Working to resolve current water shortages without looking at future conditions is like trying to fill a bathtub by only looking at the hot and cold faucets without looking at the drain.
That’s how Jeff Aldrich, senior geoscientist at Sproule, a global energy consulting and advisory firm, frames the problem.
The water situation throughout the world is alternately filled with hope, fear, complacency and urgency, he explained.
“The most difficult issue is that both society and government – thus, funding for science – tend to focus solely on the immediate, yet as geoscientists we understand that we live on a dynamic Earth,” he said.
Where there is water stress right now, there might be either more or less acute stress in the next five, 10 or 50 years, due to changes in both weather and climate conditions, he elaborated, so trying to solve one set of problems without a full understanding of all of them is as futile as trying to reduce the workings of a bathtub to just what comes out of the faucets.
“For example, the pact on the Colorado River was made during an unseasonable wet period and did not foresee any large increase in population in southern California, Arizona or Las Vegas. The Horn of Africa is in a decades-long drought that is shifting populations and crops, yet some long-term climate models predict that eventually the droughts will end and long periods of moisture will return, as they have in the past. Ethiopia has just constructed the world’s largest dam projects to store water, and generate power, which has greatly upset both Sudan and Egypt which fear the loss of water downstream,” he explained.
This all leads to the central question about water worldwide: are we in a crisis?
“Probably yes,” he said, “if we agree that over half of the world does not have access to safe, reliable water.”
But probably not, he quickly adds, if in comparison to our present predicament, one considers there are more people than ever that have access to safe, reliable water.
“Historically we are doing better than ever, but in the immediate there is an overwhelming need,” he said.
And since the glass is simultaneously half full, half empty, overflowing and non-existent, what to do next is a challenge – because the challenges keep changing, even inside one worldwide predicament.
“I think that most governments, and most government officials, will readily acknowledge that water is essential for life and that it is a fundamental responsibility for the government to provide access to dependable water resources,” he said.
Aldrich has held positions with Dart Energy, an Australian global unconventional gas company; Greenpark Energy, a UK CBM company; PetroSA, the South African national oil company; Forest Oil, Maxus Energy; and Pennzoil Oil and Gas Company. So, he’s had a lot of dealings with governments the world over.
He explained that, unfortunately, many governments lack mechanisms, let alone the resources to provide that access.
“Sometime even just the seemly simple task of cataloging and accounting for a nations water resource is not apparent,” he said.
On this point, there are some claims that by 2050, according to some estimates, two-thirds of the world’s population could face water shortages.
Aldrich knows it’s impossible for many to wrap their heads around that.
“Sometimes it seems difficult to sit in the first world and take this claim seriously, but when you drill down and realize that nearly half of the world’s population currently does not have access to clean, reliable water, then you realize that the claim may just have some merits,” he said.
There are, as a result, many competing, large-scale factors that will influence who gets the water, how much, and the tradeoffs that will have to be made.
“If the global atmosphere continues to warm (and I am not making an attribute to the cause here) almost all models agree that the atmosphere will gather additional moisture across the oceans and increase precipitation across the land masses,” said Aldrich.
On the other hand, with increasing energy usage (from whatever sources), there will be increased migration from rural to urban areas across Africa, India and Latin America, which in turn will put increasing stress on water resources in those metropolitan areas.
“With population shifts, and demographic declines in many countries, there may be transitory periods of stress and large migration settlements that often are without adequate water and sanitation,” said Aldrich.
How many will move, how quickly, and where these migrations will take place is the unknown.
“I don’t think anyone has a very good crystal ball and that is why we need data-driven scientists with the proper tools and techniques to address the issues as they arise,” he said.
The Water Resource Management System
To that end, Aldrich added, the professionals within the profession can help sort it out.
“I think petroleum geologists can take pride that the AAPG’s Division of Environmental Geosciences has worked hard, in conjunction with its sister societies the Society of Petroleum Engineers and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists, to take the lead in developing the Water Resource Management System as a mechanism for anyone or any company or government to use to evaluate the water resources on a volumetric basis and importantly use that information, as needed, to develop a commercial evaluation of those water resources,” he said.
WRMS is the process of planning, developing and managing water resources, in terms of both water quantity and quality, across all water uses in given areas.
“The WRMS has the methodology to allow a company to commercialize value,” said Aldrich.
These values pertain to brine, mine wastewater, or water from a CBM well, or lithium extraction.
He said the more geologists immerse themselves in the issue, the more effect the industry will have.
“What petroleum geologists can do now is to become as familiar with the WRMS as they should be with the PRMS (Petroleum) and the SRMS (storage for CO2) and use these documents as professional guidelines,” he said.
As for the shifting priorities and understanding, Aldrich said it is important to keep a few key considerations in mind.
“I think most of us – governments and society – are coming to the realization that there is truly no free lunch. Water is precious but it takes energy to make sure that we have access to clean and reliable water resources. You can’t have water without energy and increasingly for the hydrogen and EV economy, you can’t have energy without water. My mantra has been for some time, as a geologist, ‘Its all about the pore!’” he explained.
Pores, of course, being the microscopic spaces between particles of rock or sand and where oil and natural gas occur. Once those minerals are produced, the pores remain empty.
Aldrich will participate in the “Global Water Crisis” session at this year’s International Meeting for Applied Geoscience and Energy in a presentation on the Water Resources Management System.
Tackling the water emergency – actually it’s more than one and takes many forms – cannot be accomplished by any one entity. Some, he said, have already been mitigated.
There is much more to be done.
“This will take cooperation from all parties, government, industry, individuals and society at large. I hope that progress can be made in the future. AAPG and SEG and our geoscientists will be playing a key role,” he said.