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A New Normal?: What We Need To Take Away From the Cape Town Water Crisis

Manak Suri

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The Cape Town water crisis is still very much in the news and there is a lot that needs to be learnt from what has been happening in the city where 4 million people are actively struggling to push backward Day Zero: the day when the city runs out of its water resources and water supply is shut all across the city. If you have been keeping up with the story, you’d probably know that Day Zero was set by the city’s authorities to occur early in April. With a combination of supervised action and good fortune, recent estimates have pushed the date by nearly two months, with Day Zero now set to occur some time in early June. However, it is still too early to celebrate for the citizens of Cape Town since the dams that account for the availability of water to the city are still at alarmingly low levels, with analysts wondering whether the increased scarcity of the essential natural resource should be treated as a new normal for the region or not. The mere thought of the same spells an apocalyptic warning for mankind, for it has been known for quite some time that the crisis being faced by Capetonians is not unique and soon the citizens of many major cities across the globe could be facing the same, albeit with differing levels of severity.

A Game of Numbers: What the Future Holds

We are made to learn in the earlier years of our schooling that water makes up nearly 70% of the earth’s surface but only 3% of it is freshwater, that is, water that we can drink. Couple that with the population boom witnessed over decades in developed and developing countries all over the world and you have statistics which suggest that a quarter of the largest 500 cities in the world are dealing with issues related to scarcity of water. Moreover, a warning has been issued by the United Nations World Water Development Report that by the year 2030 the global demand for drinking water would exceed the global supply by roughly 40% due to a combination of climate change, growth in population, and actions of humans: a daunting figure at the very least. Even today, more than one eighth of the human population lack access to safe drinking water, and on top of that another 2.7 billion people find water to be scarce at least one month of the year. Where this puts us 12 years down the line is by all standards a circumstance not pretty, and what this means for the cities touted to be next in line after Cape Town is pretty clear: save water as if your life depends on it, because it does, as put forth by former mayor of Cape Town Helen Zille on tackling the issue in her city.

The Next Cape Town: An Inevitability?

11 major cities have been identified as being the most likely to be affected by water crises, if any in the near future. The list also includes the south Indian city of Bangalore. Bangalore, known as technological hub or the silicon plateau of India, has often been touted as the country’s IT capital, and that is precisely why it is now so high up in the list of cities struggling to manage its water supply. Rapid property developments in the city along with the huge influx of people to fill up these spaces have put up immense pressure on the city’s antiquated plumbing and sewer systems. The whole system is so ineffective that it has been estimated through a national report itself that the city loses half of its water meant for drinking as waste. Rampant pollution over the years has just added to the huge challenge. Of all the lakes in the city, none are clean enough to be used for drinking or even bathing, and water from most of the lakes can be at best only used for industrial cooling and irrigation.

The list contains a total of 4 Asian cities out of 11 including Bangalore. The remaining three are also the capital cities of three of the largest Asian countries in terms of population: Beijing; the capital of China, Tokyo; the Japanese capital, and Jakarta; capital of Indonesia. While China is inhabited by nearly 20% of the world’s population, it is home to only 7% of the world’s reserves of fresh water. Like Bangalore, Beijing also suffers from high levels of water pollution which has attracted the attention of the Chinese government over the past few years. The remainder of the list includes the cities of Sao Paulo in Brazil, the Egyptian capital Cairo, the Russian capital of Moscow, Istanbul in Turkey, Mexico City, Miami: the only city from the US to make the list, and surprisingly even London, the capital of the United Kingdom. London receives an annual rainfall of only about 600mm and is dependent for most of its supply of water on the rivers Thames and Lea. It is estimated to face supply problems by the year 2025, and by the year 2040, London is on track to face serious supply shortages.

You Don’t Have to Wait, You Have to Start

The threats of water shortages are not new when you consider for how long the warnings have been in place, in the same places for all this while. Even if this is all new to you right now, there are lessons that have to be learnt from what is happening around us and it is the need of the hour to be aware and to be responsible for your actions and for those of others around you. We shouldn’t have to wait till the going gets as bad as it did in Cape Town when we can do better. The power to control/minimise the effects of water shortages is within you, and through your example and your actions it is extended to others around you. Take it upon yourself to be the person to lead the change, attaching all the more power to yourself as well.

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A student of economics with a keen eye for developments in the geopolitical sphere, Manak is a curious individual with a penchant for writing about anything that makes him ponder long enough.

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Nuclear Power and Other Power Sources: How Do They Stack Up?

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Most everyone dreads the idea of nuclear war because of the abject devastation it would inflict on planet Earth. Yet few connect the dots between nuclear weapons and nuclear power — the same energy that makes atomic bombs and nuclear missiles so threatening is also harnessed to power electrical grids and other forms of infrastructure. When properly contained, nuclear power is the cleanest and most abundant energy source available. With all the concern over climate change and environmental degradation, it begs a huge question: why is the United States of America not generating more — much more — nuclear energy?

