Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum

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Global Groundwater Crisis Will Have Far-Reaching Impacts

A recent note from the online journal, Climate Progress, highlights an extended impact from the drought occurring in many regions around the globe.  As surface reservoirs are drawn down as a result of dry conditions, groundwater is extracted at an increasing rate to sustain industry, agriculture and, in some cases, life itself.

An alarming satellite-based analysis from NASA finds that the world is depleting groundwater — the water stored underground in soil and aquifers — at an unprecedented rate.

A new Nature Climate Change piece, “The global groundwater crisis,” by James Famiglietti, a leading hydrologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns that “most of the major aquifers in the world’s arid and semi-arid zones, that is, in the dry parts of the world that rely most heavily on groundwater, are experiencing rapid rates of groundwater depletion.”

The groundwater at some of the world’s largest aquifers — in the U.S. High Plains, California’s Central Valley, China, India, and elsewhere — is being pumped out “at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished.”


The most worrisome fact: “nearly all of these underlie the word’s great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity.”

And this is doubly concerning in our age of unrestricted carbon pollution because it is precisely these semiarid regions that are projected to see drops in precipitation and/or soil moisture, which will sharply boost the chances of civilization-threatening megadroughts and Dust-Bowlification.

As these increasingly drought-prone global bread-baskets lose their easily accessible ground-water too, we end up with a death spiral: “Moreover, because the natural human response to drought is to pump more groundwater continued groundwater depletion will very likely accelerate mid-latitude drying, a problem that will be exacerbated by significant population growth in the same regions.”

Certainly, the combined threat of mega-drought and groundwater depletion in the U.S. breadbaskets should be cause for concern and action by itself.

Further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others.

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Sao Paulo Drought – Deforestation and Climate Change Wreak Havoc

Sao Paulo, one of the world’s most populated cities, is in danger of running out of water by mid-November if significant rain does not fall soon.  This via the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

South America’s biggest and wealthiest city may run out of water by mid-November if it doesn’t rain soon.

São Paulo, a Brazilian megacity of 20 million people, is suffering its worst drought in at least 80 years, with key reservoirs that supply the city dried up after an unusually dry year.

One of the causes of the crisis may be more than 2,000 kilometers away, in the growing deforested areas in the Amazon region.

“Humidity that comes from the Amazon in the form of vapor clouds – what we call ‘flying rivers’ – has dropped dramatically, contributing to this devastating situation we are living today,” said Antonio Nobre, a leading climate scientist at INPE, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute.

The changes, he said, are “all because of deforestation”.

Nobre and a group of fellow scientists and meteorologists believe the lack of rain that has dried up key reservoirs in São Paulo and neighboring states in southeastern Brazil is not just the result of an aberration in weather patterns.

Instead, global warming and the deforestation of the Amazon are altering the climate in the region by drastically reducing the release of billions of liters of water by rainforest trees, they say.

The severity of the situation in recent weeks has led government leaders to finally admit Brazil’s financial powerhouse is on the brink of a catastrophe.

São Paulo residents should brace for a “collapse like we’ve never seen before” if the drought continues, warned Vicente Andreu, president of Brazil’s Water Regulatory Agency.

Dilma Pena, chief executive officer of Sabesp, the state-owned water utility that serves the city, warned last week that São Paulo only has about two weeks of drinking water supplies left.

The Cantareira system, the main water reservoir feeding the region, dropped to just 3.4 percent of its capacity on Oct. 21, according to Sabesp.

Elsewhere in Brazil’s southeastern region, key crops such as coffee, sugarcane and oranges, some of the country’s top exports, are expected to be severely hurt this year.

Sugarcane production will be at least 15 percent lower, according to Unica, Brazil’s sugarcane industry association.

Dry conditions have delayed planting of the 2014-2015 soybean crop, threatening Brazil’s goal to reach an output record for a third straight year.

Ironically, soybean production, as well as cattle ranching and logging, are responsible to a great deal of Amazon deforestation, scientists say.

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Coming to a Theater Near You

There are a number of societal signals that let us know when a trend, an issue, or a threat has migrated from the fringe to the center of a collective consciousness.  Having Hollywood take notice and transform the meme into meaningful motion pictures is one such signal.  From USA Today:

The global drought that threatens food and water supplies for billions is spreading into the sci-fi future depicted in mainstream films as well.

The Antonio Banderas-led Autómata (in theaters and on VOD on Friday) is set in a 2044 future nearly devoid of water, and Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones(Oct. 17) has a similarly bleak outlook in an unspecified future.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (Nov. 7) has already tipped its hand in trailers showing a dust-covered world, part of the overall picture of an exhausted, uninhabitable planet. Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce roamed a barren landscape for a stolen car in the futuristic The Rover (just out on Blu-ray/DVD). And Mad Max: Fury Road (May, 2015) takes place in a similarly bleak landscape.

A lack of water is on filmmakers’ brains for good reason.

“Water is one of the important themes now for human beings. As a result, it’s one of the very important themes of science fiction,” says Automata director Gabe Ibáñez. “People are very worried about the water situation. It affects all people. And we know this is going to be a problem in the next century, so of course it’s going to play out in movies.”

Jessica Yu, director of the 2012 documentary Last Call at the Oasis, says documentary makers may feel pressure to not go “too far” in warning about the world’s precarious water supply. The picture can be too alarming for the audience.

But when it’s science fiction, the unforgiving landscape of the future instantly taps into human fears and is a powerful storytelling device.

“It’s something that has dramatic impact because of its roots in reality. We don’t need to invent alien invaders to destroy the Earth,” says Yu. “Environmental disaster as part of the apocalyptic future definitely holds sway with audiences.”