from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Sunday, 22 May 2011

enviro-rant (you have been warned)

Here in Devon the meadow grasses on the hillsides have reached the height at which they appear to run in the wind, like a herd of (small) deer rippling across the field. It's one of the things I wait for in the calendar of the year, like the swallows' return, or the appearance of dog roses and honeysuckle in the hedgerows, or the first broad beans.

When I came back from the Hebrides in early April, already many of the fields in the Westcountry had been cut for silage, over a month earlier than usual. April was the hottest on record here.

I'm on a rant – turn away here if you don't want to know.

The Man is tired of my banging on about it to him, so I'll bang on about it here instead, but the threatening global water crisis preoccupies me (yes of course along with the not-unconnected issues of climate change, and over-population, and peak oil, and the demise of species). Why I mention it now is because the rivers and reservoirs are so low here in Britain despite what seemed like an astonishing amount of rain during the last three, if not four or more, summers. And that's Britain, green and temperate land. I had reason to cross the Exe the other day, one of Devon's major waterways, and I have never seen it so low in the decades I've lived in Devon.

Of course it's worse, much much worse, in Africa and even many places in Europe, but with a growing global population, the manufacturing industry at the levels at which it is, the farming industry, and even things we take for granted here like car-washes, and, for some, swimming pools as standard in some parts rather than luxuries, and of course household consumption, it's perhaps not as surprising as it first sounds that there is less water per capita available in the (admittedly densely populated in comparison) southeast of England than in the Yemen.

In America, the typical family home uses 69.3 gallons of water PER CAPITA PER DAY, with 15.7% of that usage being bathroom taps left running when eg washing hands or cleaning teeth. I haven't yet tracked down the figure for GB, but simply wetting your toothbrush and using a glass of water to rinse your teeth would make a huge difference.

The trouble is that the aquifers related to the water table are being drawn off at a rate faster than that with which they are being replenished. My understanding too is that there are two things relevant here: the aquifers in non-porous rock are standing water aquifers, which take millennia or more to refill. The aquifers in porous rock are more readily filled, but are interconnected, and our drawing on them depletes the whole at a rate beyond which water can be returned to them. And yes, I know about the seemingly contradictory issues of the melting of the ice caps etc – but ironically that water is not easily available to us for drinking or irrigation without massive infrastructural energy-output for the desalination and transportation; and it will be centuries or millennia before it starts to refill the rivers inland through the cyclical processes involved in precipitation etc and is available as groundwater in the water table.

We have a biggish vegetable garden in which we attempt to produce organically a great deal of our food. Even with minimal watering, we still must use several hundred litres most days at the moment from our borehole.

Another trouble is that much as we'd like to think that drought in Africa, or South America, is nothing to do with us, we need to remember that climate change is partly due to the effects of industry, logging, soil erosion etc as a result of the globalisation of a capitalist economy and our demand for non-local food (massive amounts of the Amazon and elsewhere have been cleared, and are being cleared, as you will know, to run cattle on or grow grain for the feeding of cattle to satisfy our demand for beefburgers). Yes, I know there are upsides too to the global economy, but the downsides are less visible and arguably increasingly speedily potentially fatal for us, as well as other species.

Most of us are not systems thinkers; we don't see the holistic picture. Every action of mine has an effect somewhere, whether or not I perceive it. And isn't it easy to overlook what we can't see, happening on the other side of the world; and if we do see it ignore the fact that it might also have to do with us?

And here's a slightly sobering fact: it takes 283 litres of water to produce an omelette made with two eggs and a tomato. And it takes (vegetarians can feel a bit smug here) 100% more water to produce a hamburger than a cheese pizza. However, since the latter takes 4 times as much water to produce as a tomato pizza, vegans can feel even smugger.

But wait – it takes 13 litres of water to produce ONE TOMATO in Morocco for our import market. That's not our water, but theirs. And 140 litres to produce what you drink in one cup of coffee. Yes, I'm guilty. And actually I've just tracked down the figures for water usage in the UK: each of us uses, if you include, as we have to, embodied water in the food we eat, clothes we wear and transportation, around 60 baths full of water per day. Yes, 60 baths. Each.

'This extraordinary figure comes from a report published by the World Wildlife Fund, which makes clear that the overwhelming majority of this water is virtual. That is to say, it is used to produce our food and clothing – much of it in places that already suffer water shortages.

'So Britain's businesses and its people are inadvertently contributing to the slow death of some of the world's most iconic rivers.

'The report – UK Water Footprint: the impact of the UK's food and fibre consumption on global water resources – says each of us drink, flush and wash our way through about 150 litres of mains water a day. But we use 30 times as much to produce our food and clothing.'

And: 'Stuart Orr, WWF-UK's water footprint expert, points out that the UK is the world's sixth largest importer of water – only 38 per cent of what we use comes from our own rivers, lakes and groundwater reserves. The remaining 62 per cent is taken from bodies of water elsewhere in the world to irrigate and process food and fibre crops that we subsequently consume.'

On that note I now feel so depressed that I might go and sit in the courtyard and brood over some conceptual coffee on the real cup of coffee that I might have liked that I now feel completely unjustified in making.

There again, I could determine to do something more about it. Meantime I shall go and weed the comfrey and blackcurrant bed.

I'm sorry if that's spoilt your Sunday lunch/tea/dinner...


  1. Oh I know. And what it does to the hearts of people who LOVE the land and really want to make a difference... It is sickening. I've been looking into permaculture, and am going to do a gardening project where we only use collected rain water and build 'swales' which help to keep the water in the ground it lands on. And this is in hot dry Portugal. There are times when I wonder what's the point, as it's probably too late to do anything to help us get on track. We as a race are about to extinct ourselves and then nature can recover. Meanwhile, use grey water for irrigation and mulch well and watch butterflies and thank God there are still cuckoos and aphids...

  2. Thank you, Veronica, for your comment - as before, I appreciate it. Yes - I too swither between feeling that if there are enough of us we can make a difference - and in any case every drop in the ocean does swell it, even if only minutely - and feeling desperate and desolate about it all. We too are exploring permaculture and agroforestry - there's a big agroforestry project near us, too - and harvesting rainwater (but there's simply not been enough of that the last two months or so). And yes, re greywater - it would be good to make that into a system. Swales I've not heard of...?

    I had an enlightened GP where I last lived, and she asked me to make an A4 poster of ten simple things we could do to make a difference to the planet, which she then printed out for people to take away when they came to the surgery.

    Maybe I should put out a call on here for people to send in their tips? In fact, let's start here ... anyone?



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