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All Water Crisis Are Local

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Is modern society running short of its most indispensable resource? A New York Times article says that water use in Southwest U.S. is heading for a day of reckoning. Journalist and author Steve Solomon discusses the consequences of too much water in parts of the world and too too little in others and his groundbreaking book WATER: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization.

Transcript

0:15 Jonathan Hall

Welcome to Around The Water Cooler Show, Wednesday, October 13, 2010 and our rebroadcast for October 20, 2010. We hear a lot about global warming and the economy, but in the coming decade, no natural resource may prove to be more critical to human health and well-being than water. Hello! I'm Jonathan Hall, editor of The Hall Water Report. You know, there is little doubt that water is a precious resource. Experts note a host of concerns from a lack access to quality drinking water or close to a billion people on our planet to deteriorating tap water infrastructure right here in the US. But what does this have to do with your and your family's drinking water? Turns out a lot. For openers, there is crisis brewing with our drinking water infrastructure. Government estimates are that it will cost $350 billion over the next 20 years just to maintain our drinking water delivery system and as you will hear from our guests today, major cities in the US can also moves up to 40% of their water to leaking, old, urban infrastructure and this was detailed for us several weeks ago when our guest Maureen McAvey, Executive VP of the Urban Land Institute talked about their new infrastructure 2010 report and recently both Vickie James, a Registered Licensed Dietitian and Director of Kansas-based Healthy Kids Challenge and Cynthia Nelson, the Chief Operating Officer of the Global Hispanic Media Company spoke to us about why focusing on kids health is so important. You can listen to both of these archived discussions at blogtalkradio.com/aroundthewatercooler. Well, Pakistan has suffered its worst flood on record this summer with at least 2,000 deaths from drowning and according to UN, an estimated 14 million people were directly affected by the crisis.

2:12 Jonathan Hall

In China, more than 700 people were confirmed dead and a thousand more missing after floods there this summer triggered landslide. More than a million homes had been lost. In North Korea too, lives, homes, railways, bridges, roads and farm lands all swept away during recent torrent. Meanwhile, in Russia, unbearably high temperatures this summer doubled that country's death rate and sparked hundreds of deadly wild fires. Floods, fires, melting ice, feverish heat from smoke-choked Moscow to water-soaked Iowa, our planet seems to be having a breakdown and it's not just a portent of things to come but as a leading scientist told the Washington Post last month, it's a sign of troubling climate change already under way. Well, you can dismiss these tragedies or you can ask yourself if there are any lessons to be learned and today we are continuing our series on global environmental impact on drinking water with Steven Solomon. He is the author of "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization." and Liza Lopes is here to give us the publisher's overview of the book.

3:20 Liza Lopes

Jonathan, far more than oil, the control of water wealth throughout history has been pivotal to the rise and fall of great powers, the achievements of civilization, the transformations of society's vital habitats, and the quality of ordinary daily lives. In "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" Steven Solomon offers the first-ever narrative portrait of the power struggles, personalities, and breakthroughs that have shaped humanity from antiquity. Today, freshwater scarcity is one of the twenty-first century's decisive, looming challenges and is driving the new political, economic, and environmental realities across the globe.

4:03 Jonathan Hall

And by the way, Liza Lopes and I are coming to you from two virtual Water Coolers. I'm in Portland, Oregon today and Liza is just over the bridge from New York City.

4:13 Intermission

Music Plays

4:18 Jonathan Hall

And what a book it is! Steve Solomon, we're honored to have you on the show.

4:22 Steve Solomon

Well, thanks so much for having me.

4:25 Jonathan Hall

We know you just recently key-noted several water conferences, but we want to start with the book itself. What are some of the great water moments in history from your perspective?

