In the rich part of the world, we know water is a major concern for many people, but we’ve never been in that situation ourselves. Some of us suspect our children might have to face the problem. What exactly is the problem? Here are the key facts to grasp a complex situation, insufficiently covered by the media, with direct impact on all of our lives.
Water by the numbers
The volume of all water would be about 332.5 million cubic miles, or 1,386 million cubic kilometers. Compared to the volume of the planet, it would look like this:
(1) All water (sphere over western U.S., 860 miles in diameter)
(2) Fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers (sphere over Kentucky, 169.5 miles in diameter), and
(3) Fresh-water lakes and rivers (sphere over Georgia, 34.9 miles in diameter).
Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.
Of the world’s total water supply, over 96 % is saltwater. Of total freshwater, over 68% is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30% of freshwater is in the ground and is increasingly used by humans. The rest is in rivers and lakes. Most lakes are in very inhospitable regions such as the glacial lakes of Canada, Lake Baikal in Russia or the African Great Lakes. The North American Great Lakes, which contain 21% of the world’s freshwater by volume, are the exception (1). Rivers are the source of most of the fresh surface water people use, but they only constitute about 1/10,000th of one percent of total water (2).
River water and groundwater are the main sources for human use.
Water is never sitting still: our planet’s water supply is constantly moving from one place to another and from one form to another in what we call the water cycle (2). Here are some simple notions you have to keep in mind: Precipitation creates runoff that travels over the ground surface and helps to fill lakes and rivers. It also percolates or moves downward through the soil to replenish aquifers under the ground (3).
It is estimated an additional 1.5 to 11 times the amount of water in the oceans is contained in the Earth’s interior, and some scientists have hypothesized that the water in the mantle is part of a “whole-Earth water cycle” (1).
The first 11 months of 2015, the world consumed over 4500000 billion of liters (4500 km3) (4), mostly on agriculture. Without the water cycle, the water in the rivers would be totally used by humans in less than 50 years.
Asia is the largest consumer. In the years to come, the regions that will see the most important increase in water withdrawal are Africa and South America (5). Here are some trends for the future, that can be sum up in a word:
The highway to hell
The water cycle was thought to be as permanent as sunrise and sunset. There is unquestionable evidence that several human actions disrupt this natural phenomenon:
- intense urbanization, with less and less “green soil” out in the open, prevents water from percolating and renewing aquifers. It also changes the runoff pattern, the water never reaching the rivers or the lakes and ending up in the ocean.
- massive pollution rendering water unusable for long periods. One of the latest and most dramatic such cases is the dam rupture and pollution of Rio Doce in Brazil (6). There are also intentional types of pollution – the most important of all being agrochemicals.
- over-pumping aquifers and lakes to the point where the refill is no longer possible
- virtual water trade: using water to produce something that will be exported. In the U.S., about one-third of the water is sent out of watersheds through this mechanism (7)
- climate change – the one we are all familiar with – causes loss of glaciers and modifies the pattern of rainfall
In order to complete the horror show, did you know that drying out aquifers might have a terrifying effect? (7) You may have heard of a seemingly natural phenomenon – sinkholes. Several factors converge in order to form them. Urbanization and massive water pumping are frequently noted among them. See below a dramatic image of a Chinese sinkhole in 2013. Others can be seen in Mexico City and Florida.
Is there a contingency plan?
The short answer is no. There is no public plan for it and mainstream media is generally silent on the question. Why?
Some might say this is proof all this is exaggerated, the threat is in reality milder. It is true, water is still a bargain for the West: the average price of water in the U. S. is about $1.50 for 1,000 gallons (around 3785 liters) (3). You be the judge.
There is a general law of the planet Earth – all things are delicately intricate. This means that when something is imbalanced, a countless series of other elements become imbalanced. The opposite is fortunately also true. Putting our collective efforts into rethinking these roads for mankind will provide the spark that will eventually create a chain-reaction and solve much more than we would have hoped to in the beginning. By doing so, we will also trade our global-warming-triggered depression for an invigorating feeling of hope. This is no small thing.
Acknowledging the existence of the 4 causes – urbanization – pollution – over-pumping and export-based economies – besides the well-known global warming – is essential in order to begin the search for the right solution. Global warming is becoming a convenient excuse world governments lean on. Instead of trading carbon chips, we might as well try resetting our priorities (i.e. ensuring an above-all-access to clean water), rethinking our cities, putting to use incredibly efficient ideas already existing in alternative agriculture (8) (Monsanto is already one step ahead), scaling down economies to the local level.
We can do more than what we are told to do – check for household leaks, water the lawn in the morning and take 5 minute-long showers (3).
A corporate love affair
In a world where water – especially clean water – becomes scarce, the main question is who will own and who will use the water from the rivers and from the ground. The question of the ownership of lakes, glaciers and even oceans will at some point become even more important.
