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A Thirsty Civilisation

| Lewis Akenji

Call the water crises a storm in a teaspoon. Today, as waters flood villages in the Bangladesh, we fill up our swimming pools at home; as whole islands disappear in the North, we load our SUV tanks with petrol and go driving through man-made woods; as droughts come over whole countries in the South we build bigger lawns and golf courses and keep them sprinkled all night; as forests catch fire in our neighbourhoods we convert our natural oil to plastic bottles. There are a few things we can increase with technology, but landmass and freshwater sources are not some of them.

On her second month here we had to remind our guest that Hungary is a landlocked country and not the republic of Aqua as she had proposed it be renamed. Not that she was bad in geography; given her exuberant interaction with water in this country, it is easy to forgive her for repressing certain facts. The vocabulary for encounters that so excited her is everyday hearing for those who live here: Medicinal baths, spa baths, a sunrise splash in the Lake Balaton, a night walk along the Danube, a lakeside barbeque; she had eaten fresh fish and seen sharks in the tropicarium. After all these it is hard to maintain the claim of lack of access to sea; apparently one does not have to bring home the sea to make a big splash. Still her ease of access to water fun is easily paralleled by how even Hungarians take their rich aqua endowments for granted.

A storm in a teaspoon

If you put all the water in the world in a bucket, the amount of freshwater available for human use would make up less than a teaspoon! Although some 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, 97% is salty. Out of the 3% that is fresh water, 75% is permanently frozen, thus leaving only 0.08% of all the earth’s water for human consumption. This teaspoonful includes the water we have for growing our food, drinking, bathing, filling our swimming pools, watering our roads on hot summer days, playing water polo, etc. It’s a thirsty civilisation. No wonder then that there is serious competition over this little teaspoon of our earth’s resource available to us.

Our freshwater resource is divided among agricultural use (more than 70%), industry (22%), animals, and household use. As the world’s population increases, the demands on water resources have also steadily grown. The water we drink in cities is drawn from sources such as lakes and underground aquifers. Most of the agricultural use of water is for farmland irrigation. Industry depends on water for energy production, cooling, and cleaning. In many regions of the world people are removing water from rivers, lakes and aquifers faster than these systems can be recharged. In addition to population growth, the demand for fresh water has been rising in response to industrial development, increasing reliance on irrigated agriculture, massive urbanization, and rising living standards. Demand is estimated to have risen six to seven times from 1900 to 1995, more than double the rate of population growth.

Global freshwater resources are shrinking not only in quantitative terms, but also in qualitative terms because many freshwater systems have become increasingly polluted with a wide variety of human, agricultural and industrial wastes. Some of the irrigation water eventually finds its way back down as underground water, carrying with it chemicals contained in our agricultural pesticides and fertilizers. Water, as industrial discharge carries pollutants into fresh water sources. Many developing countries are faced with difficult choices as they find themselves caught between finite and increasingly polluted water supplies on the one hand, and on the other hand rapidly rising demand from population growth and development. Water shortages and pollution are causing widespread public health problems, limiting economic and agricultural development, and harming a wide range of ecosystems. Such shortfalls and contamination will put global food supplies in jeopardy and lead to economic stagnation in many areas of the world. The result could be a series of local and regional water crises with global implications.

Hot at home

In Budapest, household water is used for showering, flushing toilets, watering small gardens, etc. Consider a man in the morning: he brushes his teeth while the tap is running; shaves while the tap is running; in the shower he soaps himself while the water wastes away. Each minute a tap flows, six litres of water go down the drain. For an adult male, between getting up from bed in the morning and getting to work, he would have used anywhere between 60 to 110 litres of water. That’s just in the morning. In the kitchen, while doing dishes by hand, cleaning vegetables, the tap stays flowing. Yet, turning off the tap when shaving or soaping in the shower, or using a glass when brushing teeth, could save about a half of the amount of water used. Because the cost of tap water does not reflect the value of the resource, our everyday habits have equally fallen short of such appreciation.

Among the several means of household water mismanagement in Hungary, as in most other places, are water leakages, illegal wells and illegal water pipes. It was discovered in Pecs that people steal water from public wells by connecting pipes from them to their homes to fill their swimming pools and water their lawns, letting the water flow all night. And these were not poor people.

