The Water Crisis: A Quest to Conserve Our Planet's Most Precious Resource
2010, Vol. 2 No. 11 | pg. 1/1
IN THIS ARTICLE
1: Overview of the Human Footprint
We are at war. Yes, I said it. We are at war. We are at war, with ourselves, against ourselves, and by that, I mean we are damaging the very planet that we subsist on. Where will we be without this planet? We are destroying ourselves, bit by bit, hour by hour, minute by minute. Critics say that I am exaggerating, well I invite them to come with me on an eye-opening global journey to witness for themselves what we are doing to our precious planet Earth, and to discover with me ways that we can protect it.
What are our threats? Where do we stand at our current pace of waste and misuse of our precious resources? What are ways in which we can sustain our planet? Although I will focus on the global water crisis, you will soon see how all of the current threats against our planet are intimately intertwined. We’ve heard the old saying, “keeping your head above water,” which could mean just doing the minimum or barely surviving, but what if there is no water, literally, to keep your head above. Join me, form your own opinion, and keep an open mind. Our chances are dwindling if we are to sustain this planet for ourselves and future generations. I am not fearful, but hopeful that we may still have time to make an impact on lessening the threats against this planet by spreading the word, changing behaviors, and acting swiftly to interrupt the damage that has already been done, and to halt further destruction to this valued planet that we inhabit.In the introduction of State of the Planet the authors convey that their reason for publishing was that as they approached the republishing of The Tragedy of the Commons, first published in 1968, they realized that they must first bring their readers up-to-date on the current state of our planet. The author sums up Garrett Hardin’s the Tragedy of the Commons, saying, “the rate of human population increase was leading to an overuse of various resources that could not be sustained” (Kennedy 2). The authors felt that it was their responsibility to state their assessment of the global situation, which prompted them to publish this compilation of articles.
Every main resource on earth is linked together. According to State of the Planet, “every resource on this planet is subject in some way to the condition of its environment” (2). Our water is linked to the forests, ecosystems, climate, and ultimately to human behavior. Our wasteful habits have a tremendous impact on the environment and the atmosphere.
The water crisis has affected millions globally. Rural villages and underdeveloped nations are especially susceptible to these shortages since they do not have the systems in place to guard them from disease, and often there is not enough water to supply populated areas. Many areas are contaminated with waste due to bathing, washing clothes, and since there are no toilets, they become havens for waste. Animals also contribute to this factor. Disease is a major factor with the water contamination. This is referred to as “water-related deaths” (60), which includes deaths caused by consumption of unsanitary drinking water. Many of these rural villages do not have enough safe water. According to the article by Peter Gleick, “…more than one billion people worldwide lack access to safe drinking water...and adequate sanitation” (60).
The population has a great effect on water in a village. As a village or town builds more, the groundwater continues to slowly dwindle. This is demonstrated in Planet in Peril, “By 2020, 27 of the world’s 33 largest cities will be located in the South.” (Gresh 13). Recently, Atlanta, s Georgia has experienced a water shortage. There were areas where water was rationed. The problem arose because the water was on a border and not wholly owned and controlled by the State of Georgia. It became a greater crisis over the summer when there was an increased demand for water. Municipalities had to limit usage in certain areas so that the water would not be completely exhausted. Nevada has also experienced a crisis over the last year, which I will discuss in section 3. Government controls will need to be put in place to resolve some of these issues. Many of these cases will end up in the courts to figure out who actually owns the affected waterways and reservoirs.
Water is a major factor in global warming. Global warming increased the temperature of the earth which increases the volume of water and in turn the rising of sea-levels, which affects the climate. Although it would seem that the melting of Artic ice would contribute to rising sea levels, according to Planets in Peril, “…ice in itself does nothing to raise the level of the oceans, ice is already floating on the sea” (Gresh 8). The problem with melting ice caps is that they are widespread across the globe, which increases the overall rise in water levels. It is predicted that there will be “15 million climate refugees by 2050” (Gresh 11). Through humans’ existence and the detriment that we do to our planet, “human beings have already caused the six largest wave of biological extinction the Earth has ever known…on account of the destruction and pollution we habitually wreak” (11). Now that is profound. So even if there was no global warming, we have already done major damage to the planet. Global warming just tips us over even further. Not to mention, our population is continually growing and ravaging even more resources.
As our population grows and grows, it has an intense effect on our water supply. Underdeveloped countries are the hardest hit. This affects the water quality of those nations. It is stated that in developing countries, “…90% of waste water and 70% of industrial waste runs straight into the surface water without any form of treatment” (12). This is a direct hit to the people. There is nothing to filter the water, or any other place where they can go because they are limited by living in these areas. The UN estimates that in 20 years 1.8 billion people will be affected by constant water shortages and another five billion will live in places where they will be unable to satisfy their needs (12). Urbanization of populations affects how our water supply is affected when an area is overpopulated and there are not enough resources to support the population.
