The New Oil

Coping with a Dwindling Water Supply

Australia is certainly no stranger to water shortages. And it is far from alone; in the US, the California drought has made the nation’s water supply front-page news. Often dubbed the new oil, this increasingly scarce natural resource is being depleted at an alarming rate throughout the golden state—and around the world.
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Seventy per cent of the earth is covered with water, but only three per cent of this vast store is fresh water—and two-thirds of that fresh water is locked within glaciers and other unavailable sources.

In California, drought-depleted snow packs, rivers, and lakes can no longer meet demand, forcing more and more people to draw from aquifers. Over sixty per cent of Golden State water needs are now supplied by groundwater, up from forty per cent before the current dry spell.

Aquifers hold ancient water that was trapped deep within the earth by geological changes thousands, or even millions, of years ago. Some shallow aquifers are partially replenished by surface water filtering back down, but deeper water reserves can never be restored. Long taken for granted, these critical water stores will run dry one day—with serious consequences for a water-starved world.

The United States takes half of its water from (mostly non-renewable) aquifers, According to National Geographic. Worldwide, we get 35 per cent of our water from underground aquifers, and until recently, no one knew for sure how quickly these hidden caches of water were being drained. But groundbreaking new NASA satellite data has shone a light on the mystery—and confirmed scientists’ fears, the Washington Post reports. All around the planet—from China and India to France and the United States—21 of the 37 largest aquifers have reached their “sustainability tipping points,” which means that more water was drained than replaced during the research project’s ten-year study period. Thirteen of these aquifers were in particularly bad shape, putting them in the “most troubled” category.

The new NASA data offers never-before-seen information about our water supply’s rate of depletion, but it cannot show us the total capacity of these hidden aquifers, so it is impossible to know how long it will be before they run dry. The data does suggest that many aquifers are smaller than previously assumed.

Depleted ground reserves could create far-reaching consequences. The most at-risk aquifers are in densely populated, developing regions such as North Africa, Pakistan, and India where alternative sources are limited and water shortages could easily create political instability, the Washington Post points out.

Used by 60 million people, the Arabian Aquifer is being drained at the fastest rate worldwide, and shows little to no sign of replenishment. The world’s second and third most at-risk water supplies are the Indus Basin in India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in Libya and Niger.

Many aquifers in the developed world are also stressed—particularly those being used by industry, the Washington Post explains. For instance, Australia’s Canning Basin suffers the third-highest rate of depletion in the world. On the other hand, Australia’s Great Artesian Basin is one of the planet’s healthiest. The latter is located in the east, while the former is in the west, where iron ore mining and oil and gas exploration demand huge quantities of water.

In the United States, California’s Central Valley Aquifer is suffering the greatest stress. Irrigation is largely to blame, as severe drought has forced farmers to dig more and more wells to water thirsty crops. Covering the southeast coast and Florida, the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains Aquifer is also being drained at an alarmingly high rate. The good news is that three aquifers in the nation’s heartland are relatively healthy.

Some solutions to our dwindling water supply are obvious. Reduced consumption is at the top of the list. Even small changes—like turning off the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving a couple of minutes from your daily shower—can add up to make a substantial difference.

Improved infrastructure could also make a major impact. The United States loses an estimated one in six gallons of fresh water every day because of leaky pipes, Forbes reports. That adds up to a whopping six billion gallons of treated water every day—14 per cent of America’s daily water usage. The estimated cost to fix the nation’s water infrastructure ranges from $600 billion over the next 20 years to $2.5 trillion; either way, the expense is an issue. Out of sight and out of mind, underground pipes are rarely given funding priority by voters or their local governments.

Other, more radical solutions are also on the table. The most distasteful is to recycle sewage water for drinking and other household needs. Runoff from toilet bowls, baths, and dishwashers can all become potable after careful treatment. In fact, Orange County, California has been using “toilet to tap” water since 2008 and boasts one of the world’s oldest and largest wastewater recycling facilities.

First, the water flows through a microfilter to removes solids, oils, protozoa, and bacteria. Next, it undergoes reverse osmosis, passing through an even finer filter that catches viruses, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, and salts. In the final step, UV light is used to destroy any organic compounds that survived the previous filtration process. The treated water is released into the groundwater supply, and will eventually find its way back into Orange County taps after passing through a water treatment facility with other, non-recycled groundwater.

Experts claim that treated sewer water is 100 per cent safe to drink, and often purer than bottled water. The general public is not so sure, however. No matter what science claims, no one wants to drink water that has been in someone else’s toilet and many communities around the world have fought wastewater-recycling initiatives. Advocates argue that all water is recycled naturally—we are still drinking the same water that our ancient ancestors drank—and that wastewater reclamation simply speeds up the process.

Singapore is probably the best example of a water-strapped community turning to wastewater to meet their needs, as approximately 30 per cent of the island nation’s water is recycled sewage. Other communities are watching Singapore’s success and launching or expanding their own water reclamation programs. Some places, such as Texas and California, are pressed by desert and or drought conditions. Others, such as Fairfax County, Virginia—a wealthy, rapidly growing suburb of Washington DC—are working ahead to meet the needs of an ongoing population boom.

Desalination is another option to reduce the strain on depleted aquifers, and one familiar to Australians. But there are multiple complications that have kept the solution from catching on. Most notably, converting salt water to drinking water on a large scale is an extremely expensive, energy-intensive process. In addition, desalination generates a great deal of waste and could harm marine environments.

Scientists have also floated wackier suggestions, from making rain with lasers to creating glaciers that could store water for use during the dry season. Rainmaking has had mixed results, but farmers in the Himalayas have successfully used manmade glaciers to water crops. The concept is unlikely to work on a large scale, however.

Most likely, it will take a combination of solutions—both obvious and out-of-the-box—to meet the insatiable thirst of 7.5 billion people. No perfect answer exists, but almost any option is preferable to running out of water.

Strategic Resources

There are 17 classified rare earth elements, many of which have strategic purposes. Rare in name only, these elements are anything but scarce as they are found all over the world. The challenge rare earth elements pose is during extraction, as they exist in low concentrations and are difficult to separate from one another.

July 26, 2017, 12:30 PM AEST