Goodbye and Good luck

Water, The elixir of life. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Today is my final posting on The Water Watch. I hope that over the last twelve weeks I have given you many things to think about, and perhaps changed the way you view our most precious resource, fresh water.

 Where to from here?

Have you ever heard the anecdote about how if you place a frog in cold water and slowly heat it, the frog will not jump out, resulting in it being cooked to death? This is often used as a metaphor for humans being complacent to the changes around us, till it becomes too late.

However, it isn’t actually true. Modern experiments have found that the frog would in fact jump out of the water.

If the frog can jump out of the pot of water… surely we can too? Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

As well as being an interesting trivia fact, I think we can use this story to remind ourselves that it is not too late for human kind. Making changes now is far better than not making them at all.

These don’t even have to be huge changes.

To sum it up…

Water is vital to human survival. Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben puts it very well:

“What these scientists are saying is simple: human ingenuity can turn sand into silicon chips, allowing the creation of millions of home pages on the utterly fascinating World Wide Web, but human ingenuity cannot forever turn dry sand into soil that will grow food.”

Thank you all for reading my blog, it will still be here if you ever need to refer back to it, and I hope you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it!

For all the people who helped me with ideas, inspiration, and moral support (and occasionally harsh criticism!)- Thank you, I couldn’t have done it without you.


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The way of the future?

The Port Stanvac Desalination Plant in Adelaide produces 135 megalitres of fresh water per year. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

With less and less fresh water being available (due to climate change, overuse and pollution), and salt leaching into water in arid regions (salinisation), there is a need to find a solution to the potential water shortages that we are faced with.

One such solution that has been implemented in many places is desalination.

 What is desalinisation?

Desalination is the process of removing salt and minerals from water. Typically, ocean water is used and desalinated to provide fresh water for drinking.

Ocean water generally contains 35,000 parts per million (ppm) of salt, compared to freshwater, which contains less than 1,000 ppm.

Globally, 14 million meters3 per day of freshwater is made. However, this still only makes up 1% of total world consumption.

How does it work?

There are two main methods, the distillation method, and the reverse osmosis method.

The distillation method harvests freshwater from the steam of boiled water. The more common modern technique is reverse osmosis, where water is passed through a membrane, and as salt molecules are larger than water molecules, they are filtered out.

Desalination is popular all over Australia, as the country is exposed to increasing climatic extremes. Perth, in Western Australia (seen in this picture) hopes to source the majority of its drinking water from desalination in the future. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

 Where is it occurring?

Desalinisation is often used on ocean going vessels such as ships and submarines. 120 countries around the world have constructed desalinisation plants. 70% of water desalination occurs in the Middle East, and 6% in North Africa. The difference is made up by countries such as The USA, China, and Australia.

Kwinana Desalination plant in Perth

The Perth Seawater Desalination plant was completed in 2006, and produces up to 45 billion litres (gigalitres) of drinking water per year, using the reverse osmosis method. Overall, this is 17% of the city of Perth’s supply. A second desalination plant was completed in 2011, and it is currently being expanded to produce up to 100 gigatones of water per year by the end of 2012.

But its not without its drawbacks…

Desalinisation is very energy intensive, therefore is very expensive.  This makes it a less appealing option than traditional freshwater sources such and groundwater extraction or riverwater. Most desalinisation plants use either fossil fuels or nuclear power (both of which have obvious negative implications).

Places which are under water stress are often not located at places where desalinisations is possible (places very high in altitude or very far from the sea). Therefore, transport costs often incresase the overall cost to make desalinisation untenable.

Desalination affects marine life. When water is drawn from the sea, all the small creature in it also come along, including plankton, fish eggs and fish larvae.

Furthermore, the by product of many desalinisation techniques is a heavy brine, which is often returned to the sea, where it may sink to the bottom and cause damage to ocean floor ecosystems.


While desalination may be a savoir in many places in the future, the cost is still high, and there are still negative impacts. In the short term, water conservation is still the most cost effective way to get the most out of this precious resource. You can find out more about your own water footprint here.


U.S Geological Survey, Water Science for Schools.

National Geographic, Could Seawater Solve the freshwater crisis? 

