Category Archives: Water

Priced Out Of The Water Market

A phrase that used to pop up on peak oil blogs was the clever euphemism “priced out of the food market” – neoliberalspeak for something much simpler in humans terms – starved.

Water: The Dry Facts isn’t quite that blunt, but I read the same thinking behind it.

Global Water Pressure

Global Water Pressure

We’ve covered water stress here, most notably in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Tigris & Euphrates basin. One of the biggest issues is efficiency – Cold War era civil engineering projects lose half the water they handle in some places and Egypt is covering open canals to prevent high losses due to evaporation. We have to get better at protecting fresh water, since there are more of us and less of it to go around.


The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26 trillion between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.

And there it is – the inevitable free market fairy dust. They suggest a blockchain solution, which would more more transparent and less susceptible to fiddling, but my initial thesis holds – some people and the environments they inhabit will be priced out of the market.

One of the mistakes free market fairy dust pushers make is the failure to account for what they call ‘externalities’. If you can sell an acre foot of water today for $100 that’s great, never mind the $10,000 in economic activity downstream that won’t be happening because of this, and definitely don’t worry about entire ecosystems collapsing because we’re using all precipitation and over drafting groundwater.

Water is easily understood as a liquid resource that can be pumped, stored, and used for a variety of activities.  But here in California Mother Nature has been showing us who is in charge – years of blistering drought, a failed El Niño, and then a mixed blessing/curse in the form of a massive Pineapple Express that nearly blew out the Oroville Dam.

Writing this pulls me out of reality and into recalling a work by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. I’ve only read this book twice and I did so in rapid succession, buying it in hardback when it came out in 2009. Distraction, another favorite of mine by the same author, is a book about the day after tomorrow, while Caryatids is about a world our grandchildren may experience.

I feel like I should have some sort of rousing conclusion for this, but every line of thought leads to more questions than answers. I guess this is a sort of mental milestone, a place I’ll revisit at some time in the future when some of the fog clears.

Not Just Ice Cores, Here Is A Dead Sea Salt Core

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought jumped right at me off the Phys page.

Dead Sea Salt Core

Dead Sea Salt Core: below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank. Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The salt core was drilled in 2010 and is now receiving renewed, deeper scrutiny. During interstadial periods the Mideast becomes drier, so much so that inflows of fresh water into the Dead Sea largely stop. We’re not that dry yet, but human use of the Jordan River has effectively accomplished the same thing.

Jordan is developing the Disi aquifer and there is a Red to Dead canal planned.  The Saudis have long tapped that water for local agriculture in a foolhardy bid for food security that runs counter to the natural resources they have at their command. Jordan is engaged in a rear guard action for land that will inevitably become desiccated.


This triptych gives as sense of the progression of events in the Dead Sea. The south of the sea is shallow and has been steadily overtaken by human construction. Current practices involve the annual removal of two million tons of potash (potassium chloride) and other salts. You should recognize potash as a precursor for one of the three key plant fertilizers, potassium. It is the least concern of the three in terms of being a Liebig Minimum.

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production


Bodies of water in the area drain and fill naturally as a consequence of Earth’s glacial cycles. There is a somewhat controversial theory, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, that is thought to be an explanation of the origin of various great flood myths in the region.

The Mediterranean Sea has experienced similar events – the Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood that restored the sea to its current condition. There are cores from both the Black and Mediterranean seas, but they do not receive the same level of attention that ice cores do.

Four and a half years ago I published Why Gaza Is Screwed, a review of the water supply issues faced there. This is a ticking bomb for foreign policy, a pool of 1.6 million climate refugees just waiting to happen. The entire arc from West Africa to the Indus river valley faces this problem.


North of the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee, home to the Ohalo archeological site, which was occupied 8,000 years before North America’s Blackwater Draw. Humans hunted, gathered, and apparently performed early experiments with agriculture, inhabiting the site for a few generation before a fire of unknown origin leveled the simple huts. This site was revealed thanks to an epic drought in the late 20th century.

