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Sunday January 21 2007

Last night at Christian’s, I also met an interesting guy who told me stuff about water.

Water plays a very big part in the Israel/Palestine crisis.  Israel will not contemplate giving up the occupied territories and the Golan Heights, because those places supply water,upon which Israel completely depends.  Israel exports lots of fruit and veg.  Fruit and veg are just big bags of water.

Water supplies power as well as itself.  The Turks will not contemplate surrendering the Kurdish bits of Turkey, because in them water tumbles off mountains and gives them lots and lots of power.

Turning salt water into drinking water is all about power.  If you have unlimited power, such as with some fancy new technique like fusion, or some such, then your water problems evaporate, so to speak.

But meanwhile, water is a big problem.  A burger takes 250 litres of water to make.  Water for the cattle, water for the wheat for the cattle, water for the wheat in the bread, lettuce, tomato, etc.  Lots of water.  Now okay, 200 litres of that is recyclable, but you still need it.

The places to look for new water desalination technology are those with lots of sunshine, not much else, and next to the sea.  North Africa, for instance.  What else can you do in a hot desert next to the sea?  Australia is also very good at desalination, because Australia is basically a big desert next to the sea, with only tiny bits of farmable land.

Are there big water tanker ships, like there are for oil?  Water, he said, already goes from the coast of West Africa to the Canary Islands.

Water and power being all mixed up, my guy was also involved with a scheme to turn the hot rocks of Cornwall into usable power.  You get power out of hot rocks by covering it in liquid, which then boils.  But the rocks of Cornwall are not very hot, so you need a liquid that will turn into steam at a lower temperature than water.  Trouble is, most liquids like that tend also to be highly inflammable.  So, he and his pals are trying to develop a liquid with a low boiling point that is not very inflammable.

Has anybody written one of those histories of the world from a particular point of view, from the point of view of water?  The history of how it has been acquired, purified, used, re-used, fought over, and so on.  Aqueducts, pipelines, tankers.  If not, they should, but I bet someone already has.

I asked him: if you had one recommendation to make to Tony Blair and the rest of them, what?  Apparently there’s a water pipeline from the north of England to the south of England, which sheds 75% of its contents on the way.  Mend that, he said.

No links.  It was just talk.  Your Googling would be just as good as mine.

In the next 50 years, I suspect conflict over water will be every bit as damaging as the conflicts over energy we can see developing around us.

Posted by ian on 23 January 2007

By the way - are you sure about that pipeline? I know that there is one from Kielder down to Teeside, but so far as I was aware nothing on any scale going further. I was told this in a discussion at Samizdata so it must be true surely?

Posted by ian on 23 January 2007

I have no idea if it’s true about that north-south English pipeline.  I’m just passing on what I remember my guy to have told me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 23 January 2007

because Australia is basically a big desert next to the sea, with only tiny bits of farmable land

Australia contains a lot of desert, and even a lot of desert next to the sea, but I don’t think I would agree that the arable bits are “tiny”.

That section of Australia that is not tropical really has three pieces (perhaps four). There are two key geographical dividing points. One is the “Great Dividing Range”, a range of mountains that goes from close to the bottom of the continent and about two thirds of the way up (ie about to the point where Australia becomes tropical). Points to the east and south of these mountains have substantial amounts of rainfall (although the rainfall is highly seasonal), and the rain falls into rivers that go east and south relatively short distances into the Pacific and Southern oceans (or which these days go into dams from which people use the water). Almost everybody in Australia lives in this area, except for those who live in Perth, those who live in the idiotically situated capital city of Canberra, and the relatively small number who live in the tropics. Although this is a small portion of Australia, it is quite large compared to, say, Britain. This is quite fertile and habitable.

Rain that falls west of the Great Dividing Range flows into a series of rivers that flow west into the Darling River. This flows south into the Southern Ocean. (To complicate matters, the most important west-flowing river is the Murray River, and after the Murray and Darling join, the resultant river is called the Murray from that point to the sea. The area that lies in the water table that ultimately flows into the Darling and Murray is (unsurprisingly) known as the Murray-Darling Basin, and this is actually where the bulk of Australia’s agriculture takes place. (The southern part of the basin near the Murray and Murrumbidgee River is particularly important for things like fruit growing and relatively water intensive agriculture, some of which is economically fairly ridiculous (They even grow rice!). The length of the Murray River is the most populous inland region of Australia other than Canberra. The Murray Darling Basis has much less water than the coastal region, but it is still perfectly good, inhabitable land, even after a couple of centuries of environmentally stupid policy (government insistence that landowners cut down the trees, and wasteful use of water, basically). 

The second boundary is basically the Darling River itself. Land to the west of the river is basically uninhabitable, until you get very close to the West Australian coast, where there is a small fertile area around a few rivers flowing into the Indian Ocean. This is much more marginal than the fertile regions on the East Coast, and the one large city on the west coast (Perth, which is significantly north of the most fertile area on the west coast) imports much of its food from the east and from abroad and is essentially a mining town (and, incidentally, is now Australia’s richest large city by a significant margin)

This map does an excellent job of showing the two inhabitable regions I am talking about, which are the (yellow) coastal strip east and south of the Great Dividing Range as well as the (green) Murray Darling Basin.

In terms of area, the arable areas of Australia are actually very large, they just are a smaller percentage of the continent than is the case for any other non-Antarctic continent. Like farmers in most places, Australian farmers waste vast amounts of water, and greater water efficiency (and better crop selection) could mean that Australian agricultural output and population density could increase a lot without too much difficulty). There are even larger areas of Australia that are not habitable, but that is not really the point.

I also haven’t mentioned the northern, tropical half of Australia. Much of this gets considerable rain and is quite fertile. Not many people live in this, but the only real reason for this is that the people who settled Australia (ie the British) are not tropical people, and they therefore chose to live in the more temperate regions. Australia’s tropical cities are easily the fastest growing cities in Australia, although from a relatively small base. (Townsville, Cairns, and Darwin each have between a hundred and a hundred and fifty thousand people).

Posted by Michael Jennings on 23 January 2007

If water is so important, I wonder why it doesn’t have a newsworthy price, like oil.  Is it in its nature that it can’t have a price, or is that a political decision, not to have markets in water.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 23 January 2007

If water is so important, I wonder why it doesn’t have a newsworthy price, like oil.

Well for starters, it’s value is low in comparison to the cost of transporting it. I assume commodity markets are not practical for such goods (as they effectively aren’t commodities).

Posted by Errol on 23 January 2007
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