Category Archives: 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.

Himalayas

Himalayas

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.

Tigris & Euphrates River Basin Water Loss

Tigris Euphrates Water Loss

Tigris Euphrates Water Loss

From the beginning of 2003 to the end of 2009, portions of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that lie within the Tigris and Euphrates river basins shed 117 million acre-feet of water. That’s roughly equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea.

I was looking for region wide studies on water usage in the Mideast when this study using NASA’s GRACE satellite appeared. The volume certainly sounds impressive – an entire Dead Sea worth of water missing, but what does that mean?

This is clearly an important issue and I felt the Climate Central story did a great job of dramatizing it and a very poor job of putting it in overall context. New wells in Iraq, reduced rainfall, but the whole concept is left adrift. Is there some red letter day in the future if the rate doesn’t change? Is there a sense that this change accelerated in the seven year sample period?

The NASA story on this provided a few clues.

The findings, to be published Friday, Feb. 15, in the journal Water Resources Research, are the result of one of the first comprehensive hydrological assessments of the entire Tigris-Euphrates-Western Iran region. Because obtaining ground-based data in the area is difficult, satellite data, such as those from NASA’s twin Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, are essential. GRACE is providing a global picture of water storage trends and is invaluable when hydrologic observations are not routinely collected or shared beyond political boundaries.

The first comprehensive assessment of the Tigris & Euphrates basin plus western Iran? NATO member Turkey, Syria was a client of the Soviet Union, and Iran and Iraq have come to blows during the time we had the technology to do such an assessment. This is not an environment that is friendly to transborder statistical exercises involving something as touchy as the water supply.

This is the case in other areas as well. Part of the agreements on the Jordan river involves a calculation involving the flows of the Litani river in southern Lebanon. A recent study demonstrates that while they are very close geographically, the basins of the two rivers are separate. Applying this newfound fact someone will get less water, while someone else will get more. The overall size of the pie is shrinking at a time when populations are still expanding.

Here’s a map that shows the Kurdish population of the region. Not only are they blessed with control of most of the land atop the world’s last supergiant oil field in northern Iraq, they are also the dominant ethnic group of southeast Turkey, where both the Tigris and Euphrates originate. The Kurds have long fought the ethnic Turk dominated government from Ankara and they very nearly slipped from their grasp in the 1990s. The water and oil are geographically in the hands of an ethnic group that has been discriminated against by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.

Kurds, Alawis & Druze In  Syria, Turkey & Iraq

Kurds, Alawis & Druze In Syria, Turkey & Iraq

While possession is important, if the Kurds rise in any one area it brings the attention of the other three nations. The Assad regime very carefully dealt the Kurds out of the Syrian civil war by leaving them alone. Some reports indicate that Iran and Syrian arranged payback for Turkish support of the ouster of Assad by encouraging the PKK to again take up arms again inside Turkey.

Years ago I had an Egyptian room mate and students from around the region would congregate at our house for Ramadan. There were two older students, men in their thirties, one an Arab Iraqi, the other a Kurd. I remember the first time we met, when talk turned to the difficulties the U.S. faced there, the Arab fellow said “America was a frontier, it was empty. Iraq is full“, while his Kurdish countrymen silently nodded in agreement.

The complexity of ethnicity, sect, historical animosity, and national boundaries that define the cluttered foreign policy billiard table of the Mideast present a fascinating set of puzzles for those us inclined to look closely. I fear what I am seeing is a region that is full of people, but rapidly emptying of both water and oil, and with the same inability to focus on the underlying problems that plagues us here in the U.S.

Global Oil, Global Grain

I published the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture in December of 2008 and I returned with an expanded version of it five months later. The only thing missing from the model in terms of inputs and outputs was the atmospheric chemistry effects.

If you make ammonia you create carbon dioxide, if you use ammonia or a derivative as a nitrogen fertilizer agricultural lands emit methane and there is some nitrous oxide in the mix, both of which are far more potent than carbon dioxide. If you burn ammonia as a fuel you get some nitrous oxide, but a properly tuned engine will produce less carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gasses. This area is the hardest for me, due to my lack of familiarity with certain industrial processes, such as the steam methane reformer, and the twenty five years between me and my one and only college chemistry class.