The Denisovans and Neanderthals were already gone except for their imprint on our genetics when that site was inhabited. Humans are now so pervasive and mobile that it will be difficult to track anything based on  genetics, but the Anthropocene is going to feature a massive cull of our species. What comes next? Maybe homo futurae, two thirds of our average height today, so they’ll tolerate the heat, digging into our species’ massive middens a hundred thousand years from now, wondering why we weren’t better at understanding our place in the web of life.

Record Heat Sans El Niño

The smallest posts on are often the most terrifying.

Even without an El Nino warming the world’s waters, Earth in February sizzled to its second hottest temperature on record, behind only last year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that February 2017 averaged 55.66 degrees (13.08 degrees Celsius). That’s 1.76 degrees (.98 degrees Celsius) warmer than the 20th century average.

It was also the second hottest winter in the on record. Records go back to 1880.

In the past, Earth doesn’t come near record heat if there’s no El Nino. This year it did—on every continent.

NOAA climate scientist Ahira Sanchez-Lugo called it clear evidence of .

She calculated that the rate of February warming since 1980 is twice as high as since 1880.

July of 2016 was the hottest individual month on record. Just prior to that we had the hottest eleven month streak on record. There are two kinds of reports now – abnormally warm, and extraordinarily abnormally warm.

Previously in Liebig’s Red Line I noted that not only do biological systems have resource constraints, but technical systems do, too. If we were wise we’d be hustling as hard as possible to convert all air conditioning requirements in this country to solar, given that the need matches the production curve. The other big benefits are that solar is naturally distributed, it’s a source of heat for cool, but sunny days, and best of all it produces electricity without requiring cooling water.

California got a reprieve last month in the form of record setting rains, and then we got another reprieve in the form of the Oroville emergency spillway holding despite the stress. Had it failed the top 30′ of the largest reservoir in the state would have come out all at once. The evacuation of nearly 200,000 Butte county residents was deemed a necessary precaution. Now we sit and wait and hope that this early fill is enough, given that the heat is going to quickly drain our natural storage in the Sierra snow pack.

Oroville Spillway

Oroville Spillway. It’s supposed to be a long, straight chute full of water.


Pakistan’s Greatest Peril

The news from Pakistan’a Gilgit-Balistan province is grim:

  • 30% of normal snowfall
  • November to March snow was observed before 1994
  • Snows came only January & February 2014
  • March melt is four to six weeks early
  • Water is already gone by May planting time

This province is in the far north of Pakistan, part of the small area that gets snow.

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

Pakistan Snowfall Areas

The country is subject to monsoon rains between June and September, but centered on six weeks in July and August. The cooler, higher altitude areas get the bulk of the precipitation.

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Indian Ocean Normal Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

Pakistan 2012 Monsoon

But on just one night in 2010 this happened, leaving 20% of Pakistan under water.

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Pakistan 2010 Flood Rainfall

Various stories can be found indicating the per capita water availability in Pakistan is 20% of what it was when they achieved independence in 1947. These stories neglect to mention population – which has more than quintupled in that time.

Pakistan Population

Pakistan Population

Pakistan’s elected government has been taken over by the army three times starting in 1958 and these takeovers last an average of eleven years. The recent assassination of Hamid Mir, a GeoTV journalist, and the TV network’s immediate blaming of Inter-Services Intelligence are seen as signs that 2014 may see another coup.

A military government can quash dissent and push through unpopular but necessary adaptive infrastructure, like a dam that will flood part of one valley for the sake of stabilizing a region. The problem is that Pakistan already has a couple of domestic insurgencies and countering violence today will take precedence over civil engineering projects that will not contribute immediately to stability.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and couple of the former Soviet stans, along with Iran itself are part of a geographic region the Persian empire called Parthia, but which we now call Greater Iran. Click through that link and you’ll find a similar story about Iran, which stands to have 45 million of their population of 75 million become climate refugees(!)

Greater Iran

Greater Iran

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

Scythia & Parthia 100BC

The Soviet Union blundered into a war of attrition with Afghan tribes in 1979 and this was a big factor in their collapse in 1991. Just eleven years after Afghanistan’s most recent imperial kill, the United States, as sure of democracy as the Russians were of communism, marched right into the same trap. The United States has not collapsed outright just yet, but the economic malaise at home and our shaky grasp on foreign affairs are clear signs of what is to come.

