New Landfill That Can Kill Us

Much of the water crisis that we normally talk about and argue on is centered around freshwater or the blue water and most aspects of global threats about water are linked with irrigation, food production, ground water abstraction, water intensive production of consumer durables, urban demands, health and diseases, lack of drinking water and water for sanitation and all these are further worsened by two elephants in the room (as my fellow blogger Kevin Rennie puts it) – population and poverty.

These two elephants create divides in our worlds and our attitudes towards coming face to face with the challenges. In my post The Uncomfortable Truth , I called it two compartments, but some call the divide as North-South, some Developed-Developing. We are too divided about the divisions. The complexities of these supply-demand and availability-scarcity scenarios of water tend to pose a geo-political asymmetry which somewhat steals the universality of Global Water Crisis. This becomes clear when one compares Global Water Crisis with Climate Change in as much as their immediate and long term impacts on our lives. Water is not as continuous as atmosphere.

But this difference is because our discourse is limited to 0.6% of all terrestrial water. Except desalinization, the 97.3% of earth’s water in oceans does not figure in this bitter competition as it is not readily usable. You may refer my post , here.

Does ocean water really stand outside of the water debate?

In my opinion, it is not. Rather in a subtle and much deeper way the vast expanse of ocean water adds one unique dimension to Global Water Crisis and it does so in such a way that Water and Climate Change get linked immediately and the geo-political asymmetries of water issues start to become less important. Water emerges in a new sense of importance which is compartment-less. No North-South, no Developing-Developed.

Climate Change is related to amount of carbon in air and oceans are the greatest sink of this carbon. There was a time when terrestrial photosynthesis used to be second most important carbon sink, but with large-scale deforestation and change in land use pattern, I doubt if land based photosynthesis is of much consequence for natural carbon sequestration anymore. That leaves us almost entirely dependent on oceans or rather the marine Plankton (there is a physio-chemical part of carbon sequestration by oceans, but there is still no evidence that human activities have impacted on that). Plankton are any drifting organisms (animals, plants, archaea, or bacteria) that inhabit the pelagic zone of oceans. They vary in sizes from 20 or more mm to less than 0.2 µm and are one vast connected ecology complete in themselves. The Planktic world has its own food chain, population and migration dominating huge parts of the oceans. The animals at the top layers of Planktic world, namely fish form a major food for us and hence marine fishing is a major economic activity.

Oceans act as huge carbon sinks on account of the bio-chemical cycles of dissolved carbon where even the smallest of planktons play a crucial role. Just like livestock, the zooplankton graze on phytoplankton and in doing so supply carbon to the planktic food web either by respiring it to provide metabolic energy or providing biomass or detritus when dead. These organic materials being denser than seawater sink slowly and gets deposited at the sea beds. This acts as a vast natural pump that slowly sucks carbon from atmosphere and deposits in sea beds which may, million years from now. turn up a fossil fuel bed.

When we take this capacity of ocean water into our discourse, it immediately transcends narrow geo-political interests. We can see this water as a great theater where Climate Change and our ultimate survival is being enacted. We are not merely spectators here, but active participants, each one of us. We are, by our own acts, destroying this planktic life and therefore the carbon sink for good and Water is the witness.

The following are few of things gathered from the Mediterranean.

[Info-graph Courtesy: Agencia Catalena de l’Aigua and Department de Medi Ambient I Habitatge]

If you want to see more click .

The following picture is for Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Gyre. This is a country-sized (2200 Km long and 800 Km wide, 3 times larger than Span and Portugal combined) floating pile of plastic garbage – things that we feel safe away from us. Plastic is not biodegradable, it photodegrades, which means it goes on breaking into small and smaller pieces of plastic, but always plastic. A normal water bottle takes about 450 years to photodegrade, a disposable diaper nearly 500 years. Here is a very shocking and revealing graphic for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch .

[Image Courtesy: Natural Clothing Company]

What is does to marine life is imaginable. Here is a more graphic way to look at it.

[Image Courtesy: Wildlife Issues and Conservation ]

[Image Courtesy: Treehugger ]

Arguably the plastic does not kill the plankton directly, but when it removes the top layer of the Planktic food web, the phytoplanktic life goes on an overdrive and sucks the oxygen out of the ocean killing almost all fish and marine mammals. The bio-chemical carbon sequestration of the oceans comes to a halt, as a result and all that debate about 0.6% freshwater then becomes meaningless.

This is what Miriam Goldstein, an oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has to say about the plastic gyre in the Pacific.

When one wonders about it, a stark truth stares at us. In Mediterranean or in Pacific, floating thousands of miles away from your or my shore, whose water bottle, condom, aluminum foil or sanitary diaper is that? Either it’s ours or nobody’s. And in that reflection water crisis comes as global and disastrous as Climate Change. It’s simplicity is shocking and mind blowing.

[Feature Image Courtesy : ]


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