Water is essential for economic activities as well as for the well-being of humans. Considering how critical water is to both agricultural production and domestic consumption, conflict over water and the potential ramifications of decisions made over it may have much further consequences for human well-being. It can even have an impact on economic development and social change.
The problem of getting access to fresh water is a global priority that needs to be addressed.
Access to safe water is vital for the survival of all life on Earth. Civilization began along the banks of rivers and canals, and waterways played a significant role in the development of agriculture, commerce, and advances in industry, science, and technological innovation.
Water scarcity is not just a result of natural resource depletion; it is also the result of power relations and political decisions. Addressing water development as a political problem might provide light on some of the extra areas of concern.
The availability of clean drinking water has long played a role in politics, with decisions about the provision of services having the potential to positively impact or harm citizens depending on their access to safe water in their communities. Because of the scarcity of this essential resource, communities are forced to compete against one another for access to it.
Social conflicts and societal change are created and influenced at the same time by the natural conditions in which water occurs, sometimes in unexpected and unforeseen directions. There are structural obstacles in water development that address infrastructure, financing, and economic sustainability, as well as education and awareness of water issues.
For example, water has an effect on gender and income inequality in plenty of underdeveloped communities. Women are traditionally the family members responsible for retrieving water. When they spend a significant portion of their day procuring this basic resource, they are unable to alleviate their financial situation through work or education.
Being in a situation with no fresh water is indeed a terrifying concept since it poses a major and immediate danger to our own life. Regrettably, this is a concern that millions of individuals currently experience on a daily basis.
It is reasonable to assume that water, which occupies 70% of our planet, would always be abundant. However, fresh water, on the other hand, is rather scarce. More than two-thirds of the freshwater on the planet is frozen in glaciers or otherwise inaccessible to humans.
Despite water being virtually everywhere from seas and rivers to underground reservoirs, why is it still a scarce resource? This might happen if there is a shortage of supply or if the infrastructure for distribution is inadequate.
Water resources are being depleted in some parts of the world on a regular basis, such as in northern Africa, the Middle East, and western Asia. Excessive use of non-renewable resources to meet water needs has led some countries to extract ten times their yearly renewable water supply. If nothing is done, the people of these countries will face an impending humanitarian catastrophe if ever these water reserves become depleted.
Water scarcity and insecurity is a threat to human lives and ecosystems everywhere. This can lead to severe malnutrition among people and gradual economic decline for affected nations.
Whole ecosystems suffer when freshwater is insufficient. Pollution may cause rivers, lakes, and aquifers to dry up. As a consequence of climate change, some places are experiencing water shortages and drought, while others are experiencing floods.
Since it has been established that water scarcity is not just an issue of supply and demand but also an issue of politics, it is critical that we tackle systemic issues associated with water resource management and habitat protection prior to the onset of the worst effects of climate change.
Governments, corporations, and local communities must cooperate to maintain adequate in-stream levels of freshwater for humans and other freshwater species, as well as to encourage ways for sustainable consumption. There is also a need for these institutions to develop and adapt innovative solutions that would aid in the effort of maintaining water supply and prevent future problems with water insecurity.
Human lives and entire civilizations depend on water to exist and thrive— and yet, the problems surrounding adequate water supply and distribution remain severely understated.
We need to understand how social pressure influences the way resources are allocated and handled. We would be better equipped in holding governments responsible and exercising our rights to clean water if we are more informed about how politics affects natural resources management.
Inadequate understanding of the relationship between access to sufficient water and national stability poses grave global security implications, particularly if remedial technology and policy measures to strengthen water resilience and assure availability and access are not adopted.
In TARTLE, we believe that proactive collaboration is the key to hurdling various issues, including those that affect humanity in a global scheme. Information and cooperation is a vital part in addressing these systemic problems, and we envision a society strengthened by these values. The power is back in your hands.
What’s your data worth?
Alexander McCaig (00:10):
Hey, Giulio, thank you for joining me on TARTLECAST. I think that, and I shared with you before this, before the podcast that water tends to be overlooked, and you spent a good majority of your professional career studying this thing that gives just about everyone life or, and the thing that also makes civilizations rise and collapse. Beyond the economic aspects of it, you talk about what happens when our climate changes, and that specific impact on the fresh drinking water that we have, whether just to wash our clothes or do what have you, agriculture, that nature. If we do not pay attention to this thing, then we will find ourself at a rock and a hard place in a very short time. So I want to thank you for coming on to have this conversation about something that is so primal for all of us, but is going to be so important for our future at the same time.
Giulio Boccaletti (01:07):
That's my pleasure. Great to be here.
Alexander McCaig (01:09):
So, Giulio, I want to understand here, what was the draw for you that got you into water? Before we start talking about any of the data, and the historical context, what was it for you about water?
Giulio Boccaletti (01:19):
Well, I started adult life as it were as a climate scientist. And so, I spent almost a decade running climate models, and developing theory around climate, how it might change, and different aspects of it. And as one does that, you start realizing that really water is the agent of climate on the landscape. So, if you want to know how climate or climate change manifests itself, well, that's going to be largely through water. I mean, I suppose we're speaking just in the wake of Ida just hitting New York, and that's a very slow graphic representation of what I mean, right? So, often we talk about climate change in terms of the average planetary conditions, but the reality is experience in particular places is always going to be different. There's always often going to be mediated by water. So whether it's droughts, floods, significant storms, those are all water phenomena that express climate.
