The Bitter Cup of Fossil Water
While most countries are experiencing water abundance, many countries, particularly those in Africa and parts of Middle East, are under water stress. No wonder, the latter relies heavily on imported potable water. Worse, the scarcity urges populace in these countries to explore and exploit a valuable resource deep down in the ground – the fossil water.
Water is stored underground in a layer known as aquifer. When the aquifer can be regularly replenished with water through the hydrologic cycle, it is called as renewable aquifer. However, water can also rest in what is termed as “fossil aquifer” for thousands or even millions of years. Here, water becomes trapped within, being sealed off by changes in geology and preventing the aquifer from being refilled from rain or precipitation. This water is called as “fossil water” or “paleowater”. The extraction of fossil water or any water from aquifers with low recharge is known as “water mining”.
Fossil water reserves are found in Sahara (North Africa), the Kalahari (Southern Africa), the Great Artesian Basin (Australia), and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System (NE Africa) which is among the largest and most notable.
Experts say that fossil water is becoming as valuable as fossil fuel in the world’s driest places. Like oil, no one knows how much reserve there is, but experts do know that when it is gone, it is truly gone.
Unfortunately, paleowater is the only option in some countries. For instance, Libya is habitable because of its fossil aquifers discovered under the Sahara during the 1950’s oil exploration. Some of them are 75,000 years old. Since the Great Man-Made River Project in the 1980s, engineering infrastructures are being built that can move 230 million cubic feet of water every day from those water reserves.
In North African countries, groundwater aquifers are becoming increasingly brackish and nearing depletion. This is because population mostly resides on the coast and that the region receives very little rain.
Likewise, Yemen depends on fossil water derived from the Sana’a Basin. Accordingly, the reserve is down to its last few years of extractable water.
Withdrawal of fossil water has many crucial consequences. Firstly, the activity can reduce underground pressures which have many geological implications. Secondly, fossil water increases the total amount of water in the hydrosphere resulting to changes in climate in many parts of the world. The increased water vapor in the air encourages formation of more clouds which are primary absorbers of infrared radiation in the earth’s atmosphere. Moreover, fossil water may pose conflicts in many countries since its reserves cross several borders.
Hence, it would not be surprising that wars in the future will not be over religious differences or political stands or oil, but over a simple yet scarce resource – water.