All said, it is hard to convince an average Hungarian of water scarcity when a simple twist of a knob would turn on the shower, a pipe connected to the ground can flush water to flood the lawn all the day, or fill and refill a swimming pool in the summer. Compare this to an African or Asian woman who has to walk six kilometres to collect water. If Africa and Asia sound rather far away, hold your breathe, we will come home soon. The rather dire thing about the water situation is that it cannot be localised, one man’s waste is consequential on us all. Water is not static, it flows, and so do the issues connected to it. Unfortunately, there is no water island!

The Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s biggest fresh water lake and one of Hungary’s main tourist attractions, recently highlighted the global nature of our problem. In 2003 the rapid shrinking of the lake prompted warnings of a potential ecological and economic catastrophe. In a matter of just a few months, where I had previously observed families swimming, I stood there playing soccer; where the moorings had stretched over the waves, they were now pegged in mud. In the south of the lake, it was frighteningly curious to watch how week after week the water shrunk, revealing the floor of the lake for meters. That is the climatic equivalence of lightening speed. Tourists changed course, local traders closed their stalls, dogs panted, the whole country cried out.

There was finger pointing. Those who had dumped soil in to fill up parts of the water close to their lakeside plots in order to have more space; those who had connected pipes into the water, illegally drawing from it to keep their lawns lush green and to feed the various aquatic needs of their luxury lives. For once the Balaton showed that it wasn’t invincible.

But then again the problem was larger than simply the Balaton. The Danube, a key freight artery, fell to its lowest levels in parts for over a century. Hungary’s wheat crop went down by a third. Summer temperatures had been some four degrees celsius above the 100-year average. Soon pretty much everyone, even the hardcore doubting thomases, nodded that climate change was not just a science lab invention nor a far off theory, the effects were clearly manifesting at home. It isn’t that global warming is caused (only, or mainly) by Hungarians. It doesn’t limit its effects to the Americans who were buying oil-guzzling road-bullying SUVs, nor the Chinese burning coal to feed their growing economy, nor Hungarians draining vast fresh water resources per day. If you’ve ever doubted the effect of one person’s habits, here’s a chance to grasp it. These are cumulative individual, local actions whose effects are redistributed globally. If the Balaton is going down, we are all on the same boat.

On the impacts of climate change on water resources, the national sustainable development report of Hungary reveals that: “Analysis of long-term observations shows a decreasing tendency in precipitation amounts and average soil moisture content. Winter and spring precipitation amounts show a significantly decreasing trend. Drought frequency has increased, primarily in the last two decades. It is expected that one of the possible consequences of anticipated global climate change will be an average further decrease of precipitation levels for the next decades in the Hungarian region by approximately 50-100 mm/C annually. This could cause severe water supply problems in semiarid areas and dry lands. Another consequence of the climate change might be the increasing occurrence of extreme weather.” “Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth,” says the director-general of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura. “No region will be spared from the impact of this crisis, which touches every facet of life, from the health of children to the ability of nations to secure food for their citizens.”

Back to the future

The Maya are probably the best known of classical civilisations. They rose to prominence between AD 250 and AD 900. Building on previous civilisations, they “developed astronomy, calendrical systems and hieroglyphic writing.” The Canadian Museum of Civilisation reports that, “The Maya were noted as well for elaborate and highly decorated ceremonial architecture, including temple-pyramids, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. They were also skilled farmers, clearing large sections of tropical rain forest and, where groundwater was scarce, building sizeable underground reservoirs for the storage of rainwater.” Around 1200 the Maya dynasty saw its sudden end; their majestic pyramids scattered around Central America stand as symbols of their one-time greatness.

Easter Island. In the 16th century “the society flourished with abundant sea life and farming to feed a growing population. The people’s success manifested itself in a way that has become the Island’s iconic trademark: hundreds of immense stone figures – moai,” (BBC). As recently as 1722, Dutch explorers reported a healthy, thriving civilisation in this island of the Pacific Ocean. Then the Easter Islanders disappeared. Today the mystery of their hitherto power greatness is held up by remains of nearly 900 gargantuan stone statues, some weighing 80 tons.

A group of Vikings settled into the Eastern Settlements of Greenland a thousand years ago. They built law-abiding communities with a viable economy; fostered great trade relations with their neighbours, and were successful in agriculture to feed their economy. To celebrate their cultural superiority, they flaunted the typical wealth flags of the time; church bells, stained glass windows, bronze candlesticks, etc. The Norse civilisation lasted for 400 years and then vanished.

