"When the Rivers Run Dry: Water--The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century"
Transcription of Audio Interview, June 10, 2006
JIM PUPLAVA: Throughout history rivers have been our foremost source of freshwater, both for agriculture and individual consumption, but now economists say that by the year 2025 water scarcity will cut global food production by more than the current US grain harvest. In his groundbreaking book veteran science correspondent Fred Pearce focuses on the dire state of the world’s rivers to provide our most complete portrait yet of another growing worldwide water crisis and its ramifications for us all.
Fred, in the introduction to your book you make a statement that nothing, not even climate change will matter more to humanity’s future than the fate of our rivers. Why do you believe this to be the foremost issue facing us in the 21st Century?
FRED PEARCE: It seems to me that it’s the one that’s heading towards us the fastest, the one we’ve done the least to do anything about, and it connects up with a number of other worrying environmental trends. So it’s part of a nexus if you like.
My own hunch is that climate change is going to be a major issue over the next few decades, but we will experience it less through warming itself � changes in temperature � and more through changes to, if you like, the hydrological cycle. In other words, more droughts, longer droughts, occasionally more floods, rising sea-levels. In other words, it’s water that’s going to be the prism if you like through which we see and experience global warming. And if you add that to damage to our soils and the land around the world, which again is going to be exacerbated by water shortages, I think water becomes the focal point. I think many environmental issues are going to hit us most seriously through water shortages. [2:16]
JIM: Very few people, I think, realize how much water it takes to get us through a normal day. Would you give us just a few examples to illustrate just how much water we actually use?
FRED: Ok, just to give you a few examples, it takes us 130 gallons in order to grow a pound of wheat; 65 gallons for a pound of potatoes; something like 600 gallons to produce enough water to grow a pound of rice. It’s the amount of water it takes to grow the staple crops that we require to live through everyday � 500 to 1,000 gallons to feed a cow enough to provide us with a quart of milk. These to me are quite extraordinary amounts of water.
And I did a calculation to work out how much water it took to get me through a typical day in terms of my daily diet. It works out in one day to be something like 100 times my own weight in water. You imagine between 6 and 7 billion people trying to do that, and you begin to realize why the world is really running up against the buffer � it’s really running up against the limits on water around the world. [3:27]
JIM: Well, let’s move in to discuss an example in your book, a river very close to home here in the US is the mighty Rio Grande. Fill us in on the history of this important river.
FRED: It was one of the wildest rivers in North America. I mean it flows down, as you’ll know out of the Rockies into Texas and along the border between the US and Mexico. Now, it’s had some large dams built on it in the last few decades which collect and distribute much of the water from the river to irrigation projects. So that today the river that comes out of the US � out of the Rockies � no longer reaches the sea for much of the year.
Pretty much as it gets past El Paso it just disappears. It disappears into a kind of mess of cedar and reed and a few pools of water and nothing very much, and for a couple of hundred miles there is virtually nothing in the river bed until you get a little further down. I visited a little town called Presidio on the border which is where a tributary comes in from South of the border � comes in from Mexico � and provides some more water which takes the river on down to the sea. So most of the time the Rio Grande does reach the sea, but really now it’s two rivers. It’s not one river anymore, it’s two rivers.
And the first river, the US river gives out, as I say, just past El Paso. Now, that’s an extraordinary change from what we’ve been used to from one of the major rivers of North America. It’s really been entirely enfeebled. And this is a little bit to do with climate change, and it’s had some dry years there in the last decade or so. That’s part of the problem, but the main part of the problem is simply the amount of water that’s being taken out of not just of the Rio Grande but many other rivers in the American West �the Colorado notoriously � so that there is literally no water left at all. It’s really why I call the book When the Rivers Run Dry because they are literally running dry. [5:15]
JIM: Why don’t you put into perspective the shape of water on this planet because you know Earth is a water planet, yet fresh water is scarce.
