New York IMC Articles, June 3, 2002
It's the essence of life as we know it. And it's everywhere. But, increasingly for much of humanity, there's hardly a drop to drink.
"The water crisis is definitely getting worse," warns Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. "The basic issue is the fact that water is renewable but finite; any place where population grows, you'll have a diminished supply per person."
Less than one percent of the earth's water is accessible freshwater, contained in aquifers, rivers, swamps and atmospheric vapor. According to one estimate, all the world's freshwater would fill a cube less than 100 miles on a side. As the human population has exploded, so has the demand for water. We already scoop up over half the available run-off. It's estimated 1.2 billion people currently lack access to clean water and twice that many lack basic sanitation.
Waterborne diseases such as dysentery and cholera claim over 5 million lives a year, mainly children. Yet in the U.S., where relatively few lack drinking water, over $5 billion a year is spent on bottled water.
The causes of water shortage are myriad. Aquifers are being sucked dry from central China to North Africa to the heart of the American grain belt in the plains states. Much of it goes to the 17 percent of irrigated cropland that produces 40 percent of the world's food supply. And the poisons dumped on our crops leech into local watersheds, further reducing the supply or demanding costly clean-ups.
Deforestation greatly reduces the ability of earth to hold water; the resulting soil erosion in turn chokes rivers, killing much of the aquatic life and degrading its potability.
In many cases, water scarcity is a result of conquest and war. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is stoked by Israel's coveting of plentiful aquifers in the West Bank. Over 2 million Palestinians live there, but the 200,000 settlers - who live in suburban fortresses complete with swimming pools and green lawns - use 80 percent of the water.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Euphrates is at the center of conflicts between Turkey and Iraq and Syria, while in Africa, water shortages are sparking confrontations in the Niger, Nile, Volta and Zambezi basins.
Hundreds of millions of people are dependent on rivers, but many are already "tapped out in the dry season," says Postel. The Ganges, Indus, Colorado, Nile and Yellow Rivers are among the most affected.
In anticipation of growing conflict, water has been labeled the "oil of the 21st century" - a resource to be privatized, traded and hoarded. One of the most notorious privatization attempts was Bechtel's plan in Cochabamba, Bolivia. It was pushed on Bolivia by the International Monetary Fund, but ended in early 2000 when triple-digit price hikes sparked protests that forced the government to void the agreement.
North America is by no means immune to similar schemes. In one case, Sunbelt Water Inc. is suing the British Colombia government under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement for $10.5 billion in damages for "lost business opportunities." The California-based Sunbelt claims it was only trying to supply the drought-stricken Golden State with water, while the BC government countered that it just wants to protect its own freshwater supplies.
But it's human-induced climate change that will have the most severe impact on water usage. Global warming "will literally change the hydrology of every major river basin in the world, especially in Asia," says Postel. Snow in the mountains will be dramatically affected, she notes. Snowpacks, a natural reservoir of water, will not precipitate as snow in the first place but as rainfall, flooding lower regions, the waters of which will be largely unsanitary and unmanageable.
In New York, the complete absence of snowpack from the Catskills Mountains this year is intensifying the drought that has gripped the region. Already the city is in a Stage 1 drought alert and even above-normal rainfall this year won't overcome the deficit of a missing spring melt.
With rising temperatures, whatever mountain snowpack remains will melt earlier in the season, reducing runoff for the spring and summer months. Moisture evaporation in soil and aquifers would speed up, as would transpiration in plants. Many regions could be transformed into deserts or become semi-arid, and already existing deserts would be uninhabitable. The Western U.S., the Andes and the Alps regions are vulnerable to these climactic changes.
Rising sea levels caused by thermal expansion of water and disappearing landbound glaciers will push salt water inland, decreasing freshwater availability. In the U.S., Long Island, Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, Florida, the Carolinas and central coastal California would be especially vulnerable.
Misuse of water can also lead to a vicious cycle of declining supplies that alter local climates, thereby creating further water shortages. The Aral Sea in Asia, like Lake Chad in Africa, has shrunk dramatically in the last three decades.
The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest body of inland water. It has lost two-thirds of its original volume and 24 native fish species have disappeared. As the Aral Sea shrinks, summers are becoming shorter and hotter, while the winters are colder and longer, with little precipitation for the next harvest.
Lake Chad is one-twentieth the size it was 35 years ago. Bordered by Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon, the lake has been pumped excessively for irrigation and other use. In addition, the region is becoming increasingly drier, with serious decline in rainfall since the early 60s. Michael T. Coe of the University of Wisconsin is pessimistic: Lake Chad "will be a puddle. It will be completely managed. You'll get crops and drinking water out of it, but you'll have no ecosystem left to speak of."