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Giuliana Unger

October 6, 2022

Does Global Drought Call For Geoengineering?

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This summer, widespread drought demonstrated how climate change makes it ever harder to fight climate change. Think of that for a moment. It feels as if we’re living a parable.

Consider China. During a 70-day heatwave, sections of the Yangtze River fell to their lowest level since 1865. Hydropower, responsible for 80% of Sichuan province’s electricity, operated at just 20% of capacity. Manufacturers including Toyota, Foxconn and Tesla had to suspend production. Power rationing reduced lithium production needed for electric vehicle (EV) batteries and left one million EVs and 400,000 public charging facilities scrambling for energy.

Europe, likewise, coped with its worst drought in 500 years. About half of France’s nuclear reactors were offline in August because low water levels and hot temperatures on the Loire River made it impossible to cool them. France, normally an exporter of carbon-free nuclear energy, had to import electricity. Low water levels on the Rhine and Danube blocked low-carbon barge traffic, forcing goods to ship by truck with significantly higher emissions.

The American West, facing its worst drought in 1,200 years, is grossly overusing the Colorado River. Some 80% of water diverted from it goes to farmland accounting for 15% of US crop production. Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the two largest reservoirs along the river, fell to a quarter of their respective capacities. Their hydroelectric dams are the least of scientists’ worries—Lake Mead in particular risks becoming a dead pool beyond which water cannot flow. The seven states that depend on the Colorado must cut water usage by up to 30%, otherwise the federal government will intervene.

Meanwhile, drought compounded by war in Ukraine has brought global grain inventories down to a 12-year low. Farmers across China, India, Europe and the US are struggling with the hot, dry conditions.

If that was summer with 1.2° C of average warming, 2° or 3° C is scary to imagine. Droughts will trend worse, not better, so how do we address water crises and climate change simultaneously? We need short-, mid- and long-term solutions. Some of these are benign. Some you might not like.

  1. Short term: price water accurately

Short term, countries need to secure supplies of drinking water and agricultural water. The first step is to price water appropriately. This is easier said than done.

Eight years ago, the New York Times lamented that “…water costs virtually nothing” for American farmers, and that “Water is far too cheap across most American cities and towns.” However, between 2010 and 2018, water and sewage prices in 12 US cities increased by an average of 80%.

Now, the spot price for one acre-foot of water in California is up from $214.64 on September 30, 2019 to $1,242.79 on September 6, 2022—a 579% increase in three years. California lawmakers are asking the US Justice Department to investigate “drought profiteering” and “market manipulation.”

What if that is just the fair market price?

If so, then industrial companies would be incentivized to treat the billions of gallons of toxic wastewater they generate. Farmers might transition from water-intensive products like beef and almonds to more water- and calorie-efficient crops like starchy roots and cereals. Clothing and fashion producers would look for water-friendly alternatives to cotton. Less intensive but important water users including sports facilities, landscape managers and homeowners would turn to smart irrigation systems.

Los Angeles has the right idea with a plan to recycle 100% of its wastewater. Who knew that like Bill Gates in 2015, a North American metro area of 13 million would soon drink “water made from human feces,” to use the Microsoft founder’s words? In fact, cities in the Netherlands have been doing that for over 50 years. As the joke goes in Rotterdam, by the time they drink water from the Rhine River, it has already passed through the bodies of at least three Germans.

When water is scarce, we cannot be fussy. We need to save, use, recycle and pay for water like the precious commodity it is.

  1. Mid term: prepare drought-stricken areas for water scarcity

The least fraught solution in the mid-term is desalination: removing the salt from seawater at industrial scale. It could be done in any coastal country, but it is energy intensive. Unless we power it with renewables, or hopefully soon, fusion energy, we’ll trade water for higher emissions.

Another option is to bring water from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity. Dragging icebergs from Antarctica to water-starved coastal cities is one way (why waste the fresh water?). The more practical method is to pipe water.

China’s South-North Water Transfer Project, a $60 billion effort to divert water from the Yangtze to Beijing, was a good example until the Yangtze was stricken with drought. Instead, China might look to Russia for water, as the city of Lanzhou has proposed. Similarly, the US could pipe water from the Great Lakes and Mississippi basin to the West—or from further north in Canada where there are relatively few people and plenty of fresh water. That raises some even more controversial possibilities.

  1. Long term: reengineer Arctic river flow to save fresh water

In the late 70s and early 80s, I worked at the International Institute for Applied System Analysis (IIASA), a think tank housed in the former summer palace of the Habsburgs in Laxenburg, a village on the outskirts of Vienna. This is where scientists from the west could work with scientists from the east.

I could tell you spy stories from those days, but staying on topic, I noticed that Russian scientists were simulating the impact of reversing the flow of the Ob River in Siberia so that it would empty into the inland Aral Sea (in today’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) instead of the Artic Sea. The proposed engineering project involved building a 1,584-mile canal across the Ural foothills at an estimated cost of $40 billion (in 1980 dollars).

In retrospect, I sometimes think it’s too bad the Soviets didn’t execute that plan. The Aral Sea dried up while fresh water continued to run into the Artic Sea, accelerating warming and hence, climate change.

About 15 years ago, at a water conference in Vancouver, I pitched a similar idea. Over the past 60 years, the outflow of fresh water from the Mackenzie River, the second largest basin in North America after the Mississippi, had increased significantly. Researchers found that warm water intrusion from the Mackenzie River discharge into the Artic Sea had accelerated ice melt. I asked: why not limit that negative impact by reversing the flow of the Mackenzie and diverting surplus water to drought stricken parts of North America? I was scolded by the conference participants. How dare I suggest messing with the environment!

With drought so advanced and dangerous, perhaps we should resurrect that old Soviet idea. Maybe we should pipe water to ensure that it arrives where it is needed, not where it causes more melting and warming.

Awfully complex

Water and droughts have a very complex relationship with climate change. Even the most promising solutions to drought have gaping holes and unknowns.

Against a water crisis, however, the gloves must come off. We can’t treat water like a free resource anymore. And we cannot wait any longer to build more water canals and pipelines.

Let’s not forget that ancient civilizations moved fresh water through massive engineering projects ranging from the aqueducts of Rome to the underground well and canal systems of Xinjiang, still in use today. Are we really going to write off 3,000-year-old technologies as too intrusive or unnatural?

The point is that we cannot dismiss river geoengineering as off limits. We must somehow address the 150 years we’ve spent reengineering our climate since the Industrial Revolution. If we do so responsibly, this parable doesn’t have to end in tragedy.

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