Monday, January 16, 2006

The Tip Of The Iceberg

By Dale Wasserman

Satevepost -- Originally, I had intended only to write a movie. It was to be no more than a speculation, an audience-tickling fantasy, nothing more. My movie idea, encapsulated, went as follows:

At a time when nations are growing desperate over the growing shortage of drinkable water a gigantic iceberg, roughly the size of the state of Delaware, detaches itself from the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. That's not unusual, but then the world learns that the berg is inhabited. That it's moving under power. And that clearly it has a proprietor and destination.

These things are unusual. More than unusual; they are, in fact, unique. Ice is water, and the berg represents a virgin water supply the size of Lake Michigan. It is figured to be worth $50 billion, delivered.

Who owns it? How is it powered? Who are the people living aboard and running it? What is its destination?

The search for answers and the contest for the possession of this fantastic resource begin.

I wrote it, not yet the screenplay but the story, complete, formulated, needing further explication yet in substance all there. But then an oddity occurred: people intrigued by the idea said to me, "Why a movie? The need is real. Why not just do it?"

That of course, would be quite a different kettle of fish. But a fascinating kettle, if only because of its over-the-top ambition. A hook had been set in my imagination, and I found myself brooding on the challenge: Why not just do it?

In the course of brooding one night in the space between sleep and waking, I had a vision: I was on the terrace of my mountainside house in Spain, high above the Mediterranean, watching the lighted cruise ships below, when there came one that outranked all others. It was a vessel like no other on earth. It filled the sea and stretched to the horizons. It was fashioned of some sort of crystal and pulsed with the light from within…gemlike greens, blues, emerald, turquoise and a dozen variations of aquamarine coruscated in its depths…altogether a spectacle delighting the eye and raising a heartbeat of wonder.

At a later time I realized that somehow I had transfigured an image remembered from the Fellini movie Amarcord: the image of a brilliantly lighted ocean liner, regarded with wonder and delight by the people of Fellini's village as, with enormous majesty, it passes offshore. Then I realized that the vessel in my vision was not, as I'd thought, fashioned of crystal--it was ice.

I woke up, not to reality but to a sly question: "Why couldn't this vision become real?" Especially since there was a need, a need becoming daily more urgent. If there was a need in one part of the world and an answer to that need in another part, the equation seemed childishly simple--why not bring the two parts together in perfect reciprocity?

And so I entered upon a pursuit of the sort which obsesses, in which obsession becomes a slave-master denying freedom until fulfillment. Could there possibly be, in this case, fulfillment? Could an iceberg--oh, say, twice the size of Manhattan--be harvested, powered and steered to a destination where the need for its bonanza of water was desperate?

It was time to drop the dreaming and find out.

One motive for finding out became outstandingly clear: the world is running out of drinkable water.

There can never be more water on earth, and of all that exists only a tiny percentage is potable. The bulk of earth's water is in the oceans or in

other forms unfriendly to humanity. Of potentially drinkable water, most is in the form of polar ice and glaciers, and therefore unavailable. Indeed, water covers two thirds of the planet, but of fresh water there is less than 21/2 percent. The accessible rivers, lakes and underground aquifers: all of them together make up less than one percent of the world's total water, and of these more than half are already being consumed or have become unusable due to pollution.

Rivers which once supplied healthful water to multitudes are now off-limits by reason of overuse or contamination. Entire countries regularly join the list of those burdened with nonusable water; Poland, for example, receives plenty of rain but is suffering a crucial shortage of clean water. Its rivers and lakes, groundwater and marshes, all are cocktails of poisons. Their water is no longer potable.

Nor is Poland's problem unusual. A United Nations report states flatly, "More than half of humanity will be living with water shortages, depleted fisheries, and polluted coastlines within a few years because of a worldwide water crisis." It goes on to point out, "Tens of millions of people don't have access to safe water. Severe water shortages affecting at least 400 million people today will affect 4 billion by 2050. In the USA, southwestern states such as Arizona will face severe freshwater shortages by 2025."