Giulio Boccaletti (02:17):
So, I gradually transitioned my interest from just general climate to the specific question of how does water interface with society? Because I felt that that's where the real impacts were going to be. And then for the last, well, 15 years now, I've worked advising governments and companies in a variety of capacities on these questions of water security at the national and international level. And the next realization that I had, which eventually brought me to write this book is that the story of water, if you tell the story of water only from a point of view of climate, you're only telling half the story because of course the story of water is really a story about us. It's a story about how we develop institutions and infrastructure to manage this thing that happens around us.
Giulio Boccaletti (03:10):
And so, I was particularly interested in telling that story, and I think it's particularly important to tell it because people need to realize that what happens out of the climate system, what happens out of climate change is not just something that happens to us. It is something that we in some ways do to ourselves by virtue of the choices, and infrastructure that we build, that we don't build. And so, that was really both the origin of my interest as well as the motivation for writing this book.
Alexander McCaig (03:37):
Do you have some emotional connection with water itself outside of the scientific connection of you studying it? Is there almost like a level of empathy that you share when you see its misuse or essentially anyone getting a lack of focus?
Giulio Boccaletti (03:57):
Well, there is, it's essentially empathy towards people. I mean, I've worked also in extremely poor countries around the world, and it's very... It becomes very concrete when you go into the slums of Nairobi or you visit Khayelitsha in Cape town, and you realize that there are millions of people that don't have access to water, and that's a manmade problem. We know exactly how to deliver water to who needs it, when we need it. It's a question of economic resources, and how they're allocated. And so, I wouldn't say... I'm in some ways a pretty practical man. I don't empathize that much with non-human resources, but I do empathize a great deal with people. In fact, even as an environmentalist, and I spent the last decade as an environmentalist. I care about people far more than I care about anything else, but that's why I think you need to be an environmentalist. That's why I think you need to care about things like water because these elements, water in particular kind of defines people's lives above everything else. And so, yeah, there is a very strong emotional connection I care about. I'm a humanist, I care about the fellow man and woman, and I think that caring about water and environment is an important part of making sure we have a sustainable future.
Alexander McCaig (05:09):
Yeah. I couldn't agree more. And when I look at this, I find the history albeit interesting. And I know that when I read the histories by Herodotus, Herodotus spoke a lot about what, I forget what the German historian called it, but hydraulic civilizations, where the idea was that monarchies got a lot of their power through the gauging or control the flow of these fresh waters, whether it came through rivers, or streams, whatever it might have been. Being closer to the banks is what actually them control over the people and the crop, and essentially the currency that moved in and out of area. In terms of that level of importance, was there any recognizable point whether it be Egyptian culture or Greek culture or Persian, where did the knowledge start around this? Was it when they realized that it was required to have a consistent flow? Was it the dawn of their advancement of agriculture or animal husbandry where we said, "We got to look at water as importance because it allows us to drive more crops and essentially allow our economy to thrive?"
Giulio Boccaletti (06:28):
Right. So, yeah, I mean, you're putting your finger on the heart of the matter in a way, which is the relationship between the fact that we live in a world of moving water, and then the construction of institutions of power. Who has power? How do you get organized? There is an important milestone here, which is the moment we became sedentary. For the vast majority, if you think of human history as a line, we've been around for around 300,000 years, and we only became sedentary around 10,000 years. So, 95% plus of the history of humanity is one of nomadism, and hunter gatherers. We adjusted to the ecosystems that we operated in. We moved, if we needed to. We were flowing around with the water.
Giulio Boccaletti (07:12):
And then eventually 10,000 years ago, we decided to stand still in a world of moving water, and the water flow around us. And suddenly we realize that there is... That in order to stand still, in order to build communities in place, you need to organize to confront this rather overwhelming force. I mean, one of the things that people tend to forget is that as the climate system expresses itself through water, it's incredibly powerful in doing so. I mean, again, if you think about a hurricane like Ida, that single event as a thermal engine used as much energy as the entire world economy uses in a year. That one single weather event.
Giulio Boccaletti (07:54):
And so, when people became sedentary, the first time that people became sedentary in the southern plains of Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago, that's really the turning point in our relationship with water. The scale at which water events happen is almost by definition greater than an individual. We might live along a river, you might live upstream from me. Whatever you do on the river will have an impact on me no matter how far I am. Water connects by virtue of moving. It connects people into a system. And that forces a conversation about, well, what is the counterbalancing system of organization that society puts up to it acts on the environment and act on the landscape in response to water? How do you get organized to build levies? How do you get organized to build canals? How do you... And all of those questions lead to ultimately political institutions. Somebody needs to decide, somebody needs to plan, somebody needs to collect the resources to then pay the people that will do the building of the levies, et cetera. So, that journey starts about 10,000 years ago.
Giulio Boccaletti (08:55):
And then the story's long and the book covers a lot of ground. So, I wouldn't try to do that now, but in a way, as you get to the 20th century, you mentioned Wittfogel, the German sociologist that came up with what he called... It's anachronistic book and its title is Oriental Despotism, right? He was a reformed Marxist as it were, but the point he was trying to make is there must be societies for whom the political infrastructure needs to be so big to manage the big problems of water it faces that they become a center of power. Whilst the details of the analysis are probably inappropriate, it was a very particular Marxist view of what the Marxist called Asiatic mode of production. But the general point, which is that modern states exercise their power on the environment, essentially through their management of water. That point remains. It's an important lever of power.