Capital Investment vs. Production Costs

Looking at it from one angle, a larger nuclear energy capacity is a no-brainer. Making electricity from nuclear sources is cheaper than using coal, gas or petroleum, i.e. fossil fuels. On average, using 2011 cash value, electricity cost 21.56, 3.23 and 4.51 cents per kilowatt-hour from petroleum, coal and natural gas, respectively. Nuclear power came in at 2.10 cents per kW according to data received by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Yet these simple ongoing production costs fail to tell the full story.

To up the power generating capacity of nuclear sources, additional plants are necessary. Some argue that the savings in electricity production means the nuclear utilities pay for themselves. What, though, are they paying for…and how long until the payoff? Engineering and constructing a nuclear power plant is very expensive. In fact, 74 percent of the cost of nuclear-sourced electricity is in the capital costs of creating the physical facility and technology for that purpose. Some estimates range drom six-billion to nine-billion dollars. Others estimate over $5,300 per kW before it begins paying for itself…in 20 to 30 years. These figures make the prospect cost-prohibitive to many decision makers in government and business.

Plentiful Energy at Low Costs without Nuclear Power

Were we living back during the oil shocks and embargoes of the 1970s, the urgency factor would be much higher concerning nuclear power in the US. The abundance of discoveries and advancement of technology have made fossil fuels more available at modest prices. Coal and petroleum are each low compared to their peaks. With the advent of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” natural gas is ever more accessible and affordable. Though people may worry about the environmental effects of burning these substances, they are likely to continue usage to maintain a decent househild cash flow.

Still, even the renewable alternatives to traditional fuels are dropping in price. In terms of sheer volume, wind turbines and solar panels — for instance — have yet to match the output of fossil fuels, much less the overwhelming energy yield of nuclear. Nevertheless, their contribution to production in the United States is growing while their financial outlays are shrinking. Added to the two aforementioned renewable sources, hydro-electric power, biomass and geothermal each come in under 10 cents per kW. According to Forbes magazine, this makes them highly competitive with oil and gas financially.

Lack of Knowledge

The absence of urgency mentioned above relates to a third factor about why Americans are not expanding their nuclear production capacity. Generations have passed that are not well-informed about the potential and reality of nuclear power. A dangerous accident at Pennsylvania’s Three-Mile Island facility in the 1970s scared public officials and policy makers into backing off of a pro-nuclear agenda. The improvements and replication found in today’s safety protocols have been ineffective in re-booting a national conversation. Granted, the United States operates 97 nuclear reactors, more than any other country. Yet only four more are under design and/or construction compared to 20 for China.

Furthermore, France relies on nuclear for three-quarters of its electricity; several eastern European nations, half; South Korea, in excess of 30 percent; while the U.S. can claim around 20 percent. Clearly, the public knowledge regarding how clean and abundant atomic energy is meager; awareness of past accidents — including the Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl meltdowns of recent decades were, by contrast, reported widely by media outlets.

Advocates of nuclear power have work to do to bring Americans on board. Otherwise, dirtier, cheaper sources will continue to reign.

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Francisco Reynés: “We have to consider gas as the energy source with the most potential in the future”

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Natural Gas

Francisco Reynés, executive chairman of Naturgy (formerly Gas Natural Fenosa), has talked about the role of gas in the world as the energy source with the greatest potential in the future, at the 6TH IEF-IGU Ministerial Gas Forum celebrated in Barcelona, Spain.

 Francisco Reynés has explained that the world “needs to talk about the different uses of natural gas and the gas technologies and innovations towards a sustainable energy future. We have to address the role of gas in the world as a future energy source, not only as a transition source of energy”.

 “The uses of gas are, as we all know, well beyond those of power generation. Gas provides sources for non-energy uses, such as petrochemicals or fertilizers, which have no clear substitute”, he added.

 About this possibility, Francisco Reynés has explained that “all of this will benefit and service the economic growth and development of the countries and economies around the globe. It is, indeed, a joint effort which we must all face with the utmost priority and the maximum care”.

Reynés has also insisted on the cooperation between governments, producers and even consumers to strengthen the security of gas supply on international markets. “The challenge for the future is how energy systems will evolve to meet greenhouse gas emission goals, and more stringent fuel quality standards while at the same time they respond to growing demand for affordable access to reliable energy services”, he concluded.

The 6th IEF-IGU Ministerial Gas Forum aims to sharpen a collective focus on energy policies, market trends, and technology options that enable the gas industry to deliver inclusive growth and successful transformations for a secure, inclusive and sustainable energy future. Energy and climate policies, gas technologies and innovations as well as market fundamentals are ever more co-dependent but also vary across geographies.

