Thursday, March 15, 2012

Can technology save us from Water problems?

In my last post I decided I was going to write a series about technological fixes that will have major ramifications on issues that result in social problems. In this post I'm going to discuss some problems with water  uses and some technological solutions that may be able to fix them.

We are seeing water issues all over the world where there simply isn't enough access to fresh drinkable water. Last summer there was a horrible drought in Texas which caused wild fires to burn only 30 miles or so away from Austin. The area is still technically in a drought, although there is a glimmer of hope because there has been a decent amount of rain so far this spring.

In the US southwest there are serious disputes over water rights to the Colorado river. This dispute isn't just between Arizona and California but also between California and Mexico. Because of the population growth in those areas if left unchecked it would be likely that the Colorado would never reach the Pacific Ocean and there would be no water to reach Mexico.

In the developing world, a major problem is clean drinking water. Water that isn't clean carries a great deal of diseases and as we saw in Haiti only a few years ago can lead to large number of deaths. However, there's a difference between the dispute over access to water in the US and Mexico and access to water in the developing world. It is more likely to cause wars and civil unrest.

There seem to be two major causes for water issues that we're having. The first is pretty obvious, overpopulation in areas where water is already scarce. It's been shown that the lower level of education and higher level of poverty leads to higher birth rates. In places that are already under stress a continually growing population makes things worse. However, in the US the cause is migration to these areas, such as Phoenix, San Diego and Austin. The second factor is climate change. With less snow fall on mountain ranges and shorter winters there is less water to flow in rivers that are caused primarily by snow melt. This change over time will lead to new areas that will be under water stress in the future.

There are some technologies that can alleviate the problems. One of them is desalination, which removes salt from water. This would allow cities near the coast to use the ocean as a source of water. The process requires the water to be boiled and moved into several different chambers for evaporation. The process produces extremely high salt concentrations in the remaining water. Most of which is pumped back into the ocean in the same area as the water is extracted. This continually increases the salinity in the area and can cause problems for the local flora and fauna.

This method provides clean drinkable water however, it is extremely expensive and the price of the water is extremely high. This makes it unlikely for the water to be affordable for the developing world and the developed world likely won't want to pay for the advancement of the technology. In addition to this, it's been suggested that nuclear energy be used to power the desalination plants. However, this has additional risks in war torn regions in the developing world. These plants may be attacked in an attempt to procure the nuclear material within to make weapons.

However, desalination seems to be the most likely method of alleviating water problems. If the technique was improved to the point that enough water could be piped to different parts of water stressed regions it could improve conditions in those areas and improve the amount of crops that were produced annually. This would reduce starvation and improve the general living conditions in those areas.

Unfortunately, this will take time and will need support from national level governments, supranational agencies like the UN and EU, local governments and research labs. However, in the current state of affairs governments do not seem to be in any sort of position to actually invest in this technology. The explanation of climate change would not be received well in the US as the vast majority of the Republicans believe that it is a hoax.

Instead of framing the discussion in terms of climate change the discussion needs to be framed in terms of the populations of large cities like San Diego and Phoenix. They need to be framed in terms of foreign policy. The issue between the US and Mexico is a perfect example of that. Improving the ability to desalinate water in the US will ensure that the US is able to use less and less of the Colorado and allow Mexico to use more of the water. Water should be considered a "tragedy of the commons" as it is easy for each member using the water source to use just a bit more until there's none left for anyone else. A solution to a tragedy of the commons is to create a continually growing commons.

California, Mexico and Arizona should work together to create a consortia to develop the technology. Creating new systems to power the desalination plant would be useful. It's expensive to power the plants, but if it is powered through a combination of solar energy, wind and nuclear the price will drop and water will be more plentiful.

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