FRED: Freshwater is scarce, and liquid freshwater is more scarce still. Most of the water we have of course is salt water in the oceans, and most of what we have left is frozen. Of the liquid water much of it is buried deep under ground, often in places where we really can’t get to it. And a remarkably small proportion of it flows in our rivers and flows along the surface, and is � if you like � involved in the day to day water cycle of evaporation and rain cloud formation, and new rain, and the water getting into rivers, and going back down to the sea and evaporating again. So really a quite small proportion of water on the planet �you know, much, much less than one percent � is available for our use. And by some calculations we are now using approaching half of all the water that is available to us. [6:14]
JIM: Why don’t you describe the water cycle? How it takes shape and why it’s so important?
FRED: In many ways water is the ultimate renewable resource. So we don’t use water in the sense of destroying it or making it impossible to use on another occasion � now, that’s the good news. So what we see in the water cycle is the water falls out of the sky in rain, some of it will percolate underground or go into lakes. Much of it however goes into rivers and falls down to the sea. From there after a few days it will generally evaporate again into the sky, form new clouds and rain again. Typically the water that goes through this cycle may reappear again after 10 days or two weeks. So it’s quite a lively natural recycling system, if I can put it that way. But the problem is, now we’re using water on such a scale in some places, that water is simply ceasing to be where we need it, when we need it. It’s a matter of management in a sense � the water’s not going away it’s still there � but we’re using it just on such a scale that it’s not there as, I say, when we need it, where we need it. [7:24]
JIM: What is the source of most of the water that we use today, where does it come from? And if you take a large metropolitan city, for example, like San Diego, Los Angeles, or New York, where does that water come from?
FRED: It’s very variable. In some part of the US, and indeed around the world, this is a pretty general rule: it comes straight from the rivers. In other words, it’s the rain that’s fallen onto the land, flowed into the rivers. We erect large dams on those rivers, collect the water behind it and simply pipe it into our cities. Or pipe it to irrigation projects � around two-thirds of the water that we use doesn’t go to cities or taps or even to industry it goes to agriculture, by far the biggest user of water.
In other areas, particularly in more arid regions where there really aren’t rivers, or aren’t full time rivers if you like, we collect much of our water from beneath the ground. We’re pumping up underground reserves of water, and that’s where the hidden problems arise because we can all see if a river runs dry, there’s no more water in the river and we can’t use it. But hidden problems arise when we start tapping these underground water reserves, some of which are hundreds even thousands of years old. Once we start pumping the water out, the water tables go down and down and down, until you reach the point where either there is no water there at all, or costs of pumping it up are extremely high, or all the water that is left is contaminated perhaps by contact with rocks underneath, or invasion of salt and such things.
So the visible sign of the world water crisis is when the rivers run dry, but there are many parts of the world, including in the US � the Midwest � where underground aquifers are being pumped dry, and creating not just problems for today but the future, because in many cases it will be centuries before the aquifers refill sufficiently. In arid areas there simply often isn’t enough rain to recharge them and to provide new water for another year. [9:21]
JIM: Is one of the big problems we face today, Fred, that many of the world’s greatest rivers are quite honestly in regions where few people can or want to live? For example, the Amazon, the Congo, or the Orinoco.
FRED: That’s right, we have a basic problem here that most of the world’s biggest rivers are for one reason or another in the world’s least populated regions. Now, there are really two regions that we’re talking about. We’re talking about the tropical rainforests. Now the world’s two biggest rivers are the Amazon running through the Brazilian rainforest � very low population there; and the second one is the river Congo running through tropical, central Africa � similarly very small population.
The second region with the largest rivers is the Arctic. Now, if you count the worlds 10 largest rivers, they are all either in rainforest regions, or flowing North to more or less empty lands towards the Arctic. Here we’re talking about rivers like the Mackenzie, and the Yukon; we’re talking about the river Ob, and the river Yenisei and other rivers in Siberia. So they’re flying through essentially empty lands, and while the water is there if we wanted to bring the water to where the people are it’s an extremely expensive operation.
The Russians have talked for some time about moving water �at least some of their north flowing Siberian rivers � into Central Asia where there are desperate water shortages. If you remember the stories about the Aral sea �the great inland sea in Central Asia � which is virtually dried up now, and the Russians have talked for a long time about trying to move water from Siberia to that region. Really, the economics of it don’t add up, it’s just crazily expensive to move this water and so it hasn’t been done on this scale.