This entire region is over carrying capacity. This should be both the first and last thought when considering any long term plans. India, Russia, and Turkey will bear the brunt of this and they are the ones who are in a position to do something. The days of unilateral U.S. action are over. If you want to make predictions for the region look at precipitation and the price of staple foods such as wheat, because they matter in ways that ideology and rhetoric can never match.

Fire & Ice

The two biggest melts for Greenland were in 1889 and 2012. We didn’t know why the entire surface of Greenland turned to slush in a 96 hour period back when it happened, but now we know it was warm, ash laden air and that a similar event happened in 1889. This is double the normal maximum summer melt area.

Greenland Melt 2012

Greenland Melt 2012

Greenland melting is an issue on a scale of centuries to maybe a whole millennium, but there are other icy places that are much closer to fires. The Himalayas, which translates into The Abode of Snow, are commonly called Asia’s water tower. I have already mentioned the Kashmir Conflict, which affects the headwater’s of the Indus river valley at the far western end of the range. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra also originate in the Himalayas and well over a billion people depend on the mountain glaciers as a buffer for precipitation.



We already know that Pakistan suffered disastrous floods in 2010, this was most recently mentioned in Global Wildfire Patterns, and a large area of Russia burned almost simultaneously. We also know that India is moving to stabilize Afghanistan using Russia as a proxy, which I covered in Afghanistan’s New Best Friends.

A global worst case scenario would involve another kind of fire – a ‘limited’ nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan. A regional nuclear war would dramatically affect climate. Aerosols from fires would cause a nuclear winter, the ozone layer would be wiped out for a period of time, resulting in a spike in skin cancer, and as the short term winter abated the soot would fall, darkening and melting ice everywhere.

The IPCC overestimated glacial ice cover in the Himalayas by a factor of eight(!), noting 500,000 square kilometers when only 60,000 square kilometers actually exist. If natural regional fires like the ones that affected Russia in 2010 deposit ash in the Himalayas one year, we could see that other type of fire the next if the pressure on India and Pakistan over Kashmir crosses some unknowable threshold.

Even without a black swan geopolitical event like that the trend is clear. Lands that are hotter and drier burn more often and with greater intensity. Ice with more soot on it melts more quickly. The 2012 wildfire soot driven melt in Greenland is historically a hundred year event based on the two that have been found via ice core. Global Wildfire Patterns are changing. The details of the 2012 Greenland melt have just become available. I do not know if anyone has even tried to factor this into overall models.

We didn’t think we would have a summer ice free Arctic until 2100, but ice extent has declined 12% per decade since we began monitoring. What cover we do have is just one or two years old, thin, fragile, and liable to break down catastrophically. That ice free summer might happen in this decade and a glacier free Himalayas can’t be all that far behind. What comes after that? You might as well let your imagination run wild, because I don’t think we can predict …

Global Wildfire Patterns

Over the last seven years I have become interested in the following topics in roughly chronological order: peak oil, renewable energy with a focus on wind, renewable ammonia, food security, and water security. More and more I am starting to see that global wildfire patterns are also important. The video seen here was originally posted at NASA’s Earth Observatory

Fire is a natural part of all but the wettest ecosystems. Everywhere west of the Mississippi except the coastal Pacific Northwest used to burn in a fairly regular fashion. Some plant species need fire as part of their natural cycle. Humans have been exhuming fossil carbon for two hundred years and when World War II flying boats like the PBY Catalina came out of service they were repurposed into water bombers and we suppressed fire everywhere. This worked until critical masses of dead growth fueled fires of previously unseen scope and intensity. We grudgingly began to permit fire to do its work in ecosystems.

This April was the 350th month of above average temperatures. My next big birthday is fifty, the last time we had a normal month I was still a minor. This is a ‘fire tornado’, with thousand degree temperatures and category five hurricane force winds feeding into it. These are a normal event in hilly, windy country, but there are many, many more of them in California this year thanks to a record fire season. This is the hottest May for California since record keeping started in 1896, the state has a record drought, and the fires came sixty days early and at triple the normal rate.