What do all these civilisations have in common? They were all civilisations which right at the peak of their cultures, when they were at their strongest, they suddenly collapsed. In 1993, Yale professor Harvey Weiss, published in the journal Science his excavations of the Akkadian civilisation around the Middle East, associating its wilt to rapid climatic changes brought upon by the Akkadians themselves. The New Yorker recently explored a series of examples in a set of articles by Elizabeth Kolbert. Jared Diamond, (best known for his book Guns, Germs, and Steel) explores several of such vanishing civilisations in his new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking, 2005), exploring especially, how they mismanaged elements of the earth’s ecosystem – soil, trees and water.

Historical guesswork has always preferred to isolate warfare as the sole cause of the collapse of great civilisations – historical timing is pretty much determined by our warring ancestors’ spears, bows and arrows, and gunpowder; oh, and bombs, of course. We’ve accepted war and refused to accept the role of shifting our ecological balance, and our responsibility in it. Where history brings in nature, it has often picked cataclysmic events – natural disasters, epidemics – to justify that those civilisations were destroyed by forces out of human control. The end sense one gets from reading our human past is that society was – and still is – so overwhelming that an everyday person like you and I had little or no influence on how the entire human civilisation evolved. This is not true. As more concrete scientific evidence is uncovered and as contemporary studies show, it is our little individual habits, those that collectively define our social/cultural lives that weigh on our ecological balance, burdening on the carrying capacity of our natural support systems. In other words, we are tuned to think more about our social survival – cars, TV, fountains – and less about our biological survival – forests, water, energy. If you want to test it: take a quick sample in Budapest of those who know where the new National Theatre is, and compare the number to those who know where their drinking water comes from.

In the last days of the Norse, as pressures increased on their limited forests, they continued to thrash the trees, to trade in church bells, stained glass windows, silk, silver – artefacts that showed their society as supreme. Today, we have the supreme ruins of their giant cathedral standing in Gardar to remind us. Easter Island thrived, until it slid its own throat by emptying the resources that fed its people. As the palm trees fell beyond the ecological balance, nature came in with climatic extremes. The rest is history, and, of course, barren land and the Easter Island statues as monuments to their once-upon-a-time cultural superiority. For years, the story The Curse of Akkad, which laments the fall of the great Akkadian empire of about 2300 BC was thought to be fictional. That was until recently; in the 1980s Professor Weiss uncovered one of Akkadian lost cities, Tell Leilan, around the Iraqi boarder. The list continues: the Tiwanaku which thrived in the Andes; the Mayan; the Anasazi of the American Southwest; the old Kingdom of Egypt whose pyramids, mummies and gold treasures we love to romanticise today…

Call the water crises a storm in a teaspoon. Today, as waters flood villages in the Bangladesh, we fill up our swimming pools at home; as whole islands disappear in the North, we load our SUV tanks with petrol and go driving through man-made woods; as droughts come over whole countries in the South we build bigger lawns and golf courses and keep them sprinkled all night; as forests catch fire in our neighbourhoods we convert our natural oil to plastic bottles. There are a few things we can increase with technology, but landmass and freshwater sources are not some of them.

Malcolm Gladwell writes in a review of Jared Diamond’s Collapse, that, “societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.” The point of no return, the tipping point, is when we have exploited our natural resources to support our social systems until the ecological balance is pushed beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. At this point, nature helps us finish the business. This is the point where all these old civilizations arrived. Did they know where exactly the critical point is? No, and that is the scary thing. It is comparable to walking in pitch darkness towards the edge of a cliff. We do not know exactly how much more the earth can support our luxurious culture, but signs show that unless we refrain from emptying our small earth basket of resources without refilling it, it will at some point be unable to provide food for our entire family. To borrow from Gladwell, on Collapse: the “distinction between social and biological survival is a critical one, because too often we blur the two, or assume that biological survival is contingent on the strength of our civilizational values. That was the lesson taken from the two world wars and the nuclear age that followed: we would survive as a species only if we learned to get along and resolve our disputes peacefully. The fact is, though, that we can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal. The two kinds of survival are separate.”

Lewis Akenji is Editor-in-Chief of Conscious Consumer magazine, and a consultant on Sustainable Consumption.

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