mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Water Wars
Another Kick to Malthus

We may soon be looking to our oceans for our freshwater—or more accurately, we’ll be looking underneath our oceans. A new study, the first to comprehensively survey the world’s known reserves of undersea freshwater, estimates that there are roughly 120,000 cubic miles—more than 100 times the amount of freshwater we’ve drilled from the ground since 1900—of fresh and nearly-fresh water trapped underneath seabeds. The upshot: we could be seeing more offshore drilling for water as well as oil in the future. ScienceDaily reports:

The water, which could perhaps be used to eke out supplies to the world’s burgeoning coastal cities, has been located off Australia, China, North America and South Africa. […]

These reserves were formed over the past hundreds of thousands of years when on average the sea level was much lower than it is today, and when the coastline was further out, [lead author Dr Vincent Post] explains…”So when it rained, the water would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea.

Some of these reserves will be fresh enough that they won’t need to go through the energy-intensive desalinization process, while some of them will be only slightly brackish, and will be easier and, importantly, cheaper to desalinate. In fact, this kind of offshore drilling for water is already happening; NPR notes that there are already operations in places like Cape May, NJ to drill for and eventually desalinate low-salinity water.

Water scarcity has been a favorite topic for the Chicken Littles of the world. Just 18 years ago the vice president of the World Bank was ominously warning that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” It’s easy to drum up fears of “water wars” some undetermined time in the future, but studies like this one, and discoveries of new water sources like this one in Kenya, or this one under the Sahara, suggest that these fears that have gripped Malthusians—and that Malthusians have in turn used to push through otherwise unworkable policy recommendations—are a lot less serious.

Features Icon
show comments
  • GodisanAmerican

    The scope for breeding is infinite and water is finite right..oh! wait! comets have water! we could trap the comets, bring them near earth and let them fall on in a city on nice summer day. All with private need for government.

    OK. Right wingers believe GOD (read: Jesus or The Market) is going to take care of us. No need to worry. Drive gas guzzlers, breed like rabbits, eat like pigs, live in mac-mansions commuting 100 miles to your job. OK. Great enjoy.

    Evolution ‘just a theory’ (Biologist in conspiracy), Climate change (climatologists in conspiracy), Economics (those liberal econ-profs), Math (totally insane “Non-Euclidean” geometry)…

    But you wingnuts take such delight in finding any flaw in any policy that tries to address issues that might impact our future.

    Conservatives, as it happens over and over again, will be prove to be wrong about the climate change. Then it might be too late. If we do make change such as reducing the gasoline use, the impact can be at worst zero and at best it could improve the air, reduce our dependence on oil, etc..
    No, the dittoheads, instead of suggesting new ideas, they rather snicker like idiots and make fun of others.
    No wonder, 95% of the scientists are liberal. Can you imagine trying explain relativity these idiots?

    • RonRonDoRon

      Anyone who thinks Walter Russell Mead is a “conservative wingnut” is seriously deluded.

      • GodisanAmerican

        I agree and didn’t mean to imply Mead ,
        AI, and The American Conservative are few of the sane ones. My point was made to general echo chambers of Faux News, NRO! and like

        • Fred

          Is that you bpuharic, you adorable little nincompoop troll?

  • free_agent

    I remember a discussion over “wars over water” a decade or two ago, and there was a quote from an Israeli of some importance (I don’t remember who), to the point that if Jordan might consider going to war with Israel over water, the solution would be for Israel to just *buy* Jordan a desalinzation plan. The punch line that made it clear was, “Do you know how much wars *cost*?”

  • higgins1990

    “Fountains of the deep” as noted in Genesis 7.

  • richard40

    One thing I wonder. There is a lot of unused fresh water in Canada that just flowsw to Hudsons bay. Why not dam some of the rivers feeding into it, and build a water pipeline, to ship it to watrer hungry states like TX and AZ. Of course I would not expect CA to give it to us for free, but why not have a yearly fee from water hungry cites in the SE, to pipe them fresh water.

