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The Freshwater Solution

by Marvin Pirila


For decades, we have heard how freshwater resources are limited and are leading to a shortage of drinking water, desertification, and economic catastrophe.  As the world grows in population, it cannot afford to lose freshwater aquifers and lands to desertification.  The plans thus far have gone little beyond the costly route of desalination.  The answer is simple, but it takes infrastructure -- and fortunately, this investment would more than pay for itself in benefits.


The answer is to recapture freshwater before it discharges into the ocean and becomes expensive to desalinate.  This water could be captured before it began to mix with ocean water and pipe it back to where it is needed -- such as low aquifers and lower moisture areas.


The Rio Grande, Colorado, and Columbia Rivers all discharge freshwater into the oceans not far from the lowest annual rainfall areas in the U.S.  Most of this area is used for livestock ranching who would benefit greatly from greater moisture.


When water levels exceed certain levels, ensuring plenty downstream, tap some of the excess for induction into the pipeline.


Only 2.5% of the world's water supply is freshwater, of which approximately 69% is frozen in glaciers and ice caps, while less than 0.75% is available to drink.

As of June 30, 2011, there were 15,988 desalination plants worldwide with a global capacity of 66.5 million cubic (cu) meters per day (m3/d), or approximately 17.6 billion gallons per day.  In comparison, the Mississippi/Missouri River discharges 1.45 billion cu meter per day (m3/d), or approximately 383 billion gallons per day.  We dump almost 22 times more freshwater into the ocean every day via the Mississippi/Missouri River than all desalination plants in the world produce in the same time.


The Nile River, in close proximity to the Sahara Desert, discharges 224.5 million cu meters per day (m3/d), or approximately 64.6 billion US gallons per day.  Imagine the impact this freshwater would have on one of the most impoverished places in the world.


According to the non-profit Food & Water Watch, desalinated ocean water is the most expensive form of freshwater out there, given the infrastructure costs of collecting, distilling, and distributing it - costing at least five times as much to harvest as other sources of freshwater. 


National Geographic studies estimate that 1.8 billion people around the world will live in "extreme water scarcity" by 2025.  The average American uses approximately 2,000 gallons a day (5% for drinking and utilities and 95% to produce food, energy, and products) whereas citizens elsewhere use about 1,000 gallons a day.


One pound of beef takes on average 1,799 gallons of water to produce, a pound of poultry 468 gallons, and one pound of soybeans 216 gallons.  Water is essential for food, clothing, transportation, and energy.  More agricultural areas, and areas that are more productive would help maintain or lower these prices.

Lightning strikes cause the majority of western wildfires, and of the 240 large wildfires set off by lightning in the summers of 2004 and 2005, more than half happened when the probability of dry lightning occurring was greater than 75%.


These lightning producing thunderstorms often form high above earth's surface with a large layer of extremely dry air between the base of the cloud formation and the ground.  When rain falls from the cloud into the dry air, the raindrops evaporate before they reach the ground.  The flashes of lightning that still reach ground level frequently start fires that spread rapidly because no rain is available to slow the wildfires.


If the ground were properly hydrated when a storm moved in, the likelihood of a fire would be greatly diminished.  Additionally, if there were a fire, the water pipeline would be there to extinguish it at the earliest possible time.  In 2008, in just the western U.S., the total expenditures on wildfires were $1.46 billion and likely underestimated.  These costs include loss of life, evacuations, highway closures, wildlife impact, domestic animal impact, air quality, property loss, etc.  Fires also release large amounts of carbon and mercury stored within vegetation.


Deserts are returned to fertile areas by irrigating and immediately planting with leguminous plants that enrich the nitrogen of the soil, such as grains, barley, beans, and dates.  If you want the ability to support growing populations you need to maintain agricultural areas while expanding them into currently abandoned areas, such as the desert.  Piped freshwater can be used to counter the randomness of nature and its various cycles.
Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Finance Initiative estimated the cost of the mismanagement of all natural assets to the world economy today at around $6.6 trillion a year —the equivalent of 11% of global gross domestic product—through effects like contamination of water supplies, loss of fertile land through soil erosion and drought, and supply chain disruptions from deforestation and over fishing (2010).

Apart from the economic costs, land degradation is closely linked to our ability to tackle global warming, biodiversity loss, food security, energy, and water, health, and poverty targets.  An additional 29.65 million acres of land become degraded each year.  In all, about 25% of the Earth’s land, or 8.9 billion acres, is desertified.


The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) reports that land degradation is often a cause and a consequence of rural poverty.  The cost of desertification each year, they state, contributes to an estimated $42 billion in lost incomes.


The billions of dollars spent to combat hunger and starvation around the world would be best spent on providing pipelines of freshwater to impoverished areas and used to reclaim areas.  The point would be to make the areas self-sustainable rather than merely putting a band-aid over an increasing widening gap.

Each pipeline should be interconnected so water is always available to the area needed, particularly when its primary source has less volume than needed.  Simply stated, if one area is experiencing higher water volumes than another, this water could be diverted to where it is needed.  Additionally, when levels are higher than normal, extract this water upstream and divert it where needed.  These supplemental lines could be used when and only if the added water volumes allow it.


We could aid the world by grabbing freshwater before it is lost to salinity and return it by pipeline to the areas it is needed.  There is no reason to desalinate ocean water at such a high price when we are losing massive amounts of freshwater.  Our money is best spent building an infrastructure of pipelines to serve our drinking, business, and agricultural needs.