Photo of the Connecticut River from the French King BridgeConnecticut River near HolyokeHadley Falls dam photoPhoto of Springfield, MA and Memorial Bridge looking across Connecticut River

Photos: (1) Connecticut River from French King Bridge, Massachusetts (2) Connecticut River from bridge by Hadley Falls Dam, Holyoke, MA (3) Hadley Falls Dam (4) Springfield, MA and the Memorial Bridge, seen across the Connecticut River.

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Draining the World's Water

European countries are draining significant quantities of water from other parts of the world, indirectly, in the form of imported food and manufactured goods, finds a new report from the German section of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, according to the 8/6/09 edition of Living Planet (www.dw-world.de; iTunes). The production of coffee, meat, vegetables, cotton and other goods in water-short regions of Africa, and other parts of the developing world, evaporates, pollutes, incorporates or otherwise uses up, huge quantities of water. These goods are then shipped to Europe, leaving less water behind for the use of these water-starved portions of the world. The same phenomenon is no doubt involved in U.S. importation of food and other goods from the developing world.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature reports, for example, that for one cup of imported coffee, 140 liters (roughly 35 gallons) of water are used up in the coffee-producing country, in order to grow and transport the coffee, according to Living Planet. Countries like Germany have a very wide water "footprint," according to the report, in effect importing nearly half of the water needed for the average German's daily consumption of water, when direct and indirect consumption of water are both factored in.

Whether or not this new report correctly estimates the exact amount of water consumed by importing regions, the logic is inescapable that importing food, coffee, cotton and other goods, also effectively means importing water, often from arid parts of the world that cannot really spare it. Even within the U.S., the shipment of vegetables and fruit from water-short areas of California and the Southwest no doubt involves a substantial net loss of water for those growing regions. This unsustainable draining of water from water-short regions of the world, in the form of imported food and other goods, gives us one more reason to locally produce more of our food, and other necessities, particularly in regions like New England, where water is relatively plentiful.

Managing our water resources sustainably

Compared to many parts of the world, New England is blessed with an abundance of water. That water nourished a vibrant agriculture through much of our region's history, and is making possible the current agricultural renaissance in Massachusetts, Vermont and elsewhere in New England.

Abundant water also propelled the emergence of New England as an industrial powerhouse in the 1800s and early 1900s, with hydropower driving cotton looms, tool making shops, grain mills and many other industrial processes. The June 2009 decision of MIT and a consortium of universities and computer giants to locate their new high performance computing center in Holyoke, MA, in part because of its cheap and reliable hydroelectric power, signals the possible role of hydropower in the region's industrial / post-industrial future. (See accounts about the proposed computer center and the connection to Holyoke's hydropower at Boston Globe report and MassTech report.)

But while water may indeed fall from the sky, its use does not come without a price. Competing demands for water in our region have already engendered decades of social-ecological struggles over how to manage and use the water riches we are blessed with. (The history of the Millers River Watershed Council, and other watershed councils listed in Water resources, for example, is the story of recurring conflict over the rivers in our part of the world.) More >>>

Page last modified: 8/18/09

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