Water Corporation Webpage.


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Climate Change increasing waterborne diseases in the Arctic?

It is the old and the young most at risk from infectious gastrointestinal illnesses in Canadian Inuit populations. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.

From India to Canada, today we see the water related challenges another group of people face as a result of changing climate.

A multi disciplinary study published recently in the journal EcoHealth has found that the effect that climate change will have on the hydrological cycle is likely to increase the risk of waterborne disease for the indigenous Inuit in Canada.

This study looked at visits to medical clinics by people with infectious gastrointestinal Illnesses (IGI’s, aka tummy bugs) in two remote Inuit communities in Labrador, Nain and Rigolet. The study was carried out by researchers (epidemiologists, climatologists, and hydrologists), as well as community members, and both local and central Canadian government.

From data gathered by statistics Canada in 2004, 34% of Canadian Inuit reported that there were times during the year when they thought their water was contaminated, with 18% feeling that it was unsafe to drink their tap water. In the community of Rigolet (with a population of 269 people), 100% of resident Inuit felt their drinking water was not safe at certain times of year.

Remote Inuit communities such as this one often have higher negative health indicators than the general Canadian population. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons.


Recently, the local weather in the area has been changing, with higher temperatures, more intense and frequent storms, and changes in rainfall pattern.

Heavy rainfall and rapid snowmelt increase water speed (velocity), overland flow, and shallow subsurface flow of water to rivers. This in turn may increase sediment loads in waterways and transport harmful pathogens such as E.Coli.

Many Inuit prefer to drink water from streams and rivers rather than treated from tap, and in some remote regions, it is all they have access to. Canadian Inuit often live subsistence lifestyles, with higher rates of tuberculosis, infant mortality, and shorter life expectancies than other Canadians.

This study found that those who drink untreated brook (stream) water appeared to be at greater risk of exposure to pathogens, than those who did not. Visits to medical clinics for IGI’s were higher in the weeks after heavy rainfall. As heavy rain is predicted to increase with the changing climate, the study suggests that this pattern will be exacerbated.

Those most at risk appeared to be young and elderly women, and it was suggested that this was the case due to higher exposure to pathogens during food preparation.

I found it interesting that in this study, the senior age group was 65+ rather than 75+ as there were so few people older than 75, due to the shorter life expectancy of Inuit people. With so few people over the age of 75, it was impossible to ensure that data gathered in this age bracket could remain anonymous.

The study concluded by suggesting that more needs to be done in terms of treating drinking water to protect public health in the future with the effects of climate change.

Other indigenous communities around the world, such as the Batwa people of Equatorial Africa, also struggle with changes in their environment as climate change progresses.

Indigenous people and climate change

Many indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to climate change as they live closely with, and rely on, the natural environment. This increases the effect on the population of even subtle changes in the climate.

It is rather ironic that this is the case, as indigenous communities often live in sustainable ways, in harmony with the environment. Indigenous populations in general have substantially lower carbon footprints than non-indigenous communities, who are more shielded from climate change because of their distance from the natural environment.

However, non-indigenous people are not immune to these issues. It has been said that indigenous people often act as a ‘crystal ball’ and show what is likely to become a widespread phenomena in the future.

This study was conducted as part of a larger collaboration by the IHACC (Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change), which works with indigenous people around the world, including in the Arctic, Peru and Uganda.


Harper, S.L., Edge, V.L., Schuster-Wallace, C.J., Berke, O., McEwen, S.A. (2011) Weather, Water Quality and Infectious Gastrointestinal Illnesses in Two Inuit Communities in Nunatsiavut, Canada: Potential Implications for Climate Change. EcoHealth, Vol. 8 (1), 93-108.

National Geographic.


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Creating artificial glaciers to fight climate change

In India, the retreat of glaciers is causing water shortages for many villagers. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Hundreds of millions of people rely on glaciers as natural water reservoirs which collect and store precipitation in the winter, and provide water as they melt in summer. This is especially the case in the Himalayas, where glaciers feed rivers such as the Ganges in India and the Yangtze in China. In both cases, over 300 million people rely on the water that flows down these rivers for washing, drinking, agriculture and power.

