When Worlds Collide #60: Code Red for our Blue Planet?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 31 March 2013

Earth and Mars - Planetary sisters but with very different fates. Is the Red Planet a warning to us?

Earth and Mars – Planetary sisters but with very different fates. Is the Red Planet a warning to us?

Now it can be revealed. A highly advanced but devious alien race has been sapping the island of Sri Lanka of its freshwater, and secretively dispatching it to their parched and dying planet.

Deepening the mystery, the aliens have either intimidated or brainwashed everyone who found out, to make sure this ultimate ‘resource grab’ continues. That explains the recent severe droughts – and the spate of UFO sightings.

Alright, I just made it up – and it’s not even original. I simply adapted a theme very common in science fiction.

But trust me, if I said this on local TV with a straight face, at least half my audience would probably believe every word. Some might even panic…

As I said last week, when it comes to matters of water, many Lankans seem to suspend their common sense. Any passing conspiracy theory, no matter how far-fetched or implausible, is uncritically accepted. I have met well educated people who sincerely believe that multilateral banks and/or multinational companies are out to ‘rob’ Sri Lanka of her precious water…

A few online reader comments to last week’s column illustrated this. Some well-meaning activists seem so tightly focused on one or two aspects of this multifaceted subject that they can’t (or don’t wish to) look at the bigger picture. Their pet concerns – such as water privatization and increasing industrial use of water – are mere symptoms of an overall scramble for water.

Source: US Geological Survey Water Science School

Source: US Geological Survey Water Science School

The Bigger Picture

No alien race is sucking our planet dry, but we’re doing pretty well to worsen the water crisis on our blue planet.

Although over two thirds of the Earth is covered by oceans, much of that lies beyond our reach: it’s either seawater, or frozen in polar icecaps and glaciers. If all the world’s water were reduced to one litre, we have only two drops available for our use. And that too is not always in the right place at the right time.

To make matters worse, the usable water is poorly managed and increasingly polluted. Every year, our planet has to support more people (now 7 billion, and projected to be 9 billion by 2050). That means having to provide more food, drinking water, energy and other needs. And as countries and societies advance economically, their living standards go up – which drives up consumption.

“Does the population increase mean there will not be enough water? That is not quite the right question,” argues Dr Frank R Rijsberman, a former Director General of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) who now heads the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR.

In an essay titled “Every Last Drop: Managing our way out of the water crisis” published in Boston Review in September 2008, he wrote: “We can avoid a full-blown global disaster. Unfortunately, the water crisis is complicated, often misunderstood, rarely grasped holistically, accelerated by climate change that melts glaciers and icecaps, and exacerbated by biofuel expansion that further stresses scarce water supplies. Forestalling it will require a mix of sustained technological innovation and institutional reform, all guided by deeper understanding and some new thinking.” (Full essay: http://tiny.cc/FRR)

More crop per drop

Thanks to rising human numbers and aspirations, competition for limited water resources is intensifying everywhere — between cities and villages, and between different sectors, i.e. farming, household use and industry.

All this makes sharing the world’s finite freshwater resources an enormous challenge. Water scarcity is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today.

Of the total water use (called withdrawal) worldwide, irrigated agriculture gets the lion’s share of around 70% (in Asia, this goes up to 80%). As freshwater gets more scarce, farmers are under pressure to produce more using less water. In other words, ‘grow more crop per drop’.

On average, it takes around one litre of water to produce one calorie of food energy. Scientists have been studying ways to improve water productivity, and found various measures ranging from plant biology to riverbasin management levels.

The next step is taking this new knowledge to farmers. Many are slow to change their old ways — especially when irrigated water is available for free, as in Sri Lanka.

In our case, there are both water quantity and water quality issues. Our farmers also get their chemical fertilizer at a 90% state subsidy. Many are known to wash away the largely-free fertilizer in the entirely free irrigation water. This effluent-rich agricultural runoff is causing widespread ecological and public health problems — including, it is now suspected, chronic kidney disease (CKDu).

26 Aug 2012: When Worlds Collide #30: Watch out! Everybody Lives Downstream…

Despite all this, any attempt to get our farmers to get more thrifty sends our activists into a frenzy. They love to idolize the small farmer, romanticizing her as a hapless rural peasant. We must certainly safeguard and strengthen small farmers, but business as usual – such as their water profligacy – simply cannot continue.

To manage natural resources better, we need both public policies and activist positions to be based on good data, dispassionate analysis and open yet empathetic minds.

This cartoon by young Lankan cartoonist M M D Dileepa Dolawatta, won second prize in a cartoon contest on climate change organised by the British Council Sri Lanka in 2010.

This cartoon by young Lankan cartoonist M M D Dileepa Dolawatta, won second prize in a cartoon contest on climate change organised by the British Council Sri Lanka in 2010.

Public Perceptions matter

This is not to dismiss non-specialist sentiments lightly. Those who debate on water issues must clearly understand what non-specialists think — and how they feel — about this life-giving resource.

Public perceptions are formed based on cumulative observations, sometimes influenced by activist positions that are amplified by the media. In that process, some myth-peddling or fear-mongering also creeps in, but that’s covered by freedom of expression and right to hold opinions.

Last November, speaking at the First Young Water Professionals Symposium of Sri Lanka organized by Sri Lanka Water Partnership, I noted how perceptions shape policy debates more than science. Right or wrong, most people react to new policies, regulations and situations based on such perceptions rather than evidence or expert analyses. Politicians, in turn, react more to popular sentiments.

Study of public perceptions is not well developed in Sri Lanka. Here, academic researchers can learn from market researchers.

In 2010, I worked with the market research company Survey Research Lanka Limited (SRL) to survey public perceptions on climate and environmental issues. The single most important environmental problem cited by our countrywide random sample of 1,000 was the lack of water and its adverse impact on growing and making things, as well as on the overall quality of life.

From those who said they had heard of climate change and/or global warming (88%), we asked what they mentally associated the phenomenon with. The top three answers were: running short of water; less food being grown; and a rise in diseases and epidemics. There were no significant rural and urban disparities in these rankings. Read Summary of survey findings.

These concerns indicate prevailing insecurities in many people’s minds about natural resources needed for daily sustenance. Technocratic solutions to the water crisis thus need to be balanced with social science approaches as well as sustained, meaningful dialogue.

Many water professionals hesitate to engage such debates – and with good reason. In their 2012 book on economic strategies for Sri Lanka, policy analyst Rohan Samarajiva and journalist C J Amaratunge point out the hazards faced by those who try to deepen the public discourse on water issues. They risk being maligned by a vocal minority, and labeled as ‘jala rakusas’ (water demons).

Book Review by Dr W A Wijewardena in Daily FT, 13 Aug 2012

Swimming against the populist current isn’t easy. But it’s imperative that young and senior water professionals join such contentious debates. To engage effectively, they must listen carefully and then communicate rational counterpoints with a cool head (and, ideally, without jargon).

And ignore the occasional arm-waving activist who pretends to be drowning.

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG


About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Agriculture, Biofuels, Climate change, Communicating Development, Conspiracy Theories, Environment, Environmental management, Environmental policy, Green Economy, Power & Energy, Public health, Public perceptions, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development, Water management and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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