Imagining a World Without Rainfall

Back in 1965, Frank Herbert told a story of humanity’s thirst for the ‘the Spice Melange’, a substance essential to travel and commerce, more than eight thousand years in our future. The spice can only be found in one place: an inhospitable desert peopled by much-persecuted, fanatical natives. His award-winning tale was, of course, an allegory for our own dependence on petroleum.

Let’s leave aside, for now, the idea that the motive power for our economy depends upon a scarce resource found beneath desert sands… and focus on the other precious substance in the story.

Frank Herbert’s book takes its name from the desert planet itself: Dune. It’s a place of extremes, neatly summarised in the early scenes of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation by statements such as “Precipitation: none. Weather: see storms.”

Not one drop of rain. Can you imagine living in a society where water is essentially a non-renewable resource, like oil? In a sense, this kind of thinking has already begun.

I was in Kenya back in 2013, when the discovery of two new aquifers in the drought-hit Turkana Basin was announced. It was estimated that the new water source held some 250 billion cubic metres of water: an astonishing windfall for a country that currently gets by on three billion cubic metres of water a year. The government announcement said that the discovery could supply the country for seventy years, although you might wonder if the perceived abundance of the new supply might increase the amount consumed – and there’s population growth to think about as well.

The textbooks say that water is a renewable resource. After all, moisture evaporates and evaporation leads to precipitation… so when did we start thinking of water in terms of years’ worth of supply before it’s gone? In a sense, this foreshadowing of the day when supplies will run out is a good thing: if water below ground is thought of as mineral wealth, to be used wisely, perhaps it won’t be wasted, but employed in such a way as to secure a lasting return on investment.

Long-time readers of Capacify might recall my article on embodied material, describing how a kilo of cucumbers embodies 350 litres of water. If that seems like a shocking amount, bear in mind that 15,400 litres of water goes into every kilogram of beef that is prepared. With accounting like that, it’s clear that the water supply can be strained to breaking point, even when large quantities are still there to be had, below ground.

When I looked at the problems of drought in Botswana, I wondered what a society does when confronted with a lack of water. The short answer seems to be that you do without: you endure interruptions in service, quality problems, and high prices… and you hope for the situation to improve over time.

What would bring about an improvement, though? Sharing with neighbours is nice, but those neighbours are all too likely to have growing populations of their own. Some of the people that I spoke to felt that technology held the answer. Desalination was mentioned a few times: not an obvious choice for a landlocked country, but there remains the possibility of a deal with a neighbouring country, I suppose. Personally, I’m concerned that the energy requirements for desalination mean that it becomes an exercise in turning oil into water. That can be done, for a time, but only at the cost of resource depletion and further climate change. It’s not an answer for the long term.

I had a look at solar-powered desalination, but found that it’s mostly being done on a very small scale. A few thousand litres of water a day is so minor a contribution as to be readily dismissed as a drop in (or more accurately, out of) the ocean.

Frank Herbert had a lot to say about the preservation of moisture: the people who live on Dune and harvest the spice wear ‘stillsuits’: fitted garments that trap the wearer’s sweat and separate out the salt, recirculating the water into catchpockets where it can be consumed again and again.

Principal characters in David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

Stillsuits in the 1984 Dune film. “Urine and faeces are processed in the thigh pads,” Dr Kynes explains. Er… OK. Lovely.

To a person in the present day that technology seems implausible, because anything that interferes with the body’s natural process of sweating would probably cause the wearer to collapse from heat exhaustion… but closed-loop systems are possible – in the plant kingdom.

Did you ever attempt to cultivate a bottle garden? I had one, in my teens. I can’t say that it was a huge success, because one species quickly squeezed out all the rest… but what remained proved surprisingly resilient to the neglectful ownership of a young person not blessed with green fingers.

David Latimer did rather better, and he had a head start, too: his bottle garden was planted in 1960, and has only been watered once since then, back in 1972.

David Latimer and his bottle garden

David Latimer and his remarkable bottle garden

The experiment began with a single seedling. This neatly sidesteps any question of one species edging the others out, leaving us with the intriguing possibility of a managed monoculture in a sealed environment, where evaporation and transpiration don’t represent a loss to the system, but simply copy the natural cycle, with dew forming on the walls of the vessel in place of rainfall. You’d still have to ‘pay’ for anything that you removed from such a system, but only what is removed. Thus you’d want to pop in some extra minerals and water, to reflect what was harvested, but a kilo of (hypothetically) cucumbers taken out would demand no more than kilo of water in, not the current third of a tonne… and you’d have no phosphates leaking into rivers, lakes and seas as agricultural run-off, because it would remain in the ‘bottle’ until you chose to extract it. (And since you’re paying for those fertilisers, why allow them to leak away?)

Now, I’m not saying that agriculture can really take place in bottle gardens. For one thing, the cost of putting vast areas of land under glass would be prohibitive. For another, it might be extremely unpleasant for a grower to work inside such a closed environment – almost as bad as wearing a stillsuit. Even so, I wonder how long we can go on accepting the current bad bargain of embodied water.

Degradation in polythene sheeting, seen in Zambia

Polytunnels offer some advantages, but don’t fare well under strong African sunlight, as I saw at the National Resource Development Centre in Zambia

Back when I worked at the University of Nottingham, I proposed a research project in ‘zero emissions manufacturing’: basically allowing nothing in but electricity (on the assumption that this could be clean energy from a sustainable source such as sunlight) and then using only materials and technologies that wouldn’t produce waste that would accumulate and degrade the system over time. I had in mind that the project would exist in several phases: a first phase in which a theoretical system was specified via environmental accounting, to identify sources of entropy, a second phase in which a ‘virtual company’ was operated, offsetting problematic wastes that caused entropy by finding practical uses for them… and a third phase in which a demonstrator sealed facility was constructed, making a sample product with nothing going up the chimney, no effluents, and no solid waste. This is a very demanding brief, because it limits the manufacturing technologies that can be used: conventional milling and grinding are out because sooner or later you’d wear away your cutting tools and want to throw them out. Likewise, deformation (bending, pressing) is preferable to cutting, because you don’t want to be generating a lot of swarf.

“Impossible,” said virtually everyone I spoke to. “You can’t have manufacturing in a closed system!”

“Really?” I said. “We’re living in one.”

Planet Earth

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