4:36 Steve Solomon

Yes. You know, in the book, of course, which goes throughout world history, you noticed that many of the epic breakthroughs and some of the turning points of civilization are closely associated with water breakthroughs. You go back to the agricultural revolution itself that launched the four original cradle civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus and Chinese Yellow River. It was based on the innovation of mass-scale irrigation. You fast forward to our age, the industrial revolution, the seminal invention there was the steam engine water in another form. The Roman Empire was sustained by these eleven giant aqua docks that brought healthy water to a city of one million people which was an unheard of amount in those days and in our modern age, the sanitary revolution, in the mid-19th century became the basis for our modern urban civilization that saw a population growth from about 2.5% living in cities in 1800 to 50% today rising to 70% in the future or you take the 20th century, just think of the Hoover Dam and the great multipurpose dams that also, not only built to our Western portion of United States but became the basis for the green revolution around the world and help world population rise to its current 6.7 billion, which, of course, is one of the reasons why we have a global freshwater scarcity crisis today.

6:02 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, and we want to start right there, you know, discussing the world's water plight. I have long held that the growing human crisis related to the lack of safe drinking water requires intensive collaboration, in addition to conservation to better meet the world's water needs. That's going to take the collaborative effort among government, water utilities, agricultures, food and beverage processors, manufactures and consumers to create workable solutions. One place this is playing out is the Indus River that you mentioned. It's shared between Pakistan and India and then a commentary published by the New York Times last month, you wrote about the Indus River. Liza fill us in.

6:43 Liza Lopes

Sure. Steve wrote that, like Egypt on the Nile, Pakistan is totally reliant in its tributaries, yet the river's water is already so overdrawn that it no longer reaches the sea. Its once-fertile delta of rice paddies and fisheries has shriveled up.

7:03 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, and this is one of the cradles of civilization. Steve, tells us about the situation with the Indus River and is it in any way capable to the tug-of-war for water rise going on in parts of the United States?

7:15 Steve Solomon

Well, the Indus Sea is one of seventy major rivers around the world that are so overdrawn that they no longer reach the sea and that includes the Colorado, the Yellow, the Nile and many others and in a sense, it is a microcosm of the global crisis that we are overusing, overdrawing our existing water systems beyond sustainable levels and by that, I mean, by the amount that replenishes naturally through the water cycle of evaporation and precipitation where mining groundwater many ports and food belts around the world that are hitting the bottom. Glaciers are melting that dry up the sources of the many rivers, which includes the Indus. I mean, 50% of the Indus's water originates in the glaciers in the Himalayas that are now melting rather rapidly under the duress of global climate change. So, you have in Pakistan a case where you have a population that is rising very fast, something in the order of 50% population increase projected in the next generation or so, and the water from the river itself is going to diminish. Now, they have been living off of in a sense the groundwater from the Indus by pumping the reserves that have filtered into the ground over the years to be able to feed their population. Those tube wells are now hitting bottom. So, the Pakistanis are alarmed, to say the least, that they will no longer be able to feed their population and their state may be able to be very fragile. Now, they've only built 30 days worth of storage on the Indus to protect them against droughts and floods. It would have been very helpful in this flood they will have some further storage by the way. And on top of that, the river passes through India before it passes into some disputed territories before it reaches Pakistan and India and has been building some hydropower dams, a lot of them, in fact, on those tributaries.

9:13 Steve Solomon

Pakistan and India have fought three wars in the past and the Pakistani look upon this hydropower dams as potential water weapons against it and they are accusing the Indians of practicing water terrorism. It's a pretty messy situation.

9:28 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, and you mentioned the Colorado. But isn't it similar to the situation in Georgia, in Alabama, in the South where there's fighting over water rights as well?

9:37 Steve Solomon

Well, of course, yeah, we have in the United States. We have the same conflict over the sources of the shared rivers is going on. The Colorado is probably a better example because it too is losing -- right now, Lake Mead, which is the storage is only about half full and it is at such a low level that it had to trim back to generating power at Hoover Dam by a third. If it falls another 5%, it will trigger the emergency compact on the Colorado that is shared between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin States and a little further than that and the generators will have to shutdown for 19 million people in the Southwest that depend upon the cheap electricity that it provides. So, they are quite alarmed in the West because they say the Colorado is facing probably 20% diminution of its flows from the global climate change because we feel it is a less than critical to be a wet one and in the any event, it looks like it's running down. So, overuse, climate change, those are the similar issues squeezing us in many places. In the United States, however, we don't have nearly the extent of the problem that they do in other parts of the world, but it's severe enough.

