Photo by: World Bank Photo Collection
“You don’t know the worth of water, until the well runs dry” ~Ben Franklin
Last week I wrote a post about Human Population Growth and how continued exponential growth is not possible on our finite planet. Of all human needs, number one has to be access to fresh drinking water. We can live without oil and electricity, but water is an absolutely essential human need. Having lived most of my life on the dryest inhabited continent, Australia, the issue of water is near and dear to me.
It’s an issue which garners some media attention but I don’t think the impact of the current situation has fully registered. 1.1 billion people (about one-sixth of the world’s population) lack access to safe drinking water. Aquifers under Beijing, Delhi, Bangkok, and dozens of other rapidly growing urban areas are drying up. The rivers Ganges, Jordan, Nile, and Yangtze — all dwindle to a trickle for much of the year. In the former Soviet Union, the Aral Sea has shrunk to a quarter of its former size, leaving behind a salt-crusted waste.
Water has been a serious issue in the developing world for a long time, but the scarcity of freshwater is no longer a problem restricted to poor countries. Shortages are reaching crisis proportions in even the most highly developed regions, and they’re quickly becoming commonplace in our own backyard. Crops are collapsing, groundwater is disappearing, rivers are failing to reach the sea. To judge from recent media attention, the finite supply of freshwater on Earth has been nearly tapped dry, leading to a natural resource calamity.
Water is Essential to Life
Water is central to survival—without it, plant and animal life would be impossible. Water is a central component of Earth’s ecosystems, providing important controls on the weather and climate. Water is likewise central to economic well-being. We rely on it for agricultural irrigation, forestry, waste processing and hydroelectricity to name only a few. The potential consequences of future climate change (whether natural or anthropogenic), when coupled with population growth and economic development, means that water resources will be of increasing interest and importance for the foreseeable future.
Water is Finite
The same amount of water exists now as when the Earth was formed. It evaporates, coalesces in clouds, falls as rain, seeps into the earth, and emerges in springs to feed rivers and lakes. Approximately 97 percent of it is in the oceans, where it’s useless unless the salt can be removed — a process that consumes enormous quantities of energy.
Therefore, only about 3 percent of the world’s water is fit for drinking, irrigation, husbandry, and other human uses. This water can’t always be found where people need it, and it’s heavy and expensive to transport. Like oil, water is not equitably distributed or respectful of political boundaries; about 50 percent of the world’s freshwater lies in a half-dozen lucky countries.
Freshwater is the ultimate renewable resource, but humanity is extracting and polluting it faster than it can be replenished. Rampant economic growth (more homes, more businesses, more water-intensive products and processes, a rising standard of living) has simply outstripped the ready supply, especially in historically dry regions. Compounding the problem, the water cycle is growing less predictable as climate change alters established temperature patterns around the globe.
Water Usage is Increasing
Regional water scarcity is a significant and growing problem. If per capita consumption of water resources continues to rise at its current rate, humans could be using over 90% of all available freshwater by the year 2025, leaving just 10% for all other living organisms. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity and two out of three people in the world could be living under conditions of water stress.
While water usage continues to increase, water resources continue to be depleted due to increasing pollution. On this basis alone, all water resource estimates may be optimistic. The major sources of intensive pollution of waterways and water bodies are found in the forms of contaminated industrial and municipal wastewater as well as water runoff originating from irrigated areas. This problem can be no more acute than it is in the industrially developed and densely populated regions where relatively little wastewater purification processes take place.
“It should be obvious from simple arithmetic that population growth is on a direct collision course with increasingly scarce resources.” – Jeremy Grantham
Freshwater shortages could have calamitous consequences for affected regions, worldwide commodity prices, the economic future of nations with water shortages and possible war. The impact of water scarcity can be far-reaching. It can lead to food shortages, famine, and starvation. Many nations, regions and states have mismanaged their water resources, and they will suffer the long-term consequences.
“There is more water allocated to each user from the Colorado River than there is water to allocate. As long as some people are willing to sell their water, this isn’t an immediate problem. Chevron’s water rights for its DeBeque, Colo., shale oil project are leased, not sold, to the city of Las Vegas for drinking water. How will Las Vegas replace that in the future when Chevron won’t extend the lease? Many areas are using ground water that will be used up entirely in just a few decades.” ~ Mike Shedlock
Climate Change gets plenty of headlines but unfortunately the future water crisis has stayed well under the radar. As with most looming resource limitations, little if any future thought has been given to the issue of water scarcity. The last few decades have seen debt-financed good times and relatively low prices for all natural resources and commodities. The end of this period of low prices is nigh.
“We must prepare ourselves for waves of higher resource prices and periods of shortages unlike anything we have faced outside of wartime conditions. In fact, I believe we are already several years into this painful transition but are still mostly invested in denying it.” ~ Jeremy Grantham, investment banker
Water Crises = Food Crises
A looming future crisis of food shortages and skyrocketing commodity prices is inevitable. Peak water will play a significant role in the crisis. Here what’s happening:
- Droughts are occurring in key farming belt areas.
- Less snow pack in the mountains is resulting in less freshwater flows during the growing season.
- Contamination of freshwater sources by industrial waste in increasing.
- Soil erosion and depletion of underground aquifers in accelerating.
- Expansion of bio-fuels as an energy source, means that more land and water is dedicated to the growing of these crops.
- Worldwide population is growing and developing countries are expanding the diets of their middle class.
- Water is unable to be transported economically.
War over resources has happened before and it could happen again. The devastating combination of peak oil and peak water will combine to create a commodity crisis that could cause conflict as countries contend for declining resources.
There can be little argument that exponential population growth coupled with an increasing demand for fresh water is resulting in increasing pressures on this valuable resource. In recent times, it has become more clear that human prosperity and prospects for survival vary with the amount and distribution of fresh, unpolluted water. Each year there are millions more humans, but no more water than before. This is going to be one of the biggest issues of our generation.
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