Water Hogs on the Ski Slopes
Snow Cannons Drink Up As Attention Is Turned To Globe's Rising
DAVOS, Switzerland -- The chief executives of Coca-Cola Co., Nestlé
SA and others will warn the World Economic Forum in Davos this week
that the world is running out of water, threatening conflict, higher
prices and lost production.
Some will likely then strap on skis to take advantage of the Swiss
resort's glistening slopes. But the pistes of the Alps are also contributing
to the world's water woes.
Europe's ski resorts have been racing to install snow-making machines
to bed the slopes with artificial snow as snowfall becomes less reliable
and resorts compete with one another to offer guaranteed good skiing.
That is great for skiers and businesses that rely on them, but not
so great for local water supplies.
Should Davos-man feel guilty about going skiing? "Well, yes," said
Christian Rixen, a Davos-based biologist who cowrote the report. He
added that skiers should add to the area's development by coming in
Swiss ski resorts, which tend to be at higher elevations and have
reliable snow cover, still have relatively few snow cannons, covering
around 19% of all slopes. That compares with 50% coverage in Austria
and 100% in some Italian ski areas. Across the Alps, snow-making machines
now suck up nearly as much water as Vienna, a city of 1.7 million
people, says Josef Essl, in charge of land-use planning and nature
conservation at the Innsbruck-based Austrian Alpine Association.
In dry years, some Alpine villages have to get their water from fire
trucks because mountain reservoirs are dry, says Mr. Essl. Though
a growing problem for the Alps, snow cannons are a localized and minor
issue in the bigger picture of water shortage, experts say.
Davos organizers say this is the first year they have managed to get
member companies interested in battling future water shortages, because
they have recognized the problem as a potential threat to prices,
production and economic growth, as well as a cause of human suffering.
Coca-Cola, Nestlé, PepsiCo Inc., British brewer SABMiller PLC and
Dow Chemical Co. are among corporations that signed up to an appeal
planned for release at this year's forum aimed at driving up water
Based on current usage patterns, about 30 countries will be short
of water by 2025, according to the Sri Lanka-based International Water
Management Institute, a nonprofit supported by 60 governments. That
is mainly because most irrigation for agriculture is inefficient,
while demand for meat, wheat and other high-protein foods that require
a lot of water is growing rapidly as people in China and India become
wealthier and more urban.
But the battle against climate change is sucking up water, too, creating
what analysts in the field call an accelerator effect. Take biofuels,
produced to cut use of fossil fuels such as gasoline that spew the
carbon dioxide that causes global warming. Biofuels are mostly made
from crops that have to be grown, which puts pressure on land and
food prices, as well as on water resources. It takes on average 1,000
liters (260 gallons) of water to make one liter of ethanol-based biofuel,
according to the IWMI. For gasoline, it takes 2.5 liters.
The same goes for some of the alternatives to coal-fired power plants
that produce less carbon dioxide. Hydroelectric power requires large
quantities of water. So do the cooling systems in nuclear-power plants.
Clean-coal technologies, too, use more water than regular coal. Overall,
industry accounts for around 23% of global fresh water use, compared
with around 70% for agriculture and 7% for residential use. Demand
is rising in all three areas.
"Some people call water the oil of the 21st century. Whether you like
that description or not, one thing is clear, availability of water
will be a key driver in the development of the world's economy and
government policies in the next decade," said Andrew N. Liveris, chairman
and chief executive of Dow Chemical, in a statement.
The Alps face a problem as snow coverage falls. Last year was so warm
that organizers at the World Cup downhill races at Wengen, Switzerland,
added fertilizer to the snow to slow its melting. This year, the snow
in the Alps is good -- but the snow cannons still pump out artificial
snow at much the same rate, padding the slopes just in case there
is a thaw.
Snow cannons take water, supercool it and spray it out over the ski
runs. You need to build pipes up the mountainsides to bring water
to cement storage tanks, and pipes to take it to the snow cannons.
Scientists predict that lower resorts will have to be abandoned by
2030 anyhow, as rising temperatures lift the snowline and make it
harder for snow machines to operate. The skiers will leave, but not
the pipes and cement.
Some resorts use water laced with Pseudomonas syringae, a bacteria
produced as Snowmax by Denver-based York Snow Inc. Snowmax enables
water to crystallize into snow at higher temperatures, by acting as
an agent for the crystals to form around.
For towns such as Davos that rely on tourism for 40% of their annual
income, snow cannons are attractive. According to Mr. Rixen's report,
artificial snow can secure an estimated 10% of the local community's
income in winters that provide low snow coverage. From a near standing
start in 1990, snow cannons are spreading across the Alps "and there's
no end in sight," says Mr. Rixen. Davos is unlikely to have to abandon
ski runs or suffer water shortage -- unlike Scuol, another Swiss resort
the study looked at, says Mr. Rixen. The ski slopes at Davos are relatively
high and the town has a large reservoir nearby from which to pump
the extra water needed.
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