The Rain, Not in Spain, But Other Places and Why It Matters

April 28, 2009

The always interesting Nick Denbow sent the item below in his regular email this morning.  It's worth reading, I think.

The always interesting Nick Denbow sent the item below in his regular email this morning.  It's worth reading, I think.

In the southeast corner of Australia, the two rivers used to supply
Adelaide with drinking water are the Darling, that rises 1,000 miles to
the northeast behind Brisbane, and the Murray, that rises to the
southeast near Canberra. Between these rivers, the enormous
Murray-Darling basin was transformed from dry and only marginally
fertile land, into the breadbasket of Australia, through a massive
water management programme, canals and irrigation systems. Australia
became a major exporter of the produce from orchards, wheat fields and
rice plantations established here, by the 1970s. Seven years of
drought after 2000, now mean that the farmers with abstraction
licenses, that they actually pay for, have a zero allocation. They are
not allowed to abstract any water at all, and the region is returning
to a dry dust bowl, with occasional vineyards. Even the wine makers
have been told they can no longer abstract what little water they
previously were allowed to take. All this does not seem to be saving
the Adelaide water supply, extracted from the bottom of the Murray in
30 mile long pipelines. The salt marshes in the river delta, the lakes
and the lower reaches of the river are also dying, only inhabited now
by carp. Even the pelicans have moved on. Over the mountains on the
edge of the basin, water supplies to Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne
are also suffering, and to solve this there are major water
reclamation and desalination projects. Maybe, through necessity,
Australia will lead the world in the development of non-energy
intensive clean water supply schemes.

I discovered a different problem from my UK base, where we have a few
pipelines and use some rivers as the start of a national water supply
system, but where the rivers have not got much excess capacity to cope
with storms. With normally a surfeit of rain, the run-off from my
house roof area is collected in water butts, and then overflows via a
hose-pipe into the pond. Further overflows are sent to a soak away
under the lawn. But UK water authorities charge a levy automatically,
within the water bills, for taking away and treating surface drainage
water off any house, via the sewers. It is only if you write and point
out that your surface water drainage is to a soak-away, not to the
sewer, that the charge is removed. Okay, at last I have noticed, but
only after both suffering the rain and paying the charge for the last
30 years!  

Aside from the obvious--that it sucks at the moment to be a Southeastern Australian farmer (and what is this going to do to my supply of affordable merlot?) the point is that this business of water shortages and equitable water distribution is going to get a lot worse worldwide before it gets better.

Could be good news for those in water and water treatment. Your jobs are going to be even more important going forward. Could also be time to start doing some creative thinking about what process engineering can contribute to the solutions. Not as much exciting fun as Walt's previous post on telekenisis, but maybe a more urgent problem to solve.