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How the world is running
out of fresh water
Water has been an important symbol in the legends and histories of many ancient cultures. Unlike people living in the urban, industrialized nations of the 21st century, most humans throughout history knew that their water resources could run out, and they developed a healthy respect for conserving whatever water they found. In biblical times, when Isaac returned to the land where his father Abraham had lived, the old wells he opened up were so important to life that they became a subject of dispute with other tribespeople. Later, Jacob's well was so highly prized and carefully protected that it was in use during the days of Jesus many centuries later.
Other societies, like the traditional Inuit and the early Mesopotamians, placed equal importance on the water that sustained the lives of their people. The Inuit depended largely on water-dwelling seals, fish, and walrus for their food, and their deity was a goddess of water, Nuliajuk. She ruled her realm with ferocious justice, and all of her power came from water. Nuliajuk gave the Inuit food from the sea and ice to build houses. When she withheld her gifts, no one could live. In the strikingly different world of the early Mesopotamians, water was treasured for different reasons. Before this group moved to the fertile valleys of northern Iraq, they lived in the dry plains of the south. They did manage to harness water for their farms, but it was very scarce. That is why their water-god, Enki, became one of tdeities in their pantheon.
Thousands of miles away, in China, the dangers of drought became a theme of one myth, in which a Great Archer shot down nine out of ten suns, to prevent the earth from drying out. Chinese tradition also held that water and other elements of the earth exist in a balance that should not be disturbed. If there was a disruption in the normal cycles of Nature, Chinese governors were called upon to alleviate the problem. They were expected to help make up for the harm done to crops by reducing taxes or by distributing grain from the country's storehouses. Today, the normal cycles of Nature are being disrupted by climate change and the abuse of almost every water system on earth. However, unlike governments that followed the Chinese tradition described above, our governments are abdicating their responsibility to protect and conserve water, and they are handing its management over to the private sector.
Corporate control of the world's water resources and distribution systems is a threat to the well-being of humans around the world because water is fundamental to life. All living ecosystems are sustained by water and the hydrological cycle. Ancient peoples, and those living closer to the forces of Nature in today's world, knew that to destroy water was to destroy self. Only modern "advanced" cultures, driven by acquisition and convinced of their supremacy over Nature, have failed to revere water. The consequences are evident in every corner of the globe: parched deserts and cities, destroyed wetlands, contaminated waterways, and dying children and animals.
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Nature and like the water-goddess of the Inuit, it will not tolerate this abuse forever. The signs are all present. If we do not soon change our relationship to water and the ecosystems that sustain it, all our wealth and knowledge will be meaningless. We are as dependent on fresh water for life as our ancient ancestors were. But many do not seem to be aware that this precious resource is disappearing. The clock is ticking, but they do not know it.
We'd like to believe there's an infinite supply of fresh water on the planet, and many of us have used water as if it would never run out. But the assumption is tragically false. Available fresh water amounts to less than one-half of one percent of all the water on earth. The rest is sea water, frozen in the polar ice, or water stored in the ground that is inaccessible to us. The hard news is this: humanity is depleting, diverting, and polluting the planet's fresh water resources so quickly and relentlessly that every species on earth — including our own — is in mortal danger. The earth's water supply is finite. Not only is there the same amount of water on the planet as there was at its creation; it is almost all the same water. Only a small amount may enter our atmosphere in the form of "snow comets" from the outer parts of the solar system. But even if the snow comet theory is correct, the speculated amount of water involved is so modest, it would do nothing to alleviate the shortage crisis.
The total amount of water on earth is approximately 1.4 billion cubic kilometers (about 330 million cubic miles). Canadian naturalist E.C. Pielou helps us visualize this statistic: if all the water on earth were solidified into a cube, each edge of the cube would be about 1,120 kilometers (about 695 miles) long, approximately twice the length of Lake Superior. The amount of fresh water on earth, however, is approximately 36 million cubic kilometers (about 8.6 million cubic miles), a mere 2.6 percent of the total. Of this, only 11 million cubic kilometers (about 2.6 million cubic miles), or 0.77 percent, counts as part of the water cycle in that it circulates comparatively quickly. However, fresh water is renewable only by rainfall. So in the end, humans can rely only on the 34,000 cubic kilometers (about 8,000 cubic miles) of rain that annually form the "runoff" that goes back to the oceans via rivers and groundwater. This is the only water considered "available" for human consumption because it can be harvested without depleting finite water sources.
