Back in November last year, I described how, very controversially, Arizona is exporting its water in vast quantities to Saudi Arabia, via alfalfa to feed Saudi cattle. In that post I quoted from the work of Elie Elhadj, who has compellingly documented the rape of the Kingdom's groundwater resources:
In 2004, Elie Elhadj of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), King’s College London published a blunt analysis of the extraordinary history of the destruction of the country’s water supplies. Titled “Camels Don’t Fly, Deserts Don’t Bloom: an Assessment of Saudi Arabia’s Experiment in Desert Agriculture” the report paints a catastrophic picture.
That experiment in desert agriculture is now essentially over, and Saudi Arabia relies almost entirely on imports of crops and cattle feed. In order to satisfy this need, the country's huge food and agriculture business, Almarai, buy farming land elsewhere in the world - including in the Arizona desert. Since I wrote that post, Almarai have added to their assets by buying land on the other side of the Colorado River in south-eastern California. Both California and Arizona are now in their fourth year of severe to exceptional drought.
After I quoted from his work, Elie contacted me and we commenced an email conversation that led to a fascinating and highly enjoyable meeting and discussion. He told me that he was in touch with a group of students at Arizona State University who were making a short video on the issues of exporting water to Saudi Arabia, and that video is now on line - it's extremely well done and worth watching:
There is an interesting cast of characters (in addition to Elie Elhadj himself): local residents who have seen the water levels in their wells drop 50 feet in four years, a lawyer for Almarai who, when talking about any link between water problems and agriculture, cheerfully states that "I don't think that's the case", local people agreeing that some form of regulation is needed as long as their water usage is not regulated, and Kathleen Ferris of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State, who comments that "It's almost impossible to manage groundwater without some kind of regulation." Such a statement may seem blindingly obvious, but the fact is that, in La Paz County Arizona there are no regulations whatsoever - anyone can arrive, drill as many wells as they want, and deplete the groundwater resources to whatever extent pleases them.
This is madness. Consider the likely reaction of our old friend the alien scientist, flitting around the earth on a resource analysis mission and observing this scene:
"Wait a minute. There's the huge canal that they built to take water from the dwindling and over-exploited flow of the Colorado River, specifically to supply the city of Phoenix where groundwater supplies had been drastically depleted, and, right next to it are fields of water-sucking alfalfa grown to be exported as feed for Saudi cattle - this is no way to run a planet."
Yes, this may be madness for Arizona and California, but it's only part of a global-scale pattern of unsustainable insanity - and we should not be quick to judge Arizona. In a recent issue of the New Scientist, there was an interview with Arjen Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente, in the Netherlands, and founder of the Water Footprint Network. Hoekstra and his colleagues have developed a careful and extensive method of measuring water footprints, expressed as per capita usage country-by-country, and allocating the proportion of blue, green and gray water:
The WF is a measure of humans’ appropriation of freshwater resources and has three components: blue, green, and gray. The blue WF refers to consumption of blue water resources (surface and ground water), whereby consumption refers to the volume of water that evaporates or is incorporated into a product. The blue WF is thus often smaller than the water withdrawal, because generally part of a water withdrawal returns to the ground or surface water. The green WF is the volume of green water (rainwater) consumed, which is particularly relevant in crop production. The gray WF is an indicator of the degree of freshwater pollution and is defined as the volume of freshwater that is required to assimilate the load of pollutants based on existing ambient water quality standards.
The title of the interview is "We can avoid a water crisis, but the fix will be hard to swallow" and, when asked "How is the UK doing in terms of water use?", he replied:
Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable. For example, the UK imports rice and olives from southern Spain and sugarcane from Pakistan, regions where water is overexploited. This means groundwater levels are declining and rivers dwindling or drying up. That’s bad news for the exporting countries and for the UK, because these food sources will ultimately fail.
In terms of the broader region, Europe is the biggest net importer of water-intensive commodities in the world, much of it from water-scarce regions. In fact 40 per cent of Europe’s water footprint is outside the continent. A large part of that is unsustainable.
