Last week I went to a presentation at MIT made by a group of engineers that are half way through building a high technology barrier to protect Venice from rising waters. The project goes under the name MOSE (Moses).
Tourists in a rather damp Venice
Venice is a city built on an island situated in a lagoon that has been artificially shaped by human intervention over the last 500 years. The problem of rising sea levels and storms has meant that the city is regularly flooded, and so the project is to build a barrier spanning the three large openings to the lagoon so that it can be sealed in times of high tide and storms.
The flooding has been exacerbated by works carried out in the 1980’s and 90’s to build an industrial zone that involved the drainage of marshland areas, leading to a softening of the ground that made the city actually sink.
This is a 50 billion Euro project, and one of the biggest of its type ever attempted. A look at the data about the Thames Barrier (the first of its type) shows that the problem of high tides is getting worse. It was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times since 2000, but why?
Strangely enough the problem is related to global temperature rise as we might imagine but not so much because of the melting of the icecaps. The fact is that water expands when it is heated so warming even by a couple of degrees has the effect of increasing its volume. The International Panel on Climate Change state that 70% of the presumed rise will be due to this factor.
So back to the barrier. The entire project is quite an undertaking as this YouTube video demonstrates. Years of planning followed by years of preparation, reclamation of marsh lands and sea defense construction not to mention the construction of an off shore oil terminal so that the ships no longer have to enter the lagoon. But Criticism is also rife.
Part of the finished engineering works on the MOSE project in Venice
Some engineers criticize the project on purely technical terms, other groups point to the lack of environmental impact study and others the cost.
This video also on YouTube tells a completely different story to the one above. Critics are arguing (amongst other things) that we do not know all of the variables involved (which seems to be true) and that the entire ecosystem of the lagoon will change.
I am no engineer so I cannot argue about the choices made, but I do have one simple question. With all of the movement of water involved in this project (serious high tides and the passage of thousands of liters of sea water a minute) would it not have been possible to build something that produced electricity instead of consuming it in huge amounts?
Details of how the flood defenses will work
The stakes are high as you might imagine, Venice is one of the most touristed cities in the world, but the high tides are flooding the monuments ever more regularly. We are talking about more than a meter of water, and footage on international TV of tourists walking on raised platforms through St Mark’s Square and fresco covered churches full of water does not go down well.
It is an old problem though, and one that is shared by many cities today. New Orleans is discussing a similar solution, and here in Boston the issue is also under debate.
They are all looking for a high technology solution to an age old problem that is getting steadily worse.
How often do you think about your use of water? Serious question, one which some of our readers will undoubtedly say all the time. Those living in areas of almost constant drought will have water as a very pressing issue on their mind, most of the time.
But then there are some of us, who might not really consider it as much. The authorities are in control of it right? If they aren’t, strictly regulated private companies are, so we are good, yeah?
Water is a resource which we all need, and cannot possibly live without. Whenever scientists are looking for life on other planets, one of the first things they try to work out, is was there ever water on this planet, and is there now? Why? As water is a key component to life as we know it.
Sadly, water is a very scarce resource, and according to National Geographic, a mere 0.007% of our planets water is drinkable. That’s right, just 0.007%. The rest is in the oceans, and the majority of the 3% of freshwater left, is locked up in ice, which ultimately melts into the sea.
As I am sure you heard, in October last year, (2011) the earth’s population reached 7 billion, and is still growing. That 0.007% figure is not getting any bigger, but the population is – rapidly. That is why, currently, on the earth:
That’s right, 1 in 5 people living on our planet does not have access to a safe supply of water which they can drink. If the population is 10 billion by 2050, that statistic could increase to 2 in 5, or maybe even 3 in 5.
In the 20th century, the global population tripled, the use of water sextupled – grew by six times. Los Angeles can support around about 1 million people with its water supply. It currently has a population of 4 million – see a problem? Elsewhere in the USA, in less than 5 years, Central Florida could potentially run out of water.
Some places in the world are naturally dry, and frequently suffer drought. Some places are naturally wet, and frequently suffer flooding.
The thing is, most of us probably don’t think we are in drought right? Say you live in the UK, like me, you probably think our water supplies are fine yes? Recently in the news we have been notified most of the UK is in drought, but are we really? Well the answer is yes, and many other areas of the world might be too, you might not realise it, but where you live could be. Check out this drought monitor, to see if your area is. You can toggle the time period on the left hand side, as you may be in long-term drought, but not short-term and vice versa.
Look after it
We all need to learn to look after our water better. We are not getting any more, so we need to be more careful with what we have. Our lives quite literally depend upon it.
My question to you is how much water do you use? According to Thames Water we use around 8 litres every time we flush the toilet. Brushing our teeth with the tap off uses 1 litre, whilst brushing them with the tap on (assuming a 2 minute brush) uses 12 litres. Our dishwashers typically use 20 litres, whilst our washing machines thirst for a giant 45 litres.
Everyone always moans when we go into a hosepipe ban. What is the point? Surely I use just as much water as other activities, so why ban that? Well it doesn’t. One toilet flush is around 8 litres, but one hour of hosepipe use is 540 litres. That’s right, 540!
Lets assume you are washing your car. Say it takes you 20 minutes. With a bucket, you would typically use 10 litres – 2/3 buckets. What about with a hosepipe? Well, you would use 18 times as much water, a staggering 180 litres!
More refugees (25 million) were displaced by contaminated rivers in 2008 than were forced to flee from war zones. I don’t have more recent figures, but I would assume the figure would be much greater. The UN state that around every 15 seconds, as child dies from a water-related disease – poor sanitation, which 1 in 3 people on the planet suffer from.
How can you save it?
