Water and the wealth paradox

Wealth is a huge environmental paradox. On the one hand, increased wealth means increased consumption, such that Americans consume at least a hundred times more energy and resources than their peers in many developing countries. On the other hand, environmental protection is often a privilege conferred by (relative) wealth—people in chronic poverty are unlikely to be able to worry about things like whether their meat is grass-fed, and even if they’re aware of environmental issues, they likely don’t have the resources to address them. Most low-income Americans can’t afford organic produce, and many low-income areas are “food deserts”, where buying anything fresh and green simply isn’t an option.
 Ghana (along with, I suspect, many developing countries) provides some interesting examples of this paradox. Resource consumption here is incredibly low. Ghanaians are adept at repairing almost anything, and very few things get truly thrown away. Stereo systems, cars and bikes are all refurbished many times, well past the point when an American would have thrown them away. Village houses are made out of mud, sticks, wood and occasionally concrete. In rural areas, few people have running water or electricity. Even in cities, power and water supplies are unpredictable. Most Ghanaians have never left the country, and very few have left West Africa.
Without a doubt, the average Ghanaian consumes far less than virtually any American. And yet, there are environmental problems here that seem as if they’d be simple to solve with a bit more money. One of the biggest waste sources in Ghana, as far as I can tell, is water bags. While Ghana’s municipal water authorities claim that tap water is drinkable, Ghanaians are rightfully skeptical of this claim. Pretty much everyone living outside of cities (and many people in cities) don’t have running water at home. And the city water supply here in Koforidua is very unreliable—several Burro employees haven’t had water at home for almost a month.
With drinkable tap water a distant dream, virtually everyone buys sachets of water to drink. These are small, 500ml plastic bags full of purified water. A bag of 50 sachets sells for 1.2 cedis, or about 75 cents. So it’s a relatively inexpensive way for people to drink water. The problem with this is that it creates a ton of disposable plastic bags which are thrown away. And Ghana has virtually no trash collection infrastructure. On the side of almost every road in town, there’s a deep concrete trench which functions as a sewer, and this is where many of the bags end up. They’re all over streets and sidewalks, and they just stay there.
A recent issue of the Ghana Daily Graphic, one of the country’s many newspapers, ran an opinion piece about plastic waste. Apparently, trash dumps in Accra are rapidly filling up, and no one is willing to open a new dump, largely because of NIMBY (not in my backyard) concerns. The author of the piece implored Ghana to wake up and ban plastic bags entirely, something she says several other African countries have already done.
I can’t comment on the viability of this proposal, since I have little to no understanding of Ghanaian politics or environmental regulations. A lot of plastic usage here seems, to me at least, superfluous. At the market, vendors seem to almost want to give you as many (identical, small, black) plastic bags to take your produce home in; if you say you don’t need a bag, they look at you like you’re a space alien. So I’m sure there’s room for reduction without fundamental lifestyle changes. At the same time, I find it hard to imagine something, short of truly clean drinking water available to everyone, which will stem the tide of used water sachets. It’s possible that banning bags would result in people coming up with another cheap solution to get drinking water to people, but I have a hard time imagining what that would be. Bottled water is also widely available, but much more expensive: a 1.5 liter bottle costs about 1 cedi, or 66 cents, which puts it out of reach for average Ghanaians. Not to mention that plastic bottles are hardly the solution to the plastic bag problem. Other water purification options, such as filters or chemical treatment, are obviously well out of people’s price range.
So how do we reduce this plastic waste? Developing more—building a reliable water infrastructure that people trust to consistently deliver potable water—would certainly help. There’s a lot more to say here, about water pollution, privatization, governance, capitalism, social justice and a whole lot of other things, but I’ll save it for later.

Uncomfortable truths in Nevada

Las Vegas is still growing. Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert. Las Vegas is running out of water.

Cows graze on almost all the public lands in Nevada. Land grazed by cows is easy to spot, covered in invasive grasses, cowpies, stream banks cut deep and straight with muddy hoof prints all the way to the bottom. The cost to run a cow and calf for a month on these lands is $1.35. On the allotment we visited today, 15,000 cows graze and the Bureau of Land Management takes in about $22,000 per year from the permitee. A recently constructed irrigation trough and pipeline on this land cost $400,000, paid for by the BLM. It’s full of algae with a dead bird wing buried somewhere under the muck.

Las Vegas wants to build a pipeline to Spring Valley to pump water from an underground aquifer. This water will go to feed its green lawns and the rainforests built inside casinos.

