Friday, 31 December 2010

Irish Water Supply Crisis (and thoughts arising!)

The weather hasn’t been great these past couple of weeks. Travel has been disrupted, on the roads, the railways and in the air. Northern Ireland has had significant problems with water supplies, with many people being without supply for several days. Urgent calls for blood donors went out to anticipate increased demand. Petrol stations ran out of fuel.

The priority amongst those who administer these facilities has been to get back to normal as soon as possible. The priority amongst everyone else seems to have been to find someone to blame, and to scapegoat them. The result of all this blame is to take the attention of the top managers and officials away from problem solving, in order to provide a public apology, a resignation or a decision not to take a bonus.

Heads must roll!

Small consideration is given to the fact that this level of snow and freezing temperatures at this time of the year is (or has been up until now) a freak occurrence. No manager, administrator or minister worth his salt is going to spend a fortune preparing for freak conditions, thereby risking the wrath of the budget keepers, the accountants and the voters. If those conditions can be shown, later, to fall outside the definition of ‘freak’, and nearer to the definition of ‘normal’, that is the time to spend the money.

What we have heard, and will hear again, is that well worn phrase, ‘Lessons will be learned.’ My question would be, ‘Which lessons?’

We can safely assume that in Northern Ireland, decades of troubled times, under all shades of Westminster government, has resulted in a considerable under-spend on water infrastructure. It’s pretty pointless then, to look for a token scapegoat.

The problems at our airports arise from the assumption that freak conditions are just that, and are unlikely to occur. To compare the situation at Heathrow with that at better equipped continental airports is invidious – they have always had more snow and lower temperatures than we have, and are more used to it; furthermore, they have not been without their weather related problems. Recent freak conditions in the US have caused similar disruptions, and they, too, are more used to severe winter conditions than we are.

The complaints regarding road travel seem to relate to a lack of communication, and the habit of distressed drivers of blocking the hard shoulder.

Much of our difficulties, and all our complaints, arise from an expectation that someone else should be looking after us. The workings of State and Big Business have contrived, over the years, to deprive us of the ability to fend for ourselves, to prepare for extreme conditions as a matter of course, and to ‘get on with it’ at times of stress.

The people in Ireland who are without water are certainly in a very difficult situation, and don’t need reminding of the circumstances in third world countries which require women and young children to walk 10 or 15 km a day to collect the water supply for the whole family, including the sick and elderly within their communities. The distressed road users, many of whom, despite the forecasts, set out on their journeys completely unprepared, won’t give a thought to the millions of people who aren’t able to afford a bicycle, never mind a car. The stranded Christmas holidaymakers feeling miserable in airport terminals are unlikely to work out what percentage of the world’s population have never left their village (or refugee camp), let alone their country.

No, I fear that the important lessons won’t be learned.

In this country we’re lucky – we are not generally short of water, as long as we are sensible. Irrigation of crops is not as prevalent as it is, for example, in North America: there, without irrigation, food production would decline to an unsustainable level, and yet constant irrigation degrades the soil, necessitating increased use of fossil-gas based fertilisers. At the same time, a growing city-based population is taking an increasing proportion of the available water supply: availability of clean water per capita is decreasing as water tables drop and replenishment can’t keep up with demand. Many parts of the world depend on grain exports from the US; and yet, as it takes 1000 tons of water to produce a ton of grain, there will come a time not too many years hence, when the US will no longer be able to export grain – and the irony is that a proportion of their crop will go to the production of bio fuel.

The most water-hungry grain crop is rice. In North Korea, where a majority of the population is undernourished, there is no longer sufficient fuel to power the irrigation systems upon which their staple crop, rice, depends. To make matters worse, in winter they can no longer heat their hospitals, let alone their homes. They don’t have fuel for their farm machinery, so farmers have to do the work manually – but being seriously undernourished, and living in cold accommodation, the labour is very much less than efficient, leading to increasing food shortage and malnutrition. Ultimately, complete societal breakdown is inevitable without huge help from outside.

