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Thursday, June 16, 2011


I have been reading lately that there’s a water shortage in the world. No. Seriously. Water is now being treated and traded like any other commodity.

I've found the most striking piece of evidence yet that we're facing imminent widespread water shortages:
The Mississippi River has disappeared.

Not literally, of course. If that had happened, maybe something would be being done about it. Here’s the skinny: a new study has shown that in the past 60 years reduction in water flow to the Pacific Ocean has been about equal to shutting off the Mississippi River. This report, recently published in the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate, found that a third of major rivers have had significant changes in flow. Of the 925 rivers analyzed, their total discharge is less now than it was 60 years ago. We are losing water. According to lead author Aiguo Dai of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "freshwater resources will likely decline in the coming decades over many densely populated areas at mid- to low latitudes. . . we are likely to see greater impacts on many rivers and water resources that society has come to rely on."

The integrity of our water infrastructure is also declining at an alarming rate; as with most water issues, unfortunately, the evidence is abundant. For example, there are 700 water main breaks in North America on any given day. That works out to over 255,000 per year. No wonder water pipes are in high demand. To give just one horrid example: in Baltimore recently a large water main broke and shut down the entire Inner Harbor area. Ironically, public works was aware of growing problems in the area and had a meeting scheduled on the day of the break to coordinate a $2.6 million project to fix it.

The meeting was canceled due to the water main break.

Waste and inadequate management of water are the main culprits behind these growing problems, particularly in poverty-ridden regions. The wide-ranging report, part of the UN's designation of 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater, also documented problems such as steep drops in the size of Asia's Aral Sea, Africa's Lake Chad and Iraq's Marshlands; the deterioration of coral reefs; and the rise of coastal waters because of climate changes. Some developing nations could face water shortages, crop failures and conflict over shrinking lakes and rivers if nothing is done to prevent wasteful irrigation and slow evaporation from reservoirs, and drinking-water systems are not repaired.

Based on data from NASA, the World Health Organization and other agencies, the report also found the following:

Severe water shortages affecting at least 400 million people today will affect 4 billion people by 2050. Southwestern states such as Arizona will face other severe freshwater shortages by 2025. Adequate sanitation facilities are lacking for 2.4 billion people, about 40% of humankind. Half of all coastal regions, where 1 billion people live, have degraded through overdevelopment or pollution.

About 90% of the severe problems are in developing nations where solutions to wasting water lie in better irrigation and water supply practices. In developed nations such as Japan, the USA and in Europe, most water shortfalls arise from politically popular but inefficient subsidies and protections of agriculture, which accounts for 85% of freshwater consumption worldwide.

So what is the answer that most of the industrialized nations give when confronted with this information? And this affects us how?
Shift from a local to a global water perspective, and the terms dramatically change. The World Bank reports that 80 countries now have water shortages that threaten health and economies while 40 percent of the worlds, more than 2 billion people, have no access to clean water or sanitation. More than a dozen nations receive most of their water from rivers that cross borders of neighboring countries viewed as hostile. These include Botswana, Bulgaria, Cambodia, the Congo, Gambia, the Sudan, and Syria, all of whom receive 75 percent or more of their fresh water from the river flow of often hostile upstream neighbors.

More frequently water is being likened to another resource that quickened global tensions when its supplies were threatened. A story in The Financial Times of London began: "Water, like energy in the late 1970s, will probably become the most critical natural resource issue facing most parts of the world by the start of the next century." This analogy is also reflected in the oft-repeated observation that water will likely replace oil as a future cause of war between nations. A prime cause of the global water concern is the ever-increasing world population. As populations grow, industrial, agricultural and individual water demands escalate. According to the World Bank, world-wide demand for water is doubling every 21 years, more in some regions. Water supply cannot remotely keep pace with demand, as populations soar and cities explode.

Population growth alone does not account for increased water demand. Since 1900, there has been a six-fold increase in water use for only a two-fold increase in population size. This reflects greater water usage associated with rising standards of living (e.g., diets containing less grain and more meat). It also reflects potentially unsustainable levels of irrigated agriculture. Meanwhile, many countries suffer accelerating desertification. Water quality is deteriorating in many areas of the developing world as population increases and salinity caused by industrial farming and over-extraction rises. About 95 percent of the world's cities still dump raw sewage into their waters.

Smelled the Ganges River lately? Now imagine drinking that water and bathing in it.

Climate change represents a wild card in this developing scenario. What effect will it have on water resources? Some experts claim climate change has the potential to worsen an already gloomy situation. With higher temperatures and more rapid melting of winter snowpacks, less water supplies will be available to farms and cities during summer months when demand is high. Yeah, I know – sounds insane, doesn’t it? It’s not insane, though. Any of the heavy grains such as corn or wheat are at least 35 – 45% water, and that’s on a per ear/bunch basis. Ok, so what? you’re saying. Well, here’s what: roughly 15% of that water is lost during processing. Yeah, it turns into water vapor, which goes into the atmosphere, which is then rained down when the atmosphere gets heavy, and the cycle goes on. Just one problem with this scenario: Every time, there’s less water to recycle in this way.

Take a really good look at what’s been happening in Australia. Look at the coastal areas in the United States. Less and less water to serve more and more people means that agriculture is going to have to be curtailed, to make room for more people who will need more water, which means less food can be grown, and more drought because there are more and more people to use less and less water – and the vicious cycle just gets worse.

Ok, so what about desalinization? Isn’t that a successful way to ameliorate the water crisis? Well, yes and no – mostly no. It is indeed a technological solution that some believe would provide ample supplies of additional water resources is desalination. Some researchers fault the United States for not providing more support for desalination research. Once the world leader in such research, this country has abdicated its role, to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Japan. There are approximately 11,000 desalination plants in 120 nations in the world, 60 percent of them in the Middle East. Just one TINY little problem: the more water we desalinate, the less there is in the oceans for the aquatic life, and the more saline the ocean becomes, and the more acid, the LESS aquatic life there’s going to be to feed more and more people.

I won’t even try, at this point, to go into T. Boone Picken’s short-sighted and completely contemptible plan to supply water here in Texas for a very stiff price to a very small clientele, or the atrocious commodities brokering of water that’s taking place in California right now. Both of those are columns for another day. I do know that, if we don’t take a good, long and hard look at the water shortages that are already extant here in this country and elsewhere, and solve those problems, in addition to freezing (or roasting) to death in the dark, we’ll all be dead of dehydration long before that day ever comes.

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