Nevada has a Senate seat up for reelection this fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, will face off against Sharon Angle. Reid has consistently supported gold mining in Nevada, pushing hard against reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. Because of this act, prospective gold miners can acquire a claim for $5 an acre on federal lands. If gold is found, they pay no royalties to the government.

Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 1,021 test of nuclear weapons conducted at the Nevada Test Site. One hundred of these were above ground. The radioactive fallout blew downwind into Utah and southern Nevada. Some of it ended up in Spring Valley.

In the East, where is rains, you measure land in cows per acre. In the West, where there is a desert, you measure in acres per cow. The math will give a solution between 25 and 150 acres.

A dumptruck full of gold ore will yield about one ring’s worth of gold. To get it out of the rock, you use cyanide. The waste from this process sits in ponds, sometimes lined, sometimes not. If the original prospector goes broke or can’t be found, the government pays to clean up the mining waste.

If Las Vegas takes the water out of Spring Valley, the land will dry up. The soil will become dust and the dust will become airborne. The dust is volcanic soil and is full of a carcinogen as potent as asbestos. The dust blew into the valley as fallout from the Nevada Test Site. The dust is full of tiny particles which have a knack for working their way into the moist linings of human lungs and staying there.

Sharon Angle, the Republican challenging Harry Reid for Senate, has called the separation of church and state “unconstitutional.”

Cows need water to drink. Cows need hay to eat and hay needs water to grow. You get water in the West by damming rivers or pumping it out of the ground.

Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States. The Strip is covered in homeless men too resigned to ask for spare change. The neighborhoods outside feature fences topped with barbed wire and billboards advertising attorneys who can fight DUIs.

As climate change occurs, the West will become hotter and drier. Reservoirs will evaporate faster. River and stream flows will decrease because the glaciers on the mountains that feed them are disappearing.

About ninety percent of the population of Nevada lives in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, or in Reno. You can’t get elected in Nevada unless you support what Clark County and Reno want. And right now, they want their pipeline.

Cows trample biotic soil crusts. These crusts are made of mosses, lichens and microorganisms. They hold soil together, retain moisture, increase the productivity of adjacent plants and fix nitrogen and carbon into the soil. Without them, the soils blow away and water evaporates faster. Without them, the land becomes more desert and less water. Cows need water. Las Vegas needs water. The people of Spring Valley need water.

The importance of water

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah

I feel like I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to journal. I wish we had a longer segment on water, though I suspect it will come up again. Water and grazing seem to me to be the defining political issues of the West—almost everything else that gets people riled up can be tied back to one of those things.
I read books about dams—A Story That Stands Like a Dam over the summer, and now I’m starting Cadillac Desert. I find it so hard to imagine growing up in a world where there was no environmental conscience, yet I look at and listen to the Reclamation boys and politicians during the dam-building frenzy and I have to conclude they had no sense of looking at ecosystems or of seeing things in a way not tied to human industry and profit. Even the conservationists saw wildness and wilderness as spiritual refuge for men, a place not to be civilization, a place to calm our troubled and overworked souls. I don’t think the word salmon was mentioned once in the things I read, though I’m also not sure they live in the Colorado. But some other animal, plant, ecological function must have been imperiled when they closed the floodgates in Page. Why did no Rachel Carson spring up? Or if they did, why did history not remember them? I suppose the movement had to progress in a certain way. Maybe no one could conceive of ecology until we’d idolized wilderness as a spiritual refuge. Maybe no one thought to listen for the birds or count the salmon. But I have a hard time believing that’s the case. Native Americans, who fished the salmon, knew runs were declining precipitously, and so did other in the Northwest. And I don’t know enough about the ecology of Glen Canyon to say what anyone noticed when.
I’m worried about water, though. More than climate change, though of course they’re related. Some people somewhere will do just fine on a hotter planet, and because I’m among the rich and the privileged, because I live at 48˚N, I will be saved. Not that it’s not important to fight and mitigate, and not that we shouldn’t all be thinking about climate justice. But I’ve never felt that fear or panic that I’m supposed to. Where I get that fear is water, and once again I’m grateful to be on the west of the mountains. But Cali makes my food, and it does so artificially, pretending it’s not a desert by drawing on the Colorado and irreplaceable groundwater. When there’s not enough water to irrigate California, what do I eat? When we run out of topsoil from erosion, where will my food grow? These are the things that keep me up at night. Climate change will accelerate them, too. We can survive heat, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold winters. But we need water to live.