Monday, 13 June 2011

There's Power in Nature

The West of Scotland has seen one of the wettest Mays on record, with over double the average rainfall, and June looks to be heading the same way. Not a good omen for hiking and camping in Argyll with children but we persevered. To a point.

Our first ambition was to climb the second lowest Munros, Ben Vane, which at 915m just makes it onto the list of Scotland's 3000 ft mountains.  We started out from the National Park's Visitor Centre at Inveruglas and hiked up access track leading to the hydro electric dam at Loch Sloy before starting up the mountain itself.  After a total of two hours walking in persistently heavy rain, with little prospect of improvement or of a view at the top we had enough of nature and turned back.

While the outcome for the day was disappointing, it did show why this is such a good place for a hydro-electric scheme.  It is no surprise that over a third of Scotland's renewable electricity comes from hydro schemes, some dating back to the early 1900s, with the most recent large scale power station, Glen Doe, coming into (and back out of) service in 2009.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Aralkum Desert

Once the 4th largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea has reduced to only 10% of its original size in under 50 years due to over abstraction of water in the rivers which feed the sea.  The world's newest desert, the Aralkum, has formed as a consequence, leaving fishing villages many miles from the coast and fishing boats stranded in the desert.  The once thriving fishing industry is gone, along with twenty out of twenty four indigenous species. Dust, sand and salt from the now exposed sea bed are stirred up by the wind, causing high levels of respiratory illness.

The images paint a very powerful picture of the impact that we can have on nature.

The decision to abstract water for irrigation from the two principle rivers which feed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, was well intentioned - part of the Soviet era campaign to turn nature to mankind's use and to provide an opportunity to develop agriculture on an industrial scale, to elevate the peasantry and create a manufacturing industry in what was considered a backward part of the state.

But the cotton has not been the source of prosperity that was hoped for, at least not for the producers. Uzbekistan, on the south side of the Aral Sea, is the world’s third-largest exporter of cotton but the industry is state-controlled. The price paid to growers is set by the government: in 2009 it was 3p per kilo, compared to the international market rate, which hit a historic high of £1.45 per kilo. During the cotton harvest, schools close down and it has been estimated that half of the Uzbek cotton exported has been picked by children.  The cotton is all that there is, so to stop irrigating the crop and allow more water to flow to the Aral Sea would be to impose even greater hardship on already impoverished and desperate people.

The coast of the Aral sea is split between Uzbekistan and Kazakstan with the Amu Darya, also known as the Oxus, flowing in to the sea through Uzbekistan in the south and the Syr Darya flowing in to the north east of the sea from Kazakstan.  This has resulted in political frictions between the two former Soviet republics over how best to address the problems, or whether there even are any problems.  Greatest progress has been made in the north, where a dike has been constructed to allow part of the sea to become deeper, thus reducing the proportion of water lost to evaporation - if the water is very shallow it would heat up more and there would be greater evaporation for a given surface area.  This process could be repeated, building further dikes incrementally to expand the sea but this will take decades.

In the southern Aral Sea, there is little political will to remediate the damage done and in a new twist, the Uzbeks have begun oil prospecting on the former sea bed.

The formation of the Aralkum Desert has been man's doing, of that there is no doubt, and it may be an extreme example of the damage we can do in only two or three generations but it is not the only example. Do you know where the cotton that you are wearing cotton originated?  It is much more difficult to trace its origins than it is for foodstuffs; perhaps we should try harder to ensure that the producers get a fair price for their labours, leading to a smaller crop and reduced water usage but still with a living wage. Difficult to achieve  for a state controlled industry in a global market without imposing further hardship on the farmers. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Water, Water, Everywhere

Nor any drop to drink...

On Tuesday 7 June WaterAid will be hosting a non-stop tweetathon – hashtagged #WaterAid24 - to show supporters exactly what an international charity does over a 24-hour period.