The Chinese do have great water shortages in the north of China and have in fact begun a project to deliver quite large amounts of water from the rather wetter South of the country. Essentially they’re moving water from the River Yangtze in the South to the Yellow River in the North. Now, the North of the country traditionally has provided an awful lot of grain, particularly wheat harvest which has fed hundreds of millions of people in China, and they are literally running out of water there. The Yellow River doesn’t reach the sea for much of the year now or certainly not in any quantity. So the Chinese are going for the ultimate engineering solution but it’s costing them a great, great deal of money indeed � $60 billion is the price tag being put on this transfer scheme. And that’s just for building it; the costs for pumping will probably ultimately be even higher. [11:47]
JIM: You know one of the problems that you talk about that we face is this escalating shortage of water and of the statistics in your book one stands out, that is the world grows twice as much food today as it did a generation ago, but extracts almost 3 times more water from its rivers and underground aquifers to do it. That’s � mathematically � if we keep going along that line we’re going to run into problems.
FRED: Yes, we simply can’t do it. The flip-size in many ways has been a great success story. I’m old enough to remember back in the 1960s and 1970s when I was still at high school being really horrified by how the world’s population was going to double in 30 years; and how on earth were we going to grow twice as much food to keep everybody fed. And this remember was the time of very great famines in India and elsewhere. The truth of the matter is the scientists got on the job, they produced new high yielding varieties of the great crops of the world, like wheat and corn and rice. And we are now producing twice as much food as we did, so we’re feeding that double world population.
The trouble is the new crops that they produced are really very inefficient in the way they use water. I don’t think the scientists realized it at the time. So they required very large inputs of water, and that is the principal reason why �yes, we grow twice as much food � but we need three times as much water to do it. And that I think is the number one reason why our rivers are running dry while the underground aquifers are giving out.
The scientists are well aware of this. They now talk about the need not for a green revolution which is what they called what they were doing in the 1970s and 1980s, but they’re now talking about a blue revolution which is developing new crops which are much more efficient in the way they use water. And I think they have some hopes of success on that front, but certainly it’s urgent. We really do need to find crops which recognize that, if you like, water is a finite resource and not something that we have unlimited supplies of.
The other thing of course that needs to be done is that farmers need to get much more savvy about how they use water. Still around the world, wherever you are, whether you’re in Africa, or the US, most farmers, most of the time irrigate their crops by simply flooding the fields. Now, that’s easy and cheap while you’ve got the water, but when you’re running short of the water it doesn’t make a lot of sense. You’ve got to be much more clever about delivering water to the roots themselves through drip irrigation systems or other similar arrangements. And if you do that you can grow the crops with perhaps only 20 or 30% as much water as was being used in the past.
Looking at how the world is going to survive in the future �having to grow more and more food, for more and more people � I think the answer is going to be a mixture of cleverer crops, the blue revolution crops and farmers being much cleverer about how they use water. It can be done, but it’s a matter of having the vision to do it. [14:41]
JIM: One thing that you point out, the doomsayers have been wrong in the past � the disaster haven’t appeared. Look what happened, we had the second agricultural revolution that took place in the 70s and 80s. Do you think technology can save us in this form? In other words, if they can come up with better varieties of seed that are more drought resistance, if they can come up with better forms of irrigation that we can win this battle � let’s say, through better farming techniques and technology?
FRED: Yes, I think that’s right. I think you can. There are technical solutions, the problems are almost more about how we makes sure everybody adopts them, and that we don’t find that the people that have access to the water use it all up and leave people downstream on the river without any water at all. If we act cooperatively, or at any rate with reasonable sense, if water is perhaps charged at a more realistic price to farmers than it currently is � currently, it’s so cheap they really don’t need to worry about in economic terms about saving water. So if we get the economic and political policies right we can do this, and farmers will be encouraged to invest in drip irrigation systems, and that kind of thing. So it’s not rocket science, it’s things which are more or less there. We need to do some work on developing the more water efficient crops � we need a new agricultural revolution there.
