Our Water Supply: Science, Industry Weigh the Future

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Recent science and industry reports on world-water-supply projections might make you start to rain dance.

This fall, we reviewed five vital issues the country’s politicians don’t want to touch, at least in their national conventions. The first is water. The second and third relate directly to water: food and energy. The recent reports cover these three areas as well as mining.

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Drinking Water and Food Supply

The Economist magazine’s Economist Intelligence Unit recently published a survey of 244 senior water-utility executives from 10 countries-Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Results: 35 percent of respondents said demand for water in their country is “highly likely” to outstrip supply by 2030, while 54 percent said the risk is “moderately likely.”

Respondents cited these barriers to ensuring sufficient clean water supplies through 2030:

• Wasteful consumer behavior, cited by 45 percent of respondents.

• Insufficient capital resources, cited by 35 percent.

• Dwindling water resources attributed to climate change, cited by 34 percent.

• Tariffs insufficient to encourage investment, cited by 33 percent.

Also, the publication Nature Climate Change this fall has offered mixed messages through two scholarly papers, both reported by The New York Times.

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On the positive side, Richard G. Taylor of University College London led a half-dozen other scientists in an analysis of rainfall and groundwater. NYT‘s Justin Gillis reports it may offer some relief for the food supply:

They found that the more intense rainfall expected in many parts of the world as a result of climate change may help to recharge the aquifers that supply groundwater.

Their analysis is based on a 55-year record compiled in Tanzania that allowed them to study the relationship between groundwater recharge and rainfall. Their basic finding was that a disproportionate share of the recharge came from heavy storms.

Some evidence suggests the same pattern holds true in other places, including the American Southwest. But this issue has not been well studied in most parts of the world. It will be interesting to see if other scientists can confirm the Taylor group’s findings and extend them beyond the tropics.

But another study offers a negative view. This from NYT‘s Felicity Barringer:

The bad news is that climate change is likely to lead to smaller snowpacks in mountain ranges and even on lower ground throughout the Northern Hemisphere, from the Cascades, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada in the western United States to the Himalayas and the Urals on the other side of the globe.

The study by Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University climate scientist, suggests that within two generations’ time, these areas will be experiencing years of low snowfall far more often than they have in the past three decades.

Diffenbaugh also sees possibly more irregular water supplies for Pakistan, Central Asia, and parts of China.

Barringer adds:

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The worries about California’s water resources, given the state’s dependence on snow melt, have already been well chronicled, and western states that agreed in 1922 to divvy up the waters of the Colorado River have also been studying the problem as average flows have decreased. Dr. Diffenbaugh said that Pakistan, too, is making the issue a centerpiece of its reports on the potential impacts of climate change.

Energy

The International Energy Agency has warned that water shortages threaten energy projects from the U.S. to China.

Bloomberg reported Nov. 12:

The water needed for energy production is set to grow at twice the pace of energy demand through 2035, requiring the use of better technologies to manage the risk, the Paris-based agency that advises 28 nations said today in its annual outlook…

Water is becoming more scarce as the globe copes with climate change that’s shrinking aquifers and making some areas dryer while the world population rises to 9 billion by 2050. That’s led to calls from companies including Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) and Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd. for governments to take “decisive action” on water.

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The article also cited a May survey by the United Nations of 134 countries. Results: 56 percent said water’s importance for energy rose over the past 20 years, including 20 percent who deemed the increase “significant.” A third found water’s importance unchanged.

Mining

Mining Weekly magazine on Nov. 23 reported, “Continuing shortages in the supply of water to the mining sector have forced already challenged and water-dependent mining companies to reassess the viability of their mining investments in South Africa.”

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Writer Natalie Greve explains that 2012 total mining output decreased by 14.5% compared to the previous year – the most dramatic slump since March 2008, when the world economic meltdown was in full swing. She also points out that depressed water accessibility further pressures an industry already strained by acute production and labor challenges.

Greve notes:

Existing operations, expansion projects at existing operations and new mining tenement development increasingly face restricted access to water supplies and are having to adopt water efficiency technologies, often at significantly increased costs.

Water shortage challenges are exacerbated by vacillating negotiations between mining companies and existing water rights holders – often large-scale commercial farming corporations – which place astronomical demands on surrendering these licenses.

Still, while confronting resource, licensing, and labor problems, mining companies continue to search for water-shortage solutions, Greve confides:

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…mining companies operating in the country have not been apathetic towards the potentially debilitating water scarcity problem, with several pilot projects, such as waterless washing plants and water recycling technologies, being initiated by companies to reduce their local water dependence.