As the World Burns
And then, there's that question which has been nagging at me ever since this story first caught my attention in early October as it headed out of the regional press and slowly made its way toward the top of the nightly TV news and the front pages of national newspapers; it's the question I've been waiting patiently for some environmental reporter(s) somewhere in the mainstream media to address; the question that seems to me so obvious I find it hard to believe everyone isn't thinking about it; the one you would automatically want to have answered--or at least gnawed on by thoughtful, expert reporters and knowledgeable pundits. Every day for the last month or more I've waited, as each piece on Atlanta ends at more or less the same point--with the dire possibility that the city's water will soon be gone--as though hitting a brick wall.
Not that there hasn't been some fine reportage--on the extremity of the situation, the overbuilding and overpopulating of the metropolitan region, the utter heedlessness that went with it, and the resource wars that have since engulfed it. Still, I've Googled around, read scores of pieces on the subject, and they all--even the one whose first paragraph asked, "What if Atlanta's faucets really do go dry?"--seem to end just where my question begins. It's as if, in each piece, the reporter had reached the edge of some precipice down which no one cares to look, lest we all go over.
Based on the record of the last seven years, we can take it for granted that the Bush Administration hasn't the slightest desire to glance down; that no one in FEMA who matters has given the situation the thought it deserves; and that, on this subject, as on so many others, top Administration officials are just hoping to make it to January 2009 without too many more scar marks. But, if not the federal government, shouldn't somebody be asking? Shouldn't somebody check out what's actually down there?
So let me ask it this way: And then?
And then what exactly can we expect? If the Southeastern drought is already off the charts in Georgia, then, whether it's 80 days or 800 days, isn't there a possibility that Atlanta may one day in the not-so-distant future be without water? And what then? Okay, they're trucking water into waterless Orme, Tennessee, but the town's mayor, Tony Reames, put the matter well, worrying about Atlanta. "We can survive. We're 145 people but you've got 4.5 million there. What are they going to do?"
What indeed? Has water ever been trucked in to so many people before? And what about industry including, in the case of Atlanta, Coca-Cola, which is, after all, a business based on water? What about restaurants that need to wash their plates or doctors in hospitals who need to wash their hands?
Let's face it, with water, you're down to the basics. And if, as some say, we've passed the point not of "peak oil," but of "peak water" (and cheap water) on significant parts of the planet... well, what then? I mean, I'm hardly an expert on this, but what exactly are we talking about here? Someday in the reasonably near future could Atlanta, or Phoenix, which in winter 2005-2006, went 143 days without a bit of rain, or Las Vegas become a Katrina minus the storm? Are we talking here about a new trail of tears? What exactly would happen to the poor of Atlanta? To Atlanta itself?
Certainly, you've seen the articles about what global warming might do in the future to fragile or low-lying areas of the world. Such pieces usually mention the possibility of enormous migrations of the poor and desperate. But we don't usually think about that in the "homeland."
Maybe we should.
Or maybe, for all I know, if the drought continues, parts of the region will burn to a frizzle first, à la parts of Southern California, before they can even experience the complete loss of water? Will we have hundred-year fire records in the South, without a Santa Ana wind in sight? And what then?