Remote sources once too difficult to exploit will suddenly become very appealing and technology will always follow in.
A partnership between IBM and a Saudi Arabian research center has been underway since 2010. The project relies on combining two previously unrelated areas of IBM’s knowhow, microprocessor technology (in a new kind of solar panel) and nanotechnology (in a new kind of desalination filter), in the service of a third: making clean water, a business that IBM wasn’t in 8 years ago (9). The world’s largest solar-powered seawater desalination plant incorporating this groundbreaking technology is due to be commissioned in 2017 (10).
The bright side of the market is that companies become extremely efficient in reducing the amounts of water they use because they have discovered it comes with cost cuts in electricity, energy and water treatment. These cuts amount to much more than the direct save from water. If we add to the equation the analytic capability of a company like IBM, we actually come close to perfection: their microchip plant in Burlington, Vermont. It is a factory where the company makes ultrapure water – necessary to produce semiconductors but harmful to living beings. They have managed to cut water use by 29% by doing some unbelievable things which won’t be detailed here. The key was to find out where the biggest costs related to water were. The act of measuring alone created an imperative for changing behavior (9). This is how IBM discovered the economic potential of water. In a world where more and more networks are highly monitored, water networks had long been overlooked. Not anymore:
IBM is introducing the world to the era of smart water (11).
Other giant corporations have developed a recent appetite for water, including:
- GE – in 2014, GE was named Water Company of the Year by Global Water Intelligence: “GE Water has transformed itself from a bundle of overpriced acquisitions into the most formidable industrial water company in the world, positioned at the center of the water-energy nexus. In 2013, it was arguably the most successful water company in the business, advancing its activities on all fronts, while many of its competitors struggled” (12)
- Dow Chemical is “Purifying the essentials of life” through its Water and Process Solutions (13).
- Procter & Gamble manufactures a mystery powder that restores water to safe-to-drink levels and commits “to Save One Life Every Hour by 2020” (14)
- Nestlé – Nestlé Waters is the world leader of the bottled water industry with a 11.7 % market share (15). In 2011, Nestlé’s CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, said the only way for the world to manage water distribution properly was to make it something for which we actually had to pay out of pocket (16).
As water becomes scarce, these companies sense the profit-making opportunity: a market develops. There is pressure for water to become a mere commodity. Letting the market manage water may reduce its waste, but not all companies are as efficient as the IBM Burlington water plant. In France, municipal water resources have been managed privately, then reclaimed by the government – with an actual distribution cost cut (16). Other voices claim that water is too precious to be mismanaged by governments (17).
Behind the marketing smokescreen, one has to recognize that the same companies responsible for very serious and long-term water pollution (18) are the ones that promise to adequately manage all aspects of water, including reuse and recycling. If they massively invest in recycling, what is the financial incentive to stop polluting?
Do we rely on recycling water or do we protect the sources we use? Can corporations do both without a conflict of interest?
Protecting the abused
Water is omnipresent on the planet and in our bodies, to the point that it has no color nor smell to us. For a long time, water was just there, within our grasp, not worth to mention.
We need to remember that water and life are inseparable. No known living thing can function without water, and there is life wherever there is water on Earth (19).
We need to remember that people can survive weeks without food and only days without water (3).
In 2006, the UN released a Human Development Report with an eloquent title: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (20). The whole report is worth reading, but 2 figures are mind-numbing and probably haven’t improved since:
1.1 billion people don’t have access to drinking water.1.8 million children die annually from water-related disease.
How do we protect the children, the poor, water and ultimately all Life? Some say we need laws and regulations, but to what extent? What kinds of water should be concerned – drinking, domestic, industrial? Should laws concern water – who owns it, uses it, distributes it, cleans it – or all the other aspects that imply access to clean water, such as food, health and hygiene? Should laws transform housing and education in order to protect this right to water? Should laws regulate the biggest polluters – the industry – energy – agriculture? How?
To this day, two nations have included a right to water in their Constitution: South Africa (21) and Uruguay (22). The amendment to Uruguay’s Constitution was initiated through popular referendum. The amendment states that access to piped water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, and that social considerations take priority over economic considerations in water policies. This type of initiative should be acclaimed, studied and improved. The stakes regarding water are so high, unprecedented measures should be taken. Our political system should be remodeled around this core of rights. Exceptional care should be taken to protect Constitutional Courts from political and lobbyist influences that could weaken the implementation of constitutional law (23). The people in power – the governments – should be personally held responsible for failing to protect these rights and punished accordingly.
The ones that control water control life on Earth. Acknowledge it and talk about it.
A person worth knowing: Maude Barlow
Data gathering and writing: 40 hours of work. All sources free on the Internet. The author is the opposite of an expert. No conflict of interest to declare.