10:53 Jonathan Hall

It is, exactly. And by the way, if you are just joining us, we are speaking with Steve Solomon. He is the author of "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization." We will take a couple of calls in a minute. Steve, you also wrote in the New York Times last month that hard as it may be to believe, when you see the images of monsoons flood devastating Pakistan, the country is actually on the verge of a critical shortage of freshwater. I'm reminded, by the way, when they issued a major drought warnings for the whole state of Pennsylvania last month, on the day they did that it rained, and water scarcity is not only a worry for Pakistan's population, it's a threat to America's National Security as well. Can you explain this to us?

11:37 Steve Solomon

Sure. Pakistan is sort of our ultimate failed-state nightmare. About 25 years ago, the Buchos Buchos Gali, the UN Secretary General predicted that the wars of the twenty-first century were going to be fought over water. That hasn't quite happened as countries had found more reason to cooperate than to fight, but states they can't feed themselves or provide the hydroelectricity for their industries and for their cities are very likely to fail and that's what we are seeing in Pakistan where the Pakistanis themselves, they've been alerting the state department much many months before the floods, that they were running out of water for this purpose, for feeding themselves and for many times they have blackouts that are normal. They said water riots are normal. Now, this is the home of Osama Bin Laden in Al-Qaeda. It's the nuclear arm state. It said that there are three wars with India and this terrible water dispute that is going on right now. And on top of it, the river water has been battled over between different states between these Indies in the South who feel they are being deprived by the Punjabis in the North. They were very politically connected, who they think get more water in unfair amounts. So, it's driving a wedge inside the society internally. So, if that state fails, we could see the normal effects of that would be things like spillover of uncontrolled terrorism, possible regional wars that against spillover borders and possibly humanitarian crisis that leads to health crisis that also transmit epidemic diseases, that sort of things. If you do remember the terrorist attack of Times Square that happened not too long ago was originated in Pakistan.

13:21 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, it's not something that a lot of us think about or want to think about on a day-to-day basis, but it's important. Interestingly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Pakistan or is in Pakistan this week. You note that she recently announced the major water project aimed at bolstering national storage capacity, irrigation, safe drinking water and faltering electrical power service under America's new $7.5 billion assistance program. I wonder how much of that will go for water project and by the way, do you have any, yeah? I was going to ask you also do have any idea how much of our country is spent specifically on water projects in Iraq following the collapse of Saddam Hussein?

14:03 Steve Solomon

Sure. Sure. In the Pakistan side, about half of the first crunch of $1.5 billion went to water-related projects. Irrigation, energy, drinking sanitation has increased storage capacity and some of that has now been redirected also to the flood relief as well. I don't have the specific numbers for Iraq, but I tell you we spent an awful lot of time trying to rebuild their water system and their electricity system since that has been a foundation of government legitimacy and we left much before the job was done, the army core is out of there now and today, Iraq suffers from power outages and irrigation shortages because the Euphrates River and the Tigris River are really running very dry as well because a lot of it is now being siphoned upstream by the Middle East new water superpower Turkey and on the Euphrates by Syria. So, really the fate of Iraq, in post-Saddam Iraq depends very much on how much water the Turks and the Syrians will allow to come down the river.

15:13 Jonathan Hall

Wow! You know, that's a lot money and as you said, we left before we completed the job and I wonder about our own country. The US has a need for $20 billion annually and for the other 20 years just to maintain drinking water infrastructure and I know that foreign policy and domestic needs are like apples and oranges, but would you agree that a classic infrastructure in this country may also be a threat?

