Path Home Shows 2014 Show Archive June 2014 Show 1426 Steve Solomon - Water: The Epic Struggle

Steve Solomon - Water: The Epic Struggle

Water plays a critical role in commerce. Author Steve Solomon talks about water and the struggles that come with it.
Steve Solomon - Water: The Epic Struggle

Steve Solomon - Water: The Epic Struggle

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Steve Solomon’s Water Blog

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization

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Show 1426: Steve Solomon - Water: The Epic Struggle
Air Date: June 29, 2014



Andy Barth: Well, since the start of civilization, water has played a critical role in commerce. Entire societies have developed around abundant water sources, and it’s no different today. Earlier, our Rob McClendon sat down with Steve Solomon, the author of “Water: The Epic Struggle For Wealth, Power and Civilization” to talk about the pivotal role water plays in today’s economy.

Rob McClendon: With the water scarcity that everyone seems to be very concerned about and, of course, our growing populations, are we doing in this country as much as we should or could be doing?

Steve Solomon: No, we’ve hardly started. We’ve really scratched, just beginning to scratch the surface if we’re a water-rich country. One of the water-wealthiest in the world; in fact, we have 8 percent of the world’s fresh water and only 4 percent of its population pressures. We obviously have certain arid regions, which are more stressed. And those tend to be the ones that have done the most, not surprisingly, to uh, to start to reuse water – that is to take water that we’ve treated and then reuse it for other purposes. We’ve begun to use better forms of irrigation, like drip irrigation where that’s possible to do that uses, that uses less water, consumes less water. When we are dealing with, uh -- even now in the latest boom in shale oil and gas industry, one of the big problems has been that they’ve had to truck in so much water to do the fracking. And then the water was also rather polluted. So now they’ve more recently have come up with ways to be using some of the very highly-saline produced water from these wells to reuse them again, which is not only a great saver in the amount of fresh water that we have to use, but also is extremely good for saving on disposal from the disposal problems – transportation. They’re doing a lot of this onsite in local, at the local fracking areas themselves. So you begin to get a -- instead of a centralized water system that requires lots of energy to move the water back and forth between a centralized system and then back out to the areas where it’s gonna be, actually be deployed, you now have more of a decentralized system, and therefore you save an awful lot on energy costs and the pollution that goes along with that, very often.

Rob: So you, you’ve said that the U.S. uses about half of our water going towards energy.

Solomon: Yeah, the latest form now, and that’s -- we’ve got to make a distinction between water withdrawals and water consumption. This is a technical thing, but water withdrawals is water that we just take out of an ecosystem in large volumes. Consumed water is the water, and then very often that water then goes back into the ecosystem. For example, it might be used for cooling. A lot think of the water out of a river and then it goes back into the river, and it isn’t, it isn’t lost, you know, it’s still available back in the river system. But it affects the ecosystem dramatically by taking out too much, and there are places where we can no longer put new energy plants because we’ve taken out, we have to take out so much water at any given time. Consuming water, on the other hand, is water that is then lost to the ecosystem – usually through evaporation. And, uh, so when we’re talking about energy using half of the water in the United States, we’re using -- we’re talking about withdrawals; we’re not talking about consumption. When you talk about consumption agriculture, is still by far and away the largest user, consumer of water.

Rob: Is energy and our thirst for energy and our thirst for water -- are they on a collision course?

Solomon: Well, that’s – yes. That’s being the latest studies. There was work done in about 2006. It started with Sandia Labs, and some of the national labs for the Department of Energy – produced a report. I think it was Sen. Domenici was the one who asked it. And it showed that the, many of the non-conventional alternative energies that we’re relying on for the future – the shale gas, the thermal solar in the southwest for example where a lot of the sun is, for the energy crops for corn ethanol, for example. You know, these are, these use, these consume a large, a lot more water than the conventional forces of energy that we have projection, I believe that are -- we’re gonna need 40 percent more and be able to produce 40 percent more energy in the next couple of decades. But no one was looking at whether there was gonna be enough water available for these sources. So these reports highlighted the fact that we are on a collision course. That’s why some of the breakthroughs that I mentioned about the hydro-fracking, for example, uh, were, uh, are quite, uh, important.