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You can’t fight nature, but you can be ready for whatever she throws at you

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tsunami

The human race has got used to being in control of its surroundings, and yet we will never be able to truly prevent some of the most devastating catastrophes that our planet can throw our way. Yet we still strive to protect all the things we have built and worked hard for, and technology is helping us to do that on a day to day basis.

Tsunamis are a reality and we need to be prepared for them

Despite all the advances in our technology, we have not yet found ourselves able to avert the most fatal of natural disasters. The fact remains that our planet is far larger than we can possibly control and despite being considerably safer than several million years ago in the early days of the Earth’s life, it still has the capacity to be volatile and terrifying.

Some of the  most devastating tsunamis in recent history have taken place in the last 60 years, with catastrophic loss of life and billions needed in humanitarian aid and reconstruction. The effects will last a lifetime for many areas as they try to recover and rebuild.

It is impossible to forget the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011. The consequences were absolutely devastating.

Striking Japan on the 11th March the earthquake reached an eye watering 9.0 magnitude, and generated a 33 feet high wall of water travelling as far as 6 miles inland. Some reports even record waves as high as 133 feet, with a 97-foot wave smashing into the city of Ofunato.

Around 25,000 people were killed or reported missing, and 125,000 buildings damaged or destroyed. But more worryingly the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant was also struck causing a nuclear meltdown. The disaster is recorded at the highest level of International Nuclear Event Scale. The impact of this event is still being fully understood, and radiation from the plant has been detected as much as 200 miles away, with many areas remaining uninhabitable and will be for many years to come.

The loss of human life can be staggering due to a tsunami that hits with no warning. Take for example the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 in the Indian Ocean. An unbelievable death toll of 230,000 was recorded across 14 countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The earthquake under the ocean was recorded at 9.3 magnitude, generating waves up to 93 feet high. Some waves hit land within 15 minutes, but some took as much as 7 hours.

Even those with time to evacuate were hard hit, mostly due to the complete lack of a tsunami warning system which meant very densely populated coastal areas being taken by surprise.

Early warnings save lives

By comparison, although damage to buildings and general destruction was widespread, the 2009 Samoa earthquake and tsunami saw a considerable lower death toll.

With an earthquake of 8.1 magnitude and waves reaching 45 feet high, that travelled up to a mile inland there were 189 casualties recorded. The loss of life would have been far higher if it wasn’t for the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre which gave people time to evacuate and reach higher ground.

There are several ways in which a tsunami can be detected. From recognition of symptoms, an earthquake can be quite hard to miss, to technological warnings from tsunami detection and forecasting. These are based on a combination of data collected by environmental sensors and using that data for tsunami modelling.

For example monitoring seismic activity and the magnitude of an earthquake can give an excellent warning of tsunami potential. However, it cannot be taken in isolation.  For larger earthquakes it is easier to underestimate the size of the quake, and therefore miscalculate the tsunami potential.

Rapid sea level monitoring will give the best warning

When managing the data collected, those carrying out the analysis have a hard decision. Declare a tsunami imminent, and risk a costly unnecessary evacuation, or make the decision to issue the warning to the public so that emergency plans can be activated.

They also need to be able to indicate clearly from the modelling how large the waves will be and when they will strike. Importantly they need to know when the danger will be over so that people can return safely to the evacuated areas.

The issue is that  tsunami detection and forecasting requires near-real-time observations from both coastal sea level instruments and open-ocean sensors. Fundamental gaps in coverage still exist, especially in open-water. This puts at risk the ability to give warning, and the ability to learn more about the behaviour of tsunamis after the fact which will further refine the accuracy of the modelling in the future. More coverage is needed, and the durability of the equipment a key factor.

New technology paramount for the detection of tsunamis

The installation of new tsunami buoys is without doubt the next step for addressing the coverage issue, and these buoys need to be smart with built in Tsunami Early Detection and Warning System. It needs to be able to detect an event and send that information to be centrally analysed.

Pressure sensors deployed in a water depth up to 7,000 meters can detect height variations on the water surface, and in order to resist the effect of the harsh elements and environments must be of the highest quality. It is now possible to obtain floats manufactured with a closed-cell polyethylene foam sheet that prevents water absorption.

In  terms of positioning and communication, all can be managed through GPS, and redundancy in place for communications via satellite, with a reaction time of less than one minute and powered by a double solar power system. These buoys are so durable they can provide much better confidence that there will be no failure of service in remote locations.

They are able to transmit a NOAA Tsunami Warning System compatible message and monitor the sea level column changes to within 1mm. This kind of monitoring will be paramount for buying enough time for evacuation and prevent the loss of life seen previously.

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