Saturday 28 May 2011

Water Matters

One of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world is drying up fast – but few people have ever heard of the Ogallala aquifer. It lies under the USA, between Nebraska and north Texas, and has an area nearly the size of Spain. The Ogallala has been used to irrigate the major grain growing areas of the USA since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s and has allowed American farmers to feed many parts of the world with cheap food. Whilst this has had bad effects on the local agriculture of many African countries, many of those countries are now dependant on the US for their staple cereals. However, in some places 90% of the water has been extracted in the last 30 years.

So how is this relevant to us in Norwich? Well of course all of East Anglia is currently suffering a serious lack of rain and we also depend on underground sources for our water. But there is a major difference – our chalk aquifer does get recharged by the rain that falls on the land to the south, such as the Chiltern Hills - the Ogallala is shielded by an impermeable layer so only a very small amount of rain ever reaches it. The water was trapped between 2 and 6 million years ago during the formation of the Rocky Mountains.

In England we have rules that control who can extract water and how much they can extract – in Texas there is a ‘right to capture’ that means that if you own land over the aquifer then you can take as much water as you wish and sell it to nearby cities. Some farmers are trying to conserve the water but even if they succeed, the reserves are likely to be exhausted in 60 years. So there is a massive conflict between those who want to make short term profits and those that want to eke out the water long enough for the rest of the world to adapt.

For me, the Ogallala is just another example of why we need to have local resilience and manage our own food supplies. Water supplies are under pressure throughout the world and there are many places where ancient aquifers are being drained faster than they can replenish. It seems incredible to me that the world is paying so little attention to this problem – out of sight, out of mind.

Erik tells me that Norwich FarmShare can take water from the Yare for irrigation purposes – so let’s hope for some rain to keep our river flowing!

Pics from Wikipedia

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