Many villages in the Indian highlands are facing water shortages as small low altitude valley glaciers retreat, or in some cases, melt altogether, leaving villagers unable to grow the staple crops they rely on to live.

In the Ladakh region in India, 70% of water is sourced from melting glaciers. Meteorological data has shown that winters in the region are warming, snowfall is declining, and summer temperatures are increasing.

However, a retired civil engineer is fighting back against the water shortages.

Chewang Norphel has been harnessing the abundance of water as snow and ice melts, and constructing artificial glaciers to use when water is scarce. Norphel was inspired by the practice of leaving taps running overnight to prevent water pipes from freezing. He created the first artificial glacier in 1987 in Phuktse Phu village.

Each glacier costs upwards of $5000 US dollars, and the availability of money has proved to be a problem for Norphel. Other challenges he has faced is a lack of interest in building glaciers from villagers receiving subsidized food from the government, and issues around accessibility and transport costs as the glaciers are constructed at altitude of around 4,600 meters above sea level.

However, the process is far easier and cheaper than constructing a water reservoir, and uses as many local materials as possible. Freezing the water in winter also gets around the challenge of evaporation that a water reservoir would face.

How are artificial glaciers constructed?
At the start of winter (November), melt water from higher altitude glaciers is diverted at low velocities using constructed channels into ponds. These are located on shaded mountainsides where the water will freeze. This process continues throughout the winter months.

So far, many of these artificial glaciers have been constructed, with the melt water from them in spring used to irrigate vegetable, barley and wheat.

A model for the future?
Unfortunately, once the large feeding glaciers are gone, there will be no melt water to use to construct artificial glaciers. But for now, these constructions are sustaining life for many people in the Ladakh region.

And the last word today comes from the admirable Chewang Norphel

“My humble suggestion to the people of the regions that have already been hit by climate change or will be in the future would be that they should act and make things happen. To the world leaders, my humble request to them is they work hard to evolve an agreement that will safeguard the future and interests of the people of the entire planet.”

The Guardian UK.
IPS News, Creating Artificial Glaciers is Simple, Easy and Replicable.
IPS News, ‘Glacier Man Vows to Build More Artificial Glaciers.
National Geographic.

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The end of the world?

Scenes like this may become more common in the future, as rainfall will increase in some areas. This image is of a flood in Pirna Germany, in August 2002. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

No, not the end of the Mayan Calendar, its time to talk about water in the future. To find out what will happen to our water resources under various climate change scenarios, I went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC).

Climate Change and Water, Technical Paper VI was published in 2008, and has gathered together as much relevant scientific knowledge as possible.  Its aim was to create links in knowledge, and inform the policymakers who need to make decisions about freshwater management for the future.

Today I’m going to introduce you to the broad challenges that we face with the current projected climate changes, and explore them in more depth in the coming posts.

The main points…

The warming which already has been observed occurring has been linked with changes in the hydrological cycle. They include:

  • Changes atmospheric water content (as warm air can hold more moisture than cooler air)
  • Precipitation patterns (changing in both time and space)
  • Precipitation extremes (increasing storms etc.)
  • Melting of snow and ice

In the next 100 years extreme precipitation is projected to increase in high latitudes and part of the tropics. Areas which are classified as ‘very dry’ have been increasing, with precipitation likely to decrease in some mid latitude and sub tropical regions.

These changes in global precipitation patterns are very likely to increase instances of both drought and flooding in many areas.

Globally ice and snow stores are expected (with high confidence) to decrease over the next century limiting availability of water in areas that rely on seasonal snowmelt as a source of water. These areas contain approximately 1/6 of the world’s population.

Glacier water storage is likely to decrease as the atmosphere warm. This image is of the glacier Briksdaalsbreen in Norway. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Increased water temperatures are likely to exacerbate many types of water pollution. It will affect suspended sediments, nutrients, carbon, and pathogens. In turn, this will negatively impact ecosystems and human health. This will further reduce fresh, safe water available to us.

Changes to the water system will affect food availability. This is especially the case in dry and marginal areas, and is likely to make already vulnerable people more vulnerable.

