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March 27, 2009

It’s a big week for “holidays.” Last Saturday, March 22 was World Water Day, Monday was National Puppy Day, Tuesday marked the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, today (March 26) is National Nougat Day, and Earth Hour is this Saturday, March 28, from 8:30-9:30 pm.

We could spend hours discussing the essence of nougat, but let’s back up to World Water Day (a day to celebrate—and advocate for—the sustainable management of freshwater). Today, about a third of the global population doesn’t have a dependable source of clean water. According to the UNEP, 1.8 billion people will live in countries with “absolute water scarcity” by 2025.


The Earth has approximately 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water (326 quintillion gallons), but 97% of that water is the salty stuff in the oceans. That leaves about 35 million cubic kilometers of freshwater, but most of that is locked in glaciers or deep underground aquifers, out of human reach. Of the stuff we can reach, a lot of it is too dirty to use or it’s MIA thanks to drought or over-consumption.

Over-consumption is a result of over-population—the more people on the planet, the more water we need for agriculture (70% of water use), industry (20%) and just regular ol’ domestic use (10%). Right now, we’re tapping India’s Ganges and Indus Rivers, the Nile (in Egypt) and the Yellow River (in China) so heavily that they no longer flow to the sea (except in rare wet years). Similarly, the mighty Colorado River—carver of the Grand Canyon—often runs dry by the time it reaches the Bay of California due to agricultural demands for water in the southwest.

The Colorado River isn’t the only source of agricultural water in the United States. The Ogallala aquifer—the largest aquifer in North America and one of the biggest in the world—provides 30% of the ground water used for irrigation in the US. But the amount of water in the Ogallala is shrinking. Every year, we pull 12 cubic kilometers of water out of this aquifer. Overall, we have pulled a volume of water equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers out of the Ogallala. Some scientists estimate that it will be dry in 25 years.

On top of everything else, climate change has to make everything a little bit worse by making the dry places (like Australia and the Sahel region of Africa) even dryer. Whether a result of global warming, natural cycles or a combination of both, mega-droughts are happening in areas where human demand for water has pushed the local systems to the breaking point.

Don’t fret! We can MAKE rain. Maybe. Using a questionably brilliant, questionably effective and just plain questionable process known as “cloud seeding,” some people swear they can make it rain. The Chinese government is a big proponent of cloud seeding, firing silver iodide rockets into the sky when they want rain. Or snow. In February, China closed 12 major highways around Beijing because of heavy chemically-induced snow. Oops.

Not everyone is jumping on the “rain enhancement” bandwagon (for obvious reasons). Instead of trying to make rain to make water, people are trying to MAKE water. This is where Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway) comes in. He has invented a machine that can turn anything—puddle water, ocean water, urine—into clean freshwater. The machine, called “the slingshot,” can produce 1,000 gallons of clean water per day using an incredibly efficient process of vapor compression distillation. The slingshot can be powered by electricity or a Kamen-designed generator that runs on anything that burns (like propane—or poop). Of course, with a current price tag of $100,000, the slingshot isn’t quite ready for mass marketing.

There you have it. World Water Day: a rather depressing holiday. Now, get back to celebrating nougats and puppies.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Kerri permalink
    April 11, 2009 10:40 pm

    Had not realized China was so into cloud seeding… !

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