14 Water - 14 Water A Case Study of Natural Constraints I...

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14 Water: A Case Study of Natural Constraints I know of nine-year-old farm lads in jail for murder over water disputes. Syed ayub qutub 1993 1 The earth is the sole planet in the solar system where water is abundant in liquid form. Though ice, steam and the liquid form of water are all abundant on the Earth, only the liquid supports active life. Brian J. Skinner, a geologist at Yale University, claimed that "More than any other factor, availability of water determines the ultimate population capacity of a geographic province." 2 To prove that claim would require varying the availability of water and every other factor in a system model that has never been constructed. By selecting water for a case study, as I do in this chapter, I do not assert water's primacy. I do assert that water is important, among other important natural constraints. 3 Water illustrates the questions that must be answered to determine how any natural resource constrains the human population, as well as the difficulty of answering these questions. 1. How much water is available? 2. What is the minimum requirement for subsistence? 3. How many people can the available water support, now and in the future? 4. How does water interact with other resources that potentially constrain human population? 5. How does water limit human population size? 6. How could radical developments affect water supplies? The best short answers to these questions show that much remains to be learned about natural constraints, and that natural constraints cannot be viewed other than through the lens of human purposes. -297- 1. The amounts of each kind of water vary from place to place and from time to time, and are not known with much precision. The availability of water depends heavily on human choices. 2. The minimum requirement for subsistence depends on how you define subsistence. 3. I answer one question with two questions: How much water do people want to use, and how much are they willing to pay for it? 4. Water interacts strongly with other resources, human and natural. 5. Water can limit a human population in extreme circumstances. When time and means permit people to adapt to water constraints, other factors can constrain population size before water does. 6. Cheap energy, nonconventional agriculture and interventions in the hydrologic cycle could make a huge difference; incremental improvements seem more likely. In dry regions, water is a major constraint on the distribution of nonhuman and aboriginal human primates. For example, in the semi-arid savanna of East Africa, baboons congregate where groundwater comes to the surface; there water permits plants to flourish and animals to drink. 4 In Australia, among aborigines that depended strictly on local rainfall to provide water for
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drinking and plant growth (thus excluding tribes dependent on coastal marine resources or rivers), the area occupied by a tribe increased roughly 16 percent for each 10 percent decrease in the mean annual rainfall.
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