professor Watson said this did not imply an end to development, but that costs and benefits of each proposed development could be assessed more accurately in advance.
“Urban green space, for example, is unbelievably important – if affects the value of houses, it affects our mental wellbeing.
“This report is saying ‘this has got incredible value, so before you start converting green space into building, think through what the economic value is of maintaining that green space’ – or the blue space, the ponds and the rivers.”
On the global stage, several countries have previously evaluated the economic worth of specific factors such as forests or fisheries.
And two international studies – the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) – have given broader views of society’s environmental trajectory, and the costs and benefits.
But the UK is the first nation to produce such a detailed assessment across the piece.
The Lifeblood of Communities
The Colorado River winds 1,470 miles (2.366 kilometers) from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California’s Sea of Cortez—or did when its waters were more plentiful.
Photograph by Frans Lanting
Rivers and their tributaries are the veins of the planet, pumping freshwater to wetlands and lakes and out to sea. They flush nutrients through aquatic ecosystems, keeping thousands of species alive, and help sustain fisheries worth billions of dollars.
Rivers are also the lifeblood of human civilizations. They supply water to cities, farms, and factories. Rivers carve shipping routes around the globe, and provide us with food, recreation, and energy. Hydroelectric plants built from bank to bank harness the power of water and convert it to electricity.
But rivers are also often the endpoint for much of our industrial and urban pollution and runoff. When it rains, chemical fertilizer and animal waste peppering residential areas and agricultural lands is swept into local streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The result: polluted drinking water sources and the decline of aquatic species, in addition to coastal dead zones caused by fertilizer and sewage overload.
Over the course of human history, waterways have been manipulated for irrigation, urban development, navigation, and energy. Dams and levees now alter their flow, interrupting natural fluctuations and the breeding and feeding patterns of fish and other river creatures. Technology and engineering have changed the course of nature, and now we are looking for ways to restore flow and function to the planet’s circulatory system.
The Colorado River provides an excellent example of what happens when demand for river water—for cities, industry, energy production, and agriculture—threatens to outpace supply. Learn more with our interactive Colorado River map.
- An unsettling number of large rivers—including the Colorado, Rio Grande, Yellow, Indus, Ganges, Amu Darya, Murray, and Nile—are now so overtapped that they discharge little or no water to the sea for months at a time.
- China is proceeding with a massive $60 billion project to transfer water from the Yangtze River Basin in the south to the water-short north. If completed it would be the largest construction project on Earth and would transfer 1.5 trillion cubic feet (41.3 billion cubic meters) of water per year—a volume equal to half that of the Nile River.
- After enduring 19 flood episodes between 1961 and 1997, Napa, California, opted to restore the Napa River floodplain for $366 million, instead of the more conventional flood-control strategy of channelizing and building levees.
A Clean Water Crisis
The water you drink today has likely been around in one form or another sincedinosaurs roamed the Earth, hundreds of millions of years ago.
While the amount of freshwater on the planet has remained fairly constant over time—continually recycled through the atmosphere and back into our cups—the population has exploded. This means that every year competition for a clean, copious supply of water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sustaining life intensifies.
Water scarcity is an abstract concept to many and a stark reality for others. It is the result of myriad environmental, political, economic, and social forces.
Freshwater makes up a very small fraction of all water on the planet. While nearly 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh. The rest is saline and ocean-based. Even then, just 1 percent of our freshwater is easily accessible, with much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields. In essence, only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to fuel and feed its 6.8 billion people.
Due to geography, climate, engineering, regulation, and competition for resources, some regions seem relatively flush with freshwater, while others face drought and debilitating pollution. In much of the developing world, clean water is either hard to come by or a commodity that requires laborious work or significant currency to obtain.
Water Is Life
Wherever they are, people need water to survive. Not only is the human body 60 percent water, the resource is also essential for producing food, clothing, and computers, moving our waste stream, and keeping us and the environment healthy.
Unfortunately, humans have proved to be inefficient water users. (The average hamburger takes 2,400 liters, or 630 gallons, of water to produce, and many water-intensive crops, such as cotton, are grown in arid regions.)