Giulio Boccaletti (09:59):
In fact, the last thing I'll say on this is that the American west is probably the preeminent example of this. I mean, if you think about the development of the American west, when John Wesley Powell went through the American west, no person of European descent lived there. The settlements of the migrations hadn't happened yet. And then by the first half of the 20th century, the federal government, and it was a federal government, it was the federal government that by fiat essentially re-planned the west in order to make it livable, and in order to enable agriculture to happen. That's an example of a state that made exercise that power in order to, well, essentially build a demography, and build a political infrastructure in the west. And so, America, for example, I would say is essentially the ultimate hydraulic republic in that sense.
Alexander McCaig (10:52):
Yeah. I mean, if you just look at the old sense and for Hoover Dam, it was a massive project generating power, but it's essentially a control of that water. Its natural flow, the flooding that may occur, but then on the tail end of it when you move over to other areas like Vegas and things of that nature, it allows people to actually expand upon where the flood banks would've been, and then they can live there. So, it's like the energy of water itself is then they're going to take that, its value, and transition it over into a more mechanical sense and then bring that over to people so we can expand upon our civilizations where we otherwise wouldn't be able to populate.
Giulio Boccaletti (11:37):
Correct. I mean, yeah, we're sort of in a... The interesting thing is that, that process you just described, this kind of dance that we locked into is something we can't escape. The moment we build the levy, people will live behind it, thus increasing the chances that something will happen. And so, we are essentially stuck with it. I mean, it's just the nature of sedentary society. That's who we are, but we have enormous choice within the confines of that particular directional travel. I think a lot of the conversation right now in the west and the rest of the world is about what kind of choices do we need to make as we see systems failing?
Alexander McCaig (12:15):
Okay. Systems fail, all right, and I know you like Egypt considering the flood plains of the Nile. There was a natural ebb and flow to that. Even though you may have aquifers or things that manmade would channel water out so you can spread out your farms of that nature. If they were still stuck to whatever nature was giving them at that specific time. Now, what I feel like we've done, if we statistically flattened that natural flow of what's happening in our climate itself, right?
Giulio Boccaletti (12:52):
Alexander McCaig (12:52):
And the effects, yes, there are benefits to our sedentary life, but the ecosystems that actually rely on those changes of those flood plains actually become destroyed, right? And so, was it actually more beneficial to not dam it up than to rather... And let it continue to flood up and down or was it just that human beings were like, "There's more people here. The population is growing. We should dam this up, and then if we can control that flow, well, then we can also control and dictate where we're able to live rather than nature allowing it to dictate for us." I feel like that's sort of inverse relationship has caused us to lose our respect for this one thing that actually gives us life because we have this false sense that we can control it, but those systems are bound to fail over time.
Giulio Boccaletti (13:39):
Yeah. I mean, yes, there's a lot packed into what you just said. You're right. Particularly over the 20th century, we re-planned the planet, right?
Alexander McCaig (13:51):
Giulio Boccaletti (13:52):
And so, the Nile as an example. Its regime used to be essentially dictated by the floods regimes that are fed by tropical rainfalls. And so, you'd get these very famous flood events. It was basically irrigated. So, you could get up to three crops a year just through the natural flow of the river. And of course the ecosystems of the Nile had evolved over millions of years adapted to this particular heartbeat. And so, in a way you can imagine a balanced world in which there's a society that lives around the Nile as it floods every year, and in which ecosystems are still the dominant use of the river, but the population around it kind of thrives through production.
Giulio Boccaletti (14:35):
Indeed, the ancient state of Egypt grew thanks to that, and this was a time when the base irrigation of the Nile, just the natural flood of the Nile could feed about a third of the world's population because we have so few. I mean, there's so few people on the planet. And the Nile was such a productive system that you could essentially keep it in that state. By the way, that's not to say that ancient Egypt didn't actually modify the river, but not to the extent that we've done now. Now, you fast forward to today in the 1970s, the high Aswan dam was built. It impounds two years of Nile flow in the Lake Nasser. So, it turned the river from the dam to the Delta from a river into a canal. So, now it's not alive ecosystem. It's essentially just a conveyance canal that brings water from the dam to the Delta.
Giulio Boccaletti (15:35):
Of course, a lot of those ecosystems disappeared. The entire basin, the agricultural production, which dependent on flooding has turned into perennial irrigation. So, the production's gone into modern industrial production. Now, of course, almost 100 million people live in Egypt today. You would never been able to support and feed 100 million people with the natural flooding of the Nile. Interestingly, they don't feed 100 million people even today with engineered, Nile. The reality is Egypt is a vast importer of wheat. So, even that has reached its limit. You can't control destructive floods if you don't have a piece of infrastructure that can do, so you have to learn how to live with them, and learning how to live with them has cost. So, I think that there is a risk of telling a story that's not a shade of gray, but rather black and white that says, "Oh, we used to have this wonderful Eden and we lost it." Well, it was an Eden with a much lower life expectancy, with diseases, with significant risks to livelihood, but indeed ecosystems were much, much more functional.
Giulio Boccaletti (16:40):
The modernist project of the 20th century was to separate us entirely from nature. There was an emancipation from nature. The question I think we face now is whether there's a third alternative. Whether in fact you can recover some of the functionality of ecosystems and still deliver a fair and just society in which people have the ability to self-determine and to have a reasonable life for them and their children. That's I think the challenge of the 21st century.