15:39 Steve Solomon

Well, we absolutely need to reinvent a new paradigm for our water infrastructure and societies that have done so throughout history have provided a basis score for growth. As I mentioned, Rome had a million people in its heyday and that was an amazing number that wasn't replicated for 2000 years. And today, we are trying to retrofit many of decaying water pipes and such, some of which are invisible to us. New York City, for example, for 50 years has been in a race against a disastrous breakdown of its distribution tunnel, which has been uncleaned and unexamined for 50 years for fear that it would shut in a lock position. So, we've been building tunnel number 3, 700 feet underground and it's costing billions of dollars and it's a very arduous work and people don't know it, but many of the people who worked down there feel that the only thing holding up the two existing old distribution tunnels is the water pressure itself and if those blew out, New York City would have had to have been abandoned. I mean, we are very close to completing that project, fortunately, but there are things going on, even picked New Orleans. I mean we knew about the problem in New Orleans with the levees and we did nothing about it, and the disaster, the scale of that disaster was part because we didn't stay ahead of the curve. Today, we have an existing problem, as we know about it in the Delta and San Francisco Bay. If there is an earthquake in that bay, we know that the levee system will collapse and Southern California, where two-thirds of the people live, will be cut off from the amount of water that flows down to them and to the farmland down there as well. So, they are looking at some contingency plans.

17:26 Jonathan Hall

Wow! I mentioned Georgia earlier. Liza, can you give us an update on one of the city studied by the Urban Land Institute Atlanta?

17:36 Liza Lopes

Sure! Atlanta, Georgia, they are scrambling against the loss of water from Lake Lanier, which is the major source of drinking water for the Metro Atlanta area. Now, in the summer of 2007, Atlantans were very close, within a couple of days in fact, of having their water shut off because the lake was so close to being completely dry. Some climatologist suggest that the rains had saved Atlanta from the crisis in 2007 may not be there next time around. Even so, the courts have ruled that Atlanta has been taking more than its fair share of the lake water. As a result of court's ruling, Atlanta is faced with losing more than 30% of its water supply and since, the governor of Georgia has passed a statewide water conservations plan and mandated an emergency water planning study.

18:24 Jonathan Hall

Yeah. The Urban Land Institute's 2010 Infrastructure study focused on fourteen major cities, in fact, with pretty much the same conclusion. Steve, according to Maureen McAvey, the Executive Vice President there, if you look at infrastructure versus population growth, this country is on a totally unsustainable path that you might even project that up globally. What is your view of this? Do you agree?

18:49 Steve Solomon

Well, we have something like 700,000 miles of pipes. A lot of it are quite ageing and are bursting. But frankly, we also are and need to, not just think about rebuilding the system the way it had used to be. We need to come up with a new paradigm that adjusts to this age of freshwater scarcity, which the cities must use the existing water much more productively than we have and there are things going on. For example, Chicago and Philadelphia are in the midst of very large storm water rehabilitation or modernization projects, in which they are using things like pervious concrete where the water will actually sip down through the concrete to recharge aqua first, slow down the amount of runoff so that it can be captured and used, which is excellent, and also avoid the pollution problems that runoff from this. So, it's beginning to use some of the ecosystem's natural services themselves, to take advantage, able to capture more water and limit pollution. There are a lot of things going on in water we use, locating wastewater treatment plants and decentralized facilities to reduce the transportation cost that is the energy cost of moving water, which is extremely heavy as you know weighing 8.30 pounds per gallon, 20% more than oil. So, we face both a crisis but an opportunity and I would like to point out that there has been some progress made in taking advantages of that opportunity but not nearly an often and not really fast enough.

20:21 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, and we have a couple of callers and they do want to get to you, but this leads me to want to talk about the trust factor because we have a huge trust issue in this country. Liza has a brief report for us on this.

