Celebrating water cooperation on World Water Day

It’s a big week for the environment, with yesterday’s International Day of Forests followed today by World Water Day.

World Water Day is celebrated on 22 March each year, to focus attention of challenges facing freshwater, and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. The day was first celebrated in 1993, making this year the 21st anniversary of World Water Day.

In 2013 the day is dedicated to the theme of cooperation around water.

Water - a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.(© All Rights Reserved)
Water – a precious, yet increasingly scarce resource.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The importance of sustainable freshwater management, and cooperation around water supply and availability quickly becomes apparent when we look at some of the current facts and medium term future predictions. Currently, worldwide, 783 million people do not have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. Given the anticipated growth in the world population, food demand is expected to grow by 50% by 2030, while the demand for renewable energy from sources such as hydropower may rise by up to 60%. All these growths, together with an anticipated decrease in water availability in many regions, will lead to ever-increasing competition for water between the different water-consuming sectors such as the energy sector and the agricultural sector. Changes in diet (for example a shift from a starch-based diet to more meat and dairy) places further pressures on water availability, as producing these foodstuffs typically require more water.

The only way to possibly address the above situation is through multinational water cooperation. Many of the largest freshwater basins around the world are shared by more than one country, making sound cooperation critical. Food production and consumption (which can be equated to ‘virtual water’) is also shared across borders, again requiring responsible management and cooperation practices.

Water cooperation includes the sharing and exchange of scientific knowledge, management strategies and best practices, which are all fundamental to achieve sustainable development and protect the environment.

This is not just an issue that needs to be addressed at national, governmental level. Sound water management and cooperation is required at all levels, and as stated on the World Water Day website, “A general engagement, both individual and collective, is required for disseminating knowledge and the awareness of the value of water cooperation at local, national and international scales.”

John Macarthur and the birth of the Australian wool industry (not just another Aussie sheep joke!)

Today we celebrate the birthday of John Macarthur (3 Sep 1767 – 11 Apr 1834) the English-born Aussie who is recognised as the pioneer of the wool industry that boomed in Australia in the early 19th century, and has since been one of the country’s agricultural trademarks.

Sheep – serious business Down Under.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Macarthur was born in Plymouth, Devon in the UK. He began his career in the army, and after various assignments and activities became part of the New South Wales corps in 1789 and was posted to faraway Sydney, Australia. A fiery character, his life story reads like a historical romance novel, with way too many saucy details (battles with authorities, involvement in a military coup, land battles and much more) to get into on this forum.

Suffice to say, after settling in Australia, Macarthur got involved in rearing sheep for mutton, purchasing his first flock in 1795. He also purchased a small flock of Spanish Merino, imported from the Cape Colony (part of the later South Africa) in 1797. The merino is an excellent wool breed, and it didn’t take long for Macarthur to recognise the economic potential of wool production for export, as opposed to simply rearing sheep for the local meat-market. What made wool a potential export hit was the fact that it was a non-perishable commodity (a necessary feature, given Australia’s distance from the markets of the UK and Europe) and offered a high value per unit of weight.

On a trip back to London he lobbied for more land, and succeeded in being granted 5000 acres of the best pasture land in New South Wales. He became the largest sheep rearer in the colony, and made a fortune exporting merino wool to the UK, who were at the time cut off from their traditional wool supplier, Spain, as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. He also gained recognition for producing wool of the finest quality, which further upped the prices at which he was able to sell his produce.

Macarthur’s ventures opened the door for others to follow, and Australia’s wool export market started to boom in the early 19th century. It remains a key export commodity, with Australia remaining the world’s largest producer of the wool, mainly from merino sheep. New Zealand is in second place, and China in third. The wool produced in Australia and New Zealand is considered to be of the finest international quality – the best Aussie and Kiwi merino wool is known as grade 1PP, and is the industry benchmark of excellence for merino wool.

Natural wool is one of nature’s super-products. It is technically superior to synthetic materials in various ways – it has better heat insulation and superior hydryphilic properties, it is naturally flame-retardant, resistant to static electricity, and hypoallergenic.  Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology have developed a material blending wool and kevlar (the material often used in body armour) and it was found that the blend was lighter and cheaper, and outperformed kevlar in damp conditions.

What’s more, wool is also environmentally preferable to materials like nylon or polypropylene. According to the latest research on the role of wool in the natural  carbon cycle, it has been suggested that under the correct circumstances, wool production can potentially be carbon neutral.

So while the Aussies and Kiwis may suffer endless jokes relating to their sheep, the product being produced is something very special.  And John Macarthur deserves a tip of the hat as the bloke who kicked it all off more than 200 years ago.

Celebrating the invention of Barbed Wire

On this day in 1867, American Lucien B Smith from Kent, Ohio, filed a patent that fundamentally impacted on cattle farming in the US and internationally.

Before barbed wire, cattle fencing was made of single wire strands which didn’t deter livestock and was easily broken. Other alternatives were wooden fencing which was costly, or rock/stone walls that were very labour intensive for large areas.

Barbed wire – elegant, simple, effective.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Smith’s patent for barbed wire, or what he referred to as an artificial thorn hedge, simply consisted of wire with short metal spikes (barbs) twisted onto the wire by hand at regular intervals. This resulted in four projecting nail-like points radiating from the wire at each point, 2-3 feet apart.

While Smith’s patent showed great potential for restraining cattle, it did not solve the breakage problems – this was cleverly addressed through subsequent improvements, first by Michael Kelly and later Joseph Glidden, who twisted two wires together to form a barbed cable, resulting in a stronger wire which still had the deterring quality of Smith’s original concept.

Glidden’s 1874 patent turned out to be the most effective, most commercially viable design, consisting of a method for locking the barbs in place and a design for the machinery to mass produce barbed wire.

Beyond its obvious agricultural application, barbed wire became widely used during wars, for security purposes, and for prisoner confinement. As such, barbed wire has become a symbol for confinement and restriction, rather than being the empowering tool it was initially meant to be in its agricultural context.