Alexander McCaig (17:08):
So, this just seems immensely illogical when I hear it that people want to emancipate themselves from nature, essentially control it. But nature's the thing that actually gives them life. They're inextricably locked with this thing that they were trying to separate from. And to me, I find that albeit nonsensical. So, are you saying that now we're trying to find some reasonable scientific integration so that we can bring back the natural ecosystems, but still maintain the advanced agricultural systems that we currently have in place to support the populations, which have grown beyond a reasonable amount in the specific area, for instance, like Egypt, that then becomes reliant on import still, even though the water would've naturally supported some level of people in that area.
Giulio Boccaletti (17:57):
Yeah. I don't know if it's a scientific answer. I think what we're looking for is a political agreement on what our life and landscape needs to look like. And for a while we convinced ourselves that we could indeed separate ourselves completely so that the vast majority of the population can leave their home and never wonder whether there's water in the landscape. I live in London right now. I'm calling you from London. There isn't a chance that I will leave my home and have to wait a river in order to get somewhere. It just isn't... That's not a reality that I live in right now. That wasn't the case for most of human history, but it is true now. Now, the cost of that has been a significant destruction of ecosystems, which it turns out we rely on for a variety of things, not maybe directly life these days, but for example, carbon sequestration, right? I mean, that's an obvious example of how we depend on ecosystems.
Giulio Boccaletti (18:45):
So the question is, can we come to an agreement as to what the landscape looks like that still supports the sort of life people want, but at the same time, accommodates also this other part of the planet. The one thing I'll say of the points you made, many of which I agree with, I think there's a tendency to think that the problem is overpopulation. I actually don't think that's the problem. I mean, there are a lot of us, of course. The problem with overpopulation arguments is that they tend to always inevitably lead one to worry about only certain people, and often the so-called over population ends up happening in poorer countries, which typically actually not the root cause of the emancipation that we're talking about.
Giulio Boccaletti (19:31):
And so, I tend to distrust of population arguments and rather say, it's really a political question. We live together in a social compact, what do we want this to look like? Do we want it to look like a sea of cement to support 10% of the population? Or do we want it to look like an integrated landscape to support a bit better everybody else, even if maybe you won't be able to extract as much value from some small part of it?
Alexander McCaig (19:56):
Yeah, no, I mean, and listen, that makes total sense. If you can find a way to strike a balance with the thing that gives you life, even though you have an increase in the populations, then do so, but you have to put that sort of vision in your mind for how you see that future. If you want to support people, well, there has to be a quality of life because I may take for granted the fact that I can go get fresh water whether it's out of a refrigerator, or I can go to the store. People bottle this thing that's free and sell it back to me for our cost. I can do that. Or I can dig my own well, but for other individuals, that's more of a strain on them within those specific areas. And I think people lack data or understanding in general context of really how much fresh water there is available. And I was wondering if you could shed a little bit of light on that because I can't boil the salt out of the oceans, right?
Giulio Boccaletti (20:49):
Alexander McCaig (20:49):
All I know is that [crosstalk 00:20:51]-
Giulio Boccaletti (20:50):
Not at an economic price, anyway. Yeah.
Alexander McCaig (20:54):
Yeah. Not at an economic price, unless I have some sort of fusion reactor that happens all day long, but we don't have that. So, what do we look at in terms of fresh water and the requirement that a human being would need? And also the trajectory we have for a growth in our population globally, and actually being able to maintain that while at the same time we have very debilitating signs in our climate models to say that many of these things are drying up and actually going against us. So, if I have a decrease in fresh water flow, an increase in population, where do we find ourselves with that?
Giulio Boccaletti (21:30):
Yeah. And the third element in that nexus is food, which is important here. Because the amount of water on the planet is essentially fixed and has been ever since it showed up. We don't exactly know how it showed up on the planet. It might have degassed from the original material that made up the planet. It may have come through an asteroid either way. It's been fixed ever since. And in fact all the water that we touch has probably gone through the kidney of some dinosaur at some point. It's constantly recycled. Now, 97% of that water is in the oceans. And as you say, it's effectively not economically accessible. I mean, some of it is, but mostly isn't. Then you have the remaining 3%. The vast majority of that is actually locked up in inaccessible places. Much of it two third in ice in Antarctica, and in Greenland. And then one third is in groundwater, much of which is not the Ogallala. It's really, really deep and inaccessible.
Giulio Boccaletti (22:29):
And so, you end up with less than 0.1% of the water on the planet that's in any way accessible to us. Now, that's the water that we have to play with. It's unevenly distributed on the planet. So, you go to the great lakes and there's a lot of it, but you go down to Nevada and there's almost none. So, one of the big problems is not that it's scarce in the sense of oil scarce. It's not going to run out, but it's in the wrong places if you're trying to do some things. People have to realize that 98% of the consumptive use of water. So, of the water we have, 98% of the water we use is, and it goes into growing food. So, the story of water is not really a story of direct human consumption. That is a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny part of the water consumption. It's a slightly bigger part of the water use, the difference being the water that then drains back through your drain into the system. But in terms of consumption, water that you use and then evaporate, 98% is food.
