Our modern society was born in a period of relative climatic stability. Regional climate change did destroy various civilizations, but most of the planet remained stable enough for the various human populations to thrive.
A crucial product of that stability has been access to fresh water. That’s why our biggest cities grew by lakes and rivers, and in more recent years, why we’ve been able to expand in dry regions by tapping into vast deposits of underground water. We’ve known for some time that our consumption has far outstripped the ability of aquifers to replenish themselves, but it seems that we’ve reached a point at which some will never recover:
Under a best-case scenario where drought years are followed by consecutive wet years with above-average precipitation, the researchers found there is a high probability it would take six to eight years to fully recover overdrafted water, which occurs when more groundwater is pumped out than is supplied through all sources like precipitation, irrigation and runoff.
However, this best-case scenario where California has six to eight consecutive wet years is not likely because of the state’s increasingly hot and dry climate. Under a more likely, drier climate, there is less than a 20% chance of full overdraft recovery over a 20-year period following a drought.
The Central Valley produces about a quarter of the nation’s food and is home to around 6.5 million people. Using too much groundwater during and after droughts could soon push this natural resource beyond the point of recovery unless pumping restrictions are implemented. The study finds recovery times can be halved with modest caps on groundwater pumping in drought and post-drought years.
“This is really threatening,” said Sarfaraz Alam, a hydrologist at Stanford and lead study author. “There are many wells that people draw water from for drinking water. Since [groundwater is] always going down, at some point these wells will go dry and the people won’t have water.”
In ages past, the human populations in California would respond to this by collapsing. Many would die, many would migrate away from whatever had caused the wells to dry up, and some would stay. Those who stayed survived because they were able to adapt their community practices to the new conditions.
There are places that currently have plenty of water, but as the temperature rises, so does water consumption, and there’s no place on the planet that’s “safe” from the warming climate. Migrating will absolutely be part of how we cope with climate change (which is why it’s so important to end our nationalistic obsession with borders) but at the same time we will all be forced to confront the other two options: adapt or die.
The need for us to radically change how we use and dispose of water is almost as important as the need to stop our greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one reason I like the idea of moving food production indoors, where water can be more easily recycled, and temperatures can be controlled. It’s also why I think that the kinds of power generation we use should vary depending on regional and local conditions.
We’ve spent centuries behaving as though we were separate from nature, and many of us are consequently unused to adapting ourselves to the material conditions of our local ecosystem. It’s a thing we need to re-learn, and because I also think we absolutely need to retain the use of technology and science, it’s a thing we need to re-invent. I believe it’s possible to have a high-tech human society that can exist as a conscious part of the global ecosystem, and as stewards of it. I also believe that doing so will require us to let go of expectations about our lives that are rooted in a world that no longer exists because of the societies that gave us those expectations.
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