  • crocodilechuck

    Fairies at the bottom of the ocean, eh, Walt? Maybe you ought to pay for the writing on this site, instead of relying on slave labour aka ‘interns’.

    1) one reason oil is now $100/barrel is because of the expense of drilling (and recovering) oil from great depths. My mental calculator gives oil today @ $2.38 per gallon, just to get it to the surface. The costs for drilling in the abyss would be astronomical. Who’s going to pay for this water @ anywhere from $2.38 to God knows what? What’s the market? NB its not impoverished peasants in Asian coastal cities.

    2) Water will be just like oil, in that there will be a difference between ‘reserves’ and what is ‘recoverable’. ‘Science Daily’ misses this point, and you do too. Rookie error.

    3) Over and above this, the article indicates that the recovered water will be brackish. This will require desal plants to remove the salt and impurities, a ruinously expensive [here in Australia, these come at around A$4B a pop] means of producing potable water. Another fail for Via Meadia.

    4) The ‘Science Daily’ writer is cluey enough to mention that this finite resource is non-renewable (though you omit it – guess you’d have to write a different headline, right?). Just like the once massive Ogallah aquifer, which has been used for >100 years to irrigate the American Midwest, sadly drying up. All resources are finite, Walt-even those with lots of zeroes such as this one.

    5) As long as we’re on the topic of resource scarcity, you don’t even mention the elephant in the room-recyling. US businesses and households use tremendous volumes of fresh water that could be treated and recycled-of course, this will be expensive as well, but it doesn’t involve more drilling under seabeds, which involve untested technologies and present significant risks-Deepwater Explorer, anyone?

    5) Good analysts such as Jeremy Grantham have writing about resource constraints for years. I commend his July, 2011 investor letter on the topic for your consideration – and reflection (embedded):

    6) Malthus and the Club of Rome were correct. You aren’t. If you are intellectually honest, you’d pull or rewrite this shallow piece.

    8) On a more positive note, thank you for providing the link to the original article.

    9) I note the refreshed format for ‘The American Interest’. When is the writing going to improve?

    • Joseph Blieu

      The First Law of Mining says that as traditional low cost reserves are depeleted higher cost reserves are produced and prices adjust, we won’t be running out of anything soon, fracking is but one small example. The history of industry, farming, and infomation has been one of lower cost through innovation. Innovation is driven by mans need in the face of high costs. Malthus died in the eary 1800’s believeing that the procreating poor would overeat food needed by the rich. ( He was a nasty man by todays standards who supported the Corn Laws and hated the Poor Laws.) I don’t think that he or the COR “Limits to Growth” should inform policy because man has increased his bounty by using his mind. I can’t prove they are wrong, perhaps someday in some distant future, without copying China’s unsuccessful and unpopular one child policy that will damage their nation for years to come; we will be standing elbow to elbow on the earth eating grass roots but I really don’t think so.

      • crocodilechuck

        @ Blieu: read the Jeremy Grantham letter to investors; link provided in my post.

        • Joseph Blieu

          I read your link, it is based on a simple model. If resources are finite and demand increases as e^x then of course infinity exhausts any finite number and the world will run out of everything. Is this reasonable? The population of the Earth is dropping as wealth increases; in urban societies there is no economic value in children. In a world of wealth there is no teeming mass of human organisms yearning to procreate and consume your lunch. Only in some distant society envisioned by H. G. Wells will the horrors come true.

  • Brian H

    Science Daily needs to look up the meaning of the phrase “eke out”.

  • WalterHorsting

    CA is planning on building twin 40′ water tunnels under the delta for 40 miles to take NCA water to Southern CA. This $25B project (2-3X $50-$75B) will not create a drop off water or convey any in drought years like this year. Molten Salt Reactors can supply cheap electricity and its huge thermal component to desalinate unlimited water for Southern CA at this cost.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service