Monday 5 January 2015

Asian Dustbowl

I mentioned the Aral Sea in passing while I was bigging up Baikal last year. Such a mention was appropriate because the Aral Sea itself is "in passing" having shrunk to a fraction of its size in the last two generations. The dustbowlification (technical term) of the Aral basin is a story of poor planning and narrow sectional "thinking" that failed to look beyond . . . the nose on Stalin's face.
The 2nd October issue of Nature has a handy update on the situation. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union they had a monolithic government that allowed statewide planning and a rough-shod clashing of heads together. Since the break-up of the USSR, Central Asia is left with a clatter of independent republics including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. These countries have varying levels of: freedom of press, scrupulously fair elections and support of scientific research; but they all need water. Therefore, to competing interests of farming, fishing, ecology, industry, car-washing and flushing toilets is added jingoistic posturing of national interests. Two ways of looking at water-consumption, are particularly informative if you want (and who doesn't nowadays) to think of water as a commodity.  This exposes the fact that the *stans consume a lot of water per head of population but also don't leverage the "precious commodity" to generate wealth. Using water for agricultural purposes on land where there are other handicaps to farming productivity (nutrient-depleted soil; unaffordable fertilisers) is, frankly, bonkers.  The example given is that a tonne of wheat produced in Turkmenistan requires 3,000 tons of irrigation water while a tonne of wheat produced in North Kazakhstan can manage on rain water alone.

Elsewhere in the same issue is a personal view on the politics of water by Moshe Alamaro. He points out that you can use elementary maths to inform your political decisions about who gets to use the water and how much they should pay for it. California is currently in the middle of a devastating drought and is proposing to fine its citizens for wasting domestic water. That will annoy the citizens without making a significant impact on consumption: only 15% of fresh water passes through homes and the hoped-for 20% reduction will only save 3% of the remaining water.  It's surely better to look at bigger consumers (notably agriculture) and then ask which sections benefit the economy most. That 'benefit' could be a straight financial accounting - contribution to GDP or taxes.  Or it could factor in social capital - which sections employ the most people, for example.  Water is water and it would bear scrutiny as to why San Jose can charge $40 per acre-foot to farmers but skins industry $600 for the same quantity.  An acre-foot is 1200 tonnes, so the cost to consumer is 3c and 50c a tonne respectively!  Rather less than what Irish Water was proposing to charge domestic consumers (€4.88) in October 2014, before the government caved in to free-the-water radicals and reduced the charge to half nothing.  Okay okay, I know the farmers of the Santa Clara Valley don't get their water chlorinated.

What future for the Aral Sea?  It can possibly recover if you reverse recent historical policy and let the water flow from the Himalaya to refill the basin. By the 1960s, Lake Erie was oxygen-depleted dead from phosphate-triggered eutrophication. This was partly from agricultural run-off but partly from huge growth in the laundry detergent industry following the post-war boom in washing-machines and other white-goods.  In 1972, the US and Canada passed the first Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement which put  statutory limits on phosphate dumping but also invested $8bn in sewage treatment plants to recover phosphate from the through-flow. It cost money but fish are back in the lake now.  For Aral, they don't need the $8bn, they just need to stop abstracting water from the rivers.

There are business models for what to do with a lot of unemployed melon farmers. India generates a quarter of its foreign currency earnings from IT (all those call centres in Bangalore are included) and other Asian countries are moving away from subsistence to knowledge economies. No more than Ireland, the *stans have a literate, well-educated citizenry that could persuade the next IT megacorp to locate in Samarqand, Almaty or Tashkent - a lot more exotic than Dublin! Why, for 2 pins or 2 million Kazakh Tenge a year, I'd go and teach Science out there.

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