As I say I think that’s coming along, but if you like the �on farm’ solutions are more or less there, it’s just a matter of adopting them. Some of them need to made cheaper. I’ve seen in India how Indian farmers can be very innovative in the way that they develop clever systems of distributing small amounts of water across their fields using little plastic tubing systems and things � much different from the high tech pressurized piping systems that tend to get adopted in the West. There are methods of doing this even for small and very poor farmers. It’s a matter of getting ourselves together to do it. [16:42]
JIM: You know, one of the thing you see as the river runs dry it’s very visible as you’ve talked about with what’s happening with the Rio Grande. The problem I think is underground water which is invisible, I mean how do you know when you get to the bottom of the barrel so to speak of an underground aquifer?
FRED: Well, I guess you don’t know until you get there, and then suddenly the water isn’t there anymore � the water isn’t in your pump. And it’s started to happen. I spent some time in India traveling around and there are certainly parts of India now � now, India is a success story in terms of agriculture, 30 or 40 years ago it had famines and since then its population has doubled, and yet it is now feeding itself better than it probably has there in its history. Indeed, it exports rice to some extent. But in doing that they’ve used the water of the country right up to the limit, so most of the rivers in India are dry for much of the year.
So farmers have, especially in the last decade, increasingly relied on pumping out water reserves. More than 20 million farmers have sunk new tube wells beneath their fields, pumping water out. Indeed in some states of India more electricity is used for pumping water out of the ground than for any other purpose. And farmers overload the system and cause brownouts. So there’s this kind of fantastic energy use to pump water out from beneath the ground, and that’s going on because the water table is going down and down and down.
I visited areas of India where a generation ago the water table was perhaps 30 feet down. You could literally lift the water out from a well with a hand pulled bucket. Now you need power systems and you have to go down 500 yards, 1000 yards and maybe a mile sometimes, to bring the water to the surface. And there must be a limit how long that can go on. Firstly, it’s very expensive in terms of energy, but secondly one day the water won’t be there. And there are, as I say, places where that’s beginning to happen where farmers are simply abandoning some villages because there’s no water. So if you like, that’s an emerging crisis.
And I think what we might say is the agricultural revolution of 30 years ago bought us time, but we do have to have a second agricultural revolution if we’re going to sustain the farm production in countries like India, and indeed across much of Asia. We do need another revolution otherwise the water is going to run out. I think perhaps 30 years ago we thought the most precious resource was land, and perhaps land and people. Now we realize that the most precious resource is water, so we’re going to have to address ourselves very seriously to making better use of our water. [19:22]
JIM: Are there any technologies being developed, Fred? For example, in the oil industry, technology has really been a great boon to the industry in the sense that they can find oil more easily. Also with the computer technologies �seismic graphing, 3D imaging � they get a better feel for what lies underneath the Earth in terms of how big the oil field is. Is there anything being done like that in the area of water, where you know perhaps we get a better understanding of when that aquifer is getting to the danger point, or running dry?
FRED: Work is being done. People are still finding new aquifers, there is a very major aquifer that’s been discovered relatively recently in South America on the borders between Uruguay and Brazil and Paraguay � very large amounts of water down there. Much of Africa remains unsurveyed for underground water. So, if you like, the exploration and discovery of new underground water reserves is going on. The problem is these are generally finite reserves, they’re not really reserves being replaced by a great deal of rain water. So there are difficulties about how sustainable, about how long this water is going to survive.
What we have to be careful of is thinking that we can mine water in the way that we mine a mill resource or mine oil. Many of the similar technologies can be used to find and to pump to the surface water as we’ve used for oil, but of course, you know if we run out of oil one day we will find other energy sources but it’s very difficult to conceive of any substitute for water. If we run out of the underground reserves of freshwater we’re going to be even more dependent on the surface flows in rivers. And as we’ve seen over the last few years those too are finite, and indeed they’re much more vulnerable in the short term. So I think we’ve got to be careful.
