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Peak water?

Posted 05/10/2010 by KatieJ

We have all heard about peak oil – the maximum amount of fossil fuel that will be available to us – and the arguments about whether we have reached this peak or even passed it, but there would appear to be a new ‘peak’: peak water. And researchers at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands believe that we may even be already past this peak, certainly as regards groundwater. The Dutch scientists say that the rate at which we have been pumping dry the huge underground water reserves has doubled between 1960 and 2000 and this represents a potential disaster for the world agricultural system. The highest depletion rates are said by the team to be in the most populated areas of the world like India, China and Pakistan as well as agricultural centres in the developed world like the central valley of California and the Midwestern US states.

This loss of water amounts to some 126 to 283km3 after replenishment by rain and other sources. But as the team admits, no-one really knows how much groundwater there actually is, so it is difficult to say how long this water source might last if it is not replenished. Some estimates put the amount of groundwater as high as 30% of the total available fresh water, which compares with 1% available as surface freshwater, while the remainder is locked up in glaciers and the polar ice caps.

The team estimates, however, that if water was siphoned out of the Great Lakes in North America at the same rate as it is being taken from the world’s aquifers then the lakes would run dry in about 80 years.

And most of the groundwater water extracted actually ends up in the world’s seas and oceans as a result of evaporation and then precipitation as rain. The team suggests that the quantity of water involved is sufficient to account for around 25% of the annual global increase in sea levels, around 0.8mm/year out of the total increase of 3.1mm/year, or the equivalent to the increase due to the melting of glaciers and icecaps outside Greenland and Antarctica.

So what can be done about this potential catastrophe? Apart from stopping water extraction completely, with the consequent effects on agriculture in parts of the world that can only just feed their populations if at all, the Dutch researchers believe that some countries will be able to move to alternative sources of water such as desalination but for the rest they predict potential disaster.

So have we passed peak water? Only time will tell, but by then it will be too late to do anything about it. Unlike fossil fuels, there is no alternative to clean fresh water.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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  • Anonymous said:
    21/06/2013 08:10

    It's good to get a fresh way of lonikog at it.