Much of the problem comes from urbanization and development of less populated areas. Planet in Peril depicts through a drawing, how a village becomes a town and eventually is turned into a big city. (13) The groundwater is affected due to digging into and disrupting precious underground aquifers. Waste water begins to contaminate and penetrate those water systems which are unable to be used.
Not only do we contaminate our water due to urbanization, we also waste a tremendous amount of it. The simple act of letting the water run while we are brushing our teeth lets precious water go wasted down the drain. Or letting the water run while washing dishes . There are so many little ways that we can change our daily habits to conserve more water. We can use our appliances more effectively by not running the dishwasher until it is full, washing clothes when you have a full load, and reusing water for watering plants that you would normally pour out without even thinking. Some of the things that we try to do may cancel each other out. For instance, if you buy disposable paper products to wash fewer dishes, which in turn will use less water, will you just be creating more trash? Or should you instead try and conserve water, and not use those paper plates to contribute to more waste, hmmm? Many municipalities do not recycle. Detroit does not have a curbside recycling program. The only way to recycle is to take your recyclable items to one of four areas across the city. Every one of us has a stake in saving this planet. Each day we must make a conscious effort to make little changes so that it becomes second nature.
While we waste water, developing countries barely have enough to survive. A great example of this is, “…the average person in Sydney, Australia, uses more than 1,000 liters of drinking water a day compared to 300 to 400 liters for an American, while some developing countries barely exceed a few liters a day.” (13) It is reported that only 55% of all water produced is actually used. (13) Think about that? More than half of our water is wasted, drained away, or evaporated. The agriculture industry is the main consumer of water. It accounts for 70% of all water produced, and it is projected that the agriculture industry’s usage will increase over the next 20 years. (13) Where will it come from? Global warming is affecting our weather. It is raining in places that don’t normally get rain and drought conditions where there should be rain; so just where it will come from? I will be researching further solutions such as the desalination of water in later sections.
The focus on the water problem must be taken seriously and will require technology, and financial resources to protect it. “We must improve the efficiency of our water usage through various ways: irrigation, drinking water production, water distribution, protection of reserves, and elimination of water pollution, which contributes to diseases” (13). Not only do we have the right to a plentiful water supply, but a clean supply as well. We must ensure that underdeveloped countries have the right to this same resource. Water is also being researched as a source of energy from the movement of the waves (15). Research in this area is in the early stages. The sea is abundant with another one of our resources, salt. It provides 80% of the world’s needs. Desalination removes salt from the water which then converts it to fresh water. (15)
Our water source is vulnerable to many contaminants. Even as we try to protect the planet in other ways by recycling computers, the process itself can contaminate the water due to mishandling of the parts as they are being dismantled. (25) In order to reduce our waste, we must consume less. Sounds like a no brainer, but to do this, we must change our behaviors. If it is true that the planet will be inhabited by nine billion people by 2050 (25), we all have to begin to make these changes. Lack of water greatly contributes to the global hunger crisis. If people are not able to grow food because they are in an area ravaged by drought, they will starve. Many areas experience the opposite, flooding. (28) The abundant population in China is having a global effect. They have experienced both flooding and droughts. “The key challenge for China is how it will direct future expansion; a decision that will affect the rest of the planet.” (13)
In the subsequent sections, I will focus on the following: section Two; the present status of our water crisis, section Three; the current trends of the water shortages, section Four; how can we sustain this planet by making changes to behavior as it relates to the water crisis, and section Five; an overview and summary of reflections on what I have learned, and how we can move to preserve this planet through the year 2050.
2: Present State of the Water Crisis: Where do we Stand?
According to an article in State of the Planet by Peter Glick, “The most serious unresolved water problem is the continued failure to meet the basic human need for water” (Kennedy 61). Olga Cossi states in her book, Water Wars, that, “Water-fresh clean water – has joined the list of endangered species” (Cossi 13). Globally, there just is not enough to go around. Now what does that mean? It means that half of us could run out of water in 30 years. As impossible as that seems, it is a probable reality. Let’s look at Asia for instance. It has 60% of the world’s population (Gresh 12), but only 30% of the water. This problem, if not bad enough, will only get worse as the population is projected to increase over the next 25 years. The UN is estimating that 1.8 billion people will be living in areas affected by water shortages (Gresh 12). By not addressing basic human needs, we run the risk of an increase in diseases related to unsanitary water, which is preventable. This is something that we can actually prevent that can save lives.
The water crisis is entangled in political roadblocks. Resolving these issues takes money, but aid to this crisis has not been given the priority by all of the global players involved. The United National General Assembly declared the year 2003 “he International Year of Freshwater” (61). This assembly adopted goals to reduce by half, the number of people unable to reach, afford, and have access to adequate sanitation services by 2015. Without these goals, by 2020, water-related deaths will exceed AIDS deaths, which are projected to be 68 million (61). Even though this issue has gotten greater attention over the past ten years, financial support for water supply and sanitation has declined over the past few years. Even more disturbing is the fact that the countries that have critical shortages get the least aid. This has been complicated by regional and international water conflicts, unsustainable groundwater use, and climate change. The projections are startling, yet support continues to dwindle. We are letting people die from preventable water-related deaths; they just need clean water.