Yes, technology can find more water for us. It can allow us to manage the reserves better and know where we are with them and to improve the pumping technology and so on. But we have to look to more of an accommodation with nature, so that we start to manage the water cycle better. But the water cycle is as I say a great renewable resource: water will keep on coming back provided we manage things properly. And that’s a challenge now. It’s not if you like to confront nature with more pumps and more dams and so on, it’s just to perhaps manage the system rather more cleverly so that the water is there when we need it. [21:47]
JIM: Fred, in your opinion, do dams help or aggravate our water problem? In other words, are they modern marvels, or are they a curse upon the land.
FRED: They’re certainly marvels in many ways. I mean the ability to collect water behind a large dam and distribute it � either to cities, or to farms, or for hydroelectricity � is a great technology. But I think what we’ve failed to see are some of the downsides. We’ve failed to see how economically it sometimes doesn’t make sense. I mean, I’ve been to villages in India where they run out of water because they don’t catch the monsoon rains running off their land for instance. I’ve seen the same thing in China. The water tends to run off their land, goes into the river, lands up behind a large dam and is pumped back to them � or, that’s the theory, sometimes the water doesn’t get pumped back to them. Whereas a cleverer technology would be for them to collect the water on their own land and keep it for their own purposes. So I think dams have sometimes distorted our ideas about the best way of managing water. They’ve been a sort of one size fits all technology.
Also, we have to realize they do do great damage to the natural flows of rivers. And here we’re not just talking about the ecology, though it certainly does great damage to the ecology of many rivers, but also to the natural wealth of a river. Most of the world’s rivers have much impoverished fisheries because the natural or seasonal fluctuations of water flow down the rivers have been disrupted by dams, and that’s changed the ecology and impoverished the ecology, and there are very many fewer fish surviving and breeding in this revised ecosystem. That’s a great problem especially in poor countries such as Cambodia, which is one that I’ve visited, where fish can be the major source of food � a free natural resource � and once you start building dams on the river you suddenly don’t have that resource.
We’re very good at realizing the cash value if you like of generating hydroelectricity from a large dam or distributing water to irrigation projects. We’re rather less good at seeing the downsides, and the damage that can be done to the natural wealth of the land � the rivers � by a large dam. There are also tens of millions of people around the world who have lost their homes, and have lost their farms because their land has been flooded to make the way for reservoirs. Now sometimes that’s a good thing � it’s a loss for people concerned, but it has overall value to the community. But I suspect that very often the loss has been greater than the gain. So large dams have two sides, and I think in the past, engineers particularly have been rather too keen to see the upside, and rather blind to the downside. And I hope by now we have a rather more realistic expectation.
The other thing perhaps to say about dams is that most of the good dam sites have already been used up. All the deep gorges and the places where you can collect a lot of water while pouring relatively small amounts of concrete, and flooding relatively small amounts of land. Most of those areas have already been taken for large dams. So if we want more large dams, generally they’re the less good sites where the downside is rather larger and the upside is rather smaller.
So my gut feeling is that the great days of dam building are probably over now, that probably we’ve got the good dams, and that the costs � the environmental and social downsides � of any further dams that we can build are going to be rather too high for us to be comfortable with. So, you know, maybe the large dams were the technology of the 20th Century. I don’t think they’re going to be the water technology of the 21st Century. [25:27]
JIM: Michael Klare in his book, Resource Wars, documents that there have been more wars fought in history over resources. And I wonder if you would give us an example one of today’s water conflicts. I mean, certainly people are aware of the geopolitical conflicts involving oil, but I think they’re unaware of the geopolitical conflicts involving water � and what comes to mind is the Middle East.
FRED: Absolutely. Water is quite frequently tied up in conflicts, either as an aggravating factor or one of the primary factors. The one that springs to mind most clearly is the Six Day war between Israel and its neighbors in the 1960s. Now conventional histories, and nearly all commentating at the time, really talked about that war in terms of security for Israel and land: exactly how much land the Israelis should be allowed to have; and the land required by the Palestinians; and the land required by Israel’s neighbors. So the war was overtly fought over land.
