Our Water is Running Out
Boston Globe - January 6, 2002
By Jeffrey Rothfeder
For those of us who can turn on the faucet confident that there will
be steady stream of clean water for bathing, drinking, cooking,
washing dishes, the thought that the world could go dry seems
incomprehensible. But the reality we face is sobering: water --
nature's most essential element -- is becoming dangerously scarce. A
freshwater crisis has already begun that threatens to leave much of
the world dry in the next 20 years, without enough water for a
minimum of life.
Nearly 2.2 billion people in more than 62 countries, one-third of the
world's population, are starved for water. The worst conditions are
in places like Haiti, Gambia, and Cambodia, where residents subsist
on an average of fewer than six liters per day.
Imagine having fewer than three large bottles of Poland Spring as
your entire daily water ration. And while richer countries like the
United States have been able to cover up water shortages with
engineering sleights of hand, this strategy is backfiring: southeast
Florida, Southern California, and Atlanta are all likely to be dry
within 20 years if their growth patterns and mismanagement of water
aren't sharply altered.
Water scarcity is reaching crisis proportions now because of skewed
supply and demand. But it was man's ill-conceived attempt to control
water almost solely for commercial means rather than protect it --
repeated over and over since the first dams were built on the Tigris
and Euphrates rivers thousands of years ago -- that led to the
problem's urgency today.
Global population has tripled in the past 70 years while water use
has grown sixfold due to industrial development, widespread
irrigation, and lack of conservation. If, as expected, the number of
people on earth increases by more than a third, to more than 8
billion, by 2025, 40 percent more water will be needed.
And while the supply of freshwater is theoretically always the same,
in reality it's diminishing. The natural course of rivers, streams,
and lakes has been compromised by centuries of damming, diversion,
sprawl, and industrial pollution.
As a result the usable water in aquifers, where most of the
freshwater we use is stored, is no longer replaced as quickly as
people need it. The High Plains Ogallala aquifer, which runs 1,300
miles from Texas to South Dakota, is drawn down eight times faster
than nature refills it.
In Israel, extraction has surpassed replacement by 2.5 billion meters
in the last 25 years. And in Africa, the aquifers barely recharge at
all. On top of that, governments in rich and poor regions alike have
allowed water infrastructures to deteriorate where they even existed
at all, viewing repairs as a nuisance expense, not a necessity.
The social, political, and economic toll of water scarcity is
enormous. There are 250 million new cases of water related diseases
annually, chiefly cholera and dysentery, and 10 million deaths.
Without enough usable water, people die young and work forces are
depleted; children aren't well enough to attend school; crop
irrigation founders, leading to increased malnutrition; and people
spend so much time collecting what small amounts of water they can
find that it's impossible to be productive in other ways.
Wealthy nations pay the price for this, because potential new trading
markets fail to develop and weak economies have to be artificially
bolstered. What's more, vital regions are destabilized as contending
countries -- Malaysia and Singapore; Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan;
Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Syria -- dispute who
controls limited water resources. It's no wonder that Ismail
Serageldin, the former World Bank vice president, said, "The next
world war will be over water."
It's not too late to mend the problem. To start with, we must
consider true market pricing of water in wealthier regions -- which
means that people in water-poor, rich deserts like Los Angeles should
pay the full tab for water imported from the Colorado River or
Northern California. This will encourage conservation and the
development of alternate water supply technologies such as
desalination of ocean water or bulk water transfers around the world
by barge, which are too expensive currently because government
subsidies keep the cost of water artificially low.
In addition, a portion of the water fees from affluent consumers
should be earmarked for a multinational fund that supports water
supply projects in poor nations. Moreover, lending agencies like the
World Bank must begin to focus on local infrastructure development
rather than harmful dams and diversion projects.
These solutions may be difficult to accomplish, because we tend to
view water as a local issue when, in fact, it is a shared resource
that requires global cooperation to manage appropriately. How we
respond to today's water crisis will determine whether we actually
know how to survive or only know how to misuse a resource on which
Jeffrey Rothfeder's most recent book is "Every Drop for Sale: Our
Desperate Battle Over Water in a World About to Run Out."
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