Giulio Boccaletti (23:29):
And so, the real is where do we grow what and how? And so, a lot of the politics of water have to revolve around agriculture. That is why Colorado, the federal government just called an event of Colorado. It's declared a scarcity. And so, there'll be cuts to the amount of water that comes downstream to Nevada, to Arizona, and to California. Maybe there'll be further cuts next year. Those cuts will disproportionately hit agriculture. And the important thing is that here you have all this infrastructure that was paid for by everybody, by the taxpayers of the United States, and it's serving a small piece of the economy, the agricultural economy, which has however, an important cultural, and political value. And it is everybody's business to debate what that should look like.
Giulio Boccaletti (24:21):
One of the big risks of the water story is that people think, "Well, I have order coming out of my shower, so I don't have to worry about it, and it's somebody else's problem." But the reality is that the money of taxpayers and the resources of the state, and the resources of the collective will be used to solve these water problems primarily in farms. And so, that's above all the thing that people need to worry about is what should agricultural landscape actually look like? Should we be growing alpha in Nevada, Arizona, and then export it with water that comes out from the ground of water that we don't have coming out of Lake Mead. Those are the fundamental questions more than I can buy water in the store or I can have it coming out of the tap.
Alexander McCaig (25:03):
Well, and I'm glad you talked about this point with agriculture. 70%, so if I'm thinking about this. 97% of earth's water we can't drink, it's in the ocean. Another 2% of that or more is bound up in ice at our poles. And then what's left of that is the fresh water, which is coming down from glacier melt and all those other things that feed these areas like Lake Mead or the Colorado River, things of that nature. And then from that thing that is less than 1%, we then channel that into an agricultural system where 70% of it goes towards animal feed. Not towards actual direct food that goes into a human's mouth of which we also waste well over 40% of that food. So, if I keep driving that down it's not really the wasting of the food it's the wasting of the water, which is such scarce resource.
Alexander McCaig (25:55):
I have a question now, how does the climate react then, the atmosphere itself? So, I know for instance, if I go to Vegas. Vegas sometime ago said, "We're going to plant a boatload of trees." Now, in doing so you have to give the trees water, but it also increased the relative temperature and humidity within that specific area in the Nevada desert. So, how is it that when we start to channel this water with our advanced agriculture and put farms where they essentially shouldn't be, and then things become limited because someone is sequestering that water further upstream, and the climate was used to having no farm here, we'd put it here, changing the climate for some amount of time, the farmers suffer, but then it also changes the general macro climate in that specific area. There seems to be a larger problem than just shutting the stream off up here and saying they can't have as much. Well, that affects the farmer, which affects the crop. And then that crop affects the atmosphere. And then that's going to actually change the climate all together because we're damning this thing up in some area that we don't even see.
Giulio Boccaletti (27:01):
Right. So, there are multiple feedbacks in this system. There is no question that in a local climate changing vegetation can have an impact on local moisture [crosstalk 00:27:15]. For example, we know that you can change even the quality of air if you start planting trees in cities. So, I mean, there are very specific local effects. Those types of changes for the most part don't have macroscopic impacts on the general segregation of atmosphere because we are talking about events of completely different magnitude. And so, even attempts at reforesting millions of acres of land, aside from the fact that often they fail because reforesting is not just about planting trees. You're trying to restore an ecosystem and the ecosystem has much more than trees in it. And so, it's a full propagated [crosstalk 00:27:52]-
Alexander McCaig (27:52):
Crop microbiome, micro fungal [crosstalk 00:27:54].
Giulio Boccaletti (27:54):
Exactly. However, the point of you raise is an important one because there are other aspects of this interaction between climate and the distribution of what we choose to do on the landscape that matter a great deal because think about it this way. So, let's take the west of the United States, for example. West is arid. We essentially notice. We measure a distribution of rainfall, an uneven distribution of rainfall of this landscape. So then we decide to build a bunch of infrastructure, Hoover dam, catch water in Lake Mead, et cetera, et cetera, for the purposes of then rendering this landscape on advertent hills. So, we're going to have this water coming down and over the years farms start popping up, and they become habituated to having a certain amount of water.
Giulio Boccaletti (28:37):
And so, then you build cities and people get wealthy and children grow more farms and so on and so forth. And this thing grows economically. Now, what is happening to the climate system right now is that the speed at which the precipitation patterns are changing is far greater than the speed at which we might be able to build or develop new infrastructure. It's moving much more rapidly. So, what will happen is that we'll have planted like parking lots all these pieces of structure designed to catch water in places where might no longer come down, and all of these farms, and all of these transformations of the landscape that were predicated on a stationary situation, a scarce, but stationary situation will now run out of water because there's actually no longer... It's no longer coming. It may be coming somewhere else. But the problem is if you put a bucket in a place and you've landed it there, if the water just moves a few meters away, you're not catching water anymore, right? That's effectively what happened.
Giulio Boccaletti (29:35):
And you have the flip side of this happens in flooding. There's a famous... In 2010, there was a big flood in Nashville. The Cumberland had flooded, and what happened was the Cumberland had been heavily engineered by the Army Corps. The upper part of the basin is full of dams. The problem is it rained in the lower part of the basin. So, all the dams that were designed to catch the rainfall stood empty, and downstream it all flooded. So, one of the problems with sedentary society trying to struggle with a climate system is that if the climate system is stationary, then you can build all this infrastructure and map it onto the rain. So, you create the illusion of plenty of water, but if the climate system starts changing and moving in unpredictable ways, then that whole model starts creaking, and that's exactly what's happening now. That's what's happening in the Colorado. That's what's happening in the Western United States. And in China, in Turkey, it's happening in a number of places around the world.