Depending upon how much you use, will determine how much water you could potentially save. Here are some great starting points:
Turn the tap off when cleaning your teeth – you could save 11 litres
Fill your kettle to the minimum you need, don’t fill it half full, or to the top if you are only making 1/2 drinks!
Use a bucket to wash your car and save yourself 170 litres
Don’t put your dishwasher or washing machine on until it is full – two washes uses twice as much water
Don’t leave the tap running when washing up or cleaning vegetables
Fix leaks – if you have one dripping tap, it could use a staggering 3,120 litres a year!
Take a water test, to see how efficiently you are using your water
Saving water is very important, and it can save you money.
Please, think about your water usage, as it is something that affects us all.
Here I would like to review the series and look at the way people commented the individual posts, before concluding with a few lines about the experience.
Renewable energy renewing the Earth
In my first post I introduced the idea of environmental cost. This was the measurement that I wanted to use to address the issue of pollution, and more specifically that produced through energy use.
I tried to avoid the term ‘clean energy’, as I feel this overlooks certain aspects of all forms of production. Modern solar panels for example may provide clean energy from the sun but they themselves present issues during their manufacturing and disposal phases.
Another point I hoped to raise is that the problem needs to be viewed from a realistic standpoint. We are not all going to convert to a zero emissions life overnight any more than we are going to return to being a hunter and collector society that lives in caves. The world will continue to operate more or less as it does now, and it is through this framework that the problem should be addressed.
The first comment I received contained the following line from Vicky, and it really is worthy of note:
“I believe that each of us can help a lot in improving the health of our planet, the only problem is that we have great vision but no action. Why don’t we act first and through that action we start making some vision?” This is echoed by the quote from Gandhi that I used to open the first post, and could really be a manifesto for the series.
The second post was about cutting fuel emissions from transport systems, and it received a couple of interesting comments. Darci commented that even cutting emission by 30% (referring to the commercial use of Kites on ships) would be a great improvement, and I must agree with her. Neil’s comment included the following lines that are worth thinking about:
“It seems to me that over the past decade the builders of internal combustion engines have made some great breakthroughs in generating more energy from their engines with the same amount of input and we have seen the KW output of many engines jump significantly. It would be good to see these same producers working backwards to produce smaller engines that produce an adequate amount of power from a minimal amount of fuel.” An extremely astute comment I would say.
Post 3 entitled Cleaner Energy Production was one of the most commented of the series. I think this is because the technology described is on the verge of becoming commercially available, and because solar panels are now an every day piece of urban furniture.
The article also provoked a series of comments lead by the following from Custom Items:
“These are a great bunch of suggestions. It’s really sad that we all what we need and what is right but can’t do anything about it. I’ve always felt that the government was taking sides with the big corporations. In this world of ours, money and power talks.”
This obviously provoked discussion with the other commenters in agreement with the sentiment, some seeming to suggest that development is hindered by large corporations and governments and that although the people recognize the need for change they may be incapable of achieving it.
Not all doom and gloom though and I for one am optimistic and agree with some of the brighter outlooks expressed.
Post 4 was all about a report published by the Royal Society for Engineering in which they looked at possible ways of artificially cooling the planet. Again many comments were left, a couple of which raise issues that should be addressed.
The post involves the problematic debate around global warming. Two comments really show the diversity of belief that surrounds the issue, even though not taking radical standpoints. The following comment was made by Shane Ryans:
“In my opinion the earth has gone through many different cycles, throughout its lifetime. The earth has gone through ice ages so why would there not have been, for lack of a better word, “hot” ages. What makes today so different from the past. We are just going into yet another cycle. Now that being said, I am sure that we as a race have made the circumstances different and added to the problem and sped up the process, with all the different chemicals and air pollutants we have introduced into our environment. I do hope that scientists can come up with a viable solution”.
Although Shane does not make the line that humans do not contribute to the problem, many people do, and go on to argue that the greenhouse effect does not exist. From their point of view any change is merely a product of nature. People that espouse this line have powerful lobbies, and invest large sums of money to promote their line to the point that the debate has become a business, and dirty tricks and smear campaigns abound. See this page on Wikipedia for plenty of information and links to further reading
Returning to the post a second comment made by Virtual Stock Trading runs as follows, the edit is mine but you can see the original comment where it was left:
“I don’t think there is any doubt on global warning…….. But the process is very gradual and will not significantly affect anyone living today.”
I cannot agree with the final line. Global warming is affecting communities all over the world as we speak. Sea levels are rising and threatening the very survival of some of theMaldivesIslands, flooding is rife in low-lying countries and London has to thank the Thames Barrier to avoid Joe Strummer’s classic prediction. And a simple look at its use tells a story, it was closed four times in the 1980s, 35 times in the 1990s, and 80 times since 2000.
Post 5 was a review of inventions and power generating machines that profess to generate free or pollution free energy. It did not generate the number of comments that the previous posts managed, but Samantha returned to the non support from governments and big business argument once more:
“Actually, there are so many inventions nowadays that can actually lessen our cost and pollution as well. However, they are having problems of getting support from our government. Of course, this body is after of money from businesses like big petroleum companies.”
From a personal point of view writing the series gave me great satisfaction. I have all the articles on a single file and it looks like a small book! I wrote 2 of the articles before posting the first, as Christopher suggested, and it was a very good idea. I wanted to reply to each comment and that took a lot of time, so I found it quite a strain researching while the series was running (each post took about 6-8 hours to research and write).
I found all of the comments interesting, and thank everyone who took the time to post. I did not have the problem that I sometimes have of people missing the point. I do not like to express my arguments too openly and rely on a bit of intuition, and sometimes this is lacking and I find comments that express the opposite of what I wanted to convey. This was not the case during the series, and that pleases me.
I can definitely recommend the experience, and will undoubtedly write another.