Where Has All the Water Gone?

Three scenarios collude toward disaster. Scenario one: The world is running out of freshwater. It is not just a question of finding the money to hook up the 2 billion people living in water-stressed regions of our world. Humanity is polluting, diverting, and depleting the Earth's finite water resources at a dangerous and steadily increasing rate. The abuse and displacement of water is the ground-level equivalent of greenhouse-gas emissions and likely as great a cause of climate change.

Scenario two: Every day more and more people are living without access to clean water. As the ecological crisis deepens, so too does the human crisis. More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and traffic accidents combined. The global water crisis has become a powerful symbol of the growing inequality in our world. While the wealthy enjoy boutique water at any time, millions of poor people have access only to contaminated water from local rivers and wells.

Scenario three: A powerful corporate water cartel has emerged to seize control of every aspect of water for its own profit. Corporations deliver drinking water and take away wastewater; corporations put massive amounts of water in plastic bottles and sell it to us at exorbitant prices; corporations are building sophisticated new technologies to recycle our dirty water and sell it back to us; corporations extract and move water by huge pipelines from watersheds and aquifers to sell to big cities and industries; corporations buy, store, and trade water on the open market, like running shoes. Most important, corporations want governments to deregulate the water sector and allow the market to set water policy. Every day, they get closer to that goal. Scenario three deepens the crises now unfolding in scenarios one and two.

Imagine a world in 20 years in which no substantive progress has been made to provide basic water services in the Third World; or to create laws to protect source water and force industry and industrial agriculture to stop polluting water systems; or to curb the mass movement of water by pipeline, tanker, and other diversions, which will have created huge new swaths of desert.

Desalination plants will ring the world's oceans, many of them run by nuclear power; corporate-controlled nanotechnology will clean up sewage water and sell it to private utilities, which will in turn sell it back to us at a huge profit; the rich will drink only bottled water found in the few remaining uncontaminated parts of the world or sucked from the clouds by corporate-controlled machines, while the poor will die in increasing numbers from a lack of water.

This is not science fiction. This is where the world is headed unless we change course--a moral and ecological imperative. But first we must come to terms with the dimension of the crisis.

We are running out of freshwater

In the first seven years of the new millennium, more studies, reports, and books on the global water crisis have been published than in all of the preceding century. Almost every country has undertaken research to ascertain its water wealth and the threats to its aquatic systems. Universities around the world are setting up departments or cross-departmental disciplines to study the effects of water shortages. The Worldwatch Institute has declared: "Water scarcity may be the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time."

From these undertakings, the verdict is in and irrefutable: The world is facing a water crisis due to pollution, climate change, and surging population growth of unprecedented magnitude. Unless we change our ways, by the year 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity. The global population tripled in the 20th century, but water consumption went up sevenfold. By 2050, after we add another 3 billion to the population, humans will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where this water is going to come from.

Scientists call them "hot stains" -- the parts of the Earth now running out of potable water. They include northern China, large areas of Asia and Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the Midwestern United States, and sections of South America and Mexico.

The worst effects on people are, of course, in those areas of the world with large populations and insufficient resources to provide sanitation. Two-fifths of the world's people lack access to proper sanitation, which has led to massive outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people with an easily preventable waterborne disease, and the World Health Organization reports that environmental factors, including contaminated water, are implicated in 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide. In the last decade, the number of children killed by diarrhea exceeded the number of people killed in all armed conflicts since World War II. Every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking dirty water.

Meanwhile, some wealthier countries are just beginning to understand the depth of their own crises. Many parts of the United States are experiencing severe water shortages. Pressure is mounting on the governors in the Great Lakes region to open up access to the lakes to the burgeoning mega-cities around the basin. In 2007, Lake Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake, dropped to its lowest level in 80 years. Florida is in trouble, trying to keep its fast-spreading lawns and golf courses green. California has a 20-year supply of freshwater left. New Mexico has only 10. And Arizona is out: It now imports all of its drinking water. Experts assert that this is more than a cyclical "drought": Major parts of the United States are running out of water. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that if current water use continues unchecked, 36 states will suffer water shortages within the next five years.

How did we get here?

We were all taught certain fundamentals about the Earth's hydrologic cycle in grade school. There is, we learned, a finite amount of available freshwater on the planet, and it makes its way through a cycle that ensures its safe return to us for our perpetual use. In the hydrologic cycle, water vapor condenses to form clouds. Winds move the clouds across the globe, spreading the water vapor. When the clouds cannot hold the moisture, they release it in the form of rain or snow, which either seeps into the ground to replenish groundwater or runs off into lakes, streams, and rivers. As these processes happen, the power of the sun causes evaporation, changing liquid water into vapor to renew the cycle. In this scenario, the planet could never "run out" of water.

But this cycle, true for so many millennia, did not take into account modern humans' collective capacity for destruction. In the last half-century, the human species has polluted surface waters at an alarming rate. The world may not exactly be running out of water, but it is running out of clean water. Ninety percent of wastewater produced in the Third World is discharged, untreated, into local rivers, streams, and coastal waters. As well, humans are now using more than half of accessible runoff water, leaving little for the ecosystem or other species.

Our political leaders are failing us

The freshwater crisis is easily as great a threat to the Earth and humans as climate change (to which it is deeply linked) but has had very little attention paid to it in comparison. It is like a comet poised to hit the Earth. If a comet really did threaten the entire world, it is likely that our politicians would suddenly find that religious and ethnic differences had lost much of their meaning. Political leaders would quickly come together to find a solution to this common threat.

However, with rare exceptions, average people do not know that the world is facing a comet called the global water crisis. And they are not being served by their political leaders, who are in some kind of inexplicable denial. The crisis is not reported enough in the mainstream media, and when it is, it is usually reported as a regional or local problem, not an international one.

Every day, the failure of our political leaders to address the global water crisis becomes more evident. Every day, the need for a comprehensive water-crisis plan becomes more urgent. If ever there were a moment for all governments and international institutions to come together to find a collective solution to this emergency, it is now. If ever there were a time for a plan of conservation and water justice to deal with the twin water crises of scarcity and inequity, it is now. The world does not lack the knowledge about how to build a water-secure future; it lacks the political will.

This, then, is the task: nothing less than reclaiming water as a commons for the Earth and all people that must be wisely and sustainably shared and managed if we are to survive. This will not happen unless we are prepared to reject the basic tenets of market-based globalization. The current imperatives of competition, unlimited growth, and private ownership when it comes to water must be replaced by new imperatives--those of cooperation, sustainability, and public stewardship.

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