Alexander McCaig (30:34):
So, then Giulio, how do you reasonably articulate this problem to people in the political sphere to let them know that if you're going to install an infrastructure, it's going to take you a couple years to do, say three to seven. By that time, our population has grown, and there's also been another dramatic change in the climate and our climate model altogether. So, you're always behind it. So, I think from the start, you already have an issue. So I think there has to be a rethink for how we actually choose to develop, and how these systems should be.
Giulio Boccaletti (31:14):
Alexander McCaig (31:15):
So, how do you then think about this problem in a non-static sense? You're talking about weather, you're talking about climate. You talk about the Lorenz effect. Things are constantly in flux and movement. It's the natural course of nature, our systems, molecules in the air, things of that nature. How is it that we match our physical systems to mirror what is going on in that sense? Do we need to actually move bodies of people? Because the way I see it is that there's going to be an increase in refugees globally as our climate problem gets out of control. And then when you're already strained in specific areas on fresh water, that's going to be even further strained because there's such static systems that can't change to the dynamicism of what's going on with our climate. So, where is our upstream solution here?
Giulio Boccaletti (32:04):
Well, I mean, I think that part of the issue is you point to what happens often in real life, which is you have a imperfect, unsolvable problem. I mean, the reality is, what you've described is what we need to live with. The fact of the matter is there are plenty of people on the planet that live with that reality today. I mean, if you go to Sub-Saharan Africa, I used to work in Ethiopia. I worked there for many years. If you think about the United States has storage capacity of about 4,000 cubic meters per capita. That means that if you switch off the water from the sky for two years, you can still run without noticing. Ethiopia has 40. That's 100 times less. It means if you switch off the water for two weeks, you end up with problems. And we've seen over the years, the number of famine. Even recently, the Horn of Africa has had this enormous problem of famine because of that. There are societies today that live that reality of having to constantly adjust to an unpredictable future.
Giulio Boccaletti (33:05):
When it comes to our lives in developed countries, for a while we thought we had freed ourselves forever of the problem. And the fact in that is we haven't. 10,000 years of history show you that we did all sorts of things. The Renaissance happened during that time. Lots of interesting things happened. It's not the end of life, but it does mean that you have to think about what you can promise politically in a different way. We lived through a century, a short century after the Second World War during which politicians could make promises about never ending wealth and prosperity and constant protection. And then people are surprised when the flood comes or when the scarcity hits. They shouldn't be surprised. That is the reality.
Giulio Boccaletti (33:48):
What we need is a population that's educated to this problem and habituated to the fact that they'll have to deal with that reality. A political system that responds to their needs and especially a political system that worries about the most vulnerable. Because the problem is never... The real social... One thing I've learned from the 10,000 years of history that I've reviewed is that the problems in water really very quickly flow through people, not through water. And so, it's just a matter of the most vulnerable feeling the pain. From then on it's an entirely social, entirely human issue. And one issue after another can lead to collapse. It may have started with water, but it very quickly flows through the most vulnerable to having enormous impact. We've seen this in the Arab Spring. We've seen this recently in the Horn of Africa. We've seen it over and over again.
Giulio Boccaletti (34:38):
So, that to me is an unsatisfactory answer. I think we've run out of the world in which technology just takes care of it. We'll just have to learn how to live with what's around us, which has always been there. We thought it'd gone, but actually it's still there.
Alexander McCaig (34:52):
Right. I mean, like you stated before, it's a relatively closed system, and what's interesting about water is that it's not really a liquid, it's more of a gas. So, it's like, how do I channel that atmosphere back over to me and put it back into this liquid form so that we can capture it and then drink it or use it for our crops. But I'm interested in a couple of the facts here. So, is the focus... This is interesting. I was just driving through California and I went over many bridges that were there for very specific waterways that should have been underneath them. Lo and behold, they're not. As I drive by Mount Shasta in the Northern part of California, it's completely burnt to a crisp. It's dry as can be. The top soil is eroded. There's many issues.
Alexander McCaig (35:46):
I see that there's a natural exacerbation of issues that stack upon themselves because of a lack of water and cover crop and things in that area that actually can't see survive. Having scrub behind is not really beneficial. Yeah, it does help the oxygen some, but really, I think it's just waiting to ignite itself as the droughts become worse. But then we focus on these technologies in the specific area to develop it and conserve or recycle this water, but we're not actually watching where it's moving to or looking at why it's moving, but people still choose to stay in that specific spot. But then we have the poorest of nations, which have the least access to this fresh water. They never even get any sight of that technology, which can be so incredibly beneficial to them in their specific survival and actually decrease probably a refugee issue or a transition of these masses of people because of the lack of that fresh water.
Alexander McCaig (36:41):
So, if we have so much storage over here, how is it that we take that R&D and scientific approach and start to channel it over to the developing world? So, those ones who really truly need it the most because they live on a two week extremely fragile system. And I say two week in the sense of a double entendre. It is two week and it's two weeks before that essentially dries up for them. How do you have that conversation, Giulio, where we can say here is the data, this is what we're doing, we have our best minds on it. How do we transition what we know here and bring it to those that absolutely do not have the buffer zone that we are currently afforded in more developed areas?