What sort of simple, large scale predictions can we make about biological systems based on knowing that our world is warming, mostly drying, but that some areas will likely be subject to much larger rainfall events than in the past?

  • More heat means more intense fires more often. Some species don’t survive, those that do will likely developer larger open spaces between them and otherwise show adaption to hotter, drier conditions. This is seen now as cheatgrass replaces native species.
  • Fires strip hillsides bare of above ground plants and kill root systems. Normal rain events trigger mudslides. Larger rain events mean more mudslides. Hillside biomass decreases more quickly than rangeland.
  • If heat adapted crops are not available or yields are reduced due to drought, more land will be pressed into service. We already know Amazon rainforest is giving way to fire and then cattle or soybeans. Those are luxury items in a world at its limits, other less visible places are doing similar things simply for subsistence.

What sort of things might happen to human society under these conditions?

  • Excess fire wipes out the economic value of crop lands for a year and forest lands for a generation. We get less and we work harder for it.
  • Fire destroys buildings. Areas with dramatically less water than when they were built up may be slowly abandoned as fire takes its toll.
  • Power lines are heat sensitive, a large blaze under a high capacity line can cause the transmission network operator to reduce load, the worst possible thing on a peak usage hot summer day. Cascading failures can result from things like this.

Does everyone remember the Pakistani flood that began in July of 2010?

Pakistani Flood Of 2010

Pakistani Flood Of 2010

Does everyone remember the Russian fires of 2010, when a large swath of their wheat lands burst into flames in one 72 hour period?

Russian Fires August 6th - 8th 2010

Russian Fires August 6th – 8th 2010

Does everyone recall this map of geopolitical events which began four months after the Russian fires lead to a wheat embargo and Pakistani floods wiped out their summer crops?

Arab Spring: Revolutions & Reform

Arab Spring: Revolutions & Reform

I noted in Russian Purchase Of French Mistral Class. that the United States enjoyed just a decade of a unipolar world after the Soviet Union collapsed. This isn’t entirely correct – the United States was the last human construct that will ever claim to have mastered Mother Nature. We do have a new unipolar master, and with her there can be no negotiations.

So we had best get our heads around that and start treating worst case estimates as the norm.

Methamphetamines Funding The Syrian Insurgency

Six months ago in Funding The Syrian Insurgency I noted the conflict in northeast Syria regarding control of the oil fields. Those wishing to understand the importance of the connection between insurgency and the illicit networks that fund them should look at Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance in Civil Wars (pdf).

Today I noticed Insight: War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer, consumer, which reveals an interesting set of interlocking issues. The trade itself is apparently producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing income for both the government and rebel forces, as well as fueling the duration and intensity of street battles.

I have more digging to do before I can make any sort of sensible characterization of what is happening. This post is going to be an inventory of what I believe to be relevant, and it will likely be rather disjoint.

Five months ago I wrote Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis. Residents of the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula use khat, a mild stimulant that is consumed by chewing the fresh green leaves of the plant. Khat is a thirsty but profitable crop, being grown at the expense of food production in Yemen.

Khat’s active ingredient, cathionone, breaks down within about 48 hours after harvest, so the leaves must be chewed when fresh. The methylated form of this naturally occurring compound has similar effects to methamphetamine and it is a small but dangerous component of the overall stimulant abuse problem in the rural U.S. The Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula have a cultural norm of consuming a stimulant somewhat stronger than coffee, an entry point for more dangerous substances, such as methamphetamine dressed up to look like the milder Captagon, or phenethylline, a popular drug in the region.

Bulk methamphetamine production requires the availability of ammonia, the world’s most common industrial chemical. We make around 140 million tons a year globally, 30% with hydrogen from natural gas, mostly in the west, and 70% using hydrogen from coal. This is a value added product produced using stranded gas pools, notably in Trinidad in this hemisphere, formerly in Punta Arenas, and U.S. ammonia plants have been shut down, packed up, and reassembled in natural gas rich Qatar. Ammonia is easier to transport than compressed or liquified natural gas.