20:35 Liza Lopes

Sure. Approval ratings, as you know, for congress are low. Consumers have huge doubts about the safety of our food like the peanut butter, spinach, tomatoes, all of these that have been contaminated on a large scale and, of course, the major corporate scandals and run big financial institutions going down, but there have been recalls of consumer products too like Toyota and the consumer outrage against BP added to that, is this gone under States like Georgia, California, Nevada, states that have major water concerns have actually been successful in getting consumers to be more mindful over their water use, which has declined. Now, that's a good thing going forward, however, the reward in many, many cases for using less water has been that rate payers have seen their water bills going up considerably as the cost of operating a public water supply are also rising along with less consumption.

21:28 Jonathan Hall

And so the New York Times has documented Steve half million violations of the Clean Water Act here in the US, annually. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a presentation at this year's American Water Works Association said it's looking into potential harm to human health from drinking water contaminants related to a quarter million boil water alerts in this country each year and in May of this year, two million people in the Boston Metro were told to boil their water for three days. Then again in August, the new Leagues Park concerned because it was just 75 yards from the major water main that had ruptured in Boston and like the other quarter million bottle boiled water events, are people in Boston going to trust their tap water after this event? That's the question I'm asking. What are your thoughts of gaining confidence for tap water in the US, Steve?

22:25 Steve Solomon

Well, the first would be, you know, one of the problems with the increasing amount of pollution is that there are so many new types of things going into the water system from pharmaceuticals, with pipe cracking going on and that's affecting ground water. DPA is trying to reorganize the way that it does its analyses to speed along some of the controls. But yeah, I mean, look, you should be filtering your own water for sure. You should be public testing your own water and understand what they are testing for and what they are not testing for. I wouldn't even trust the bottled water to be quite honestly, I mean, it's coming out of the public water systems or out of the ground water itself originally, and you don't know exactly, even when they do reverse osmosis, what they're taking out and what they're leaving in. Look, I think for the most part, the big cities in this country do a pretty good job of regulating our water and I think it's pretty good and if I were in a smaller town, I would be much more concerned than I would be in a big city, but I still would take those steps to protect things for yourself. I mean, after all, you know, it's our bodies that we're taking this water into.

23:35 Jonathan Hall

Yeah, and I think that's the bottom line. I would point out that the tap water utilities claimed that we have the safest drinking water in the world. The bottled water community holds up that they are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but I think that's a great lead into taking some calls, Liza.

23:54 Liza Lopes

Okay. This is a great conversation but I have to slow it down for Ann. She's been patient, patiently holding the line. Ann calling in with a question from Massachusetts. Hi, Ann!

24:04 Ann

Hi. I have to tell you this is extremely an informative show. I'm so glad I joined today but, you know, something that you've said recently about testing your water, not to trust any type of water, you know, I'm nervous. I have small kids in the house. How do I test my water?

24:24 Steve Solomon

There are companies that you can -- there are kits, first of all that you can buy to take at a basic level that are not very expensive. And there are also, if you want to go one step further, there are a bunch, if you look in the Yellow Pages, I think you'll find some companies that will test you tap water. Some people have, you know, lead lines like where I live here Washington. I think, we have pretty decent city water with some problems, but the lead lines that lead into the house from those city pipes are not so great and so we filter the water here in the house.

24:56 Ann

So, you would recommend testing and filtering?

25:01 Steve Solomon

Yeah. I would get a filter for your tap at any case. I mean, that's pretty simple and basic and that will take out a lot of the particulates that we know about. You know, the BREDA and those kinds of companies, I don't remember all their names and if you feel, you know, unsure beyond that, I think you can either get a kit to test it yourself or better still look in the Yellow Page and find one of the companies that will, you know, do a test for you. I don't think they are terribly expensive.

25:30 Ann

Okay. Great. Thank you.

25:31 Steve Solomon

Okay. Thank you.

25:32 Jonathan Hall

Thanks, Ann but before you leave the conversation, let me just note that on October 27, 2010, our guest is going to be Joe Harrison. He is formerly with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Water Quality Association and he is going to be talking specifically about home water filtration. So, you may want to join us there. Liza, let's take another caller.

