by Graham Rawlings
I feel proud that the Australian State of Tasmania has recently declared itself 100% powered by renewable electricity. What a break-through, hopefully to be followed by many other jurisdictions in due course. Tasmania is unique in that it has a favourable climate, suitable topography, and geology which make it all possible. How could I have anticipated that total move towards renewables when I worked on the hydropower development in the 1960s? Harnessing the rivers with dams, and transfer between catchments, enabled the power potential to be utilized. It is true that, at that time, there was not the same focus on safeguarding the physical environment that there is now, but nevertheless we acted responsibly.
I never realized that water would be so central to my career. Indeed being brought up in England, one should have been familiar with water which came by way of rain, snow, drizzle and fog. It was only as I moved around the world that it became apparent to me that the absence of water, super-abundance of water, water in the wrong places, sea encroachment, and the role of water in geohazards were fundamental issues.
Water serves a multitude of purposes including drinking, washing, cooking, irrigation, health and industry. Those of us in developed countries tend to take for granted the water supply for these various uses. This is so true when people have been exhorted over the past year to wash hands, repeatedly, to prevent the coronavirus from spreading from person to person. For many people around the world this is a hollow dictate because the resource is not available.
I have seen water utilized in many various ways. On returning from Australia to England I became involved with a pumped storage hydropower development, namely the Dinorwig Scheme in North Wales. This utilised the head between a dam at the Marchlyn glacial lake at a high level in the mountains (see photo) and Llyn Peris the lake below with an underground powerplant capable of returning the water to the lake above. This was only feasible with the energy from the nuclear power station on Anglesey which provided the base load
Water supply in England has always involved construction of local reservoirs which often also provide recreational opportunities. Two projects in East Anglia with which I was involved were sited in lovely terrain but difficult geology resulting in engineering and community challenges. By contrast the large Brianne Dam in South Wales controlled flow in the Towy River for water supply to Swansea and did not impact any communities.
No greater contrast could there have been compared with a subsequent move to Kathmandu to evaluate and help improve the water supply for the city and the surrounding valley. It was possible to look out of my office and see the people standing in line at the standpipe to fill their various vessels; others drew water from the polluted water courses. Hotels and embassies had their own wells but groundwater water levels were declining. Much of the water reticulated around the city from the few reservoirs was lost due to the corroded pipework. The city has expanded very much over the years but the water deficit still remains. This was my first exposure to poverty and allowed me to become conscious of the needs of the developing world and the extent to which it was dependent on water.
Conservation is yet another aspect of water which became apparent on an assignment to Jordan. Flash floods occur during some seasons and in the wadis neighbouring the east side of the Dead Sea the water is lost. Dams were to be constructed to capture and control that water and pipe it to the city of Amman for water supply. Working in the Middle East was another period of education. Different engineering challenges and an introduction to another culture and interesting people. The water rights had much significance for survival and was a political issue. Even the River Jordan was not the abundant water course that I had read about!
Another water capture project was in the desert in the south of Peru where zero rainfall is recorded. Some plants are able to grow with the benefit of the moisture carried inland by fog from the sea. We were investigating the feasibility of building a dam on the Rio Acari to retain the periodic floods which pass through the desert from the hills above, not for water supply, but to service, at that time, for a proposed a steel fabrication operation on the coast.
As the climate changes, geohazards have been accentuated with water being the driver in so many cases: storms, floods, tsunamis, debris flows, soil liquefaction, sea level changes, and permafrost thawing are destroyers of communities, properties and lives. Their economic toll is enormous, some are preventable with good planning and timely risk assessments but more often they are natural events from which the communities have to pick up the pieces. Scientists are now realizing that these events are accelerating in scale and frequency. The underlying root causes, particularly the release of Co2 caused by industry and transportation, are well understood but the ability to get them under control before it is too late requires world-wide political co-operation which currently is largely lacking.
The role of water, its impact, or absence, and its use, are fundamental to most of the world; we cannot afford to ignore the many problems which result. The future of our planet is at risk.
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