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Water and people

16 of August '22

A column from the06|2022 issue of A&B

I went to the cinema to see a film by Australian director Jennifer Peedom called "River". As part of the Millennium Docs Against Gravity festival. With the voice of charismatic actor Willem Dafoe and music performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in the background. "River" is a one and a half hour story about the role rivers play in the history and biology of our planet and what they mean for the future of human civilization. Long aerial shots and air raid of dozens of brooks and streams, rivulets and creeks, rivulets, rivers and rivers, deltas and estuaries to the seas and oceans. From drops to hectoliters of water, then its evaporation, the formation of clouds and the return of water in the form of rain or dew.

Dafoe calmly tells us how rivers have always been important to us. They created the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, and to that of Europe, China and India. Farms and megafarms sprang up near them, but also great accumulations of fortune in the form of cities living from trade. Through them flowed culture, money and conflict. Like rivers they were gods or living creatures to us humans, to whose whims we had to adapt, suffering from their callings and droughts.

And then came the 20th century and the progress that made gods out of us. Thanks to engineering, science and organizational skills that harnessed millions of hands and machines. We created huge dams and reinforced concrete flumes to tame the rivers and make even better use of what they give us. As a result, rivers became resources. Dafoe's analogous stories could be told about anything that fell into our hands. About the whole "Earth we made subject to ourselves," no matter what holy books, priors and spreadsheets showed us the way to justify cutting down forests, draining swamps, turning steppes into endless agricultural landscapes, and mining any place where something important to us was stuck in the ground.

Not only did we get smarter, we got more numerous. Much more numerous: in 1900 there were one billion six hundred million of us, today there are almost eight billion of us, in a word, in 122 years we have become more than four times as numerous. Water consumption is expected to double by 2030, as another... billion of us will arrive. So, if I understood correctly, the basic message of the film is that if we continue to treat the rivers like this, and with them all sources of water, we're going to die of thirst, because there will be less and less water, and more and more of us. We will be like those animal skeletons whittling away in the desert, except that our skeletons will be sitting behind laptops in the ruins of sand-covered metropolises.

Maybe we should be glad that there won't necessarily be more of us in Poland, where more than one organization, from churches to anti-abortion extremists and the creators of the 500+ program to rational scientists, is trying to stop the aging and depopulation of the country. But low fertility is not our only problem. If CSO data is to be believed, this depopulation, or depopulation, is already at 3.2 percent per year. In a word, 3.2 citizens a year are being depopulated from smaller urban centers, villages and towns in favor of the largest cities and other EU countries. Prayers and financial incentives do not help. Poles, for some reason, do not want to multiply, not counting the poorest, the richest and some of our brothers and sisters who multiply for religious or worldview reasons (like the writer of these words).

What can change this, if the incantations of bishops, fundamentalists, Law and Justice politicians and some academics don't do the trick?
Maybe just living in a truly democratic country, where the government and the church do not look into the beds of citizens, claiming that their uteruses are part of the national good subordinated to the only possible religion. But if, by chance, a Polish woman becomes pregnant and wishes to raise the born child herself, or gives birth to a child with a disability, then for some mysterious reason the government and the church cease to care about her and her offspring. Are they inferior? In truth, women after the birth of any children are hardly interested in the government, dumping the "service" of children, mothers and fathers on local governments. The government's attention is bestowed on children only when they start attending elementary schools, where they can be persuaded to take religion classes (for the time being they are optional, of course, hence my use of the term "persuade") or forced to HiT Minister Chernk. Not only do most mature Polish women in such a situation choose Netflix, contraception, sports and the shameless joy of masturbation. Men are doing it too, increasingly willing to also "hook up" their spermatic cords, which could, after all, help conceive future citizens and save the pension system that is wilting in their eyes. We, the adult payers of the new quasi-ZUS, the government lavishes sincere attention on us every month for this, making the desire to "shoot" another child even less likely.

At the same time, Poland is twenty-fourth in Europe in terms of drinking water resources per capita, more than three times lower than the European average. This is due to climate change, reliance on surface water instead of deep water (at a ratio of 80 percent to 20), poorly designed or poorly used land reclamation, and the destruction of natural drainage basins in the form of wetlands, marshes and quagmires. It is worth recalling that 45 percent of Polish agricultural land is threatened by drought every year. In 2021, the Polish Hydrobiological Society and the Polish Limnological Society issued an appeal to the government and business to take immediate steps to ensure the stabilization of Polish water policy. In an interview with Rzeczpospolita, Dr. Piotr Rudzki, secretary of the Polish Limnological Society, said: "Water resources are critical to the survival of humanity. If we do not take decisive action to protect them, climate change will lead to destabilization, which none of us would like to witness." Well, maybe I missed something, but I don't think much has happened on this issue in the past year.