Giulio Boccaletti (37:21):
Yeah. Well, I mean, I think that's the... If you had to prioritize urgency of issues, that's probably the most important, which is how do we make sure that the most vulnerable on our planet are able to protect themselves enough to at least get close to the level of security that we already enjoy. Let along the question of what will happen to us later. But there the interesting thing is that there's a sort a paradox. And again, it's one of the things that I emphasize a lot in this book is that what is this political animal? It's this political problem. Because we've tried before. In fact, the 20th century has a long history of taking call assistance where hegemonic countries like the United States would pick up and go and bring the technology. In most cases, actually very well meaning.
Giulio Boccaletti (38:09):
So, the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, was a very, very successful development project in the United States in the 1930s, and '40s. If you went to the Tennessee Valley in the 1920s, you would've witnessed abject poverty of the level that we would see today in the least developed countries of the world. Silicosis, heart disease, I mean, you name it. It was the whole thing was degraded. The federal government set up the Tennessee Valley Authority. And in a matter of about 10, 15 years, the results were spectacular.
Giulio Boccaletti (38:37):
Then what happened? Well, Truman decided with his fourth point strategy to then tell the world about this bright idea. And so, you have value authorities popping up everywhere in the planet. There's a Jordan Valley Authority. There's a Hellman Valley Authority in Afghanistan. There's a WASH Valley Authority in Ethiopia. There's a couple of valley authorities in India, et cetera, cetera, et cetera. What we discovered though over the course of that spreading the word and bringing technology, the technology at the time is that that is the end point rather than starting point of figuring out how our society can manage its water because really at the heart of it is the problem of empowerment and democracy. At the heart of managing the resources of a nation is putting the citizens of that nation in the driver's seat. And in many of the countries where we tried to bring technology, the problem wasn't that they couldn't necessarily adopt the technology. The problem is that people didn't have voice. And so, their problems weren't represented. And so, the problems wouldn't be solved.
Giulio Boccaletti (39:37):
Sometimes people say, "Well, the Syrian crisis was caused by the scarcity of water. No, no. The Syrian crisis was caused by Assad. Having a dictator in a country makes a significant difference to the ability of their citizens to have a good life. But of course, it's not surprising then they fail to manage a water crisis that was indeed happening. Scarcity that was indeed happening. And that exacerbated impacts, and fueled social unrest. So, it's a complicated answer because essentially we have to help these poorer countries take control of their own destiny. I mean, that's really at the root of taking control of the national resources, which then leads you to being able to do these things. And of course you can help practically. I mean, you can finance. You can provide cheap finance. You can provide technical assistance. You can provide all sorts of things, but at the root of it, though, there has to be this commitment to bringing the people that suffer the consequences into the fold of the political discussion.
Alexander McCaig (40:40):
Yeah. It's the culture the people need to take responsibility, and I think that's a fundamental importance. If I look at this and if I was going to study any sort of chaotic movements in populations, regimes, things of that nature. Would I look to a climate model first? Would I look to the aspect of the fact that if I see a place that may go arid, may go dry, and that is on the verge of instability, would the climate model then be a very good predictor for instability with within that general area in a short amount of time? Can we use that? So, this is where I'm going. Can I use a climate model to then decide where I should be looking to first to drive those resources or political decision making? Because I would know through this predictive model that if this is going to dry up first, it's going to be the first one for unrest. And I can calculate statistically how many people within that population will suffer. So, we should focus on the climate model for that decision. I want data to drive that decision.
Giulio Boccaletti (41:49):
Right. Well, it's an important question, and it's a one that has been asked a lot. The balance of evidence is that there's no real predictive power about human systems in the environmental reality. So, narrow environmental determinism doesn't work. So, saying, oh, well this is a desert society. So, of course, they've had all these problems. Oh, but there's Dubai. Well, no, but that's an exception. Oh, but there's Israel. Oh, that's an exception. It just never really works that way. The narrow environmental determinism, which has come and gone out of favor and into favor in academic circles for 100 years. So, you're asking a question that's actually at the heart of a lot of scholarships. It turns out to not have a lot of empirical evidence.
Giulio Boccaletti (42:33):
That said, though, that doesn't mean that the environmental conditions don't matter. So, one thing is to say, "Do they cause unrest, or do they cause problems? Or do they cause... There's no straightforward easy causal relationship, but that doesn't mean that they don't contribute heavily to shaping the journey. So, again, my point with the fragile state. Fragile states don't necessarily map onto environmental resources. In fact, sometimes it's quite the opposite. They inversely correlate with environmental resources. But once you know that there is a collapse or once you know that there is strife, well, that's when then environmental conditions can exacerbate problems.
Giulio Boccaletti (43:24):
You can't predict where the next migration comes from. If had 100 nations, all of them suffering significant scarcity, you wouldn't be able to tell by the quantitative different in scarcity whether one is more likely than the other to move, but you would probably want to live every one of those 100 to some higher level of security because out of them somebody will come. So, it doesn't have enormous predictive power, but I think it is germane to the question of vulnerability. It maps vulnerability well. Now, whether vulnerability can turn into something that's due to lots of other things, but it's certainly a weighting of the dice if you will.
Alexander McCaig (44:02):
So, if I want to limit that vulnerability, and if I think about some of the points you've made, it will require those nations themselves, which are most vulnerable stepping up, taking that responsibility saying, "We want to talk about these things that give us life, allow our economies to thrive. And we want to have a say over it, rather than some sort of dictator nationalizing the asset and determining for millions of people how they should live." That's point one, and then point two, are there technologies that you have seen that are beneficial or easily move lightweight that can help curtail a lot of these problems? Ones that can easily be adopted by poor nations that lack the economic feasibility for the purchase of such infrastructure items?
