Monday, March 30, 2009

The 5th World Water Forum: Looking for Both Creek and Paddle?

This year’s World Water Forum already had identified the root causes of the global water crisis, but can it formulate viable long-term solutions?

By: Ringo Bones

The 5th World Water Forum held in March 16, 2009 in Istanbul, Turkey had a renewed assessment of the Earth’s freshwater resources as the 26 United Nations agencies highlighted the leading causes of our chronic global freshwater shortage. Though the worsening effects of climate change and global warming on freshwater supply stability has yet to be assessed, the policymakers attending the meeting noted that the leading factors driving the demand for potable freshwater are: Population growth and urban migration. Rising living standards that inevitably leads to changes in food consumption – i.e. increased meat consumption, which requires more freshwater to produce, instead of grains and vegetables. And finally increased energy production via hydropower / hydroelectric dam infrastructure and biofuel farming. Before we delve deeper into the issue of our global freshwater sources, here’s a brief introduction of what is the World Water Forum.

The World Water Forum is scheduled to take place every 3 years. Organized by the World Water Council, which is a membership organization comprising of large development banks, associations of professional engineers, various academic institutions, some of the largest aid and environmental organizations, various United Nations agencies, national and local government agencies, and various dam construction companies.

Notable policymakers who presented their assessment of the problem of freshwater supply during this year’s World Water Forum is UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, who presented the report to the World Water Forum on behalf of the UN. The UNESCO Director-General said: “With increasing shortages, good governance is more than ever essential for water management. Combating poverty also depends on our ability to invest in this resource.”

The assessment report presented during this year’s World Water Forum finds that corruption in the water management sector may account for the need of an additional 50 billion US dollars in order for the Millennium Development Goals on water sanitation to be achieved. Water sanitation for the impoverished regions of the globe is one of the 8 goals of the UN's Millenium Development Goals agreed by all of the worlds countries and major development institutions back in 2000 and set to be accomplished by 2015.

Typical examples of corruption in the water management sector include falsified water meter readings, favoritism in public equipment bidding, and nepotism in allocation of public contracts. The report estimates that part of the budget set for water development that can be siphoned off through corruption in some countries run as high as 30%. Plus the environmentally dubious use and mismanagement of scarce freshwater resources to make arid lands into productive farmlands – propped-up as “prestige projects” by some countries - needs to be addressed.

Poverty is also an integral part of the water supply safety issue because the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day is roughly equal to the number of people who are denied access to safe drinking water. And yet more freshwater is diverted in raising the rich man’s cow and raise biofuel for the rich man’s car just because the impoverished folks lack adequate “buying power”.

Pro-environment protestors during this year’s “Forum” criticized large-scale hydroelectric dams – in spite of their low carbon footprint energy production - because they pose heavy environmental impact and risk. The latest dam breech disaster in Indonesia in March 27, 2009, which killed 77 at last count - with dozens still missing - tragically affecting nearby inhabitants, can only attest to this. Could the Three Gorges Dam in China dwarf this disaster someday?

Even though the World Water Forum finally acknowledges extreme poverty, efficient energy utilization, and environmental concerns as part of the problem in maintaining a constant supply and availability of safe freshwater at a reasonable cost. The problems posed by armed conflict, infrastructure to maintain peace and order, and the worsening impact of climate change and global warming seems to be not on the main agenda – again. Programs started by the UN to avail impoverished areas safe drinking water at a reasonable cost seems to get extensive press coverage these days. Though large-scale implementations of these programs are still hindered by the uncertain long-term peace and order situations of these regions. Looks like peace and conflict resolution is an integral factor of making freshwater sanitation programs afloat in these impoverished regions.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is Cloud-Seeding a Viable Source of Fresh Water?

Given that its feasibility in creating rain was thoroughly evaluated in post-World War II America, does the practice of cloud-seeding represent a long-term solution for our freshwater needs?

By: Vanessa Uy

Believe it or not, the amount of fresh water suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere as water vapor is six times more plentiful in comparison to all of the fresh water flowing in all of the Earth’s rivers. Even though the relatively recent technology of cloud-seeding allows us to “almost literally” make water out of thin air, is the method really environmentally friendly given that it involves flying fossil-fueled manned aircraft?

When the Bergeron-Findeisen Theory of Rain – also known as the ice-crystal theory of rain – led to the successful field test of cloud-seeing or the artificial seeding of rain clouds to induce it to rain, had led many to ask whether if this is a viable way to meet with our increasing freshwater needs. The “miracle of science” of creating water out of thin air – even though it works with varying degrees of reliability – has been hailed as a triumph of mankind over the vagaries of our planet’s weather.