So let's not get too smug about Arizona, but, rather, worry about the large-scale problem. In terms of water footprint, domestic use is only a small part of the total - in Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint. It's agriculture, what food we demand, where we choose to get it from, and how much we're prepared to pay for it that is the overwhelming factor. As Hoekstra comments
All food has a big water footprint, because agriculture is the largest water consumer. Grains generally have a water footprint in the order of 1000 litres per kilogram. Beef is, on average, 15,000 litres per kilogram. Both are big numbers but you can see that meat is in a league of its own. So your diet, and particularly how many animal products you eat, has a big impact on your personal water footprint.
Take a look at that link - it's at the same time fascinating and alarming.
But it's the blue water footprint that is of particular interest here and, fortunately, in one of his publications, Hoekstra breaks down specifically the blue water footprint by country and internal versus external, i.e., indigenous versus imported. Take a look at the whole, intriguing, paper where the graph appears in the supplementary materials. I have cropped the complete graph to start with the UK on the left and highlighted the UK, China, the US, Spain, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia - plus the world average in green.
Blue water footprint of national consumption for countries with a population larger than 5 million, shown by internal and external component (cubic meter per year per capita,1996–2005)
Take a good look at this graph and think through the overwhelming complexity of the issues. Countries whose footprint is relatively small may be dominantly importing other peoples' water - take the UK, for example. Countries whose footprint is large may be mainly consuming their own water but depleting and exporting it (see the US for example). There's an incredible set of questions and issues embedded in this graph, and add to this, overlay, Hoekstra's illustration of just the major global water flows:
Virtual water balance per country and direction of gross virtual water flows related to trade in agricultural and industrial products over the period 1996–2005. Only the biggest gross flows (>15 Gm3∕y) are shown.
By this measure, the US is not a net water importer. But then how much of its own water does it export? And then look at Europe.
I'm going to leave it there - you could write a book about it. In fact, Hoekstra has. To say that this is a thorny problem is a massive understatement - arguably has the makings of shorter-term crisis than climate change. What can we do about it? Well, in Hoekstra's words from the New Scientist interview, the fix can be hard to swallow:
We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
Isn’t this an inevitable effect of global markets?
Yes. We lose our own agriculture because elsewhere you have free water, cheap land, cheap labour. But it is not truly cheap; it is at the expense of the people over there, their land and their water. And in the long run, our own food supply is at risk. We need to change the rules of the market by discriminating in favour of sustainable production. It is a global challenge for agriculture, power generation, trade and economics, which we must work together to address. It’s a big deal, and it will only get bigger.
Our societies need to think long and hard about this - and read Hoekstra's latest paper: "Four billion people facing severe water scarcity."
Described as one of the last great enigmas or mysteries, the so-called fairy circles of the arid lands of Namibia remain to be explained. Theories abound, and the fairies have stimulated "lively" academic debate, if not discord. The circles occur in their millions in a band of dry grassland stretching 1800 kilometres south from the Angolan border - but it's now clear that Australia has its own fairies.
In both places, countless circles dot the landscape like a pox of some kind:
Fairy circles in the Marienfluss Valley of Namibia.
(Google Earth image, ~ 650m across)
The circles are rimmed with (more or less) growing grass, vary in size up to several metres across and would seem to grow. Within them their is nothing but bare earth. Explanations include ostriches, rolling zebras, underground gas (or dragons' breath), footsteps of the gods, microbial activity, poisonous plants, termites, and the competition for scarce water. It's the last two that form the main rival hypotheses. As far as biologist Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg is concerned, it's termites. But Stephan Getzin of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig disagrees - for him and his colleagues, fairy circles result from the way plants organize themselves in response to water shortage. Here's the abstract of this group's paper:
Vegetation gap patterns in arid grasslands, such as the “fairy circles” of Namibia, are one of nature’s greatest mysteries and subject to a lively debate on their origin. They are characterized by small-scale hexagonal ordering of circular bare-soil gaps that persists uniformly in the landscape scale to form a homogeneous distribution. Pattern-formation theory predicts that such highly ordered gap patterns should be found also in other water-limited systems across the globe, even if the mechanisms of their formation are different. Here we report that so far unknown fairy circles with the same spatial structure exist 10,000 km away from Namibia in the remote outback of Australia. Combining fieldwork, remote sensing, spatial pattern analysis, and process-based mathematical modeling, we demonstrate that these patterns emerge by self-organization, with no correlation with termite activity; the driving mechanism is a positive biomass–water feedback associated with water runoff and biomass-dependent infiltration rates. The remarkable match between the patterns of Australian and Namibian fairy circles and model results indicate that both patterns emerge from a nonuniform stationary instability, supporting a central universality principle of pattern-formation theory. Applied to the context of dryland vegetation, this principle predicts that different systems that go through the same instability type will show similar vegetation patterns even if the feedback mechanisms and resulting soil–water distributions are different, as we indeed found by comparing the Australian and the Namibian fairy-circle ecosystems. These results suggest that biomass–water feedbacks and resultant vegetation gap patterns are likely more common in remote drylands than is currently known.