Rob: Now, we’ve talked predominantly about water usage here in the developed world. What about in the developing world?

Solomon: Right. There are enormous problems, of course, of different types. And in many cases, about 70, a lot of people get water out of and energy from the, from the rivers. But rivers in places like the Euphrates and the Nile -- you know, these rivers are already drawing so much water out of them that often the people downstream don’t have enough flow to generate some of the energy or to get the irrigation that they need. On the other hand, I must say there are parts of the world that have not tapped their hydropower, their hydropower potential at all. Africa uses only about 10 or 15 percent of its hydropower potential, Pakistan only about 15 or so percent. So there are enormous opportunities in the developing world for tapping clean hydropower electricity, but it requires large investments of capital, organized -- a pretty organized society to be able to do that.

Rob: You know, in my first trip to China I was traveling with a group from town to town, and the city leaders kept telling us, “Well, we have lots of water here.” And it eventually dawned on me that water might be a problem in China. Are several countries like that, that we have almost become so accustomed to all of our water resources that they just don’t have the same water resources as we do?

Solomon: Sure, sure. China’s a great example by itself, of course. I mean, it has, of course, almost the same amount of fresh water that we do on a gross basis but since they have five times the population, they only have one-fifth the amount of water per person. And they have a much worse water mismatch – have always had, historically. In the northern region where civilization started, where they’ve got a lot of great energy and food potential resources, they have no water. It’s much worse than, than the shortages of water that we experience in the southwest of the United States, for example. So they are embarked on the largest water project on Earth, which is a, the south-to-north water transfer project, where they are trying to create huge aqueducts to bring water from the fairly wet south to the, to the very parched north by going over mountains, under rivers, you know, a thousand miles. I mean, it’s an enormous undertaking. So China certainly is one, but there are many other countries that are, are deeply water stressed as well, Pakistan being one.

Rob: If projections are correct that our population across the globe could raise from 7 to 9 1/2 billion, do we have enough fresh water for that many people?

Solomon: Well, not on current practices – the way that things are distributed today. If we invent a new water paradigm that uses water more efficiently, using the existing water more efficiently, using technologies that are available today, quite honestly we don’t need great breakthroughs. And we could actually implement them all. Probably we could get by with, with the nine billion. The bigger question actually is beyond the absolute increase in population numbers, is that many people are moving from very impoverished lifestyles to middle-class lifestyles that we enjoy in the United States. And that is a multiplier that’s even greater than the arithmetic increase in population between 7 and 9 1/2 billion. And there’s a question whether we can sustain. On the earth today, I guess we have about a billion or so living a middle-class lifestyle. Can we, can the population of the earth sustain 3 billion with a middle-class lifestyle because that’s what we’re trying to achieve?

Rob: So essentially what we’re talking about is conservation.

Solomon: Conservation is, uh, yeah -- I mean, you can call conservation -- conservation has many faces to it. You know, there’s a lot of innovation can still happen. But there’s a lot of innovation that’s already been made that hasn’t been applied. You know, in Israel they reuse 75 percent of their, their water. We only reuse about 6 or 7 percent here in the United States. There’s no reason why we can’t do what, what Israel is doing. And that is a form of conservation. It really is in our economic interest to do that because we’ll get more bang for the buck. I mean, my view is that America is – being one of the water richest nations on earth is, in a very well-placed position to provide, grow the food, produce the water intensive energy and goods that the rest of the world is gonna be very hard-pressed to do as we move forward because of the acuteness of the water scarcity problem in other places. But we’ve got to get our own act together at home to make sure we get the most out of this comparative advantage that we have in fresh water.

Rob: All right. Thank you for your insights.

Solomon: Sure. Thank you.