Friday, January 15, 2016

Let There Be Water

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Yes, it’s Friday 15th January 2016 and this is Anthony Day with the latest Sustainable Futures Report. You can also hear me later today on Voice America in an interview with Chris Cooper. The link is at and it will be live at 4pm….

But first, this week I’m looking at a new book by Seth M. Siegel about how Israel has made the best of very limited water resources and is now sharing expertise - and water - with countries all over the world.  More unexpected consequences of the York floods and why controlling carbon emissions may not be the answer to climate change but geo-engineering perhaps is.  Apologies from Jeremy Leggett. And HS2. Is it really sustainable transport?

River levels in York are now below 3 metres. Well above normal but still well below the 5.2 metre peak on Boxing Day. Apart from a period of 36 hours, the river bank in front of my house has been under water since 9th November. It’s just beginning to clear. Several unexpected - and potentially serious - consequences that I didn’t mention last week. First, although the 999 emergency service was always available the 101 non-emergency service went down when the telephone exchange was flooded. Secondly, BBC Radio York kept broadcasting news, information and alternative non-emergency numbers, but they themselves were taken off air when the exchange went down and the team had to travel the 40-odd miles to broadcast from the studios of BBC Radio Hull.  I wonder if the council or the Environment Agency should get a siren, like they had in the war. Some of the law courts were flooded and hearings have been transferred to Leeds until further notice.

Although there are shops and restaurants in the city which will be closed for the next few months, most of York is trading as normal. Please don’t stay away.

After COP21, the Climate Change conference in Paris, everyone came away agreeing that carbon emissions were to be reduced, although nobody actually specified how this would be achieved. This week 11 academics wrote an open letter saying that 

“the actions agreed are far too weak to get anywhere close to [the] target. Furthermore, the pledges countries have made to cut their carbon emissions are not sufficiently binding to ensure they are met, while the Paris Agreement will not force them to “ratchet” them up as often as they need to.” 

They go on, 

“The hollow cheering of success at the end of the Paris Agreement proved yet again that people will hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. What they disregarded were the deadly flaws lying just beneath its veneer of success.” 

Strong stuff!

The alternative solution which they reluctantly propose is geo-engineering. This means taking direct action to influence the climate. There are several ways of doing this. Ships could patrol the oceans spraying seawater up into the clouds to make them thicker and make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Other ships could sprinkle iron particles across the seas to stimulate the growth of plankton which would absorb CO2. We could release sulphates into the stratosphere, which would cause global dimming and reduce the amount of heat reaching the earth. We could put mirrors into orbit, mirrors into deserts or paint everybody’s roof white. Or just grow more trees. The fact that they propose these radical measures indicates how serious they believe the situation to be. The problem is that nobody can be absolutely sure how these ideas will work. Some of them, like planting trees, will take many years to have any effect. Which countries will be in control of these systems, and won’t they want to favour their own territories even at the expense of other nations? And if everything goes wrong, we’ve only got the one planet. 

Jeremy Leggett sends his apologies because the final chapter of his book, The Winning of the Carbon War, was not ready on 5th January as promised. He’s still writing up his account of COP21. He has circulated an extract, which shows him much more optimistic than the geo-engineers. The book is a free download from I’ve been following it chapter by chapter each month since January 2015. You should read it.

Let there be water

Sao Paolo in Brazil is one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of some 20 million. After two years of drought there is a water shortage. Supplies are turned off for a time most days. In some parts of the city the pipes run dry every day and for extended periods. Thousands of people are drilling private wells with the risk of polluting the aquifers beneath the city. Some citizens are buying in bottled water. Some are breaking into the mains and stealing water. Some are just leaving. With failing rains and a poorly managed infrastructure the situation is getting worse. Although it’s midsummer in Sao Paolo at the moment and thunderstorms are forecast for this afternoon. Let’s hope they’re heavy. It’s suggested that the drought is linked to deforestation in the Amazon. Water is transpired into the atmosphere through the leaves of the trees. This water forms aerial rivers of concentrated water vapour which flow towards the coast. The vapour condenses out over the land and brings rain. Fewer trees, less rain. The problem is that Brazilian agricultural policies encourage deforestation. Many hectares have been cleared, many more have been damaged and the process continues.

Things are not quite so bad across the world in California, although that state is approaching its fifth year of drought and declared a state of emergency at the start of 2015. Agriculture is the principal user of California’s water and the principal casualty of the drought. For example, 10% of the state’s almond trees have died. Serious, when you consider that 80% of the world’s almonds are California-grown. “Brown is the new green” is the motto as residents let their lawns die and some even fill in their swimming pools.

In the UK, particularly in the North, people have had enough of rain which has been falling for weeks . They’ve had enough of floods which will continue to impact homes and businesses for many months to come. Hard to picture a drought, but even here in the UK, particularly in the South, floods can rapidly turn to drought, hosepipe bans and a shortage of clean, drinkable water.

“Let there be water”, a new book by Seth M Siegel, has lessons for all these situations. The book is an account of how Israel, a country which is largely desert, has developed and managed its water resources. The book starts with history, looks at demand for water, examines sources of supply and explains how Israel’s expertise helps other countries.

Once the Israeli state had been established the first priority was the construction of the National Water Carrier. This is a 130 kilometre pipeline, completed in 1964, taking water from the Sea of Galilee in the relatively rainy North to the farms in the deserts of the South. As in many countries, agriculture is the principal user of water. The more efficient agriculture could become, the more water could be available for homes and industry. “Don’t waste even a drop” is a mantra embedded in the Israeli character. Don’t waste a drop at home, in public and or anywhere that water is used. 