Giulio Boccaletti (44:57):
Well, there's a wide range of spectrum of technologies. Some of them very old. For example, over the last 20, 30 years, we've realized that there are a number of ecological processes that we can use to do things that we traditionally think of as only the domain of infrastructure, even managing floods. I mean, the only answer up to 1950s was, well, we just have to build the magnets and levy and we that's all you can do. Then it turns out that that's not entirely true. That you can actually think about managing and using wetlands differently. That of course requires a different way of thinking about zoning. It requires a different way of thinking about who lives, where, but it is possible to design a landscape that's not quite as engineered and still delivers the same level of security that you would want. And so, there's that range of technology.
Giulio Boccaletti (45:48):
And then you have, of course, agronomics. I mean the most important technology is knowledge. And again, we have tended in the past to think uniformly of one or two different agronomics practices that would apply everywhere. I mean, the agronomy that was developed in the Western United States traveled virtually everywhere in the world. I mean, it went to Central Asia, it went to Southern Africa, but now we are starting to recognize that there is also historical local knowledge that is adapted to the particular conditions that the populations living there have experienced over centuries that has value, that has worth, and can actually deliver a better, more productive outcome. Not all production needs to be industrial.
Giulio Boccaletti (46:31):
So, there are solutions, but in the end, I do think that at the heart of the matter is a more equitable and just roots development for everybody. In the end, it's hard to... There are people that go hungry. Hundreds of millions of people that are hungry still today. There are a billion people that don't have access to clean water. I mean, at the end of the day, I think we have a collective responsibility to put resources there so that we solve those problems. So yeah, I don't know if it answer your question. I mean, it gets a very complicated kind of technological issue, but I think there are ways of doing this that are not just replicating the expensive route that America and Europe took in the first part of the 20th century.
Alexander McCaig (47:16):
Yeah. I like that because if we exacerbate technology and transition it to other cultures at a time when we felt we needed to distance ourselves from nature, rather than integrate with it, doesn't seem like a good technology you want to spread to the rest of the world. And so, when I hear that, that sort of knowledge capture is so important because if I can understand the cultures and the nuances, those micro climates, micro farming initiatives, whatever it might be. Those may be interesting solves through that knowledge capture to bring to other places that have otherwise been disconnected from it. And there may be something learned, there may be great benefits when that information can be shared appropriately. And so, I think that is probably a nice step forward.
Giulio Boccaletti (47:59):
Yeah, I think that's right. And it also reflects the fact that that way you engage people in a conversation that's not just technical, but it is actually cultural and political. What do you want your home to look like? I mean, that's the starting point for all this conversation, and it's a conversation everybody should have, and anybody can have. You don't have to have a PhD in hydraulic engineering to have that conversation.
Alexander McCaig (48:18):
No, I think that's amazing. And so, Giulio, where do you think people should start to begin to educate themselves on this factor or start to and empathize and say, "I want to be a part of supporting those people and their voices and having them heard." I know that you do some work with some NGOs, charitable organizations, so where should the focus be for the public?
Giulio Boccaletti (48:41):
Well, there's plenty of protocol. I would say three things. One, engage locally, first of all, because you'll find that there's... First of all, in many places there's profound injustice on how resources are distributed even close to home. And so, I think it's worth looking at that. And also, I think it's hard to really get a felt understanding of what these issues are if you don't actually look at what's around you and understand where does your water come from? What does your watershed look like? Who lives there? What are they doing? How does your local economy link to your local water resources? That's kind of to me a step one. And there, you can find lots of local organization, land trusts, and conservation organizations, and actually even social justice organizations that work on these issues.
Giulio Boccaletti (49:27):
Step two then I think is to the extent that one sees oneself as an environment mentalist, I think there are a number of organizations, including ones that I've belonged to in the past like the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and others who are asking these questions. Not always perfectly, but they are asking these questions of how at the planetary level do we integrate nature with society? Is there a different way, a better way of achieving that?
Giulio Boccaletti (49:51):
And then, thirdly, I would say in the end, I'll end where I started, which is I care about people more than I care about anything else. And we still live in a planet where close to a billion people don't have access to drinking water, and there are many, many children that die every year of dysentery, a million kids. We obsess about COVID, but a million kids die every year because waterborne diseases that are entirely preventable, easily preventable today. And again, there, there are a number of charities from charity: water to Water.org to WaterAid that do great work in trying to help those who do not have the resources fix these very fundamental issues of water security.
Alexander McCaig (50:30):
Yeah, no, I think that's wonderful, and with just maintaining the focus, which is a very hard thing to do for many people, including myself. Maintaining that focus affords us at least the opportunity to have discussions about it like we're having right now, and I want to thank you for coming on and actually talking about this. I don't think it's spoken about enough, and it's just so incredibly important. And I found it definitely enlightening, and I would be more than happy to dive into some other subjects, more specific ones aside from the general narrative that we've spoken about if you want to do that in the future.
Giulio Boccaletti (51:10):
Wonderful. My pleasure. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Alexander McCaig (51:14):
Oh, thank you very much, Giulio.
Speaker 3 (51:22):
Thank you for listening TARTLECAST with your hosts, Alexander McCaig and Jason Rigby, where humanity steps into the future and source data defines the path. What's your data worth?