Drinking, Water and Sand

I’ve been looking at some recent and major water discoveries, here and elsewhere, and for me, they are all part of the same story.

When we talk about life, we talk about water.

Red Water

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars. Credit: ESA

Pockets of water ice on the southern pole of Mars.
Credit: ESA

The fine dust of the Martian planet surface, gathered, cooked and analyzed by Curiosity, has revealed itself to be “acting like a bit of a sponge and absorbing water from the atmosphere,” according to Laurie Leshin. Leshin is the lead author of a study showing that surface soil on Mars appears to contain approximately 1 liter (2 pints) of water in every 0.03 cubic meter (1 cubic foot). The Sample Analysis at Mars instrument (SAM) aboard the spunky NASA rover, taken together with information from other robotic explorers previously sent to the planet, indicate that this soil is probably distributed across the planet in similar composition.

But before you put on your space boots and prepare for lift-off, it should be noted that the soil also seems to contain a fair amount of toxic substances such as perchlorate as well, a challenge that would have be overcome before humans could consider any form of manned mission or colonization.

More on Martian water, from the ice caps to why there is no visible surface water, here.

On a related note, to get an idea of what can live in one cubic foot on Earth, about one large shovelful of soil, it’s worth having a look at the fascinating A World in One Cubic Foot by David Liittschwager.

Deep Water


Lake Turkana, Kenya
Photo: Piotr Gatlik

Two deep underground aquifiers have been discovered beneath the Turkana and Lotikipi basins in northern Kenya using radar, satellite technology, and verified through UNESCO supported test drilling. Together, they are estimated to contain up to 250 billion cubic liters of water. The area, home to mainly nomadic people, has been subject to extreme water scarcity and drought, while Ethiopian dam projects on the other side of the border could potentially reduce the levels of Lake Turkana itself.

“This newly found wealth of water opens a door to a more prosperous future for the people of Turkana and the nation as a whole. We must now work to further explore these resources responsibly and safeguard them for future generations,” Judi Wakhungu, cabinet secretary in the Kenyan ministry of environment, water and natural resources said at the start of a water security conference in Nairobi.

Lake Turkana is located in the Kenyan Rift Valley and is the largest desert and alkaline lake in the world. Large numbers of primate fossils have been found in the area, and the lake is widely regarded by anthropologists to be the origin of the human race.

In other news, large oil reserves have been found in the same area.

Less Water

The water supply stress index (WaSSI) model considers regional trends in both water supply and demand.
Credit: K. Averyt et al via IOP Science

On the other side of the water discovery coin, there’s the United States, where most people might assume that access to clean, fresh water is a given in a country with a long history of water distribution. But according to a report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, one in ten watersheds in North America are ‘stressed’, i.e. “demands for freshwater sources outstrip natural supplies”. The pressure on watersheds is likely to increase with the impact of climate change, according to CIRES.

“We hope research like this helps us understand challenges we might face in building a more resilient future,” said co-author James Meldrum.

Millet for Water

Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum) Source: Lost Crops of Africa

Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum)
Source: Lost Crops of Africa

I’m always impressed and surprised by how thoroughly new cultural habits can develop and take hold, how quickly we can forget that life was ever any different. Examples abound in terms of technology (iPod, anyone?), but I’m talking more about food habits. When I was a kid, the fast food lifestyle was just starting – but going to a fast food place was a novelty. Meals were eaten at home, at school, and very occasionally, in a restaurant – fast food was a birthday treat, an oddity.

In some areas of the world, habits and customs that seem like they are deeply rooted in time are actually not all that old. Maize cultivation in Africa, for example, has been around for centuries – but it’s only really celebrated a triumphal victory over other crops in the past 60 years. It has high crop yields, people like it, it’s not bad as a vegetable or a grain. That would be fine if maize had some of the qualities that have always marked more ancient small grain varieties like sorghum and millet – drought resistance. And the ability to grow in arid conditions is becoming ever more important.

Maize types Source: TNAU Genomics

Maize types
Source: TNAU Genomics

A short excerpt on pearl millet from an older book called Lost Crops of Africa, Volume 1 (1996):

“But over the decades, more and more farmers—especially in southern Africa—have abandoned it and switched to maize.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, international research efforts have made maize more productive than pearl millet; for another, government incentives have given maize an added financial advantage; and for a third, easier processing has made maize more convenient to use. The momentum for change has now gone so far that maize is often pushed into pearl millet areas to which it is poorly suited and where it cannot perform reliably.

(But) of all the major cereals, it is the one most able to tolerate extremes of heat and drought. It yields reliably in regions too hot and too dry to consistently support good yields of maize (or even sorghum).”

Pearl millet Source: Pioneer

Pearl millet
Source: Pioneer

And now, calls have grown even louder for grains like millet, and vegetable crops that don’t require as much water as maize, to replace what is now the ‘traditional’ crop of maize – biodiversity as a strategy to face increasing aridity.

As with fast food, the displacement of older habits hasn’t necessarily shaped up as healthy and sustainable.

Sometimes, progress means turning an eye to what came before.


IPS article on a return to biodiversity in gardening in Kenya – Growing Peas and Greens to Maximise Water Usage by Miriam Gathigah

International Flow

The Source d’Allondon, the head of the Allondon River in France. The ruins are of a former 19th-century mill.
Image: Florence Bourjas/Wikipedia

The Allondon River, a brief little slip as rivers go, starts as run-off from the Jura mountains, courses 22 km (14 m) through the area of France where I live, across the border into Switzerland, where it flows into the Rhône River on the Swiss side of the border before the Rhône itself flows into France. Considering its brevity, it’s quite the international traveler.

On calm days I can hear it from the back of our house, and it traces part of my running path. The name is of pre-Celtic origin and means ‘water of life’.

It’s also one of the sources of our drinking water, along with several reservoirs and two lakes. One of those lakes is Lake Geneva, across the border.

The water supply of our region is a trans-frontier affair, automatically rendering water issues a subject of international relations and negotiations. Fortunately, thus far the French and Swiss authorities seem in agreement on local water issues and how to approach them.

The proposed Gibe III hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia could size up a bit differently. The dam would be built on the River Omo in Ethiopia, which flows into Kenya, where it is the water source for Lake Turkana, the fourth largest lake in Africa and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Omo also provides water further downstream to Egypt and Sudan.

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam. Source: Business Daily Africa

A section of the Blue Nile is diverted in May as Ethiopia prepares to construct a hydro-electric power dam.
Source: Business Daily Africa

The Kenyan government states that it isn’t interested in preventing the construction of the dam, but wants to ensure that the dammed water won’t be diverted for irrigation in Ethiopia, rather than released from time to time to feed Lake Turkana.

I read a reader’s comment on one of the articles. It said, “Don’t expect someone to tell us what to do with the water, it is our natural resource, we can do whatever we want. Our history show(s) that we are a nation that are willing to share our resources…” I’m assuming this was from an Ethiopian reader.

If, by the luck of the geographical draw, a country is rich with water resources that would, if left unhindered, flow through other countries downstream, who owns the water? If France and Switzerland were to develop a contentious relationship, or if resources became too scarce to share, just how generously would we be willing to share the Allondon with people across the border?

2013 is the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation. Not a particularly sexy title, but as stated on the International Water Law site, “it’s an important reminder that cooperation is needed at all levels – among individual and corporate users, districts and provinces within the country, and more importantly among states – to manage, share, protect and conserve the most vital heritage of mankind, its water resources.”

Do you know the source of your water?

Source d’Allondon