The negative impacts of climate change on our global water system are likely to outweigh the positives. Areas which will have positive increases in total water supply (such as a higher rainfall for crops) are likely to be subject to negative processes such as increased variability and seasonal shifts in water supply (eg. all the rain comes at once in a big storm).

On a positive note, the report states that mitigation measures can reduce the impact that climate change will have on our water supplies, if planned and managed sustainably.

And to balance out the flooding, the obligatory cracked earth portrayal of drought. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Where to from here?

While this all sounds pretty dismal, don’t despair! Despite facing huge issues in the future, there are positives. As well as the global push to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (remember every car ride counts!), there are some pretty interesting smaller scale solutions and mitigation techniques that have been started out there to address these issues.

Tune in next time to hear more.


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For all the budding scientists

The water cycle. The sun is very important as it gives the heat which evaporates the water. Image source: Wikimedia Commmons.

This blog is for all those people learning science out there, especially Emily and the girls learning about the water cycle at Walford.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a raindrop once it falls from the sky?

What happens to it depends on where it falls. It may fall in a river or a lake, which flows out to the sea.

In the sea, the warmth from the sun evaporates some of the water. This turns the water from a liquid (like in a glass of water) to a gas (like the steam that comes off a kettle), called water vapour.

This water vapour will hang around up in the sky until it finds a little speck of dust to stick on to, forming a raindrop. When it rains, this water will fall back to earth as a raindrop.

If it’s very high or very cold, the rain may fall as snow or hail. In some very high mountains, like Mount Everest, or Mount Cook in New Zealand, it is too cold for the snow to melt. It may squash together over many years to form glacier ice. A glacier can store ice for hundreds or thousands of years, until one day it may melt and be evaporated by the sun, to fall as rain again.

Some of the rain that falls will trickle through the soil. Some of this water will be absorbed by plants, which will help them grow, but some will continue going deep down under the soil.

It will end up as groundwater which is water stored underground. Because there is no evaporation underground, the water may stay as groundwater for thousands of years.

Who needs water?

If we didn’t have water, nothing on earth could survive.  So who needs water?

  • Humans! Did you know that a person can only live for one week without water? In many places around the world, water doesn’t flow from a tap. Out of the whole world, one in six people do not have safe water to drink.
  • Fish: Fish need to stay wet, and they need water to breathe. In Australia, the small hardyhead fish was saved from extinction (when all of the same animal dies, so there are none left) when their river dried up by scientists who caught them all and looked after them at LaTrobe University.
  • Frogs: Many types of frogs like damp places. They lay their eggs in water so when the eggs hatch and the tadpoles are born, they can stay wet and have water to swim around in.
  • Other animals: The platypus is a great swimmer and diver. It needs water because the bugs and other food he eats live in water. The freshwater crocodile lives in wetlands and billabongs, and unlike his cousin the saltwater crocodile doesn’t usually bite humans.

We need to look after out lakes and rivers, so all the animals that live in them can be safe and happy, like this freshwater crocodile. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why might we run out of water?

  • Overuse: Sometimes we use more water than there is. Farmers growing crops and cities taking water for drinking often take so much water there is nothing left for the other animals! Also, when lots of water is taken from lakes, the water left behind gets very salty, and you cannot drink it (its like drinking seawater). In Australia, the Marray Darling Basin has lots of water taken from it, sometimes, only  a little bit is left behind.
  • Pollution: Often drains and gutters flow out to rivers and seas. Rubbish and nasty chemicals that go down them can hurt the animals which live in the water. And people cant drink it or swim in polluted water either!
  • Climate Change: Some places in the world are getting warmer. This means that more evaporation occurs, and less rain falls to replace it. Because of this, some rivers and lakes might dry up.

How would you feel if your swimming pool dried up? Both people and animals need water to drink and swim in, so try to look after it for everyone! Photo source: Wikmedia Commons.

What can you do to save water?

