Thursday, 3 March 2011

Dieoff by Peak Water

So could we conceivably see Dieoff (capital D) from "peak water" i.e. the death of industrial civilization?

This one is interesting in a morbid kind of way because to a certain extent there is in fact already shortage of water.

Looked at one particular way, that is.

Interestingly, however, industrial civilization has not collapsed due to localized water shortages anywhere in the world so at the very beginning of the post we have to say, "no 'peak water' won't cause the dieoff of industrial civilization".

But let's continue, because we're just interested in general in knowing about water "shortages" and how they are solved.

If we ask the question: what water are we potentially short of and what are the solutions, it gets a lot more interesting.

Also: water is not like oil. It's not a non-renewable resource. Quite the contrary. There is such a thing as the water cycle. This is a problem of how to extract the maximum possible for the flow.

Anyways, lets ask some questions.

Are there water *shortages*? If so, what shortages are there? Lastly, how can we conceivably address these water shortages?

Are there water shortages?
Some people and industries would certainly say so, but I'd like to point out that the planet is covered in water. Only 28% of the planet is land therefore the other 72% is covered in water.

Since that water is seven miles deep in places we have a lot of water on the planet. An estimate of the mass of water might be somewhere around one and a half times ten to the 18 tonnes. In English that's something like 1.5 billion billion metric tonnes of water.
So what is the problem?

Well, for us land based creatures, we generally speaking need fresh water.

Of the gazzillion tonnes of water only 2 percent of that is fresh water of which three quarters is locked up in the polar caps. And if the caps melt, that water will join the rest of the salty water.

So we have an abundance of salt water and much less so of fresh water.

In fact, what we have is a distributed allocation of water. Some places are water rich and others are water poor. We have wet countries like Canada and Scotland and dry countries like Saudi Arabia. Parts of the USA are dry too such as the southwest.

Now, left to it's own devices without any human interference (i.e. let's sit round the campfire, sing kumbaya and let everything be taken care of by the "ecosystem") people who live in dry regions are short of fresh water.

How is that a problem?
If the dry region is *rich* it's not a problem. They have options such as importing bottled water, paying for a pipeline or aqueducts from a wetter region (such as the california aqueduct), building desalination plants (such as the wind turbine powered desalination plant in perth, western australia), buying their food from regions with water so they don't have to grow their food themselves et cetera et cetera

-Perth Desalination Plant-

There are endless ways to solve that particular problem if you have money.

What if you do not have money?

Well realistically we're talking about industrial civilization, whose main goal is to make money in the service of the economy. Those who are poor are of course the losers in the system and in any human system there are always unfortunately some losers.

In any case, what can be done?

Well many of the water "shortages" are in regions of the world with severely degraded soils due to overgrazing (such as by grazing the land with goats which notoriously eat almost everything and end up desertifying the land eventually). Additionally, many of the water "shortages" are in regions which are heavily overpopulated AND whose population mainly survive through erratic subsistence agriculture.

So... we essentially have 3 problems to overcome:

1. Desertification
2. Shortage of actual water supplies due to being in arid regions
3. Lack of industrial infrastructure leading to dependence on subsistence farming.

Sadly, there is not much to be done in poor regions if there are no funds since recovering land from the desert is expensive. It can be done but it's expensive and thus poor people can't do it.

Water shortages can be dealt with, on the other hand by conserving water and recycling it.
There are technical solutions to this such including water management whereby flash rains are stored rather than let evaporate away.

-Cheap Indian Water Storage System-

Additionally water can also be conserved by for example, instead of flushing it away into the ocean, wash your hands by dry alternatives or use chemical or hole-in-the-ground toilet facilities.

My main argument, however, would be to raise the living standards of the population so they could afford to trade and thus could take advantage of the available technology that could solve the problems.

Failing that, if the people continue to depend on subsistence farming the soil as it is and the lack of fresh water as it is will inevitably lead to not enough food and water to go around for the overpopulation in arid areas. Israel is a good example of a mid-income nation who has been able to reclaim some of the land back from the desert and has excellent conservation practises to the extent that they export food due to for example, the Israeli invention of drip agriculture which is a super efficient irrigation method. But again, these are rich people solutions.

-Israeli Drip Irrigation-

What would be required to solve that particular problem without building e.g. aqueduct infrastructure or expensive desalination plants (not even the cheap ones such as glass buildings with guttering built over shallow lagoons) would be to develop drought resistant crops and salt water tolerant crops for those who live near to the coast and have access to ocean water. That way, trade could be kick-started and industrial development could take place at a rate great enough to enable the population to buy what they need from further afield if it's not available where they live.

Saltwater crops are very interesting because Seawater has 80% of the necessary crop nutrients in adequate concentrations for crop growing. Thus the need for fertilizer would be minimized if saltwater tolerant crops could be developed.

There has been some limited progress in developing saltwater tolerant crops. One particular example is a hybrid version of a galapagus island cherry tomato which can be grown in a 70% solution of seawater. It will take further work before these tomatoes could be grown in 100% seawater, but progress is being made.