Syria has two large nitrogen production facilities located at the same geographic location, near Homs. Although the link providing the coordinates is about sulphuric acid production, other sources indicate this is also an ammonia production facility. Ammonia is a precursor for ammonium sulfate and a plant that first extracted sulfur from petroleum coke, then gasified it to make hydrogen would be a normal setup near an oil refinery. The nearby water source is also consistent – ammonia plants produce large volumes of low grade heat that is discarded via water fed cooling towers.

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

The United States banned ammonium nitrate sales after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This chemical is still our most common fertilizer, but it’s delivered as a solution known as UAN, urea/ammonium nitrate, which is not usable as a component of explosives. The other delivery methods are as anhydrous ammonia, a cryogenic liquid and as urea alone, a water activated solid. Lesser amounts of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate are used when soils need these elements as well as nitrogen.

The link between ammonium nitrate, agriculture, and insurgency produced explosives is a fairly intractable problem. Smallholders in developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle liquid UAN, let alone a cryogenic gas. They need nitrogen fertilizer in a bagged form. Urea is a solid, but it has to be applied just before or during rain in order for it to work. This doesn’t work in relatively arid places, so ammonium nitrate is still the solid fertilizer of choice. Producers have attempted to address this issue by making calcium ammonium nitrate, but recovering ammonium nitrate from it is a fairly simple chemical reaction.

That is what I think I know, here are some “known unknowns” that would help sharpen the overall analysis if they can be resolved.

  • Is Homs indeed the site of Syria’s in-country nitrogen production?
  • Who controls the plant? The Homs area? Who is in a position to divert ammonia?
  • Based on the Reuters article, global Captagon consumption is 21 tons. A tiny ammonia plant will produce a hundred tons a day.
  • How much, if any, of the plant’s output is ammonium nitrate?

The last point is important. There are many reports of Syrian regime helicopters dropping ‘barrel bombs’. These are 55 gallon drums, old water heaters, or lengths of iron pipe. The first video shows a string of devices employing parachutes to retard their fall. This is sometimes employed to permit a low flying aircraft to escape a large blast, but I believe this might be a strategy to reduce the failure rate of these hastily constructed IEDs, which use improvised impact fuses.

The second video shows a large blast that begins with a rolling cloud of flame and smoke. Hollywood dramatizes action sequences by using incendiary charges in place of actual high explosives, which often look like this, but high explosives don’t cause effects like this unless they hit something that has a liquid fuel supply. If the regime is making ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs and they’re adjusting the mixture for incendiary as well as blast effects, the use of incendiaries against civilian populations is a war crime.

Syria’s civil war has been understood in the west as conflict between the following:

  • Alawite/Shiite versus Sunni
  • Assad regime versus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
  • Former Soviet client state versus western friendly nations

While those three are all somewhat true, the missing component is the haves versus the have nots. People who are treated unfairly protest, if they’re starved as well they will engage in open revolt against the administration that is failing to meet their minimum needs.

Syrian Wheat Outlook on 12/8/2012 was my first inspection of agriculture in the country. Seven months later the New York Times provided information that led to Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic. Food security in the country is a complex issue, but if you can only watch a single metric, wheat availability, price, and quality are a good proxy.

Attempting to stop thousands of foreign fighters by direct attack is the most destructive strategy of all for Syria. Stopping the flow of arms and explosives into the country, as well as interdicting the repurposing of domestic fertilizer into explosives attacks the problem at a lower level.

If the region’s entire Captagon habit were supplanted by methamphetamine it would only require one tenth of the daily production from a tiny ammonia plant to fill the requirement. If the diversion of ammonia is happening and it can be pinched off at the source this defunds a portion of the conflict.

The most likely entity that could protect an ammonia production source and divert a portion of it to drug production is … the Assad regime. If it were a rebel facility and pair of helicopters dropping a string of those parachute bombs would easily disable it.

It is functionally impossible to separate the production of food and the making of IEDs in arid regions where production depends on smallholders using bagged fertilizer. Ponder that concept while I go off and dig deeper into Syrian agriculture.