The competition for freshwater resources in the United States by off stream water use; water withdrawn or diverted from a main resource and piped or delivered to the point of need, are: agriculture, domestic and commercial needs, industry, mining, and thermoelectrical power generation (Cossi 25). Also taxing this system is instream water usage; water not withdrawn from the source, but used directly from the channel. Hydroelectrical power generation; facilities that generate electricity from falling water, is also a major user (26).
As hard as it is to believe, the water crisis is predicted to be a major problem like the oil crisis has become. According to an article in Business Credit, the three major issues affecting the water crisis are: distribution, pollution, and the expansion of drought and floods (Anonymous 69). This article reports that one third of the world’s population is living in areas where there are water shortages, and by 2050 the Middle East and North Africa’s waters supplies will suffer a 50% reduction in their water supply (69).
Globally, the distribution of water is uneven at best. There are areas where it is plentiful and others that suffer severe drought. In the plentiful areas, water is taken for granted. It may be possible to distribute waters within the United States, and to transport water in parts of a continent to other parts of that continent that is experiencing drought. Desalination, which I will discuss in later sections, is a possible solution for making more water available.
It all comes back to money. The cities, states, regions, countries, and continents have to make a major investment to make a difference. Do you know that we can waste up to three gallons of water while letting the water run when brushing your teeth? Sounds like a lot, and it is, but because we haven’t experienced drought, we take it for granted. A few years ago when several states experienced power outages over several grids, many of us, myself included, did not connect electricity with the pumping of water to flush our toilets and produce running water. It was pretty eye opening to have to make due during that blackout. Just think, people in California experience rolling blackouts on a regular basis. Many of them have generators to cope with the impending possibility of being without power and not knowing when it may be restored.
The second major issue, pollution, which I mention in section 1, affects many parts of the world, with the hardest hit areas being underdeveloped nations. Many villages have few choices, for drinking water, bathing, or sanitation. Many times these daily tasks take place in the same river. These same rivers may contain runoff from farm animal waste. A slide included in my oral presentation will show several women washing clothes in what looks to be a muddy pond on the side of the road. These women are not only washing food, but washing their clothes. It is a startling photo. It looks like a mud puddle that I could have walked past after a rainy day on Belle Isle, and this is the only access that they have to water. Who knows how long that little pond will last, and how much contamination it contains.
It is reported that in Niger, located in Western Africa, oil development and exploration “has rendered the water in the region useless for agriculture or human use, which has killed the farm sector (Anonymous 69). This sentiment comes through several of the readings where agriculture takes a backseat to industry. Many farms globally, have not been able to survive. Although some of the problems with water pollution are due to agriculture, we also have pharmaceuticals in the waterways. We pour unused medicines down our toilets, and although the treatment plants remove the toxins, the medicines and, hormones are not removed. Imagine the dangerous effects and side effects of medicine that may be in our system that are not prescribed for us. Cleanup of these problems are estimated in the millions for the U.S. and billions for other countries (69). Locally, several beaches continue to be contaminated by waste, summer after summer. Makes you think back to years when these tests were not available. What type of contaminants or bacteria might we have been exposed to as children?
The third major issue is droughts and floods. Now some of it is under our control, but some of it is due to how much rainfall we receive and the global climate change. We have all noticed in recent years the unusual weather patterns where areas that normally receive little rain, have experienced a lot more. Also areas that do not usually experience high temperatures, have endured some of the most dangerous temperatures over the past few years. I can remember back in the mid-eighties where lakes in Michigan’s Macomb county were flooding, and citizens had to put sandbags at the shore to hold back the floods, while only a few years ago the same areas were unable to put their boats in those same lakes because the water levels were too low. We have seen over the last few weeks, the devastating effects of the flooding in North Dakota and Northern Minnesota. This type of flooding is unprecedented in these areas during the winter months, but weather patterns have become very unpredictable over the years.
The major drain on the water crisis starts with irrigation. Irrigation is 70% of the water use, followed by industry at 20% , and then residential use at 10%. Lester Brown describes the growing shortage. “Globally, demand for water has tripled over the last half century, millions of irrigation wells have been drilled, pushing water withdrawals beyond recharge rates” (Brown 16). Basically, our water sources have been over pumped without allowing them time to replenish themselves. Now, this is clearly preventable. Aquifers are not limitless, and need time to replenish themselves. Our government needs to put stricter regulations in place to avoid this problem. Many experts over the years have reported this, but I guess they are looked at like the fairytale characters Chicken Little or The Boy who Cried Wolf.