What started as a quest to make local use of wind resources evolved into a vision of a carbon free future, and then into some grim findings regarding the connection between synthetic ammonia, food security, and global warming. The Dead Gods Of Atacama is a photo essay on the preceding two centuries of fossil, and then later synthetic nitrates, and their implications for our species.

While I gave up on the renewable ammonia plant pursuit after just one paying design, I have continued to keep an eye on fertilizer prices, drought, and global grain markets. My plan here at the start of 2013 is to develop a model based on open source data that will track various inputs such as the prices for ammonia and diesel fuel, the grain markets, global weather data, and see if this provides predicting data for social unrest in various parts of the world. I called the 2011 downfall of the Egyptian government in August of 2010 based on a handful of factors and I was amazed when this proved to be correct, both in timing and in the reasons mainstream news cited.

This evening I began collecting some global maps of various aspects that matter for developing such a model.

Global Oil Reserves

Global Oil Reserves

Global Oil Cartogram

Global Oil Cartogram

How much oil we have matters at a global level and thus far it’s been fungible – if sanctions occur somewhere the system just routes around it, with the policy providing just a bit of drag and profit opportunities for some market players. I have seen a number of articles that speak of a bilateral oil/food trade.

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

If you don’t have enough water you won’t get enough grain. Things are changing rapidly with our climate and we already have trouble in this area. Watch for situations where water becomes a very serious issue, say the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Global Grain Flows All Types

Global Grain Flows All Types

I found this amazing large map showing grain flows by type on Cool Geography. This is very detailed, I’m going to study it closely, but it’s a large amount of information packed into a very large image.

Global Wheat Producers And Consumers

Global Wheat Producers And Consumers

I have treated global wheat production and consumption as a proxy for overall food security. Tracking this overlapped my interest in fertilizer and it was of a manageable size. Questions I have now are how closely this proxy parallels what is actually happening, and how much effort would it take to automate tracking of data to create a live model of what the large image with all grain types shows.

Global Calorie Consumption

Global Calorie Consumption

Global Malnutrition

Global Malnutrition

I found it interesting that global calorie consumption and global malnutrition weren’t the inverse of each other, but I don’t know the dates on these maps. I really need a slick way to present multi-variable country data rather than hunting for maps of what I need. Like everything I do, my views in this area and the methods I use to reach them will go through a number of incremental improvements through 2013.

Mideast & Central Asian Electrical Grids

Mideast Electrical Grid

Central Asia Electrical Grid

You can’t grow wheat without water. You can’t have irrigation water without electricity. Close to the field this depends on having fuel, usually diesel, available for irrigation pumps. Closer to the source the volumes are much higher and pumps need grid connections. Keep in mind that, except for wind and solar, there is no electricity without water.

There are three types of electricity that flow over a grid.

The first is known as baseload. This is always on and built to handle the average need of the moment, with a bit of headroom to spare. Coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, and in some places gas or oil serve in this role. All except hydroelectric depend on water for cooling, while hydropower directly depends on water.

The second type are known as dispatchable or spinning reserves. Nuclear plants take days to change output and coal plants have significant thermal inertia, too – those would be spinning reserves. Hydroelectric can be dialed up or down on short notice. Large grid requirements in the U.S. are handled with ‘peaker’ natural gas turbines. Rural areas like where I grew up do it differently – each town has a small generating plant and they get called into service during peak usage.

The third type are intermittent. Wind blows where and when it wants, solar is diurnal, and smaller hydroelectric plants can be intermittent. New England is dotted with small dams and pump houses that provide some of the local need, but they aren’t always available the way Niagara Falls power is.

Solar and wind are the only power sources we have that don’t need large amounts of water. Solar is the best first investment for the dry, sunny Mideast countries. The production curve matches peak utilization, generation happens near consumption, and the infrastructure needed is much smaller than the investment for wind.

What will happen when drought leads to the shutdown of a major generating plant? What happens if the grid suffers an attack? A single carefully selected transmission line pylon going down can cause havoc during peak load.

Things are different in the Mideast than they are in western countries. Some areas have never experienced the stable electrical grid we take for granted in the U.S. Load shedding, or rolling blackouts, are a feature of life. Irrigation still works when power is intermittent, but this puts a tremendous drag on the overall economy.

I found a number of country grid maps, too. Sadly, resolutions are poor, they are often in Arabic, and there are some places that are simply not covered. I was hoping to be able to draw some conclusions about the effects of drought on food production, with water and electricity as the variables. More digging will be required before I an do that.