Saturday, 3 October 2009

Water, water everywhere and never a stop to think

WATER. The stuff of life. One of the crucial, necessary components without which life would never have come into being. Not on this planet, anyway.
Though the famous “canals” on Mars have long been shown to be a misunderstanding, there is indeed water there, both as a gas in the atmosphere and in polar ice-caps.
New discoveries suggest there is water on the moon too. Not in fluid, drinkable form but still present.
American scientist Carle Pieters, reviewing evidence from India’s first moon mission, explained: “When we say water on the moon, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles.
“Water on the moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl (hydrogen and oxygen) that interact with molecules of rock and dust in the top millimetres of the moon’s surface.”
So mud, then. Which may, I suppose, bring slightly closer to reality the idea of creating moon colonies where people can live.
In science fiction, such colonies are often places of escape from an Earth that has become uninhabitable.
It’s a romantic idea and one with, I suppose, a grain of plausibility.
Trouble is, it’s much easier to believe in an uninhabitable Earth than a habitable moon – never mind Mars or beyond.
And it may not be a problem just for our children’s children, either.
According to a report by scientists at the Met Office, the catastrophic effects of global warming could occur within the lifetime of most people now living.
Richard Betts, the Met Office’s head of climate impacts, told a conference in Oxford this week: “We’ve always talked about very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise.
“It’s an extreme scenario, but the way we are going the most severe scenario is looking more plausible.”
Four degrees may not sound that severe – but the average figure disguises the likelihood of much bigger rises at the poles. And it’s melting polar ice-caps that will cause much of the most catastrophic change.
Which brings us back to water.
There are two main reasons why a hotter Earth would be devastating news for humankind, and they both relate to water.
One is the rising sea levels that will flood many of the coastal cities where so many millions now live – and much of the farmland where our food is grown.
And the other, perhaps paradoxically, is the predicted droughts that could turn currently inhabited areas into desert.
It is feared a 4C warming could threaten the water supply of half the world’s population and wipe out up to half its animal and plant species.
It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee the wars that could result from seven billion-plus people scrapping over dwindling resources of both land and water.
This is why officials from 190 countries have gathered in Bangkok to continue negotiations on a new deal to tackle global warming. And why the United Nations will try to toughen up the existing agreements on industrial emissions in Copenhagen in December.
Let’s pray whatever they come up with isn’t too little too late. Past evidence suggests it probably will be.
It is, of course, notoriously difficult to predict the weather, let alone the climate. It is a chaotic system with more factors at play than anyone can reliably calculate.
But all this has been on the scientific agenda for 40 years and in the political arena for nearly 20. There has been time for the scientists, at least, to hone and improve their work.
And the worrying thing is that while the politicians have talked a lot and done little, the scientists’ predictions have grown more and more severe.
It’s as if a dire future has been rushing to meet us.


IF one thing symbolises the madness of our times more perfectly than anything else, it’s bottled water.
It’s not the water you pay for, it’s the packaging. In most cases, perfectly serviceable bottles which could be used over and over again are thrown away after one use.
Causing both horrendous waste of materials and a growing problem of disposal – not to mention the greenhouse gases emitted by both making the bottles and transporting them.
Now a lead has been taken against this insanity in what might seem an unlikely place.
The small Australian town of Bundanoon has banned bottled water.
One local retailer came up with the idea of selling only re-fillable bottles. The town’s other shopkeepers all agreed and a number of new public drinking fountains have been provided.
Spokesman John Dee said: “We’re saying to people you can save money and save the environment at the same time. The alternative doesn’t have a sexy brand, doesn’t have pictures of mountain streams on the front of it, it comes out of your tap.”
I’ll raise a glass to that.

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