For as long as humanity has engaged in agriculture, people have diverted water and transported it often extremely far distances to support agriculture, even in areas that had little water available locally. Irrigation has allowed for agriculture in many areas of land that could support agriculture but lacked a sufficient water supply and allowed for the transformation of deserts and other arid regions that had no previous ability to support agriculture. However there have many negative consequences that have come about from industrialized agriculture, the most common of which involves the excessive diversion of water from lakes and rivers which has led many large rivers and freshwater lakes to run dry. The ability to divert water on a massive scale is made worse by unnecessary water demands made by growing water intensive crops in areas with arid climates, many of the crops grown in arid regions are species or cultivars that may not be appropriate for arid regions, and the use of agricultural monocultures leads to an inefficient use of water. (Robbins et al, pp 283-296)
A Brief History of Irrigation and Aqueducts
Many ancient civilizations that relied on agriculture such as Egypt and Mesopotamia built aqueducts, dams and canals to support agriculture during dry times of the year when there was little water available from rivers. The irrigation of steep hillsides was carried out by numerous civilizations around the world by terracing hillsides and then flooding the terraced land to support a wide variety of crops. Indigenous groups in the America’s also built canals to support agriculture in arid areas. (Easy Irrigation) People living in the Rio Grande de Nazca basin in what is now Peru dug systems of trenches, wells and tunnels in the ground called puquios as a way to collect groundwater as the river basin had much lower volumes of surface flow compared to other river basins in the region, and the paltry amount of surface water was insufficient to support the basin’s population, and these challenges were exacerbated during times of drought. This method of diverting groundwater differed from the more traditional diversions from surface rivers and lakes, but the puquios were necessary in the Nazca basin as the Nazca river was known to have areas where the river disappeared underground due to the basin’s deep alluvium and geological faulting, and the river would then remerge into its bed further downstream. (Rickenbach, 89-96) Puquios consisted of a horizontal tunnel that could be hundreds of meters in length, into which water would collect, there would be openings in the roofs of these gunnels from which water could be collected. Further downstream puquios would become open trenches lined with stones which would eventually lead to reservoirs that acted as distribution points for most of the water’s users. Communities in this region of Peru still use and maintain all portions of the puquios with some more modern improvements made to them. (Rickenbach, 89-96) Irrigation allowed an ancient civilization to thrive in an area that would have otherwise been too arid, and these changes to the landscape are still in use and support many people to this day.
Framework 1: Risks and Hazards: The Aral Sea
Prior to the 1960’s, the Aral Sea, was the 4th largest saline lake in the world, and straddled the border between Sovet controlled Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The only inflows to this closed basin lake were the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers to the north and south respectively, contributing to about 80% of its inflow. The remaining 20% came from precipitation into the sea itself, the area surrounding the sea had a very arid climate. Beginning in the 1960’s the soviet government began a series of irrigation projects that would divert nearly of the water from these rivers into irrigation canals. This effectively doomed the sea to shrink and become inhospitable to most life. By the 1990’s the salinity of the sea increased tenfold, (Columbia.edu) and had lost about 40% of its surface area and 60% of its total volume, going from one large lake to several smaller disconnected lakes which occupy the deeper portions of the original basin, and the remnants of the sea have only gotten smaller since them. (Boomer et al) As the sea shrunk and became shallower the rate of evaporation increased, and local humidity decreased which created a feedback loop that accelerated the loss of water. (Columbia.edu) The increased salinity and shrinkage of the lake devastated the sea’s fishing industry due to high salinity levels that made the sea inhospitable to most fish, and also the loss of water caused the coastline to retreat which stranded most of the sea’s fishing fleet and made the lake to shallow for these boats to operate. These changes led to the complete loss of the lake’s fishing industry. (Columbia.edu) The shrinkage of the lake has led to widespread desertification of the surrounding areas, because the local climate has warmed by about 8°C since 1960 and precipitation has been greatly reduced (Small, et al). The loss of surface area has also led to an increase in dust storms caused by the former lakebed being exposed to high winds, and much of this dust has been comprised of salt, which when combined with desertification has caused soil salination around the former lake, impeding the agriculture that had originally led to the area’s current situation. The agricultural projects that led to the loss of most of the sea were intended to support the growing of a wide variety of crops but two of the most commonly grown crops in the Aral Sea’s basin were cotton and rice. The growing of these crops continued beyond the end of Soviet Union and Uzbekistan remains the world second largest exporter of cotton despite the country’s generally arid climate, (Columia.edu) however the loss of the Sea and its formerly abundant fisheries have come at the cost of widespread poverty in the communities located on the sea’s former shoreline. (Chen) Recently Kazakhstan has attempted to restore the portion of the Aral Sea in its territory by reducing the amount of water diverted from the Syr Darya river and building a dam which separated the lake’s northern basin from the rest of the former sea. The dam, which was built in 2005, has increased the northern basin’s depth by 10 feet and reduced salinity in this portion of the lake, and by 2016 the lake became hospitable enough for fish that commercial fishing, once the areas main economic driver had become viable again. The Kazach government also encouraged polices that would reduce agricultural water usage by promoting drip irrigation, reducing the amount of water lost during conveyance through irrigation canals, and increasing the efficiency of water dispersal on farmland. (Bekchanov et al)However, the dam project has held back water that once entered the scattered lakes of the Aral Sea’s southern basin which has only exacerbated the desertification of that region. Additionally, the Uzbek government has decided to continue to grow cotton on a large scale by diverting water from the sea and has not adopted any policies that would reduce water usage from these farms. (Chen) These differences in policy have led to unequal outcomes between the two countries with Kazakhstan beginning to once again benefit from the economic and ecological benefits that the sea once offered them while Uzbekistan has continued to abide by Soviet-era policies which has accelerated the loss of the sea and increased desertification in the region. The decision by Kazakhstan to build a dam separating the basins has benefited their people but has made the situation for the people and ecosystems of the southern basin somewhat worse. The growing of water intensive crops in an area with limited natural precipitation was only possible due to large-scale irrigation projects. Advances in technology that allow for the growing of water intensive crops in dry climates on an industrial scale have led to short-term economic benefits for some portion of the population, (Robbins et al, pp 283-296) but comes at the expense of ecological degradation that impoverishes other groups, destroys previously stable ecosystems and eventually curtails the initial economic benefits that came about from it.