Note "no correlation with termite activity."
The patterns are fascinatingly regular and there has been a suggestion that the geometry of organisation is, bizarrely, directly equivalent to that of skin cells. Robert Sinclair, who heads the Mathematical Biology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) in Japan, and his collaborator, Haozhe Zhang, were the first to identify this strange analogy.
Both the majority of fairy circles and majority of cells have six neighbors. But the similarity gets even more specific -- the percentage of fairy circles with four, five, six, seven, eight and nine neighbors is essentially the same as the skin cells. "I didn't expect it to be so close," Sinclair said. "We spent a lot of time checking because it really looked too close to believe."
... The researchers suspect the patterns might be similar because both skin cells and fairy circles are fighting for space. If true, scientists might one day be able to glean information about systems just by analyzing patterns. For example, they could search for signs of life on other planets or moons, where images are usually the only data initially available.
Finding such a pattern could also benefit ecology and biology in general. Understanding processes on one scale could illuminate what is happening at the other end of the spectrum. "Otherwise, we need a whole new theory for each type of system we study, and may miss general principles, or, as some say, not see the forest for the trees," Sinclair said.
Self-organising systems and patterns are widespread and intriguing - I can't help but think of so-called "patterned ground," the permafrost polygons of the periglacial regions, the patterns on Mars (and now on Pluto), and various strange behaviours of granular materials...
Oh, and in aid of conservation in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, you can, if you wish, adopt a fairy circle.
[Image at the head of this post credit, Stephan Getzin. The BBC has a very good piece summarising this mysterious phenomenon]
"Epic" "intimate" "brutal" "riveting" "spellbinding" "spectacular." The adjectives come tumbling out of the reviews - but please see this movie for yourself. Described as an "Arabic Western" and a "coming of age story," I suspect that this is one of those rare films that stimulates a unique reaction in every viewer.
Directed by British-born Jordanian Naji Abu Nowar, the story is set during the First World War at the time of the Arab Revolt, and, given that it was filmed in and around Wadi Rum, the instinctive reaction is "ah, Lawrence of Arabia." But, other than the location and the historical context, these films have absolutely nothing in common. "Theeb" is filmed entirely with Bedouin people for whom this is their first experience of acting; it is their story and, most of all, it is the story of a young Bedouin boy caught up in a strange and frightening journey and through whose eyes we perceive the events.
Theeb ("wolf") is played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. Abu Nowar has commented that he "never actually liked [Jacir] as an actor as he was so shy and quiet and I never considered him, but he has this crazy thing that when you put him on camera he a different person. Immediately it became obvious. And so he was the first person we cast and we never looked back or at anyone else." It is indeed not only this kid's extraordinary performance but the kid himself that makes this movie, and, together with Abu Nowar's unique and sensitive directing skills, creates an intangible grip on the viewer. And this grip lasts for the entire film - at the end I could not fathom how one hundred minutes had just gone by.
Watch the trailer:
In a fascinating interview, Abu Nowar comments that:
The time in which the film is set is the single most important period in Middle-Eastern history. That’s when the end of a 400 year empire came to be and radical redrawing of the map which we are still suffering from today. With all the issues going on in Iraq, Syria, with the Kurds and the Turks, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen. All of these issues we hear about today are a direct result from that single moment in history. So, it was such a crucial moment and such an existential crisis for the region and I like the mirror of the character going through a similar sort of crisis.
For myself I wanted to make something that felt authentic to the Bedouin. And so I tried to listen to them as much as possible and incorporated their feelings and thoughts as much as I could. All of it was just exciting for me. I love their poetry. I love their stories and so it was why it comes about in that way. In no way was I trying to enforce a cinematic understanding of storytelling onto subject matter, it is really the subject matter informing it.