The important issue of water use, conservation and availability is often overshadowed by the battle to cut carbon emissions.  To highlight the issues, here are a selection of statistics from WaterAid's website:
  • 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe water. This is roughly one in eight of the world's population. (WHO/UNICEF)
  • 2.6 billion people in the world do not have access to adequate sanitation, this is almost two fifths of the world's population. (WHO/UNICEF)
  • 1.4 million children die every year from diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation - 4,000 child deaths a day or one child every 20 seconds. This equates to 160 infant school classrooms lost every single day to an entirely preventable public health crisis. Diarrhoea kills more children every year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. (WHO/WaterAid)
  • At any given time, close to half the people in the developing world are suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with dirty water and inadequate sanitation such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis. (UNDP Human Development Report 2006)
  • Half the hospital beds in developing countries are filled with people suffering from diseases associated with poor water, sanitation and hygiene. (UNDP Human Development Report 2006)
  • The weight of water that women in Africa and Asia carry on their heads is commonly 20kg the same as the average UK airport luggage allowance. (HDR)
  • The average person in the developing world uses 10 litres of water every day for their drinking, washing and cooking. (WSSCC)
  • The average European uses 200 litres of water every day for their drinking, washing and cooking. North Americans use 400 litres. (HDR)
  • On current trends over the next 20 years humans will use 40% more water than they do now. (UNEP)
  • Over the past 10 years, aid to health and HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa has increased by nearly 500%, while aid to water and sanitation has increased by only 79%. (OECD)
In the developing world, people have access to only a twentieth of the average European person, water which often has to be carried many miles from wells to the home, but even this does not tell the full story. When the water used to produce food is added into the equation, the average person in the UK consumes a staggering 4645 litres of water every day. The table below, from a report by The Waterfootprint Network shows how much water is used in growing and preparing some common foods. Noteworthy figures include the 24,000 litres for every 1 kg of chocolate - all of a sudden that 10g square of organic fairtrade 70% cocoa chocolate does not taste quite so delicious and righteous - and the large quantities of water required for dates and olives, both of which are grown in semi arid areas.

Source:, Water Footprint Network, Enschede, the Netherlands

Around two thirds of the water footprint of the UK is actually sourced from abroad as the figure below nicely shows.  The numbers show that significant quantity of this water footprint comes from areas with low rainfall and high water stress including India, Pakistan, South Africa and Egypt. The availability of water in a region is measured using the Water Stress index which evaluates the ratio of total water use (sum of domestic, industrial and agricultural demand) to renewable water supply, which is the available local run off (precipitation less evaporation) as delivered through streams, rivers and shallow groundwater. The areas with the highest water stress are in the Middle East and North Africa and some nations from this region are using their oil wealth to buy up land in wetter areas to grow food for export back home - putting greater pressure on water resources for the local populace.

As with all our environmental problems, things are only going to get worse and there are no easy solutions, but the work of organisations such as WaterAid does help alleviate the daily difficulties which communities face in getting enough safe drinking water and sanitation. And when you sit down to your well deserved cup of tea, ponder on the 30 litres of water that went in to making it!

Source: Chapagain, A. K. and S. Orr (2008) UK Water Footprint: The impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources, Volume 1, WWF-UK, Godalming, UK.Downloadable from or  MyDocs

Monday, 6 June 2011

When energy-saving does not mean saving energy

Adam Corner's Guardian article "When energy-saving does not mean saving energy" looks at rebound effects: "But a newly published paper in the journal Energy Policy shows that even straightforward carbon-saving activities such as home insulation are not always quite what they seem. The problem is that making one change around the house leaves the door open for other changes – which might include 'rebound effects' that undermine the carbon savings. If a driver who replaces their car with a fuel-efficient model takes advantage of the cheaper running costs and drives further and more often, then the amount of carbon saved is clearly reduced."

In the current economic climate that really should not be the case as 10-20% energy saving will only result in a cost "saving" that will offset rising energy prices, a trend that is likely to continue.  The global economy is still growing relatively slowly but when this growth accelerates, demand for energy will increase putting further pressure on energy prices over the longer term.

Also, the way the domestic energy market operates in the UK, with suppliers buying gas and oil up to a year in advance will continue to see wide fluctuations in price as more variable weather conditions complicate prediction of demand. 

As Mr corner states, the energy savings need to be considered as a whole and not just a single action, but to achieve the carbon reduction targets required to limit global warming we need to make cuts across all our activities.