But a subtext, and a very strong subtext of that was the issue of water. Ariel Sharon indeed, in his memoirs, wrote the water was the principal cause of the Six Day war. Israel had huge concerns that the River Jordan, which Israel continues to rely on for a great deal of water, was about to be hijacked by the Syrians in its headwaters. And that was the principal reason why, if you know the geography of the area, Israel annexed during that war the Golan Heights which are of strategic significance, but one of their great significances is they hold the headwaters of the River Jordan. So, at the end of the war Israel had control of the River Jordan, both at its headwaters and indeed down to its natural end which is the Dead Sea on the border between Israel and Jordan. Before the Six Day war Israel had control of very little of the banks and the headwaters of the River Jordan. By the end, it had control of most of it, and has maintained that ever since. And the River Jordan remains to this day the number one water resource for the state of Israel, and the farmers of Israel and the cities of Israel. And we have Ariel Sharon, and he was a general in that war, I think to say that water was a critical issue there.
And of course, water remains a critical issue in the disputes between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Notably on the West Bank, where Israel does not allow Palestinian villages to sink new wells in order to improve the water supply � the often very meager water supply that village rural communities on the West Bank have. Israel gives itself most of the water that is available on the West Bank, which is likely underground water because there aren’t any rivers there, but the underground water mostly ends up on Israeli fields and in Israeli taps. And only about a third of it is used by the Palestinians � even though they are the largest population and according to the UN the only legal population on the West Bank itself. So this great source of conflict � now obviously there are two sides to many of these issues � and some of the local conflicts have to do with security, and the real fears Israeli settlers have about their neighbors, but really I think that there’s not going to be any political solution to the disputes on the West Bank and the wider disputes between Israel and the Palestinians until the disputes over water are resolved, and the Palestinians have the water that they need to live their lives. I think water is certainly as important as land in that region.
And the tragedy perhaps is that I know while the Israeli government has for many taken a rather belligerent line about access to water, many Israeli water scientists � hydrologists � do believe that there is enough water and that with care the water could be shared out and that both communities could have enough. So there is hope there, there is a prospect of peace there. Indeed there is sometimes day to day cooperation between water scientists �Israeli and Palestinian water scientists � to share out the water, but the geopolitics they haven’t got right yet.
And the danger of course is, that there could be and there certainly already are festering disputes over the water in the region, but those could break it into a full scale war which is overtly about water. We really have to resolve those issues in an amicable way or they are just festering disputes, and as I say, I think water as much as land is crucial to peace in the Middle East. [30:01]
JIM: I want to move back to the United States for a moment, just how vulnerable are we in the western or southwestern United States? If you take a look at the last climate cycle, of cooling between the 60s and 90s you had large cities that grew up, or were built in the Southwest, and I’m thinking from Las Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles, that are quite honestly very heavily dependent on river water.
FRED: Absolutely. Phoenix is perhaps the quintessential example which relies on taking water a very long distance from the Colorado River in order to keep its fountains and its swimming pools going � if I could put it that way. Absolutely.
And there are serious problems here because the climate does seem to be changing. Well, there are two problems. First of all, the very large water use by these cities, increasingly they are having to buy out farms in the neighborhood in order to secure access to the water that the farmers have as a right. But also the climate change throughout the American West over the last decade or so the amount of rainfall in general year to year has reduced very substantially the amount of flows in the Colorado and in the Rio Grande that have gone down a lot. Partly that’s because of extractions, but in considerable measure it is because the climate appears to be changing.
And climate historians who have been investigating the history of rainfall and the history of river flows in the American West have uncovered in the past really very long periods when there have been severe droughts. What they describe as super droughts lasting for decades, and on a couple of occasions even centuries, which have wiped out whole civilizations: the Maya civilization in Central America a little bit to the South; and many of the native civilizations in New Mexico and Arizona, which did very well a thousand or 1200 years ago, were wiped out at that time because of declining water supplies. The evidence seems to be that they had droughts, as I say, that didn’t last as we’re used to now for maybe one or two or three years, but lasted decades going on into centuries.
So that’s the historical background, and what we see now is, well, there’s been a decade really very dry weather in the American West. And the question is will it end? Will the much heavier rainfalls that we saw through most of the 20th Century come back? And it’s not really very clear that they will. Now, we can argue whether that’s due to manmade climate change or natural cycles, but I guess if you’re in the American West it doesn’t make much difference what’s causing it. There is a growing shortage of waters in the rivers and in the underground water reserves, and it’s not really very clear how that’s going to be resolved. [32:43]
JIM: Just a couple of final questions. You talk about something called a pepsee, if I’m pronouncing it correctly?