Since the largest drain on our water crisis has to do with irrigation, and we are depleting our water sources, it has begun to affect grain production in China, India, and the United States (Brown 16). It is reported in Draining our Future by Lester Brown, that it takes 500 times as much water to produce our food. It is becoming clear; no water, no food. Depending on the country or region where you are farming, you may not be able to survive without an aquifer, and in turn either have to change to a different type of farming, that may not be as lucrative, or not be able to farm at all. Mr. Brown states that the Southwest region of the United States and the Middle East are already experiencing this fact. The article also states that China, one of the main producers of grain, has consistently over pumped their aquifers, and some of the fossil aquifers, which are not replenishable. This has devastated areas where farming was once prevalent, but where it is no longer able to survive.
In this same article, the World Bank reports that in Beijing, drilling has to go as deep as a half of a mile down in order to tap into fresh water. "…it foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance’ (17). India is in worse shape. They have had to import much of their grain because many of their irrigation wells will soon be dry (17). According to the USDA, three major producers of grain in the U.S.: Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, are being forced to change to lower-yielding dry land farming because of wells drying up. There are many countries affected by the water crisis related to the depletion of these water tables: Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Israel, and Mexico. All of these countries have experienced depletion in their water tables due to over pumping of their aquifers. A water war continues to be an issue for Israel and Palestine (17). This has an adverse effect on the amount of food (grains), that these countries can produce for their own countries, as well as for importing to other countries.
Well what about the rivers? We have water everywhere, right? There is no way these can dry up, right? Not so fast. Right here in the United States, the Colorado River has been affected. The demand for hydroelectric power depletes rivers. “Since 1950, the numbers of large dams have increased from 5,000 to 45,000 (17). Although dams and reservoirs were built to generate electricity, they have a profound effect on evaporation over time. This article reports that the Colorado River rarely makes it to the sea. Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California all depend on this river for their water (18). The Tigris-Euphrates river in Turkey shrank due to a large dam in Turkey and Iraq. It is also reported in this article that many lakes have begun to disappear. Lake Chad, the Aral Sea, and the Sea of Galilee, currently known as Lake Tiberias, are all disappearing. It is reported that the Dead Sea has dropped 80 feet over the past forty years, and it is expected to completely disappear by 2050. That seems impossible, but due to all of the competing interests, without regulation and the current conflicts, this is where we are.
As I alluded to earlier in this section, the farmers seem to be taking the fall in this crisis. They suffer and falter because there is just not enough water to grow food. To illustrate this, Mr. Brown states, “…while it takes only 14 tons of water to make a ton of steel worth $560, it takes 1,000 tons of water to grow a ton of wheat worth $200” (Brown 19). The difference is clear as water. Many farmers have begun to sell their water rights to survive. They were not able to use it to grow enough food, so it has become another source of income for them. Just think, for years and years you are a farmer or rancher, and over time you do not have enough water to grow your crops. Selling water has become more profitable for the farmers in Colorado affected by the water shortage. It has become common for farmers to sell their irrigation water rights. (19) They had to make a choice in order to survive. “…the world’s farmers are losing the water war.” (19).
In the upcoming sections, I will explore the effect of urbanization, population, and development on the global water sources.
3: What are the Trends? How did we get Into This Mess?
In section 2, I discussed some of the major issues that have brought us to this point: uneven water distribution, water pollution, droughts, and floods. In this section, I would like to discuss the trends that got us into this mess. In the next section, I will discuss how we can slow down the current trends to sustain water for future generations.
According to the United National Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), there are several major trends that affect our current state of the water crisis: rapid population growth, increasing affluence, expansion of business activity, rapid urbanization, and climate change. Population trends have increased from three million in 1950, and are projected to increase to over 8 billion by 2030. The UN-DESA shows that the largest portion of population growth has occurred in less developed rural areas.
Our population is growing so rapidly that we cannot keep up with the demand for water. India and China have experienced a major population growth with an increasing rate of poverty. The underprivileged population affects both ends of the spectrum. We increase the poverty rates in areas where there are those that cannot afford water, and then we have the affluent on the other end of the spectrum who can afford larger homes and more land, and other indulgences like Jacuzzis or swimming pools which entail more water usage (Fry 11). Persons with more money may have more cars. Their houses may have several bathrooms and a sprinkler system to water a spacious garden which will require more water than the average household. Unless you have planted a garden, even a small one, you do not realize how much water you use. My small flower bed, that normally houses annual flowers, requires daily watering. As much as you would like to skip a couple of days, the dry summer heat quickly evaporates the water in the soil, so daily watering is a must. Surprisingly, “…only eight percent of the planet’s freshwater supply goes toward personal, household, and municipal water use” (Nappier 2). The rest is through agriculture at 70% and 22% for industry.