Rain forms a crucial part of the hydrological cycle, the process through which water circulates from the atmosphere to the earth and back, from a height of 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) above the ground to a depth of 5 kilometers (3 miles) beneath it. Water that evaporates from the oceans and water systems of the continents goes into the atmosphere, creating a protective envelope around the planet. It turns into saturated water steams, which create clouds, and when those clouds cool, rain is formed. Raindrops fall on the earth's surface and soak into the ground, where they become groundwater. This underground water, in turn, comes back to the earth's surface in the form of sourcepoints for streams and rivers. Surface water and ocean water then evaporate into the atmosphere, starting the cycle anew.
Most of the earth's fresh water, however, is stored underground, just below the surface or deeper down. This is called groundwater, and it is 60 times greater in volume than the water that lies on the earth's surface. There are many types of groundwater, but the most important type for humans is "meteoric water" — moving groundwater that circulates as part of the water cycle, feeding above-ground rivers and lakes. Underground water reservoirs, which are known as aquifers, are relatively stable because they are secured in bodies of rock. Many of them are closed systems — that is, they are not fed by meteoric water at all. Wells and boreholes drilled into aquifers are fairly secure sources of water because they tap into these large reservoirs, but to be useful over time, an aquifer must be replenished with new water at approximately the same rate as the rate of extraction. However, around the world, people are extracting groundwater at rapid rates to supplement declining supplies of surface water.
All of the above-noted water sources are being taxed to their limit for multiple reasons. First, the world's population is exploding. Ten years from now, India will have an extra 250 million people and Pakistan's population will almost double, to 210 million. In five of the world's "hot spots" of water dispute — the Aral Sea region, the Ganges, the Jordan, the Nile, and the Tigris-Euphrates — the populations of the nations within each basin are projected to climb by between 45 and 75 percent by 2025. By that year, China will see a population increase greater than the entire population of the United States, and the world will house an additional 2.6 billion people — a 57 percent increase over today's level of 6.1 billion. To feed this many human beings, says the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural production will have to increase by 50 percent. In such a scenario, demand for fresh water will obviously explode. As Allerd Stikker of the Amsterdam-based Ecological Management Foundation explains, "The issue today, put simply, is that while the only renewable source of freshwater is continental rainfall ... [a finite amount of water], the world population keeps increasing by roughly 85 million per year. Therefore the availability of freshwater per head is decreasing rapidly."
Furthermore, increasing numbers of people are moving to cities, where dense populations place terrible strains on limited water supplies and make delivery of sanitation services next to impossible. For the first time in history, as many people now live in cities as in rural communities. There are 22 cities in the world with populations of over 10 million inhabitants. By 2030, says the UN, the world's cities will have grown 160 percent, and twice as many people will live in cities as in the countryside.
Second, as a result of many factors, per capita water consumption is exploding. Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. Technology and sanitation systems, particularly those in the wealthy industrialized nations, have allowed people to use far more water than they need. The average Canadian household now consumes 500,000 liters of water every year (about 130,000 US gallons); each toilet — and many homes have more than one — uses 18 liters of water per flush (about five US gallons). And enormous amounts of water are lost through leakage in municipal infrastructure in countries all over the world. Yet even with the explosion in personal water use, households and municipalities account for only 10 percent of water use.
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Industry claims the next big chunk of the world's fresh water supplies, at 20 to 25 percent, and its demands are dramatically increasing. Industrial use of water is predicted to double by 2025 if current growth trends persist. Massive industrialization is throwing off the balance between humans and Nature on many continents, especially in rural Latin America and Asia, where export-oriented agribusiness is claiming more and more of the water once used by small farmers for food self-sufficiency. Latin America and other Third World regions also host more than eight hundred free trade zones, where assembly lines produce goods for the global consumer elite, and these operations are another major drain on local water supplies.