FRED: That’s right.
JIM: What is it, and can it save us?
FRED: Well, I think it could save an awful lot of Indian farmers. I was talking a little earlier about smart technologies that could help very poor farmers. The pepsee is a little plastic tube, which is very thin plastic which is sold in long rolls. People selling popsicles on the street in India buy these rolls, and they put the ice into them and they tear them off at a perforation and simply sell them on the street. They consume them all the time.
Some time, a few years ago, not so long ago in fact, some Indian farmer somewhere, thought well, hey, these tubes could have another use, and he unrolled them without tearing them apart from their perforations, so there is a long roll of these tubes which he spread across his field along the rows of his crops. And he poured water into one end. And what he found was that the holes that are there as perforations in order to tear the popsicle tubes off will act as distribution point for the water in the longer tube. So essentially he can use these really fantastically cheap, and they really do cost nothing, tubes to deliver water very precisely along these fields and to the roots of his crops. He stumbled on a very, very cheap drip irrigation system. And this has taken off like wildfire, literally millions of farmers are using these now across India.
The manufacturers of these products have got wise to the fact that these products have another use, and in fact the farmers went to them and said we have one problem, because they’re transparent the algae tend to build up. The heat of the sun tends to encourage algae growth in the tube, and this can be a problem under some circumstances. So the manufacturers are now producing a black version which gets around that problem because somehow the sun somehow doesn’t penetrate in so you don’t get an algae build up. So they’re now producing these purpose made for farmers. And as I say they’ve taken off in a very big way because they are probably a hundred times cheaper than conventional drip irrigation system.
And farmers who are finding that very often they really don’t have enough water to grow their crops � either the state distribution canals for water have run dry, or they are desperately short of water from their underground reserves and are having to pump it up a very long way and it’s very expensive to do it � they’re finding it makes sense to put these tubes across their land, and use that as a distribution system for irrigation water.
It’s a great system. And for me, it shows how innovative even the poorest farmers can be. They can come up with something I’m absolutely sure no Western water scientist if they had come in there would never have come up with that as an idea. But some farmer did, and it’s a great find among Indian farmers that have ensured their really smart new technology is taking off. [35:43]
JIM: Fred, a final question. You say you’re an optimist in your book, so explain what drives your optimism. And how do we solve the problem of water scarcity and at the same time continue to feed a growing world population?
FRED: I think in a word my optimism arises out of the pepsee, out of the fact that people can always find new ways of doing things and they can be very innovative.
On some days I’m pessimistic. Some days I look at the water system and I say, well look, we use water so inefficiently, we seem to be so bad at managing the natural water cycle that you know we’re doomed, the rivers are going to carry on running dry and the underground reserves are going to simply dry up, and famines are going to spread across the world.
You know, on another day, I will think, well, look, if we’re so inefficient � which I think we are in the way we manage water � that means there’s just huge potential to do it better. When farmers all around the world could be using 50% less water, sometimes 70 or 80% less water and still getting the same crops, then we have huge potential to do things better. The technologies are not terribly difficult, it’s just a matter of organizing ourselves to do it. So I am optimistic. I mean there may be some bumps along the way, there may indeed be some famines along the way if the water suddenly runs out in parts of the world.
You know, we can do it, the water is there, nature will recycle that water through evaporation and new rainfall, the rains will keep coming. If we can manage things properly we can get through it, we can do it. It’s a matter of using our ingenuity, and getting organized. It’s probably as simple as that. [37:17]
JIM: Well, Fred, you’ve written a great book and I think a great eye-opener to an issue that’s going to be with us over the coming decades � a very important one by the way that has also an investment theme because we talked about technology.
I want to thank you for joining us on the Financial Sense Newshour from London. We appreciate you staying up late to do this interview. Great book, by the way. It’s called When the Rivers Run Dry: Water � the Defining Crisis of the Twenty-First Century.
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