And I think that is why is has that feel because it is really genuine. Sometimes the best thing you can do as a director is to step out of the way and not put you two cents in and let people do their thing. I do that and I like getting surprised by what they come up with. That’s the enjoyment of it. There were things all along the way, for example the sound design adding little tiny moments here and there that you pick up and generally just member of the team surprising you. It was a lot of fun.
"Theeb" premiered at the 71st Venice International Film Festival on 4 September 2014, where Abu Nowar won the award for Best Director. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, making it the first Jordanian nomination ever.
It just doesn't stop, and the scale of the damage to communities and the environment is staggering.
NASA recently released the pair of images, above, showing changes to the sediment system of Poyang Lake and its rivers. The lake, these days much diminished in size, was once the largest freshwater lake in China, its water feeding into the Yangtze and providing an important haven for migrating birds. But when, in 2000, China shut down sand mining along the middle and lower Yangtze, the activity, legal and illegal, simply moved to Ponyang. The image on the left was acquired in 1995, the one on the right in 2013. The scale of devastation is obvious - try the "image comparison" feature for drama.
The text accompanying the images describes the problem here (and elsewhere) in depressing detail:
When you see the vast expanses of sand in the Sahara and other major deserts, it is hard to comprehend how sand could ever be a resource in short supply. Yet for certain types, the supply of sand is indeed short.
For the construction industry, river and lake sand is more desirable than desert and ocean sand. To produce mortar for cement, concrete, and other building materials, the angular sand particles found in rivers and lakes are most useful. Making a strong mortar with the particles found in deserts—which are rounded by winds—is more challenging because the sand does not bind together as well. Likewise, ocean sand is mixed with salt, which can cause metals to corrode. Washing this marine sand can be time-consuming and expensive.
Over the past few decades, the global demand for construction sand has boomed, especially in Asia due to rapidurbanization. In China alone, the demand for cement has increased 438 percent over the past two decades,according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
In 2000, dredging and other sand mining become so intensive along the Yangtze River that Chinese authoritiesbanned the activity along the lower and middle reaches of the river. This drove many sand mining operators to Poyang Lake, a large body of water that flows into the Yangtze about 600 kilometers (400 miles) upstream ofShanghai.
This pair of false-color images captured by Landsat satellites shows the impact of sand mining on the northern reaches of Poyang Lake. The top image was acquired by the Thematic Mapper on Landsat 5 on December 7, 1995; the second image shows the same area as observed by Landsat 8’s Operational Land Imager on December 24, 2013. Water levels vary throughout the year at Poyang Lake, with the lowest levels occurring in winter.
By contrasting the two images, we can see dramatic changes in the outlet channel that connects Poyang Lake to the Yangtze river. Sand removal and dredging have deepened and widened the channel significantly. These activities also have left the remaining sandbars and shores with an irregular, serrated appearance. Turn on the comparison tool to see the changes.
As part of an effort to assess the scale of the sand mining and its environmental impacts, a group of researchers analyzed data collected by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) sensor on NASA’s Terra satellite. Using infrared data collected by ASTER in 2005, the researchers found that the lake was producing up to 236 million cubic meters of sand per year—about 9 percent of the total produced by China. The researchers estimated that the volume of sand removed was probably enough to make Poyang Lake the largest sand mining operation in the world.
“Sand mining has compromised the ecological integrity of the lake by contributing to less predictable seasonal water fluctuations and to a series of recent low water events,” said James Burnham, an ecologist with the University of Wisconsin and the International Crane Foundation. Burnhan has conducted field research on wintering waterbirds at Poyang Lake. “This is a lake that hosts 98 percent of the endangered Siberian Cranes and Oriental White Storks, as well as a significant number of over a dozen other endangered waterbirds in the winter.”
Google "sand" and news and, among the entertaining images of sand sculptures and odd reports such as the discovery of hundreds of kilos of marijuana buried in the dunes of South Padre Island, Texas, you will find, every day, endless reports of the issues of sand mining around the world. A sampling:
Vietnam, Nepal, India (endless problems, mafias, crime), Cambodia, Singapore and Malaysia, the list goes on. The issues raised by the documentary, Sand Wars, have also been taken up by The Smithsonian, the United Nations, Wired, and Coastal Care. Numerous TV and radio programmes have covered the topic. And yet so few people are aware of it, and it just goes on and on.