Another growing problem is the expansion of business activity. Think of places like Las Vegas that are always adding massive hotels to serve the tourists who frequent that city. More people, more hotel rooms, more plumbing, for what else…more water. A recent article on Bloomberg.com by John Lippert and Jim Efstathius describes that Las Vegas is experiencing the worst drought in ten years (Lippert). For almost a year, Las Vegas has been digging into a reservoir as deep as three miles down and installing pipes to tap into a water source that has reached critical levels. This reservoir supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’ water. If the water levels continue to fall at its current pace, the authors predict that they will lose 40 percent of their water supply. Las Vegas’ manager of the water authority, Patricia Mulroy, has implemented innovative programs over the past seven years to conserve water. She is currently paying $1.50 a square foot to have residents and golf courses replace portions of their lawns with gravel. This conservation plan has yielded positive results with a reduction in water usage in Las Vegas by 19.4 percent.
An additional problem to add to the mix is urbanization. Urbanization is occurring so rapidly, in areas already compromised by depleted sources, that the problem becomes vastly worse. As more and more people move into cities, water sources are increasingly taxed. In an article by Andre Biro, Water Wars Myths and Realities, he describes that “…urbanization is largely occurring without economic growth, and largely in places where governments have the least capacity to manage human migration and urban development.” In Mr. Biro’s opinion the access to clean water is less based on the lack of water sources, but on the lack of investment to manage the sewage and deliver safe water to its citizens. His sense is that the problem is “political and economic.” Also, “…a lack of access to adequate clean water has little to do with water scarcity…have much more to do with a lack of investment in the basic infrastructure…” To further complicate the problem of urbanization, he cites two major issues: engineering challenges, and economic resources. It will take political forces with a serious focus and financial backing to solve this growing problem. Droves of people have been relocating for years to areas of Florida, Las Vegas, and Atlanta. All three are experiencing problems related to overburdened water systems.
According to an NPR article, Florida Faces Vanishing Water Supply, Lake Okeechobee was so dry and low, that the lake floor caught fire. Sounds impossible, but it actually happened. In Florida’s case and other cities and countries, a common thread keeps rising to the surface; the groundwater and aquifers have been over allocated and over pumped. Another common theme that affects Florida and many other areas is the great demand for water in the farming industry. Florida has the additional burden of being affected by saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers when water levels are low. In an Excerpt from Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S., the NPR article describes, “In the last half century, Florida has seen extraordinary population growth – from 2.8 million people in 1950 to 17 million today.” Although there are other problems related to urbanization like increased traffic and overcrowded schools, the article states that they are experiencing an increase of sinkholes. The increase of lawns and golf courses requires more water. The aquifers are being depleted before the rain can replenish them. With the urbanization of more people come highways, malls, and new communities. All of these put an addition strain on groundwater sources that have already been exhausted. Pasco County, according the above referenced book, is very prone to sinkholes, and is one of the fastest growing counties in the United States. “Florida is just one of the many areas where the groundwater is not going to be able to sustain the growth” (Florida Faces Vanishing Water Supply : NPR)
Atlanta, Georgia has also experienced a drought over the last couple of years, although it has been reported recently that their water problems have leveled off. In 2007, according to an article on Bloomberg.com, Atlanta experienced, “…the region’s most extreme drought since at least the 1920s.” Many businesses like UPS found ways to conserve water during this period by turning off water to outside fountains, and curbing the planting of outside flower gardens to ease the burden. Atlanta has increased their residents more than any other city in the United States since 2000. We can see by the urbanization of these cities how great the demand on water becomes.
Last but not least is the trend of climate change. We have all experienced sporadic weather patterns. Sometimes it is hard to tell one season from the next. This week we have had snow and fifty degree temperatures. Since climate change is so unpredictable, it is hard to know which areas will be affected. Some areas could get more rain than others, which could, in turn increase the freshwater available. But on the other hand, if the temperatures rise, we could be in trouble. According to the article by the UN-DESA, this evaporation can lead to the loss of freshwater that is held in glaciers. Also, if storms are severe, we could have flooding. Climate change is one thing that is so unpredictable; our solutions must also be adjusted to try to keep up with irregular weather patterns.
An interesting observation in Mr. Biro’s article is that he sees water tied to social class instead of climate. “…water is effectively granted as a right, provided at low cost by the state...usually where those who can least afford, it is treated as a commodity.” “…the conflicts arising from water scarcity are class wars.” Mr. Biro states, “Either we alleviate the poverty that forces people to choose between buying water and buying other necessities, or we make a global public investment in the infrastructure necessary to make the provision of water as a human right a reality.”
We are our greatest enemy when it comes to climate change. We are reaping what we have sown on the planet. “The main source of global climate change is human-induced changes in atmospheric composition” (Karl 88). According to State of the Planet, emissions, land use, and urbanization, have played a major part in global warming. We are constantly learning how what we do affects the atmosphere. It is scary how the weather has changed. The recent flooding in North Dakota was unusual, but I suspect we will get used to these patterns over time. Who would ever think that the glaciers would start melting? This is another global challenge that needs the focus of the international world. “…the system must embrace comprehensive analysis and assessment as integral components on an ongoing basis…” “Climate change is truly a global issue, one that may truly prove to be humanity’s greatest challenge” (97).