Water sources that seemed inexhaustible are proving to be anything but. The Aral Sea, which is--or was--the world's fourth-largest freshwater lake, is diminishing visibly as four countries draw water from its river-feeds, and shortly it will vanish completely. Lake Chad in Africa is shrinking and heavily polluted, as are Iraq's marshes and America's wetlands and others previously considered immune or inexhaustible. The Great Lakes of the United States are not only dangerously polluted but have fallen to their lowest levels in recorded history. Of all the world's great freshwater lakes, only Lake Baikal, by volume and by depth the greatest of them all, remains intact--but this is due to its remote location in Siberia. Even so, its proximity to the Chinese border places it in hazard. The Chinese would gladly trade territory and billions of yuan for access to its waters.

The roll call of the lakes and rivers that are poisoned, dying or simply vanishing down thirsty drains is growing more rapidly than any human or agency had predicted. Pollution, not consumption, is the Great Waster of the supply. The available waters have steadily undergone a sickening saturation by pesticides; by chemical, mining and manufacturing wastes; and by the increasing discharge of human wastes, which convert pristine waterways into sewers of infection. Cholera, typhoid and dysentery are but three of the many waterborne diseases which afflict the earth, products of the poisoning of water by human and industrial pollution. An estimated 12,000 people die each day from waterborne diseases. A swelling population keeps this statistic swelling as well.

Third World population growth has both aggravated and accelerated the process. Mexico City's ever-expanding population of--by latest estimate--25 million has destroyed the great lake on which the city was founded by the Aztecs in the 14th century. Bernard de las Casas, the scribe accompanying Cortez, wrote of "…the gleaming white city of Tenochtitlán, nested improbably in the middle of a vast lake of crystalline clear waters…" That city--and its vast lake--have long since metamorphosed into the City of Mexico, which sinks steadily into the cavity where "crystalline clear waters" once delighted the eyes and throats of the conquistadors. The city has sunk some 60 feet into the ancient lakebed, and continues sinking. Dust storms parch the throats of its expanding hordes and add to the need for more sources of water to support them.

It was those same conquerors who, after praising the city of Tenochtitlán as superior in beauty and resources to any city in Europe, proceeded with monstrous efficiency to destroy what they had so admired.

Cairo, another city of unnumbered population, drinks so deeply of the river Nile that it remains viable only by virtue of the Aswan Dam and the consequent further desertification and famine in the Sudan and Ethiopia. At the opposite end of Africa, Johannesburg rivals Cairo in its frantic plundering of water-sources, as do the cities on the northern rim.

The cities of South America are possibly in the worst case of all. São Paulo, Lima, Caracas, Santiago, La Paz--with swelling populations and increasing thirst--all have their crises, present or pending. None have a viable solution.

China has its own water-shortage crisis, best exemplified by the desperation of Beijing, whose underground water table has dropped more than a hundred feet in the last 40 years. Beijing's plight is mirrored by almost all of China's swelling and nominally prosperous cities; how can prosperity be maintained, much less enhanced, with a growing shortage of life's most urgent necessity?

The current rate of consumption of another resource--oil, as measured against a shrinking supply--is raising alarms (and prices) worldwide. But oil is not necessary to human existence. Our own species, Homo sapiens, got along for millions of years without it, whereas potable water is an absolute need not only of humanity but of all terrestrial life. Deprived of it, living forms promptly cease to be alive.

Aggravating the situation is this: it takes a million gallons of water to make 40,000 gallons of gasoline. Which leads one to consider: which is more valuable, a gallon of oil or a gallon of water? Why is the price of one so much greater than the other when one is indispensable to life and the other a luxury?

The worldwide statistics concerning the use, abuse, and growing crisis in the supply of pure water grow ever more alarming. For example, Americans need look no further than their own real estate. One glance at the wildly burgeoning city of Las Vegas will do nicely as a for-instance.

Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city in the USA. It also happens to be sited in the country's driest area.