According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change.
The challenge we face now is how to effectively conserve, manage, and distribute the water we have. National Geographic’s Freshwater Web site encourages you to explore the local stories and global trends defining the world’s water crisis. Learn where freshwater resources exist; how they are used; and how climate, technology, policy, and people play a role in both creating obstacles and finding solutions. Peruse the site to learn how you can make a difference by reducing your water footprint and getting involved with local and global water conservation and advocacy efforts.
Dams, Engineering, and Technology
Making Water Useful to More People
A government official adjusts an irrigation door in southeastern Australia.
Photograph by Amy Toensing
In the developed world there is really nothing natural about the way we get our water. Dams produce hydroelectric power and the reservoirs behind dams store water supplies for the long haul. Infrastructure, such as levees and canals, channel water to our homes and fields, and keep rivers running the course we want them to.
Dams, levees, and canals dot the developing world too. In some areas communities still use ancient water storage infrastructures and rely on centuries-old canals for irrigation.
While most agree that water infrastructure—either large- or small-scale—is critical to human civilization, there is also a theory that much of our large-scale water-related infrastructure—such as dams and levees—is not worth the environmental costs, which include fish kills, altered floodplains, increased flooding, and degraded water quality.
Dam building has experienced a resurgence, while at the same time a dam removal movement is gaining momentum in some areas. Over the last decade, some 430 dams have been removed from U.S. rivers, opening up habitat for fisheries, restoring healthier flows, improving water quality, and returning life to rivers.
Infrastructure may help us deal with the effects of climate change—rainstorms becoming more intense, but less frequent—by providing increased storage capacity and flood control, but we need to find ways to use dams, canals, and levees, that don’t harm aquatic species and ecosystems, and jeopardize our long-term safety.
- Since 1950, the number of large dams has climbed from 5,000 to more than 45,000—an average construction rate of two large dams per day for half a century.
- Globally, 364 large water-transfer schemes move 14 trillion cubic feet (400 billion cubic meters) of water annually from one river basin to another—the equivalent of transferring 22 Colorado Rivers.
- In the ten years since the Edwards Dam was removed from the Kennebec River near Augusta, Maine, populations of sturgeon, Atlantic salmon, and striped bass have returned in astounding numbers, reviving a recreational fishery that adds $65 million annually to the local economy.
Find Out What’s in the Water
Discharge from a Chinese fertilizer factory winds its way toward the Yellow River.
Photograph by Greg Girard
As technology improves, scientists are able to detect more pollutants, and at smaller concentrations, in Earth’s freshwater bodies. Containing traces of contaminants ranging from birth control pills and sunscreen to pesticides and petroleum, our planet’s lakes, rivers, streams, and groundwater are often a chemical cocktail.
Beyond synthetic pollution, freshwater is also the end point for biological waste, in the form of human sewage, animal excrement, and rainwater runoff flavored by nutrient-rich fertilizers from yards and farms. These nutrients find their way through river systems into seas, sometimes creating coastal ocean zones void of oxygen—and therefore aquatic life—and making the connection between land and sea painfully obvious. When you dump paint down the drain, it often ends up in the ocean, via freshwater systems.
In the developed world, regulation has restricted industry and agricultural operations from pouring pollutants into lakes, streams, and rivers. Technology has also offered a solution in the form of expensive filtration and treatment plants that make our drinking water safe to consume. Some cities are even promoting “green” infrastructure, such as green roofs and rain gardens, as a way to naturally filter out pollutants. But you may find a different picture in parts of the developing world, where there is less infrastructure—politically, economically, and technically—to deal with the barrage of pollution threats facing freshwater and all of the species that rely on it.
- In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply.
- On average, 99 million pounds (45 million kilograms) of fertilizers and chemicals are used each year.
- Portland, Oregon, is actively pursing “green roofs” and “green streets” to prevent sewer overflows into the Willamette River. Chicago, Illinois, now has more than 517,000 acres (209,222 hectares) of vegetated roofs—more than any other U.S. city—which are helping to catch storm water, cool the urban environment, and provide opportunities for rooftop gardens.
I will continue my research.