Saturday, 17 December 2016

Specialist #6: I’ve Had a Few Minor ‘Plumbing’ Issues of Late (Freshwater Use)

Bluey here,

This morning was about assessing whether my plumbing was in good working order now and into the future. Yes, for you humans, but also the infinite freshwater species and ecosystems that call my body home.

Once again, I had the privilege of having two specialists: Dr Pekel et al and Dr Mekostra (short for Mekonnen-Hoekstra). Nurse Vörösmarty also attended but was collecting biodiversity data for the fist half of the session, so joined us a little late.

At my initial GP appointment, Dr Steffen corrected my former GP's much-criticised focus on my aggregate totals of freshwater. While one might think that aggregate totals provide a telling metric alone, river-basin metrics are a better way of integrating 'my problems' with regional human 'problems' by measuring "maximum rates of blue-water withdrawal by humans along rivers" in order to "avoid regime shifts in the functioning of flow-dependent ecosystems".

Dr Pekel put me through the MRI scanner and as I appeared out the other side he looked surprised at the results. According to Dr Pekel, my total surface freshwater was greater than he'd expected, covering almost 3% of my entire body mass. But what he was most surprised about was not the extent but the change—between 1984 and 2015, there had been "striking patterns of surface water occurrence change".

Dr Mekostra complemented Dr Pekel perfectly, as his area of expertise was the seasonal fluctuations of human water consumption, and its availability, rather than the holistic perspective offered by his colleague. While more human-centric than Dr Pekel, I was well-attuned to perspectives proffered by doctors like Dr Mekostra. His main finding was that 'blue' water scarcity was a fact of yearly life for about 71% of my human population. By comparing his results with previous medical records, water scarcity has increased overall—a stark reality given Dr Pekel's finding that aggregate surface freshwater has increased! Thanks to Dr Mekostra's insistence to conduct variability testing throughout a year, as opposed to annually, a theme has emerged that can't be ignored by humans.

My results in full:

Medical Report 6: Freshwater Use
Additional information:

  • Global PB: Maximum amount of consumptive blue water use.
  • Basin PB: Blue water withdrawal as percent of mean monthly river flow. Low-flow months (Low-F), Intermediate-flow months (Int-F), High-flow months (High-F)


Overall, it seems my endorheic lakes have increased considerably, while my North America—which accounts for 52% of my permanent surface water—and Asian regions have had permanent water gains. Worryingly however, over 70% of my net permanent water loss has been in five concentrated regions: my Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dr Pekel used the example of the Aral Sea as the gravest reminder about what can happen when unregulated withdrawal of blue water and transboundary policy issues clash; in this case, from the flow of the Syr and Amu rivers:

The Aral Sea is just one of a number of prominent examples alongside Lake Urmia and Lake Chad, where freshwater environments can quickly lose volume, become hyper-saline and decimate local freshwater biodiversity.

Dr Mekostra's reinforced Dr Pekel's appeal suggesting humans should place caps on blue-water consumption per river basin and revisit transboundary cooperation policies. Also, by focussing on my most susceptible regions such as my India, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia, Dr Mekostra demonstrated the importance of pursuing sustainable solutions in my highly populated and traditionally volatile body parts. Dr Mekostra's results also drove home—for humans—the importance of sustainable freshwater use to ensure their maintenance of global security on my surface.

When Nurse Vörösmarty finally arrived with his results, he brought a real sense of enthusiasm to the room. Synthesising two different perspectives—river biodiversity and water scarcity—the nurse provided 'threat maps', including the one below, to schematically represent my body parts most at risk. According to the nurse's figures, Africa and central Asia are experiencing dual threats. My Ethiopia, for example, "contains 150 times less reservoir storage per capita than my North America":

Human Water Security / Biodiversity Threat (Source: Nature)

In terms of biodiversity, the nurse describes freshwater biodiversity as in a "state of crisis", citing four general drivers: catchment disturbance, pollution, resource development and biotic factors. When read next to the Living Planetary Index statistic that 81% of "Freshwater species populations have suffered an 81% decline", the nurses data becomes all the more sobering.

As a final point, Nurse Vörösmarty stressed that humans must conduct integrated water resource management and embrace technological innovation/investment to "reconfigure exposure to threats". Wrong audience I thought, but I noted it down.

Personally, I'm not as worried about water scarcity as I am about biodiversity. As I left the appointment I couldn't help but agree with a quote I'd recently come across: "Freshwater ecosystems may well be the most endangered ecosystems in the world". Yes, my PB was technically 'safe' but I think this is a severe misrepresentation of the facts at hand.

Thanks for the insights Dr Pekel et alDr Mekostra and Nurse Vörösmarty

Yours for awhile,

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