Many of the world's growing industries are water intensive. It takes 400,000 liters (105,000 US gallons) of water to make one car. Computer manufacturers use massive quantities of de-ionized fresh water to produce their goods and are constantly searching for new sources. In the United States alone, the industry will soon be using over 1,500 billion liters (396 billion US gallons) of water and producing over 300 billion liters (79 billion US gallons) of wastewater each year. Originally thought to be a "clean" industry, high-te staggering pollution legacy in its short history. Silicon Valley has more Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) toxic Superfund sites than any other area in the U.S. and more than 150 groundwater contamination sites, many related to high-tech manufacturing. Close to 30 percent of the groundwater beneath and around Phoenix, Arizona, has been contaminated, well over half by the high-tech sector.
Irrigation for crop production claims the remaining 65 to 70 percent of all water used by humans. While some of this water use is for small farms, particularly in the Third World, increasing amounts are being used for industrial farming, which notoriously overuses and wastes water. These corporate farming practices are subsidized by the governments of industrialized countries and their taxpayers, and this creates a strong disincentive for farm operations to move to conservation practices such as drip irrigation. Much of the water usage that comes under this 65 percent heading should really be considered industrial, since modern factory farms have very little resemblance to community farms in any part of the world.
In addition to population growth and increasing per capita water consumption, massive pollution of the world's surface water systems has placed a great strain on remaining supplies of clean fresh water. Global deforestation, destruction of wetlands, the dumping of pesticides and fertilizers into waterways, and global warming are all taking a terrible toll on the earth's fragile water systems. (See Chapter 2.) Another source of pollution is the damming and diversion of water systems, which have been linked to unsafe concentrations of mercury and water-borne diseases. And many such projects are being constructed throughout the world. The number of large dams worldwide has climbed from just over five thousand in 1950 to forty thousand today, and the number of waterways altered for navigation has grown from fewer than nine thousand in 1900 to almost five hundred thousand. In the northern hemisphere, we have harnessed and tamed three-quarters of the flow from the world's major rivers to power our cities.
At the same time, overexploitation of the planet's major river systems is threatening another finite source of water. "The Nile in Egypt, the Ganges in South Asia, the Yellow River in China, and the Colorado River in America are among the major rivers that are so dammed, diverted, or overtapped that little or no fresh water reaches its final destination for significant stretches of time," warns Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts.
In fact, the Colorado is so oversubscribed on its journey through seven U.S. states that there is virtually nothing left to go out to sea. The flows of the Rio Grande and upper Colorado rivers are in danger of being reduced by as much as 75 percent and 40 percent, respectively, over the next century, and in 2001, for the first time in recorded history, the Rio Grande ceased to flow into the Gulf of Mexico.
Water levels of the Great Lakes have also hit record lows in recent years. In 2001, the water was more than a meter below its seasonal average in the Port of Montreal, and Lakes Michigan and Huron were down by 57 centimeters (about 22 inches). Water flows in the St. Lawrence River are greatly affected by the water tables of the Great Lakes, and the environmental watchdog group Great Lakes United is warning that one day, the St. Lawrence may no longer reach the Atlantic Ocean.
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A powerful new study by hydrological engineer Michal Kravcík and his team of scientists at the Slovakian NGO People and Water shows in minute detail just how profoundly humanity's activities are affecting its sources of fresh water. Kravcík, who has a distinguished career with the Slovak Academy of Sciences, has studied the effect of urbanization, industrial agriculture, deforestation, paving, infrastructure building, and dam construction on water systems in Slovakia and its surrounding countries. He has come up with an alarming finding. Destroying water's natural habitat not only creates a supply crisis for people and animals, it also dramatically diminishes the actual amount of fresh water available on the planet.
Kravcík describes the hydrological cycle of a drop of water. It must first evaporate from a plant, earth surface, swamp, river, lake, or the sea, then fall back down to earth as precipitation. If the drop of water falls back onto a forest, lake, blade of grass, meadow, or field, it can cooperate with Nature and return to the hydrological cycle because it can be easily absorbed into soil or forest. But if it falls onto pavement and buildings in urban areas, it is not absorbed into the soil and instead it heads out to sea. This means that less water exists in the ground and rivers and less evaporates from land. Therefore a landlocked country will receive less rain because the wat there (absorbed into the soil or rivers or lakes) has fled out to the ocean.
Excerpted from Blue Gold by Maude Barlow - Tony Clarke. Copyright © 2002 by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|3||Dying of Thirst||51|
|4||Everything for Sale||79|
|5||Global Water Lords||101|
|6||Emergent Water Cartel||129|
|III||The Way Forward|
|10||The Way Forward||229|