In a large proportion of irrigated land in Northern China, the water tables are dropping by a meter a year – rivers and rainfall just can’t keep up with demand. In India, two thirds of the Punjab is losing its water tables at the rate of 20 centimetres a year.

Although there was some controversy over a misguided claim by the IPCC regarding how soon the Himalayan glaciers would disappear, that should not blind us to the established fact that these glaciers are receding at a significant rate (as they are in other parts of the world including Europe). Another fact is that a third of the world’s population is dependent on those glaciers for clean water. Already some of the world’s great rivers are reduced to a trickle, or dry up completely, when the demands of agriculture are at peak – and the periods when this happens are getting longer each year.

So what lessons should our politicians, managers and administrators be learning?

First, it is now clear that current agricultural practices are unsustainable (even without the threat of peak oil). This will become increasingly obvious as fossil-based fuel and fertiliser, and thence food, become more and more expensive. A partial solution to this is for agriculture to become more community based, and organic, with a loosening or abolition of the regulatory constraints which are placed on such things as community composting. This solution might involve some incentive to larger land-owners to allow some of their land to be put to community use (without charge). Small organic community based schemes have been shown elsewhere (Cuba for example) to be several times more productive than standard agricultural practice. As the size of a farmed area increases, the productivity per square meter reduces – so small community based units are the optimum for yield, as well as providing local employment, helping communities to enhance self reliance and resilience.

Second, all farming must become less dependent on oil and oil based products very quickly. Instead of cutting budgets on research, more funds should be provided to research and revitalise new farming methods. There are ways of growing crops which take up far less space than current systems, for example, and these should be investigated and perfected as quickly as possible. Lack of oil is not synonymous with ‘back to the stone age’. Properly researched modern organic methods have the ability to increase not only production, but more importantly, nutritional value.

Thirdly, the present rather tired efforts to enhance the value of ‘community’ should be doubled or trebled. This Government is making a few of the right noises in this direction but their actions are working against their sentiments. The more that a local community is stimulated, the more local work becomes available, the more money is generated locally. There was a time when light industry could be found in village high streets, whereas now it is shunted out to industrial ‘parks’, drawing people away from their communities, and engendering a mindset which embraces the long commute, the supermarket, the ‘dormitory town’ and the school with 1500 pupils which produces students who are outside their own communities right from the start.

Fourthly, politicians should be helping to educate the electorate to the fact that life cannot continue as it is. Our lifestyles are going to change whether we like it or not, but at present the Government is doing absolutely nothing to educate us for this. Major changes will occur and our leaders and most people in the ‘developed’ world are walking towards those changes with our eyes shut! The later we leave our preparations the harder it will be to live with those changes and the more chaotic and destructive will be the outcome.

The water crisis in Ireland leads me to wonder, with all the rigorous, so-called environmentally friendly building regulations, why new buildings are not required to capture rainwater for use, at least, in toilets and kitchen sinks. There is no reason why we should feel entitled to use good drinking water for anything other than drinking and cooking.

While we are whining at the Government because they aren’t keeping our roads clear or our trains running, some small island nations are already suffering deeply as a result of rising sea levels. Some African countries are suffering prolonged drought and loss of crops. Others devote their agricultural resources to producing crops for export instead of feeding themselves, mostly through the ‘good’ offices of the IMF and the WTO.

Unless real action is taken to change the way we live, we will soon be whining about failure of road, rail and air travel through lack of economically viable fuel supplies, and while our main sources of groceries (the supermarkets) only keep sufficient stocks to last less than a week without replenishment, we should certainly start to learn how to keep a sensibly stocked store cupboard. Globally we are heading towards shortage of oil, shortage of water and a spiralling global temperature.

The lesson which should be learned by the politicians is not when or how to apologise. It is that there are a number of potential crises up ahead. If these materialise and find us unprepared, it won’t be the odd minister who will have to resign! Meanwhile, those of us who can should incorporate our preparation for the future into our everyday lives, a bit at a time, until it becomes second nature.