Letters From The Earth

...and not a drop to drink

August 27, 2010

I have reflected during the last several weeks on the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, India, and China and wondered if there is so much rain and water how can we project global water shortages? This gave me pause to think about the Tag & Label Manufacturers Institute's LIFE sustainability initiative. You may not be aware that one of the metrics requires water measurement. Indeed, is there a possibility that all of this is related? Is this a stretch?

As most of you know, the situation in Pakistan is horrific. The rain began in late July and as I write this in the middle of August there is no indication that conditions will improve. In fact, reports indicate that the monsoon will continue at least for the immediate future. Rivers are overflowing and have destroyed homes, inundated agricultural land causing loss of wheat, sugar cane, and rice and worse yet, the inevitable and incalculable loss of life, well into the thousands. In the northwestern part of Pakistan it is reported that the irrigation system needs to be rebuilt to revive farming. If there is no food, there is famine. Famine brings the usual health issues like typhoid, diarrhea, diphtheria, and other potentially fatal infectious diseases. The situation is not good and massive aid is needed. In fact, from what I've read and heard, the relief authorities have not even been able to reach some of the more remote villages and towns that have been affected. Not a good situation at all.

Dirty water, too little water, and too much water at the wrong time is confirmed by a report from the United nations Environment Programme. This group completed a study in March of this year on dirty, deadly, diseased water. The report claims that water pollution is mankind's greatest self-induced threat. According to the report, large volumes of water flushed into rivers and oceans by humans cause more deaths annually than war. "More people now die from contaminated and polluted water than from all forms of violence, including wars," the report says. The title of the report says it all: Sick Water. Sick Water states that two million tons of waste daily contaminate more than two billion tons of water and cause large "death zones" in our waters, killing fish and destroying coral reefs. (What about the BP spill?) The report goes on to say that the wastes that contaminate water include sewage, industrial pollutants, pesticides, and animal wastes. In Chicago, where I live, the water treatment system is overwhelmed by huge rain overflows and untreated waste water flows directly into Lake Michigan, shutting down beaches due to the contamination; it has happened already twice this summer. The full report is available at www.unep.org and is well worth a read.

Scientists believe that the increased average temperature of the earth is part of the reason for increased rainfall and longer monsoon seasons. The additional rain and the pollution of water are caused by humans. Snow and ice in mountains bring us fresh water and, as Lester Brown says, "is nature's way of storing water to feed rivers during the dry season." This natural cycle is threatened by the rise in temperature. A single degree Fahrenheit (0.6° C) rise in temperature in mountainous regions "can reduce the share of precipitation falling as snow" and increase that coming down as rain. This in turn increases flooding during the rainy season and reduces the snowmelt that flows into rivers."

Without a doubt, this phenomenon is part of the cause of flooding in Pakistan, India, and China. The glaciers that feed the rivers during the dry season are melting. As Lester notes, "some have disappeared entirely." These countries are being challenged daily by water supply particularly in the northwestern part of Pakistan, in the area of the India/Tibet border where rivers originate in the Himalayan mountains, and in China where those same glaciers feed both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. Yao Tandong, a leading Chinese glaciologist, predicts that "two-thirds of China's glaciers could be gone by 2060. And that this will lead to an ecological catastrophe."

There are solutions to water shortage and rising ocean waters. First, of course, is a focus on reducing greenhouse gas, which causes glacier melting. Second, we need to look at different technologies that utilize desalination with 30 to 50 percent reduction in energy requirements. Getting the salt out is possible and occurs commercially in different regions of the world, but it is expensive and energy intensive. It's okay if you have oil money in the Middle East but most countries can't afford it. The original desalination method was "brute-force distillation." Seawater is heated until it turns to steam; the salt is left behind and the steam condensed. As mentioned, this is expensive and energy intensive. The new technologies that may reach commercial use by 2015 are forward osmosis, carbon nanotubes, and biometrics. If anyone is interested I can provide definitions and details. Suffice it to say any one of these could solve water shortages that are pronounced and very real. The fact is that we are running out of fresh water globally. People in India are fed with grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon go dry. In both India and China the rising cost of energy for pumping is satisfied largely by building coal fired power plants. Talk about a conundrum.

All of this talk about water reminded me of a conversation I had last year with LIFE's first certification recipient, Bill Muir, CEO of Grand Rapids Label. I asked him about the certification process and which of the 31 metrics he thought was most important to his company. He said, "the reduction of energy, the reduction of solid waste, and the reduction of water" were the most important. When his team began measuring water usage they learned they were using large volumes internally and externally. An immediate decision was made to stop watering the company's lawn. The result was a savings of 30 to 40 percent in water usage, which resulted in a similar amount of cost savings. In fact, the city of Grand Rapids could not believe the dramatic reduction and sent an inspector to look at the meter. I've talked to other LIFE certified companies and they, too, have realized significant reductions in water usage. The requirement to take measurements conditions companies to reduce, resulting in significant savings.

Reduced water usage and rising water productivity, as Lester Brown says, allows for better water efficiencies. It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, which means that 70 percent of the world's fresh water is devoted to food production. The most common method of watering is irrigation. Lester advocates the "drip" method for better irrigation efficiency and delivery. I advocate following the metrics of TLMI's LIFE certification process to reduce water usage in our industry.

Another Letter from the Earth.

Calvin Frost is chairman of Channeled Resources Group, headquartered in Chicago, the parent company of Maratech International and GMC Coating. His email address is cfrost@channeledresources.com.