The following section will explore possible solutions to curbing this crisis. Several organizations have implemented programs to cease water-related deaths through building sanitation stations, which include hand-washing stations and latrines, in undeveloped, and underveloped nations. I will also discuss desalination of sea water to make more freshwater available. I believe we will find that prevention and conservation will be two of the greatest assets in moving towards alleviating this global crisis. We must get the international community on board to sustain this precious resource and save lives. There are many companies who have banded together to take this crises seriously and put resources in place to research and gather data, to not only benefit their own company, but other industries affected as well. Let’s take a look at ways to sustain the precious resource that we are already borrowing from future generations.
4: Stopping the Leak: Ways to Sustain our Freshwater Supply
After the first three sections, you are probably ready for some good news, or maybe you will even settle for some optimistic expectations related to the water crisis. I’ll do my best. section 4 explores solutions to help us sustain our freshwater supply and ease some of the problems discussed in earlier sections. I will investigate many options currently being implemented by private organizations, the government, and small things that you can do to conserve water. Are you excited yet? Get ready; I was pleasantly surprised to discover some innovative solutions being implemented to alleviate our global water problem.
According to an article by Peter Gleick in State of the Planet, hard-path solutions: dams, aqueducts, pipelines, and complex centralized treatment plants have been used in the last century. Although these systems had a great benefit, over time they have caused social, economical, and ecological costs. The benefits of this solution “reduced the incidence of water-related diseases, expanded the generation of hydropower and irrigated agriculture, and moderated the risks of devastating floods and droughts” (Gleick 59). He explains that many of these hard-path water projects also displace people. As an example, the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam in China has displaced more than one million people who were forced from villages due to flooding. These hard-path solutions have affected animal life in many regions, with according to Mr. Gleick, a 27% reduction in freshwater fauna affected in North America. Mr. Gleick states that, “The most serious unresolved water problem is the continued failure to meet basic human needs for water” (61). He outlines many new challenges that hinder resolution of the water problems, such as regional and international water wars, dependence on unsustainable groundwater use, the effect of human use on climate change, and monitoring of the global water balance. The bottom line is that all solutions require financial support.
Mr. Gleick proposes soft-path solutions as we move towards the future of water policy and planning. He outlines three basic futures: exponential growth in water demand as populations continue to grow, slowing demand of growth to reach a steady state, and a slowing and reversal of demand. According to the article, a review of previous planner’s projections was off the mark; they assumed there would be continued, even accelerated, exponential growth in total water demand. Mr. Gleick mentions that there have been proposals to flood the Grand Canyon. As outrageous as that sounds, the crisis could force proposals like that to be taken seriously. Hard-path solutions have become very expensive, and according to the article, society is unwilling to bear those costs. “The most-cited estimate of the cost of meeting future infrastructure needs for water is $180 billion per year to 2025 for water supply, sanitation, wastewater treatment, agriculture and environmental protection” (Gleick 64). If we only focus on meeting the basic human needs, according to Mr. Gleick, “…the cost instead could be in the range of $10 billion to $25 billion per year for the next two decades” (64).
Soft-path solutions have been described by Mr. Gleick as “small-scale decentralized facilities” and the soft-path solution “strives to improve the productivity of water use rather than seek endless sources of new supply” (64). According to Mr. Gleick, “society’s goal should not be to increase the use of water, but to improve social and individual well-being per unit of water used” (64). He describes that farmers are really not trying to use more water; they just want to grow food. That is their bottom line. They are open to new technologies for irrigation, which include furrow diking, a technique where foil mounds are around planted crops with adjacent moats and troughs to catch the runoff.
It is Mr. Gleick’s opinion that both paths cannot be used and that the major issues are “meeting basic human and ecological needs for water, improving water quality, eliminating overdraft of groundwater, and reducing the risk of political conflict over shared water” (65). He also stated that all stakeholders, and not those that make their careers out of studying these issues, must be included in long-term planning.
Out of the sustainability research has emerged a new science “Sustainability science.” According to Anthony McMichael sustainability science “is an emerging science that seeks to understand the fundamental character of interactions between nature and society” (McMichael 165). The state of our planet has become so critical that scientific research has been required to investigate human-environment. The author senses that meshing this new science within academic departments may be difficult and that more focused “purpose-built interdisciplinary centers will therefore be needed” (165).
In an article by Peter Gleick, Water in crisis: Paths to Sustainable Water Use, he outlines seven “sustainability criteria” to sustainable water use. Even though this article was written more than ten years ago, the following criteria is still relative today: Basic human water requirement, basic environmental water requirement, water quality standards, renewability of water resources, data collection and available, institution management and conflict resolution (Gleick 57). Mr. Gleick stated that “...the great flaw with many water institutions is their failure to adequately address issues of equity” (57).
