Water Journal : Water Journal December 2012
feature article 42 DECEMBER 2012 water feature articles Thousands of years ago Egyptian culture thrived and survived through many dynasties. Despite any critique applicable to it in its heyday, this ancient civilisation (and others of similar antiquity) still bring direct economic and social benefits (for example, tourism) to their present day custodial nations. This begs the question: what benefits will the Western world’s present industrial era bequeath to our distant future? Will these benefits outweigh and outlast the negatives? Or will our era be seen as one that caused mass extinctions, made the seas barren, melted the icecaps, used up all the oil and minerals and, in many other ways, ‘cursed’ the future? The question many are asking these days seems to be: how do we even begin to ‘walk the talk’... to start living in a way that no longer jeopardises all the things we need to maintain a decent living standard, such as biodiversity, healthy waterways, clean oceans, and the atmospheric balance of greenhouse gases which keep the planet habitable? And what about intergenerational equity? How do we protect the future, not just for next week, or next year, but for next century and beyond? In the first half of this two-part feature article, we look backwards a thousand years or so to take stock of where we are. In the second half, which will appear in the next issue of Water Journal, we look ahead to see what people a thousand years hence might thank us for having accomplished when they look back at our era. The Past One Thousand Years Some ancient civilisations evolved from the smallest collection of people and expanded into enormous, complex societies, only to eventually come crashing down. Jared Diamond (2005), in his book Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, reviewed many of the reasons for the disintegration of ancient cultures. For example, the Anasazi of the Americas failed because of human impact on the already harsh environment of the Southwest (US), coupled with drought and poor water management practices. The Mayans failed due to overpopulation, deforestation (which caused anthropogenic drought), soil nutrient depletion and conflict over diminishing resources, all while their kings and noblemen were fighting for personal and short term gain. Sound familiar? Humans as a species have many distinctive features; however, one of our most striking characteristics is our adaptability. In the most remote, adverse and unexpected locations, humans have survived and even thrived. Suzuki and Dressel (1999) discuss in their book, From Naked Ape to Superspecies, how we have not only adapted to multitudes of environmental conditions, but have also reached a stage where we can satisfy our needs and our desires. In many parts of the world, our ingenuity has enabled us to stop worrying about life’s necessities such as food, water and shelter, allowing us to turn our gaze towards more complex issues. Technological advances, from social media to robotic probes to explore Mars, illustrate our ability, once freed of the need to find food, to reach a very long way – even if it’s only to share a joke on Twitter. A common theme in these technological achievements is that they have emerged from large communities of people who are not engaged in food production and who typically live in cities. Nowadays, even the city has expanded to include the entire planet via the internet, and the scale of collaboration and rate of advancement this enables is accelerating. By comparison, changes that occur naturally on a geological timescale are generally vastly slower. For example, Simkin et al. (1994) report that the movement of continental plates roughly matches the rate of human fingernail growth. By this ‘Walking The Talk’: Securing Another One Thousand Years Thousands of years of human civilisation have impacted significantly on the environment and on available resources globally. But is it all bad news, or have we also contributed many positives for future generations? In the first of a two-part article, Andrew Hodgkinson, Senior Principal Technologist, and Sejla Alimanovic, Environmental Engineer, both at CH2MHILL, Melbourne, reflect on past human endeavours, and how we can plan for a healthier, more liveable planet. Satellite images of the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake at 68,000 km2, about the same size as Tasmania. Its loss has been called one of the great engineering disasters of the 20th century. This satellite photo sequence depicts its disappearance due to human agriculture and river diversion, from left to right: 1973, 1987, 1999, 2006 and 2009. Source: www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/07/aralsea Even today, Egypt’s ancient culture brings economic benefits such as tourism to the country.
Water Journal February 2013
Water Journal November 2012-1