Framework 2: Environmental Justice: A History of Owens Valley
A similar crisis to the loss of the Aral Sea is occurring in California but on a smaller scale. Located in the Owens valley, Owens lake was an endorheic lake that received water from the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada but has lost nearly al of its volume over the past century. The Owens valley was a 75-mile-long closed basin located just east of the Sierra Nevada, in the range’s rain shadow. Most of the lake’s inflow came from the Owens River, which was fed by snowmelt from the Sierra, as the valley itself had comparatively little precipitation. (Creason) They valley, previously occupied by the Paiute tribe was home to a small number of farmers and ranchers during the late 19th and early 20th century. At this time the City of Los Angeles was rapidly outgrowing the local water sources they were using at the time and needed to bring in water from outside the area. In the first decade of the 20th century, city officials began to quietly purchase land and water rights from existing landholders, eventually controlling 25% of the valley floor and gained water rights to nearly all of the Owens river’s flow. (Sahagun) Construction soon began after and by 1913, an aqueduct ran from the valley to the growing city of Los Angeles. Although the federal government had plans to build an irrigation system to serve the farmers and ranchers at the time, this effort was blocked by Los Angeles and the people living in the valley had lost most of their water rights that they had previously had. (Creason) This loss of water access devastated the local economy, and even led to sections of the aqueduct being dynamited by valley farmers in 1924. The loss of surface and groundwater also contributed to massive die offs of trees and shrubs and the bed of the now dry Owens lake was now exposed to the valley’s strong winds which made the area prone to large dust storms. (Creason) These dust storms have been so severe that the lakebed had become the largest source of fine particulate particle pollution in the United States, causing health problems for people living throughout the southwestern US including Los Angeles, (Gillette et al) and further interfered with agriculture in the area (Sahagun) These issues caused and are still causing serous problems for the people living in Owens valley, and the only beneficiaries of the project is the population of southern California. This abuse of what had been a commonly held resource for the people of Owens Valley has led to many legal battles against LA’s city government which have recently resulted in concessions and settlements by the city. Starting in 1997, the LA department of water and power agreed to reduce their diversions from the Owens River so parts of the lake would reflood reducing dust pollution. In addition to this, in 2017, Inyo county, where Owens lake is located started to use eminent domain to acquire land in the valley that was owned by the LADWP as a means to regain local control of some of the valley’s water rights, as the amount of water that LA had allotted to towns and residents in the valley had never been enough to meet their needs (Sahagun) This long lasting dispute between the city of Los Angeles and the residents and officials in Inyo county is an example of the loss of a once commonly held resource. Los Angeles has a far larger population than Owens valley and a far greater need for water. However, the people living in Owens valley lack the capital and resources to import water to meet their own needs while Los Angeles does have the means to import water from elsewhere, therefore Owens valley is more negatively affected by a lack of water than Los Angeles. The fact that people living in Owens Valley lost control of their own water source and gained no tangible benefit from this exchange, while people living far away benefited greatly is an example of environmental injustice, and the acquisition of land and water rights by local authorities from Los Angeles is a good way to achieve some environmental justice.
The collecting of water to be transported elsewhere can be a huge benefit to people by allowing sufficient food to be grown to meet the public’s need. However, it needs to be done in a way that does not harm an areas ecology. Water diversion should be used to grow crops that are appropriate for the climate they are being grown it, and it should be done in a way to ensure equitable access for the people living in the area that the water is being diverted from. The ecological consequences for the area from which water is being diverted should not be ignored in the name of economic productivity, as these benefits may not actually last long or be worth the cost.
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