When you take a look at sustainability, you also have to take a look at the water footprint and virtual water that goes into making goods that are also exported. There are many goods and services that take an abundance of water to produce. For instance, the virtual water content of a pair of leather shoes is 8,000 liters (Hoekstra 41). Countries also have to take a look at the amount of goods being exported. They need to weigh the benefits against the potential depletion of water sources to make sure that they can maintain sustainable amounts. Countries must also focus on their water footprint. This is important because the “water footprint shows the extent of water use in relation to consumption of people” (Hoekstra). In Globalization of Water: Sharing the Planet’s Freshwater Resources, also by Mr. Hoekstra, he suggests that the water footprint “could provide useful information in addition to the traditional indictor of water use…” “The water footprint of a nation is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the people of that nation” (Hoekstra 51). In addition, the water footprint will be underestimated if the amount of goods and services being imported is not included in that estimate.
According to Plan B by Lester Brown, “…the only option is reducing the growth in demand by raising water productivity and stabilizing population” (Brown 113). Mr. Brown outlines several solutions: Adopting realistic prices, raising irrigation water productivity, rainwater harvesting, and raising nonfarm water productivity.
The first option that Mr. Brown proposes, adoption of realistic prices, seeks to charge water users more realistic (higher) prices. When water is cheap and abundant, people waste it. If they had to pay more for it, they would conserve it more. According to Mr. Brown, “Charging for water encourages greater efficiency by all users, including adoption of more-efficient irrigation practices…more water-efficient industrial processes, and the purchase of more water-efficient household appliances” (114). Plan B outlines several countries who have implemented various methods under this option: Morocco tried harvesting its rainfall and built dams to store its water. China has 71% of its largest cities suffering water shortages. They raised water prices to reflect what water really costs. Jordan installed water meters on irrigation wells. These meters monitor the amount of water being pumped. If they exceed set limits, they receive a fine. Australia set licensing systems on the amount of water being withdrawn from water sources, and charged for the amounts being used. In South Africa, they used what is described in Plan B as “lifeline rates” (Brown 114), which gave a household a fixed amount of water for basic needs a low rate. When a household’s water usage increases, their rates also increase.
The second option, raising irrigation water productivity, has several different methods of irrigation that are being implemented. One option is to reduce seepage from the canals used to carry water from large reservoirs; use overhead sprinkler systems; and drip irrigation. This technology was developed in Israel. It is reported in Plan B that Jordan reduced their water use by 35% using drip irrigation. Drip irrigation has proved to produce a greater yield in some crops due to the constant irrigation. Another method used in China is to change their crop production from rice to wheat. Wheat proved to be a more water efficient grain and a higher-value crop. Many of these methods are being implemented by farming associations instead of being managed by government. Rainwater harvesting seems very natural, and a no-brainer. Some countries have started to harvest rainwater during their monsoon seasons to make it through the long dry seasons. Last but not least is raising nonfarm water productivity. This method concerns using water to get rid of waste, whether it is industrial, animal, or human waste. The composting toilet is one method that uses a waterless toilet linked to small compost. The dry composting is converted to “soil-like humus” (127) over time. This method is described to be odorless and can be sold as fertilizer. This system would reduce the amount of water normally used for sanitation and sewage disposal. Several appliances are now available to the average consumer: showerheads, flush toilets, dishwashers, and clothes washers. The bottom line according to Plan B is for cities to “adopt a comprehensive water treatment/recycling system; industries should switch to wind farms instead of coal-fire plans, and water recycling” (Brown 130). We can change our eating habits and eat less beef and pork and more poultry and fish.
Now we have come to desalination as another solution. Desalination is the removal of salt from seawater to make it into a freshwater source. “Desalination is likely to become one of the worlds’ biggest industries” (Conway). According to The Desalination Solution article, many Middle Eastern countries: Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Saudi Arabia have been using this system for some time. This system has transformed villages into cities. A desalting plan in Saudi Arabia is listed to be the largest in the world. This article reports that there are over 7,000 desalination plants worldwide, with about two-thirds located in the Middle East. The Caribbean and Aruba, two tourist countries, have been using desalination for years. Although reported to be successful, desalination plants are also expensive “multi-billion dollar projects” (24). Fuel makes it expensive. In the U.S., California has plans for a desalting plant to make potable water. Texas has plans for a plant to be built by 2010. Orlando, Florida may be forced to use this method, and Atlanta, due to their increased population, may also pursue this option. It is hoped that better technology in the future, will lead to reduced costs for the desalination solution that has proved to be successful in many areas.
Two areas that I found quite exciting were the building of handwashing stations and latrines in Guatemala by an organization called Global Water, and a new technology called the PlayPump Water System developed by PlayPump International and installed in villages in rural Africa.
