In A Fog In Wonderland
Early morning I often see Penobscot river fog. In Maine we take fog as well as rain, snow and sleet for granted. But water-blessed natural surroundings are not universal - many parts of the globe currently face severe water shortages that are expected to intensify in the coming decades.
I recently presented the keynote address at the Fourth International Conference on Fog, Fog Collection and Dew, held in La Serena, Chile. The Pacific coast city of La Serena sits just south of the Atacama dessert - the driest place on earth. Yet not far from the city is Fray Jorge National Park where a remnant forest has maintained itself for millions of years by capturing its water needs from coastal fog. Capitalizing on this botanical strategy, rural projects have recently been established in several dry but foggy areas of the world to snare fog droplets on screens to serve as a source of water for drinking and irrigating crops. Currently, fog and dew collectors have been established, or are being tested, in Chile, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Namibia, Canary Islands, Cape Verde, Mexico, Nepal, Israel, Bangladesh and Croatia. These projects are expected to expand considerably in the coming decades as water scarcity becomes more acute and populations increase (see www.fogquest.org for more information).
A looming global water crisis and global climate change are twin intertwined natural disasters facing us. Eighty percent of the earth's surface is covered by water - but 97 percent of that is seawater. Of the 3 percent freshwater, 2 percent is locked in polar ice, leaving only 1 percent available for maintaining all life except marine organisms. Humans can survive on less than a gallon of freshwater per day - but Americans use about 185 gallons per day (cooking, washing, flushing, watering lawns, filling swimming pools, etc.)
Directly wasting water is only part of the problem. We indirectly consume large quantities of water when we buy food or clothing. To grow one bushel of corn requires 4,000 gallons of water, a bushel of wheat 11,000 gallons and a ton of alfalfa 13,500 gallons. If we convert these numbers to our dietary intake, we find that a loaf of wheat bread (which could sustain a person for several days) consumes 1,000 gallons of water. But one meal of a quarter-pounder, fries and coke at McDonald's consumes 1,400 gallons of water. This is because the alfalfa has to be turned into beef (and the steer drinks some additional water) and because the coke is sweetened with high-fructose sugar extracted from corn. A fish sandwich (cod or other fish from the sea) and a cup of water instead of a coke, would dramatically lower the water required for that one meal. Admittedly, eating more fish has its downside if we fail to properly manage our marine resources.
What about clothing? The cotton in a pair of jeans consumes 1,800 gallons of water. Cloth made from wood cellulose (rayon) consumes less than half that amount. This is because trees are much more water use efficient than cotton or corn plants. We need to more carefully scrutinize our botanical bounty, and make sustainable rather than expedient choices.
Focusing on just corn, the plant that is rapidly becoming the staple crop of the entire world, we soon find ourselves plummeting down the rabbit hole that trapped poor "Alice in Wonderland." The energy needed to grow, harvest and convert corn to ethanol is greater than the energy released by the ethanol when it fuels our vehicles. Then we have to consider the huge water consumption needed to produce corn. Finally, corn siphoned off for ethanol production leads to rapidly increasing grocery store prices for milk and other food commodities that depend on corn. Soon we find ourselves as dizzy and turned about as Alice in her 'curiouser and curiouser' world - where the Mock Turtle was heard to say: "well, I never heard it before, but it sounds uncommon nonsense."
At these confusing times I am tempted to agree with The Cat who cried "we are all mad here." Can we extricate ourselves from Wonderland? Global climate change is now a front-page story, but Congress and its lobbying allies are capitalizing on our fears (again) and choosing superficial political solutions rather than truly grappling with the issues - and the global water crisis is hardly within their radar.
Recently, concern about the global water crisis sprung from an unlikely source - a high fructose sugar soft drink manufacturer. Coca-cola has teamed up with the World Wildlife Fund to announce a joint "Freshwater Conservation Pledge and Partnership" - a compact with two components: (1) a "Better Sugar Initiative" aimed at improving crop water efficiency and (2) a "Watershed Conservation Plan" that will target 7 major watersheds throughout the world (see www.thecoca-colacompany.com/presscenter for more details).
Is this partnership just green packaging or will it be a harbinger of further, substantial efforts in global water conservation? Much depends on our diligence in staying abreast of the issues, making personal lifestyle changes and hammering away at our politicians to initiate meaningful solutions (www.watertreaty.org). Hopefully we will find the fortitude to get out of the rabbit hole before we are trapped in Wonderland, and find ourselves, like Alice pleading: "it would be so nice if something made sense for a change."
Richard Jagels is a professor of forest biology at the University of Maine.
© 2007 The Bangor Daily News