  • Turn the tap off while you brush your teeth, it doesn’t need to go the whole time.
  • If you shower, take a shorter shower. Also, tell Mum and Dad to!
  • Only run the dishwasher or washing machine when it is full.
  • Water the garden when the sun isn’t out to evaporate the water, so the plants can have a drink.
  • Dont put nasty chemicals down the sink or in the gutter. This can flow out to sea and pollute the water and poison the sea creatures.
  • If you have a tap at home that drips even if it’s turned off, ask your parents to get it fixed. A dripping tap can waste lots of water over a year.

If you have any questions or interesting facts about water you would like to share, I would love to hear your comments!


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A Question For You All

The beautiful Marlborough Sounds. From this….(Photo source: Wikimedia Commons)

Just imagine a Malaysian dairy company decided they wanted to come create a dairy farm in Fiordland National Park. The stock effluent would be spread on the land, and the antibiotics that were fed to the cows polluted the waterways, running into Milford Sound.

There would be outrage. There would be uproar. There would be protests in the street.

However, when it is a salmon farm in the Marlborough sounds, this proposal slips in well under the radar.

New Zealand King Salmon, a company majority owned by Evergreen Holding (a 100% Malaysian owned company) has applied to expand their farming in the Marlborough Sounds. They hope to create farms in eight locations where aquiculture is prohibited by the Marlborough District Council due to the sites scenic beauty, and use by boaties and recreational fishermen.

Unfortunately it is these places that have the conditions that King Salmon feel best suit their fish.

The expansion is to best keep up with international salmon demand. Amongst other countries, King Salmon exports to Australia (18%), Japan (14%) and the U.S (12%).

And you know what? Leasing water, unlike land, is free. There is no requirement to pay rates to New Zealand or any other occupancy charge.

Fish farms are not clean concerns. Three million fish in a small space make a lot of waste. And no, they don’t clean the tanks. Fish faeces, high in nitrogen and phosphorus sink to the bottom, with potential for eutrophication and long term ecological damage.

This issue is hugely political, with support from the current New Zealand Government, who’s current policy driver is getting the books back into surplus by 2014, at any cost.

Already, they have passed the Aquaculture Amendment Bill, allowing ‘aquacultures potential to be fulfilled’ and removing restrictions on where marine farms could go. While there are many advantages of the fast tracked system, which avoids long hearings, delays and appeals, criticisms include shorter times for opposing submitters to prepare, and no allowance to appeal an outcome. Furthermore, the board which decides the outcome is selected by the Minister for the Environment.

There are clearly both pros and cons for the New Zealand King Salmon case in the Marlborough Sounds. The board must balance positive aspects, such as job creations in the area, and of course, the economic growth that the government so desires, with the negatives: nitrogen pollution from three million fish, antibiotics and pesticides being released into the water, and visual pollution in the spectacular area.
For more on the particular case see the May 5th New Zealand Listener.

…to this? Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

Why why why?

The thing that makes me uneasy about this case is how overlooked the fate of our nations waterways has become by our society.

While we rage about the idea of selling our land to Chinese investors, about asset sale, about mining in national parks, it seems odd to me that we don’t care about giving our water away, especially in such a tourist hotspot, to the detriment of keen kiwi boaties and fishermen (not to mention the potential for pollution and algal blooms).

A rather informal stuff poll shows that two thirds of people were against the idea of selling the Crafar farms to the Chinese owned Milk New Zealand Holdings.

So why don’t people care about fish farms in the Marlborough Sounds? Where is the outrage, the uproar, the headlines?

Clearly the Marlborough District Council care, opposing the expansion, which it claims goes against the integrity of its district plan, allowing an area of recreation, navigation, and preservation of the environment.
Sustain our Sounds (SOS) a community group set up to oppose the expansion obviously care, with a beautiful, well reasoned webpage. But what about everyday Joe Bloggs? There are only 169 ‘likes’ on the SOS webpage, and only 155 ’likes’ on facebook. There is little to none public comment or concern over farming our waters, as there is over farming our lands.

So my question to you all is why?

Do you believe that the expansion is a good thing? Are you unaware of what is going on? Do waterways not mean as much to you? Do you not care?

I would love your comments and feedback on this issue.


Doole B. (2012) What’s the Catch? New Zealand Listener, May 5-11.

New Zealand Herald 

The Press

Sustain Our Sounds

New Zealand King Salmon Company 


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