Global Water is a non-profit humanitarian organization committed to “the development of safe water supplies in rural areas of developing countries. In addition, our water supply projects often include complementary programs that include effective sanitation and hygiene facilities in association with related health education.” (Water Management, Water Scarcity Solutions in Rural Areas). Their motto is “We’re Changing the World, One Village at a Time.” They provide “safe water supplies, sanitation facilities and hygiene-related facilities for rural villagers in developing countries.” They are a volunteer-based agency that is making an immediate impact and a dramatic difference through their efforts.
I found out about the PlayPump Water System quite by accident. I was telling my daughter about my topic, and she mentioned to me that she had seen something on the MTV cable station a couple of years ago regarding the efforts in Africa by one of the Hip-Hop rappers, Jay-Z.. She recalled seeing some kind of merry-go-round, as she described it, that pumped water at the same time. Essentially, that is the idea of the PlayPump Water System, “Kids Play. Water Pumps!” (PlayPumps International and the PlayPump water system). This innovative system “is a child’s merry-go-round attached to a water pump, a storage tank, and a tap. While the children have fun spinning…they draw clean water from underground into the storage tank” (PlayPumps International and the PlayPump water system). PlayPumps' goal is to provide up to 10 million people with access to safe drinking water through 2010. According to their website, they have already established operations in South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Zambia, which includes over 1,000 pumps. We can see that there are many things that we can do on a large scale, internationally, and at home to sustain and conserve water on this great planet.
5: The Global Water Crisis: Reflections and Conclusions
In conclusion, I have come to the end of our research, but the war is far from over. I have shown how our actions affect this planet, specifically our water resource. We continue to constantly over pump our aquifers and not allow them to replenish themselves. Some of the fossil aquifers are not replenishable. We never look ahead to the future. We can not afford to sit idly by, because the population continues to grow. As the population grows, we need more water to grow more food to feed the growing population, and we cannot always afford to export goods, because we also lose “virtual water.”
In section 2, I discussed the focus of some governmental agencies, but that we are a long way off with the funding that is needed globally to just scratch the surface. We need to seriously address meeting the basic human needs of the 1.8 billion people that are expected to inhabit this planet over the next 25 years. In addition, we do not know how our weather problems and the climate change will affect our resources. Projections can only look so far ahead, but the weather has been extremely unpredictable in recent years. We also have to look at water distribution. Those areas in the United States that are plentiful need to find ways to transport water to arid communities. Although tapping into our oceans for desalination of water is expensive, we may have no choice but to move in this direction; It has to come from somewhere. One of the most important aspects of this water crisis is to make sure that water is not polluted. Small nations are suffering and dying from water-related diseases. People are actually dying from water.
In my research I continued to see farming not only as being affected by the water crisis, but effecting the water crisis. 70% of the water use is from irrigation. I discussed several new irrigation methods that the farming community needs to explore. Farmers are also hurting. Agriculture in arid communities also suffer, and some have had to sell their water rights since they were unable to have enough to produce crops.
I am not sure there is much that we can do about population growth, but we may be able to better project the areas where growth is expected. In the United States, people relocate to wherever they want to live, and the city just has to try to rebound and accommodate the growing communities. Florida and Georgia are the poster children of this migration and are having to come up with new methods to deal with this problem.
I outlined several examples of what other countries are doing to deal with this water crisis. This has motivated private organizations like Global Water and PlayPump International to devise innovative ways to make an immediate difference in the lives of those who have long suffered due to this crisis.
In summary, through my research it is clear how all of the topics in this course are intertwined. We know that population, urbanization, development/disease, food/fish, ecosystems, global warming, consumption/waste, land/dwelling., and the example of the Tragedy of the Commons not only tie to each other, but in some ways a domino effect occurs.
If the population grows and relocates swiftly to locales over time, urbanization may occur and before you know it, the farming community dwindles. Development/disease is caused by water pollution which can affect humans and fish, which is a large food source. Pollution can also pollute our ecosystems. Climate change has an affect on our land, water, and the food and fish. Not only can the waterways get polluted, they can also dry up and the fish or fauna feeding on that resource will die away. The Tragedy of the Commons is relevant to the water crisis. There are some that have over pumped water sources, and now many are suffering.
It is my opinion that world leaders need to tackle this crisis head on. It is a global issue that affects each country because of the importing and exporting of goods and services. Tighter regulations must monitor water use, and industry must also come to the table. It is my hope that the new “Sustainability science” I described in section 4 will gather the world’s experts to find long-term solutions to sustain this planet for our future generations. Mr. Biro’s closing sentence in Water Wars: Myths and Realities sums up and puts in perspective what needs to be done to make great strives to conserving water: one of our planet’s greatest resource, “Either we alleviate the poverty that forces people to choose between buying water and buying other necessities – or we make a global public investment in the infrastructure necessary to make the provision of water as a human right a reality” (Biro 7). I believe we are all entitled as water as a basic right.
In closing, none of the progress that has been made and will be made in sustaining our global freshwater resource will be worth it, if we do not cease to depletene the reserves of our children and future generations.
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