One other idea that springs to mind is the use of drought tolerant biofuel crops such as agave that could be grown in desert regions with very little water, then traded for food crops grown in water rich regions.

A harder solution is the political one: in overpopulated regions, they should try to balance their population by trying to move towards 2 children per family instead of more. Luckily, even there progress is being made since as of 2010 there are only a handful remaining of the 180 some countries whose population growth is higher than 2 children per family. Projections are for the population to top out at 9.5 billion around 2040 and then gently decline in subsequent decades.

In short, rather than water shortages, what we have is an uneven distribution of wealth due to uneven distribution of resources. That is nothing to do with any putatitve peaks caused allegedly by any "limits to growth" and instead is a feature of human society. I do not propose to try to solve it or to make it worse, instead I will point out that uneven water distribution will not cause the end of civilization as we know it.


Anonymous said...

You, sir, is a hero!
I will use this to, hopefully, pull my long time friend back from the doomer camp

(btw: I will be making a real account here shortly)

Anonymous said...

So what exactly is "dieoff?" The end of all human life on earth? Or is it a certain amount of decline in the population over a certain amount of time?

This is what baffles me about these self-appointed "debunker" sites. The authors seem intent on finding a doomer bogeyman whose gloomy prognostications are vague enough to exaggerate into a full-on death wish for all mankind.

So, has someone actually claimed that water shortages will end all human life? Or, as I suspect, some anonymous blogger somewhere suggested that a lack of clean water can cause outbreaks of disease that can kill hundreds of thousands?

DB said...

Dear anonymous doomer. Please go read Once you have done that you may come back here and join in the debate as to whether peak oil will follow the prognostication in or not.

Do not guess and do not waste our time here until you have done that.

Thank you.

Tom said...


The word "dieoff," as it was used in doomer circles, meant a large reduction in human population, down to the level which prevailed before the industrial revolution and which presumably could be sustained indefinitely without any fertilizer or mechanized agriculture. Most doomers calculated that the post-dieoff human population would be around 2 billion, meaning that 2/3rds of the world population would die off. Doomers generated this figure of 2 billion by looking at the maximum human population during the 19th century, before mechanized agriculture or fertilizer.

Predictions of "dieoff" were common in doomer circles around 2004-2008. That kind of doomerism appears to be rare now. There are still a few references to "Olduvai Theory" and so on, bandied around on peak oil websites, but hard-core doomerism which promises an end to civilization seems to be in remission.


Sp00ky said...

Hey again!

This is the persistent question asking anon reporting :)

I would like to thank you once again for the excellent block-post regarding the peak-water thesis. I was using facts from it against my unfortunate friend as early as this morning.

As it stands he maintain that running out of water (drinking water) will result in warfare (sounds a lot like the suggested “energy wars” Clinton talked about in his time, small and sporadic), which will lead to suffering and death, I am at this time trying to pull him away from that idea (pointing to the ability to turn sea water into drinking water).

When I was looking into the matter myself, I came across something which was rather interesting. It seems that a report by the New York Times has caused trouble for the booming natural-gas rush. They made a long article about some issues regarding the wastewater amounts resulting from the new drilling techniques used to extract the formerly un-extractable gas reserves.

As far as I understood it, the centerpiece of it was, that the wastewater was (to the knowledge of health observers) sent to water distillation which were unequipped to purify it, resulting in toxic (and at times radioactive) water being returned to lakes and drinking water reserves.

This in turn, made a number of lawmakers (I have sadly misplaced the website link for this) furious, demanding a report on the whole thing, from the drilling process to the life-cycle of the wastewater (from drilling station – to distillation plant – to drinking water reserves).

One of the lawmakers stated, that in his opinion "energy should not come at the expense of human health".

I ran across some doomers on the net who gloated at this (both the report and the lawmaker comment), thinking this would stop the gas rush in its tracks (The drilling process becoming illegal), thus reducing the chances for energy independence and an oil alternative -> making their gloomish (and idiotic) predictions relevant again.

To my knowledge though, the lawmakers were spitting venom at the health observers who were aware of this, but didn’t react to it. I would also say that it seems extremely unlikely that anyone would halt such a booming industry, since the prospect of energy independence is something the USA has dreamed about for decades.

I don’t know more than this about it though, I wonder what will happen now

By the way; This name, Sp00ky, will be my poster name from this day onwards :D

DB said...

Thanks Tom for the clarification for those who can't be bothered to go check before posting.

That said, I don't think die-off doomerism is in remission at ALL. If you go to many of the more mainstream peak oil boards such as in the US or powerswitch in the UK you can easily find recent reference to dieoff. For example here's one from the 14th of Feb 2011 at peak oil:

If you go read this post the very first line says "dieoff will begin..."

dieoff theory combined with limits to growth theory has definitively insinuated itself into most discussions of peak oil and the more realistic discussions are drowned out by all the doomers. I aim to change that on this blog.

honey said...

And as someone who used to be scared out of her wits by "doomerism" I'd like to thank you for that. De-dooming process still requires a debunking boost against short-term remissions. JD - hope he's all right! - and you, sir is my heroes ;-)