Achieving Water Security Instead of Water Scarcity

The August issue of Scientific American offers a very good article on the impending freshwater crisis facing the globe.  As the report notes:

“…policymakers worldwide wield great power over how water resources are managed. Wise use of such power will become increasingly important as the years go by because the world’s demand for freshwater is currently overtaking its ready supply in many places, and this situation shows no sign of abating. That the problem is well-known makes it no less disturbing: today one out of six people, more than a billion, suffer inadequate access to safe freshwater. By 2025, according to data released by the United Nations, the freshwater resources of more than half the countries across the globe will undergo either stress—for example, when people increasingly demand more water than is available or safe for use—or outright shortages. By midcentury as much as three quarters of the earth’s population could face scarcities of freshwater.

Scientists expect water scarcity to become more common in large part because the world’s population is rising and many people are getting richer (thus expanding demand) and because global climate change is exacerbating aridity and reducing supply in many regions. What is more, many water sources are threatened by faulty waste disposal, releases of industrial pollutants, fertilizer runoff and coastal influxes of saltwater into aquifers as groundwater is depleted. Because lack of access to water can lead to starvation, disease, political instability and even armed conflict, failure to take action can have broad and grave consequences.

Fortunately, to a great extent, the technologies and policy tools required to conserve existing freshwater and to secure more of it are known; I will discuss several that seem particularly effective. What is needed now is action. Governments and authorities at every level have to formulate and execute concrete plans for implementing the political, economic and technological measures that can ensure water security now and in the coming decades.

…Providing adequate water is especially challenging in drier, underdeveloped and developing nations with large populations, because demand in those areas is high and supply is low. Rivers such as the Nile, the Jordan, the Yangtze and the Ganges are not only overtaxed, they also now regularly peter out for long periods during the year. And the levels of the underground aquifers below New Delhi, Beijing and many other burgeoning urban areas are falling.

Shortages of freshwater are meanwhile growing more common in developed countries as well. Severe droughts in the U.S., for instance, have recently left many cities and towns in the northern part of Georgia and large swaths of the Southwest scrambling for water. Emblematic of the problem are the man-made lakes Mead and Powell, both of which are fed by the overstressed Colorado River. Every year the lakes record their ongoing decline with successive, chalky high-water marks left on their tall canyon walls like so many bathtub rings.

Given the difficulties of sensibly apportioning the water supply within a single nation, imagine the complexities of doing so for international river basins such as that of the Jordan River, which borders on Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the Palestinian areas and Jordan, all of which have claims to the shared, but limited, supply in an extremely parched region. The struggle for freshwater has contributed to civil and military disputes in the area. Only continuing negotiations and compromise have kept this tense situation under control.…Not surprisingly, staving off future water shortages means spending money—a lot of it. Analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton have estimated that to provide water needed for all uses through 2030, the world will need to invest as much as $1 trillion a year on applying existing technologies for conserving water, maintaining and replacing infrastructure, and constructing sanitation systems.

There is, however, at least one cause for optimism: the most populous countries with the largest water infrastructure needs—India and China—are precisely those that are experiencing rapid economic growth. The part of the globe that is most likely to continue suffering from inadequate water access—Africa and its one billion inhabitants—spends the least on water infrastructure and cannot afford to spend much; it is crucial, therefore, that wealthier nations provide more funds to assist the effort.The international community can reduce the chances of a global water crisis if it puts its collective mind to the challenge. We do not have to invent new technologies; we must simply accelerate the adoption of existing techniques to conserve and enhance the water supply. Solving the water problem will not be easy, but we can succeed if we start right away and stick to it. Otherwise, much of the world will go thirsty.”

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