By now, most of us know that our global clean water supply is under threat.
What we in the developed world once took for granted as an endlessly renewable resource no longer seems certain.
News about climate change, pollution, corporate and private over-use of resources, and an ever-expanding global population means we need to start taking water conservation seriously. It’s no longer a problem for those in less developed countries—it’s a problem for all of us.
Massive water sustainability projects are underway, such as the Cadiz Water Project in Southern California. Governments and activists understand the risks we face. But do the rest of us?
Unfortunately, counting on our governments and public policy to save us may be a fantasy from which many of us are awakening—we must begin taking action as individuals now. If you remain unconvinced of the severity of the crisis, read on.
Current and Short-Term Crisis.
By 2030, the annual global requirements for fresh water will exceed current sustainable supplies by 40 percent.
It is estimated that in less than 10 years, approximately 1.8 billion people will live in regions affected by water scarcity, with a full two-thirds of the planet’s population living in “water-stressed” regions. This includes areas in the United States.
Within just 30 years, five times as much land as today is likely to be under “extreme drought” conditions; one in five developing countries will face water shortages as a result.
Currently, 4.5 billion people—a majority of the population worldwide—live within 30 miles of an “impaired” water resource (one that is polluted, or running dry). 210 million U.S. citizens live within 10 miles of an impaired water source.
Increasing Population and Demand.
Worldwide population is projected to grow by two billion people over the next 30 years; as a result, global water demand is projected to increase by 55 percent in that same time frame. This includes a 400 percent rise in water demand for manufacturing alone.
Seventy percent of global fresh water withdrawals are used for agriculture.
In the U.S. alone, nuclear power plants account for nearly 50 percent of all freshwater usage.
The water demand for various outputs (agriculture, hydropower, manufacturing, drinking water) will lead to increased competition between these sectors.
Over this same time span, water availability is expected to decrease in many regions.
Inequality of Water Use.
It is estimated to take 12 gallons of water per day to sustain one human life; the average American uses approximately 158 gallons per day.
The global middle class is expected to increase from 1.8 billion to 4.9 billion people by 2030. A more affluent class is associated with increased consumption of goods and food, particularly a meat and dairy based diet, all of which consume significantly greater quantities of fresh water in their production.
780 million people currently live without access to clean drinking water.
Transboundary River Basins: A Resource Without Borders.
As global water supplies dwindle and an ever-increasing population places more and more demand on available freshwater, the potential for violent conflict over water resources will increase.
Nearly all of the planet’s river basins (freshwater supply basins spanning the earth’s surface) are shared by two or more countries, with many being shared between five or more countries.
Satellite images show a loss of nearly 16 cubic miles of water from the Colorado River Basin between 2004 and 2013 (to put that amount into perspective, that’s twice the amount of water stored in Lake Mead). Other basins are showing similarly dramatic water losses.
The Ogallala Aquifer, the largest and most important underground source of water in the U.S. ( and a critical supply to agriculture in the American Heartland), has for decades been tapped at rates thousands of times greater than it is being replenished. If withdrawals continue at comparable rates, the Aquifer will be empty in just 25 years.
It’s becoming clear that, without a major shift in water usage rates and sustainability practices and policies, citizens of developed nations like the U.S., Canada, and Europe could expect to see their daily lives critically impacted within just a decade or two:
>> Long-term restrictions on home and community water usage.
>> Serious declines in agricultural, meat, and dairy production, and subsequent food shortages.
>> Shortages of nearly every product manufactured with the use of water (i.e. plastics, steel, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and fuels).
>> Disruptions and possible complete shutdowns of hydroelectric and nuclear power sources.
By the year 2040, if the situation continues unchecked and unchanged, there will not be enough water in the world to slake the thirst of our global population, nor to maintain its current energy and power systems.
What Can We Do?
The most important thing we can do to make a difference is to change our mindset and to start looking at the water coming out of our taps as a finite resource. Take a moment to look at your own water footprint to see where you can make small, simple changes to your diet and lifestyle:
>> Don’t buy plastic bottled water; refill reusable water bottles for just a fraction of the cost.
>> Reduce your consumption of water by installing low-flow devices in your home or business (toilets, washing machines, passive water filters instead of reverse osmosis or water softeners).
>> Replace your water-use-intensive lawn with edible landscapes and drought-tolerant local flora; collect rain-water for your gardens; if you must water, do so in the cool of the evening.
>> Reduce your use of plastics and other disposables—recycle, reduce, reuse.
>> Reduce your dependence on fossil fuels where possible.
>> Reduce your consumption of water-intensive meat and dairy; buy organic and local produce.
>> Sign petitions, and lobby your government officials and representatives for tougher rules on water conservation and clean water policies.
Water Cooperation: Facts & Figures
The World Bank: Will Water Constrain Our Energy Future?
National Geographic: If You Think The Water Crisis Can’t Get Worse, Wait Until the Aquifers Are Drained
Pacific Institute: 10 Shocking Facts about the World’s Water
BBC News: Shortages: Water supplies in crisis
The Guardian: Global majority faces water shortages “within two generations”
The Atlantic: The Coming Global Water Crisis
Author: Mike Bundrant
Image: Hernán Piñera/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman