Scientists Find More Rivers, But Dry Areas Create More Conflict

Obvious obligatory musical cue

One thing which anyone who studies space will tell you is that there’s a lot of it. Like, a whole lot. As Douglas Adams puts it in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, space is “really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

The corollary to that is that, relatively, the earth is pretty small. Pale blue dot, and all that. All our hubris and dreams in this one little rock, etc. And it’s true! Compared to space, compared to even our unremarkable little solar system, the earth is pretty small.

But in our lifetimes, we don’t compare the earth to space. We can’t. We can only compare it to the size of our lives, which live outsized and all-encompassing in us. And in that sense, the earth is huge. It is a long road down to the chemist.

That’s why stories like this one from Inverse are both surprising and unsurprising.

(R)esearchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Texas A&M University have charted a multitude of new rivers and streams, showing that we have 44 percent more of them than we ever thought.

That’s a lot of rivers and streams! It’s actually sort of boggling to think about: there’s a decent amount more running water in this world than we had accounted for. This isn’t to say that these are undiscovered streams and rivers; almost certainly people living near them knew of their existence, and had them charted and all that. But we’re just beginning to understand the way river systems work, and the enormity of their feeder systems, and their interplay with the land. It’s a buffet for limnologists.

Unfortunately, as the paper, which wasn’t just a river counter, showed, we’re also beginning to understand how moving water takes human pollution and mixes biochemically with the air to throw more carbon dioxide in the sky.  So 44% more moving water sort of means more chance for bad biochemistry.

The ramifications of global warming are already playing out, everywhere. And while there may be more water than we thought, there isn’t actually more water. Freshwater is running out in some of the world’s hottest places, which are going to get a lot hotter.

Here’s a few.

  • Lima, Peru. It’s a city of 10 million people. It gets .3 inches of rain a year. It’s already beset by poverty and vast inequality. As this report from Circle of Blue demonstrates, these factors are colliding, with poor on the dry end of the stick, and an explosion seems on the near horizon.
  • India. 90 cities are “water-stressed”, as India faces what officials are calling its worst-ever water crisis. It’s already beginning to turn ugly, as it will, with officials being attacked and people being killed in the streets in water brawls. An Indian think tank estimates that 600 million people have extreme to high water stress, and that by 2030 (which is in only 12 years), 40% of the population won’t have access to clean water. Can Indian democracy and any hint of ethnic/religious peace survive such strains?
  • Iran. Iran is already roiling with discontent, and has been for a very long time. The generation that overthrew the Shah is gone or calcified, and generations are frustrated. And now water is becoming a huge issues, and protests have broken out and been broken up by security forces. When the state can’t provide clean drinking water, and beats people up for demanding this basic right, it becomes more difficult to claim a divine right to rule. It’s a bad look!

We’ve talked an enormous amount about Iranian regional influence here, and how it is in line with the historic record, and is essentially inevitable and needs to be managed, It’s a hope that a responsible government establishes itself, instead of this one. But all my geopolitical maunderings can be made irrelevant by a lack of water.

Because the thing is, while space might be really big, none of us are going to see very much of it. It matters philosophically, and I would argue morally, that we’re just a tiny part of a vast and inexplicable and profoundly unconcerned universe, but it doesn’t put food on the table.

And it doesn’t matter if we found out that there is actually a lot more clean water than was thought if it isn’t anywhere near you and your family and you have no access to it. Scientists didn’t suddenly discover a vast underground river beneath the baking Indian plains, some new Alph, as potable as it is sacred, that will solve everything. This story is probably, at most, the merest curiosity to people who desperately need clean water. It’s measureless to man.

All politics is local, and at the end of the day, all politics can be crushed under the basic needs of humanity. As our planet gets both higher salty seas and drier everywhere else, we’ll have to figure out ways to increase water supplies for everyone. It’s a really long road, and it will mean actual global solutions.

These seem impossible in an age of strongmen xenophobically slamming doors, sneering at science, not looking for ways to shelter the miserable or slake the thirsty. As small as the individual is, these times are even smaller. But we can’t afford that. We have to make ourselves bigger, and fill up this terrible moment.  We have to take that step. We have to find that river.