It’s cliché to say we have a water crisis. It’s certainly cliché to blame it on “climate change,” i.e. fossil fuels.
But if we look at the big-picture data, as against fixating on the most dramatic headlines about the places that happen to be in a state of drought (such as southern California, where I live), a different story emerges: thanks in part to increasing fossil fuel use, we are bringing about a world where our bodies and our crops have more of the water they need, not less.
The Water Opportunity: Ending Drought as We Know It
Let’s look at droughts. To read the headlines about “megadroughts” you would think that drought is a worse problem than ever. And that would be a big, big problem.
Droughts are historically the most common form of climate-related death; a lack of rainfall can affect the supply of the two most basic essentials of life, food and water. Drought is also supposed to be one of the most devastating consequences of CO2 emissions, so let’s see how they match up.
Sources: Boden, Marland, Andres (2010); EM-DAT International Disaster Database; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
Clearly, CO2 emissions have not had a significant effect on droughts, but expanded human ability to fight drought, powered by fossil fuels, has: from better agriculture (more crops for more people), to rapid transportation to drought-affected areas, to modern irrigation that makes farmers less dependent on rainfall. Shouldn’t fossil fuel energy get some credit here?
To give you one particularly astonishing data point, the International Disaster Database reports that the United States has had zero deaths from drought in the last eight years. This doesn’t mean there are actually zero, as the database only covers incidents involving ten or more deaths, but it means pretty near zero. Historically, drought is the number-one climate-related cause of death. Worldwide it has gone down by 99.98% in the last eighty years, for many energy-related reasons: oil-powered drought-relief convoys, more food in general because of more prolific, fossil fuel-based agriculture, and irrigation systems. And yet we constantly hear reports that fossil fuels are making droughts worse. These reports give credibility to climate-prediction models that can’t predict climate, but no credibility to the plain facts about how important more energy is to countering drought.
The Water Opportunity: Clean Drinking Water for All
Here’s a graph you’ve probably never seen: the correlation between fossil fuels and access to clean water. Access to clean water goes up dramatically in the last 25 years as countries have used more and more fossil fuels.
Sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013, Historical data workbook; World Bank, World Development Indicators (WDI) Online Data, April 2014. Graph originally appeared in The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels.
To understand this trend—and why it’s not a coincidence—we have to step back and ask the question: Where does clean water come from?
Most of Earth’s surface is covered with water—but not nearly enough of it is usable for our high standards and purposes.
Most of the water is saltwater in the oceans. Most of the fresh water is trapped in massive ice sheets in places like Antarctica or Greenland. Some is part of a large water cycle of clouds and precipitation. Some portion is naturally “poisoned” brackish water of low quality in soil layers deep below the surface, containing too much salt and too many metals and other chemicals to be of any use without energy-intensive treatment. Nature does not deliberately or consistently produce “drinking water” able to meet a rigorous set of human health specifications.
As I wrote in my article “How Fossil Fuels Cleaned Up Our Environment”:
We need to transform naturally dangerous or unusable water into usable water—by moving usable water, purifying unusable water, or desalinating seawater. And that takes affordable energy.
If you were to turn on your faucet right now, in all likelihood you could fill a glass with water that you would have no fear of drinking. Consider how that water got to you: It traveled to your home through a complex network of plastic (oil) or copper pipes originating from a massive storage tank made of metal and plastic. Before it ever even got to the distribution tank, your water went through a massive, high-energy treatment plant where it was treated with complex synthetic chemicals to remove toxic substances like arsenic or lead or mercury. Before that, the water would have been disinfected using chlorine, ozone, or ultraviolet light to kill off any potentially harmful biological organisms. And to make all these steps work efficiently, the pH level of the water has to be adjusted, using chemicals like lime or sodium hydroxide.
Natural water is rarely so usable. Most of the undeveloped world has to make do with natural water, and the results are horrifying. Billions of people have to get by using water that might contain high concentrations of heavy metals, dissolved hydrogen sulfide gas (which produces a rotten-egg smell), and countless numbers of waterborne pathogens that still claim millions of lives each year. It’s a major victory for any person who gains access to the kind of water we take for granted every day—a victory that fossil fuels deserve a major part of the credit for.
The lesson is clear: if we want a water-filled future, we need a power-filled future. One where we have more power to turn unusable water into usable water—to move clean water to where it needs to be. Clean water is overwhelmingly something we create, not something we get. Remember that next time you hear about a “water crisis,” because a water crisis is ultimately a power crisis: a failure to produce or use the power that can get clean water to anyone, anywhere.