25:50 Liza Lopes

Okay. Let's see. That's what we have right now. By the way, if you guys want to call us, dial 347-677-0833 is the number and I think, even more importantly, Jonathan, it's the concern of having water available. I'm not even so worried about what's in my water anymore. I'm talking to Steve. I think it's more about having the water.

26:14 Jonathan Hall

Yeah. Do you want to talk about that a little bit, Steve?

26:16 Steve Solomon

Sure. Sure. Let me look. You talked about Georgia a little while ago. I mean, Georgia, because now that the crisis has passed, they believe, they have really dropped the ball now and going forward because they don't want to face the cost of providing the water. It's a tax issue and taxes are very unpopular. It's a rate issue on our utilities across the country, because, you know, one of the problems with the water companies right now, that they are saving 20%, let's say they have it done in Las Vegas, Phoenix and many cities across the country have been pretty good about improving the efficiency of the amount of water that we use, after all it saves a lot of money, not just on using less but it also means you have to transport less. It is energy cost savings as well on sending it into the city and then on treating it, the waste water on the outside, so it's a big saving. But the rates don't reflect the savings that they get. In fact, the rates tend to the overall income that they get, the revenue actually declines in parallel with the decrease in water. So, we need to come up with new pricing structures that we reward the savings and efficiency. These are political problems and organizational problems, which in many ways are much bigger than the actual technical ones, because we know how to do many of these things. It's partly getting our act together to do it.

27:43 Jonathan Hall

Yeah. Steve, one other question from my chat room and you'll have to be brief on this is they are requesting the UN General Assemblies vote on human rights in drinking water as a human right. Do you want to speak to that?

27:57 Steve Solomon

Sure. Look, I mean, in the book "Water", I covered this questions. I mean, to me, a right is something like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If there can be -- in the right, we are talking about any entitlement, I think, if you can have a right to any physical thing, surely, it would start with water, but for the most part, I think, it's an entitlement. I think everybody in the world should try to get that five to six gallons that we need, just to basically survive, and we should try to support countries that do that and withhold aid from may be those that are unable to provide it, try to help them provide it. There should not be a single country in the world, even the worst dictatorship, that doesn't want to give five to six gallons to each person and, frankly, every country in the world, even the most water scarce has enough to do that.

28:44 Jonathan Hall

Well, finally, not always gloom and doom, you write that water offers us a momentous opportunity to re-launch wealth and global leadership through exploiting a comparative advantage in freshwater reserves. I'd love to hear you speak briefly about that.

28:59 Steve Solomon

Yes. Look, the United States, despite our constraints on the water side and we have many, is one of the water wealthiest countries in the world. We have 8% of the world's freshwater resources and only 4% of its population. We don't view water as an economic resource, although we are starting to wake up to that fact that if industry cannot live without it, energy, we cannot meet our energy goals, unless we solve -- use our water more efficiently and the world will not be able to feed itself unless somebody is able to use the water more efficiently. We have the opportunity to produce many of the water intensive goods, food and energy products that the world increasingly, water thirsty as we go to a population of nine billion people by 2050, a 50% increase from today, is going to be demanding and if we do that, we will re-launch our growth, our own economic growth, our international influence standing in the world, and will help the world avert many of the miseries that surely going to lie ahead.

30:03 Jonathan Hall

We've been speaking with author Steven Solomon. He has written a fantastic new book, "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization." Well, that's it for today's show for Around The Water Cooler hosted on Blog Talk Radio, the first and largest online radio citizen broadcasting network. I am Jonathan Hall along with Liza Lopes. Thanks again to Steve Solomon for being our guest today. Thanks for Sherry Sanland for handling today's production and thanks to those of you who phoned in, who are listening to us and those of you who were chatting with us online. Again, a reminder that next week we are going to rebroadcast this show with Steve Solomon. Two weeks from now, we'll be having a guest, Joe Harrison, former EPA, Water Quality Association, taking your calls about home water filtration, and that's it, 11:30 a.m. Eastern time, 8:30 .a.m. Pacific time for our next Around The Water Cooler Show.

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