Traditionally fields are watered either by flooding or by sprinkling. Flood irrigation needs a network of pumps, channels and sluices and typically 50% of the water is lost to evaporation or sinks into the ground before can be absorbed by the roots. Plants need both air and water at their roots, so flood irrigation means they are either waterlogged and stressed or parched and stressed. Sprinkler irrigation needs less infrastructure but it’s not an ideal solution. It’s difficult to deliver consistent amounts of water across a whole field and up to 35% is again lost to evaporation before it hits the ground.

Israeli scientists came up with drip irrigation: small, measured drops of water continually delivered direct to each plant. Not only did this deliver water savings of 50% - 60%, it improved yields over all other methods of irrigation. Further yield improvements were achieved by developing plants which would tolerate arid conditions through selective breeding.

Managing demand is one side of the equation: managing supply is the other. Israel is unique in the world in re-using around 95% of the nation’s sewage. The initial project was to concentrate the  sewage from seven cities into a central treatment plant. Water from the plant then flows through natural sand dunes, sinking over a period of 6 to 12 months into a natural aquifer some 100 metres below the surface. This filtering process delivers cleaned water which is transported via a 50-mile pipeline to the farms for irrigation. The supply of treated water from the sewage plant is more reliable than rainfall.

The third source of water, after the National Water Carrier and sewage treatment, is desalination, the removal of salt from water to make it drinkable. Desalination is widely used in the Middle East but is recognised as very expensive because of the energy inputs required. In Israel desalination is used for converting both sea water and brackish water, which is river water or underground water that contains unacceptable levels of salt. Israeli engineers first developed new energy-efficient techniques for desalination and then the reverse osmosis process which produces higher-quality water than other techniques and at lower cost. Before the Israeli state was established, when Britain controlled Palestine it discouraged immigration because it believed that water resources could support no more than two million inhabitants. By carefully managing the supply and demand for water Israel now supports not the 2 million people that the British thought was the maximum, but over 8 million.

The book covers all these stages in great detail, analysing the challenges, the personalities and the politics. It describes how Israeli water management techniques have been used all over the world, with desalination plants built by them in India, China and California, and governments advised in over 100 countries. It warns how countries that squander their water, some of which expelled Israeli advisors after revolutionary regime change, now face economic collapse. Remember, we’re all in very long supply chains. It may be out of sight, it may be out of mind, but you’ll certainly feel the effects if someone along your supply chain runs out of water.

“Let there be Water, Israel’s solution to a water-starved world” is a book worth reading for its perspective on water as a key element of a sustainable world. It’s not currently sold in the UK, but not difficult to find on line. 

This is Anthony Day with your weekly Sustainable Futures Report. Let’s talk transport.

In December I attended the Sustainable Futures Forum presented by Birmingham City University with Birmingham City Council. Craig Wakeman, HS2 Programme Manager, spoke on sustainable transport. He told us that HS2, the planned high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham, would cut the time for the 120-mile journey to just 49 minutes. A lot of people have criticised the time-saving and suggested that it was unnecessary and that people could simply start earlier. In response I have heard supporters of HS2 say that the fundamental justification for the new line is to increase capacity, and if a new line is to be built the marginal cost of making it high-speed is small. Craig Wakeman did not make this point, he just emphasised the improved journey time. 

He told us that HS2 would be the biggest civil engineering project in Europe and the biggest archaeological dig. It would lead to a transformation of skills and employment across the region. 34,000 engineers will be needed. To meet this demand it will be necessary to develop skills and re-skill the existing workforce. Apart from engineers and archaeologists the project will need landscape architects, project managers, programme managers, accountants, lawyers and a whole range of other skilled workers. There will be a National College of High-speed Rail with campuses in Birmingham and in Doncaster with the potential to develop a world-class and global reputation. The implications for the supply chain are immense. Just outside Birmingham are the headquarters of JCB, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of earthmoving equipment. Their key suppliers are located within a 50 mile radius. When Craig explained that the cost of the tracks, systems, stations and trains would amount to some £39 billion the implications for Birmingham and the West Midlands were clear. No surprise at the many smiling delegates at the conference.

I was left with a number of questions. First, how can this be sustainable? The largest civil engineering project in Europe is likely to have the largest carbon footprint, rivalling even Heathrow and Drax Power Station. How is all of this to be offset? And the £39 billion will have to be paid back over time from train fares. Do we need to do all that travel? Will we be able to afford fares that will be high enough to pay off the costs as well as all the running costs? Critics have claimed that the line will benefit London rather than the regions. Certainly, if it takes only 49 minutes to get to Birmingham from London it will bring Birmingham into the London commuter belt, no doubt with upward pressure on Birmingham property. As I have said before, I would prefer to see the East-West rail links from Hull through York, Leeds and Manchester to Liverpool upgraded before we look at a north-south high-speed link. Sustainable transport? What do you think?

Before I go I want to tell you about the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange. It takes place in Harrogate on 14th April, so please put that in your diary. We have four themes: energy, supply chain, skills and economic development. We have four panels of experts to talk about the challenges and opportunities in these fields. We will start the day with a ministerial keynote. I'm not quite sure which minister, although negotiations have been going on since July and are now at an advanced stage. We will also have a series of roundtable discussions. These will be facilitated by either one of the panel members or by another expert. This is your chance to share your challenges, knowledge and experience with your peers round the table. Full details will appear on the conference website which will be launched next week. I'll let you have the link then.

And that's it for another week. This is Anthony Day thanking you once again for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report. There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week. Until then, have a good week, and bye for now.