The practicality of cloud-seeding was first proved in 1946 when General Electric’s Vincent J. Schaefer and Irving Langmuir tried a newfangled method of rainmaking magnitudes more reliable than primitive man’s ancient rain dance. The principle behind how it works seems to be a model of logic and simplicity. By introducing into an existing cloud formation of super-cooled droplets an agent that promotes the formation of ice crystals in which it can serve as a catalyst to make suspended water droplets to fall back to the ground as precipitation or rain.

Two substances proved to be promising. One was silver iodide, whose crystalline structure is similar to that of naturally formed ice crystals and therefore provides hospitable nuclei on which ice crystals can readily form. The other one is solid carbon dioxide – or dry ice – which is so cold that it causes atmospheric water vapor to solidify into enormous numbers of tiny ice crystals. In both cases, precipitation should follow in accordance to the Bergeron-Findeisen Theory of Rain.

Ultra-fine pellets of dry ice are usually sown or dispensed into a cloud from airplanes. While silver iodide is released as smoke, sometimes from an airplane via dedicated cloud-seeding pyrotechnic flares, sometimes from the ground. Both methods only work if the dispensed agents reach the super-cooled rain clouds that occur at 18,000 feet - or higher.

Given that since the start of cloud-seeding programs the local area intended to receive the man-made rain resulted in an increase of rainfall by 8 to 12%, there had been plans to use cloud-seeding to replace the snows of receding glaciers affected by global warming. But the problem with cloud-seeding is that it involve the use of aircraft that have a significant carbon footprint that resulted in significant carbon dioxide emissions which is primarily what started the global warming / greenhouse effect problem in the first place.

While China has been lately using anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles to deliver cloud-seeding agents to the desired altitudes to create rain for the drought-stricken farmers, whether this method is truly environmentally friendly – i.e. low carbon footprint source of fresh water - remains to be seen. Unless carbon neutral / zero-emission aircraft and other delivery systems are used in cloud-seeding, this method of obtaining potable fresh water is strictly for emergency purposes only.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Death of the Colorado River: Inevitability of Human Progress?

In the face of climate change, global warming and urban sprawl, will the Colorado River gain a new lease on life via a well-planned water management scheme?

By: Vanessa Uy

Ever since that fateful hot September day in 1540 when García Lopez de Cárdenas, scouting around what is now northern Arizona for the great Spanish explorer Coronado accidentally discovered the Colorado River, the river’s future has always been dependent on how the incumbent human civilization uses its waters. From the major dams that harnessed the power of its massive flow of water to the fertile farmlands around it that uses 80% of its waters, the Colorado River has indeed made possible the settlement of the otherwise arid desert of the state of Nevada. Given that urban sprawl around what is now Las Vegas, Nevada has always been inevitable, will a planned water management scheme provide a new lease on life before the Colorado River inevitably dries up?

After the long drought of the American Southwest reached its 8th year in 2008, the long-term future of the Colorado River has never been so perilous. Especially when the city of Las Vegas has been hogging the water resources provided by the Colorado River ever since it got rich on the gambling revenues of the past 50 years or so. Add to that the army of workers needed to run the myriad casinos plus the facilities needed to house them all demand a dependable supply of water from the mighty Colorado.

Given that global warming / climate change is now in full swing due to our current inevitability to wean off from our fossil fuel addiction, the future of the Colorado River has never faced a threat more serious since the end of the Ice Age. The Colorado River has always been fed by the dependable snowfall on the snow-capped Rocky Mountains and iconic for carving out the Grand Canyon. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, the Colorado River has been harnessed – via large dams like the Hoover Dam - to turn the desert around it into productive farmlands to maintain America’s food security. Plus the relatively cheap electricity generated as a bonus.

When it comes to the “questionable use” of the water provided by the Colorado River, the blame has always been pointed at the city of Las Vegas, Nevada. Where the golf courses, fountains, man-made waterfalls, and suburban lawns exert a tremendous ecological impact of the land’s naturally arid ecosystem. As of late, legislation had been set-up to ease water demand by residential lawns by shifting to the use of ornamental plants that are better adapted to the arid climate of Las Vegas. Even granting households tax-breaks if they change their ornamental plants to those varieties that are adapted to the desert climate of Las Vegas. Thus minimizing water being diverted to irrigating sprinkler use.

Even though many residents saw the “draconian” measures of water conservation seem a bit extreme, progress has been made. During the last 5 years, the population of Las Vegas – the long-term residents not tourists – increased by 400,000 people, the city’s overall water consumption dropped by 18%. If Las Vegas adopts measures to utilize the waters provided by the Colorado River in a sustainable manner, the river might gain a new lease on life despite the threat of drought caused by climate change and / or global warming. A well-formulated water management strategy will indeed decide the future of the Colorado River.