For many years it has tapped nearby Lake Mead, the huge lake created by the construction of Hoover Dam. But Lake Mead, like Lake Powell in Arizona and Utah, and numerous other "lakes" which are not actually lakes at all, has a single source: the Colorado River. Once a great and powerful stream fueled by snowmelt of the Rocky Mountains, it is now so heavily drawn upon that at its outlet in the Sea of Cortez, there is virtually no water left to meet the sea. Lake Mead's water level has dropped 90 feet in the past few years. All of Nevada is under a severe drought alert.

Once untrammeled by dams, the Colorado at its mouth sprawled over a huge delta with multiple channels, much like that of the Mississippi. Now that delta is arid desert scored by dry washes where water once flowed in abundance.

One of the pioneer mountain men, James Ohio Pattie, described a bizarre sight he had observed on the lower Colorado in the 1830s--"…a standing wave cresting about six feet high, which began moving slowly upstream with water combing down over the top like a milldam…"

What Pattie had observed was, in fact, a tidal bore, born of collision between great powers: one of them the untamed river surging to the sea; the other, the incoming tide of the Sea of Cortez. Where the two met, a tidal bore was born, a great rolling wave moving hundreds of miles upstream until the river's power prevailed--the battle to be renewed with the next incoming tide.

It was significant that although the Colorado was deemed a "navigable" river, all attempts at navigation were ended when a steam-boat called the Topolobampo, crowded with passengers, was caught in the bore and rolled over and over like a barrel in ocean surf, drowning nearly all of the 300 aboard. The disaster effectively put an end to notions of navigation on the Colorado. The river was deemed too powerful, too untamed, for such enterprises.

It is no longer powerful or untamed. Now, with its water parceled out among five states, it can be described as attenuated, sickly, and above all, inadequate.

From Las Vegas to El Paso, and including fast-growing cities such as Phoenix and Tucson, communities are busily planning webs of pipelines designed to import water from other localities. These are cities which can neither survive nor continue to grow unless they tap into new sources of water. Their hope for salvation lies in reaching out for these sources with a costly system of pipes and wells. Their delusion lies in the belief that they're going to find them. A simple fact: there are no undiscovered water sources in this "great American desert." All of the water in its rivers, creeks, lakes and underground aquifers is already taken up by present demand. There are no supplies available for additional demands.

Nevertheless, the most ambitious of these projects is being promoted by Las Vegas, which has on its drawing boards a spiderweb of pipelines to import water from remote areas of Nevada. The Southern Nevada Water Authority proposes to drill scores of wells in a quest for deep underground water. Some of these proposed wells will be hundreds of miles away. The projected price for this network is $2 billion--but it is generally conceded that the figure is illusory and that the project may, in fact, cost much more.

An amazing swatch of naiveté colors these efforts. Why does Las Vegas assume that the water is there? And if water should be found, why does Las Vegas assume that it can confiscate it from the communities which own it?

Rural communities are not stupid. They have long since observed that water is life. In the past they have fought wars over water. There's little reason to doubt that they won't do so again.

One must recall the violent history of the Owens Valley in Central California, once a thriving community with a river, a lake, and fertile farmlands until ever-thirsty Los Angeles reached out 250 miles to confiscate its river, drain its lake, and pipe its water to the south, thereby converting the fertile valley into desert, a desert where guerrilla landowners still maintain a futile feud with the City of Angels.

The Owens Valley disaster is not forgotten. Residents of rural Nevada have it very much in mind.

Other desert cities are wrangling over similar, if less-ambitious schemes. El Paso, Texas, is planning a pipeline to cost half a billion dollars. Salt Lake City hopes for a pipeline to supply 33 billion gallons of water a year to accommodate foreseeable growth. Colorado Springs, the state of Colorado's second-largest city, has on the drawing boards a 43-mile pipeline at a cost of $900 million to bring water from the Arkansas River. Other towns booming with growth are prospecting wildly for water sources, sometimes in competition with each other.

The fabled water wars of the West are not yet over. They have simply entered another phase.

Water is a basic human need. Is it also a basic human right? The emerging answer is: not necessarily.

Dale Wasserman is a movie, stage and television writer best known for his Man of La Mancha, one of the longest-running Broadway musicals of all time, and his Tony Award-winning play, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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