Until 2022, our population was slowly declining until here we suddenly "got as a bonus", almost overnight, an extra 3 million residents in the form of Ukrainian women with children fleeing the war, whom, by the way, Kaja Godek immediately took an interest in, distributing anti-abortion leaflets to whomever she could. Especially to victims of rape by Russian soldiers. That's a side thread, however, because the essence of this paragraph is that we should celebrate, because suddenly, ladies and gentlemen, we've crossed the somewhat magical threshold of 40 million inhabitants! If we take as good coin the assumption that as a society we should be growing, or at least sustaining at a particular level of the number of economically active citizens, this is good news. Following this line, we should do our best to keep maximum refugee women and their children by offering good conditions for living, working and paying social tributes.

Meanwhile, in China (population 1.402 billion), the number of people has been growing at an incredible rate since the beginning of the 20th century, so much so that today one in five Earthlings is Chinese. Recently, however, perhaps due to a pandemic, a decline in births has been noticed, the first in more than three decades. As Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, notes, this could be a trend that reduces the fertility rate permanently below the required minimum of 2.1 (the so-called fertility rate, or literally fertility rate), to 1.15 or lower. As a reminder, in Poland this rate is 1.42, below the European average (1.50-1.53). Still, the Chinese live in cities, of which those of two million people, i.e. the scale of the Warsaw agglomeration, are considered local towns. Even hapless Wuhan, located in the increasingly arid north of the country, is four times larger than Warsaw in terms of population. The PRC government, like the Polish government, is trying to persuade citizens to be more fertile. Lately, apparently, with increasingly poor results. At the same time, China's water crisis is worsening, resulting not only from rapid urban growth and a decline in the quality of drinking water sources and inefficient industrial use, but also from climate change affecting surface water sources in the form of rivers and glaciers, especially the glacier on Tibet's Qinghai Plateau once a stable source of water for Mother China's Yellow River. As Wall Street Journal reporter Te-Ping Chen put it, Napoleon's famous phrase: "Let China sleep, for if it wakes up, it will shake the world," should read: "Let China sleep, because if it wakes up, it will be very thirsty."

China has been making efforts for years to stabilize a water economy capable of coping with an unprecedented expansion of industry and large-scale agriculture serving the world and a growing population. As early as 2005, former Premier Wen Jiabao warned that poor water management could be a threat to China's future as a nation. It was then that the government decided to accelerate major investments in water management and its connection to energy. A number of mastodon projects have been built in the Middle Kingdom, most notably the Three Gorges Dam, whose construction began in 1993 and was finally filled seventeen years later, and the Baihetan power plant on the border of Sichuan and Yunnan. On top of that, within the next five years (yes, they still have five years there) a dam is to be built on the Brahmaputra River, which will be a water reservoir and at the same time a hydroelectric power plant giving the country twice as much electricity as the amount consumed annually in Poland.

And this is where the problem arises. As hydrobiologists have hinted, and the film "River" points out, creating "clean energy" based on the gravity of falling water masses has several fatal downsides. Let's leave aside unnatural, man-made changes in hydrological systems and political consequences, because after all, rivers often flow through several countries. The basic fault is preventing the movement of masses of micronutrients that, in the form of sediment, for example, from the loess plateau in China's North, end up carried by the waters, including the Yellow River, into local water systems along its course. It is to these that China owed its fertile land. Meanwhile, the dam's reservoir is at the same time becoming a space for sedimentation and what is important for agriculture, that is, not the water itself, does not reach agriculture, sinking to the bottom of the giant reservoir. This was noticed some time ago, creating new types of hydroelectric power plants in mountainous conditions that do not hold great masses of water in dark reservoirs, deprived almost completely of biological life by masses of immobile land. The last scenes of "River," moreover, show the process of dismantling a dam in an unknown location, from which water previously trapped in a large mountain quasi-reservoir is released. We see tons of black slush of river-borne mineral sediment finally flowing down, as it should, to go, I guess, to the plants living along the river and probably to our human agriculture.

Do we have a chance to find some harmonious solution that reconciles the needs of swelling humanity and its appetites with the need to save the Earth, including its human inhabitants? Can we find a path that will not be an engineering murder performed on the planet and ourselves? Frankly: I don't think so. Humanism stands in the way, because every human life is at a premium, both according to the religious and philosophical systems on which we have built our societies - from such a Poland to China and the world's second most populous country India (1.38 billion inhabitants).

At the same time, as societies and politicians, we do not think in terms of interconnected vessels. Instead, economists, environmentalists, climate scientists and strategists do. Imagine trying to convince a Polish politician to change the optics with the following words: "Since so many people live in such India or China, instead of burning through money on efforts to persuade or force Polish women and men to increase childbearing, we should let these Indians and Chinese into our country en masse." Or by another logic that is increasingly appealing to me: "Instead of trying to make Poland a dystopia straight out of Margaret Atwood's "A Cautionary Tale," let's let in some Indians and Chinese (or other people from other overpopulated places) and make a really well-functioning democratic state here, where people will want to have children." Do you know a Polish politician who will risk agreeing to radically change the rules of the pension system or create a consistent and far-reaching immigration program? Do you know a Polish politician who will say: "Hey, we're part of the great human family, so let's change the paradigm and abandon national logic, because it's a relic!" or "Instead of blabbing that we're going to make a Central Transportation Port, let's build a national system of underground rainwater reservoirs, because water will soon be fragile!". I don't know.

Jakub Szczęsny

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