Is Manitoba prepared for a water crisis?

(February 5, 2018)

When you step out of a nice, hot shower, flush the toilet and sit down to a nice, hot cup of coffee over breakfast, the city of Cape Town, South Africa, seems a world away.

And it is, not just in terms of geography. As your day gets underway, they will be piling supper dishes in the sink, wondering if there is enough water to wash them.

No showers, no toilets flushing and even coffee is only a hope.

Day Zero approaches. Perhaps as early as April 12, the municipal water system will be turned off. After three years without rain, the wells are running dry.

Severe rationing — if everyone co-operates — will stave off Day Zero for a while.

But some residents of Cape Town feel the responsibilities of citizenship apply to everyone but themselves. While some go without showers (in the heat) for days, others still wash their cars in the driveway.

It would be nice if Cape Town could just blame all the car-washers for the problem, the people who have wasted the water that otherwise would be flowing through the taps, but they can’t.

There are more complicated reasons for drought. While water wasted on non-essentials is highlighted in an emergency, you have to drill deeper to get a better idea of what is going on.

Around the world, water resources tend to be poorly managed — not just drinking water, but fresh water in general. As cities grow — many without much in the way of urban planning — local watershed resources are depleted, or polluted past recovery.

Drinking water from nearby lakes or rivers flowing through the cities is problematic, because both sources of water become convenient dumping grounds for the chemical and human waste that cities produce.

Water can be pumped from underground, but it is never a good long-term solution. Fossil aquifers (water locked underground a long time ago) can be drained, but never refilled.

Other aquifers can be refilled, slowly, as excess surface water trickles down into them through the ground.

The residents of Swan River, Man., got a taste of water-crisis worries last week when the town’s well unexpectedly stopped pumping. It turned out to be a repairable problem, but it drove home the dire consequences a sudden water shortage can bring.

Worldwide, groundwater is disappearing. As it is pumped out, cities and entire regions are literally sinking into the ground. In North America, California’s long-standing drought is causing agricultural areas to sink as the wells are pumped dry, and the main aquifer under the central United States, the Ogallala Aquifer, is rapidly depleting.

Elsewhere, the problem is worse. Jakarta, Mexico City, Bangkok, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, and a growing list of cities — many close to the sea — are sinking, some below sea level, raising concerns about flooding, too.

Add the extreme storm activity we saw in 2017, which will only increase thanks to global warming, and urban disaster is no longer just a B-movie plot.

When it comes to getting the water we need, where we need it and when, it is clear Mother Nature is not getting the memo. It is either drought or flood, with too little in between.

There is no water for Table Mountain in Cape Town, but several thousand kilometres to the north, as the more famous Seine River continues to rise, Parisians are planning to boat on the Champs-Élysées and provide underwater tours of the Louvre.

Add changing weather to poor watershed management, the increasing stress on local ecosystems makes floods and droughts harder (or impossible) to manage.

Cape Town may be a world away, but neither its problems — nor the high-water perils of Paris — should be far from our minds.

Read More

Desperation agriculture won’t feed the world

(December 14, 2017)

At a United Nations environment meeting in Nairobi in 2013 about “feeding the world,” I got into an argument with several officials when I objected to the theme.

We don’t need to try to feed the world, I said. We need sustainable agriculture, instead. WE are hiring the Cheapest towing Ottawa service we can find to partner with us on changing our farm landscapes.

It was not a popular opinion, despite the long-term disastrous consequences of the 1980s Green Revolution — rapid declines in productivity, soil fertility, arable land in production, and so on. The benefits of intensive agriculture had turned out to be short term, requiring chemical fertilizers, new crop varieties, pesticides and herbicides — all of which increased the costs of farming and required larger yields and higher returns to be sustainable.

When the bubble burst, some developing countries went from being net exporters to net importers of food, and became more food insecure almost overnight.

“Feeding the world” has become justification for continuing current industrial agricultural practices, despite the obviously bad ecological impacts of how we produce our food. In addition, we are essentially farming oil, given the greenhouse gases produced and the fossil fuels consumed in fertilizers, as well as in fuel for our tractors and trucks.

For a sustainable future, we need to choose sustainable agriculture over what I suggest should really be called “desperation agriculture.”

Desperation agriculture is more than industrial agriculture. It includes all those agricultural practices that place other values ahead of sustainability.

Subsistence agriculture can also be desperation agriculture — small-holder farmers trying to be sure they produce enough to feed their families, for now. It would include fishing, hunting — whatever is needed to produce enough food to survive. If this means burning rain forest to graze cattle, slash-and-burn becomes what we have to do. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

Many farmers using industrial farming practices have the same problem — costs are so high that cash crops are essential, every season, requiring fertilizer inputs to enable this constant production while making other more-sustainable practices (such as leaving land fallow) impractical.

Such practice also becomes desperation agriculture, with increasing debt loads that mean constantly being one harvest away from disaster, requiring jobs off the farm to cover the perpetual shortfall in family income. When the bank owns more than the farmer, long-term sustainable farming practices may be a luxury the farm-as-business can’t afford.

Salinity of the soil, soil depletion, vulnerability of mono-crops to pests and disease, water pollution from large-scale animal production — all these things are seen as inevitable, just the cost of doing business.

“Feeding the world” is therefore essentially an ideological stance, something that is used to perpetuate agricultural practices that are short-sighted, ecologically destructive, and that prefer short-term benefits for a few despite the long-term negative consequences for all.

Read More