Saturday, September 01, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere, But Just 1% to Drink: The Global Water Crisis—Part I

In the year 1798, in An Essay on the Principles of Population, Thomas Malthus proposed the theory that while resources tend to grow linearly, population grows exponentially. That led to the argument that (as explained in Wikipedia) “If left unrestricted, human populations continue to grow until they become too large to be supported by the food grown on available agricultural land, causing starvation that in turn restricts population growth.” Pointing out that this had happened many times previously in human history, Malthus predicted a recurrence of this pattern by the middle of the 19 th century. His solution to what he saw as an impending disaster was “moral restraint.” Fat chance! (Is it possible that this 150 year old proposal by Malthus formed the basis of the current administration’s failed “celibacy program?” Regardless, it didn’t work back then either.)

While Malthus was correct in his historic references, he failed to anticipate the Industrial Revolution, a similar revolution in agriculture, and the more recent “Green Revolution” during which food production grew faster than the population. However, Malthus may yet be proven right based on changes impacting our planet’s ability to function as a suitable habitat for human beings, due to factors such as global warming, impending oil shortages, accelerated population growth, and the fast growing recognition of a global water crisis. Here exists a confluence of events that form the basis for a potential Malthusian catastrophe.

This column has covered the strong possibility that as a result of the peaking of oil production combined with increased worldwide demand for oil, future significant oil shortages will have a devastating effect on the social and economic condition. The adverse effect on agriculture (food) production alone would be enormous — think pesticides, fertilizers, agriculture machinery, food transportation; all require continuous and reliable supplies of fossil fuels. Another series of articles in this column dealt with the most serious consequences of global warming — deforestation, desertification, drought, re-distribution of rain and flooding patterns, and ocean risings. Then there are the issues of AIDS, hunger, clash of civilizations, war, nuclear bombs, terrorists, and the potential for other (self) man-made destructive developments. Pessimists could maintain that it will be a miracle if mankind can survive issues of this magnitude.

A root cause of most of these socioeconomic and environmental problems can be traced to, and is exacerbated by overpopulation. World population growth is now accelerating. For most of the two million years of human history, the earth’s population was less than 250,000. It wasn’t until 1800 that it surpassed the one billion mark. By 1915, the planet’s population was 1.8 billion, then almost doubling 56 years later to 3.5 billion by 1967. Here we are only 40 years later with the world’s population not quite doubling again to some 6.7 billion. A new United Nations report (July, 2007) predicts that by the year 2050 the world’s human inhabitants will number 9.2 billion.

Wikipedia describes the issue of overpopulation as follows: “In the context of human societies, overpopulation occurs when the population density is so great as to actually cause an impaired quality of life, serious environmental degradation, or long-term shortages of essential goods and services.” It then explains, “The resources to be considered when evaluating whether an ecological niche is overpopulated include clean water, clean air, food, shelter, warmth, and other resources necessary to sustain life.”

Note the reference to “clean water.” While most of the emphasis recently concentrated on oil, the associated escalating price of gasoline, and of course on Global Warming, the subject of water has not been well publicized, yet, it has the potential of becoming the most serious issue the world has ever confronted. It certainly has not yet received the attention it deserves. While the aggregate amount of all the earth’s water has remained constant over eons, the global demand for clean water has tripled just since the 1950’s. At the same time, the supply of fresh drinking water has declined as a result of contamination and over pumping.

When viewed from space, the earth is a brilliant blue and it is known as the Blue Planet. The color is attributed to the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water. However, almost all of that water is salt water located in the oceans and seas. Only about 2.5 percent of all the water is freshwater suitable for drinking. However, most of that is not accessible since it is locked in the ground, in polar ice caps, or glaciers. As a result, only one percent of all the earth’s water is available to the current population of 6.7 billion people. Water, Water, Everywhere, But Just 1% to Drink.

On its website, Water Partners International provides the following interesting facts about water:
  • If all the earth’s water fit in a gallon jug, available fresh water would equal just over a tablespoon.

  • A person can live about a month without food, but only about a week without water.

  • A person needs 4-5 gallons of water per day to survive.

  • The average American individual uses 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day.

  • The average African family uses about 5 gallons of water each day.

  • More than 200 million hours are spent each day by women and female children to collect water from distant, often polluted sources.

  • Approximately 60 to 70 percent of the rural population in the developing world has neither access to a safe and convenient source of water or a satisfactory means of waste disposal.

  • Water systems fail at a rate of 50% or higher.

  • According to the UN, 20% of the world’s population in 30 countries faces water shortages.

  • Some of the world’s largest cities, including Beijing, Buenos Aires, Dhaka, Lima, and Mexico City, depend heavily on groundwater for their water supply, and It is unlikely that dependence on aquifers, which take many years to recharge, will be sustainable.

  • Poor people in the developing world pay on average 12 times more per liter of water than fellow citizens connected to municipal systems; these poverty stricken people use less water, much of which is dirty and contaminated.

And all you have to do to get freshwater is walk to the sink and turn the faucet handle.

According to the 2006 United Nations’ World Water Development Report,1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to clean water, and 2.6 billion have no, or inadequate sanitation. The UN report predicts that by the year 2025, 3 billion people will face a scarcity of clean water. The report also forecasts that under the worst-case scenario, by the middle of this century no fewer than 7 million people in 60 countries may be faced with a water scarcity. Here is another stunning statistic: As a result of the current water deficit 1.8 million children die every year. The U.S News & World Report cites “myriad problems” leading to this situation: “industrial contamination, an exploding world population, political corruption and incompetence, and a changing climate — just to name a few.” The UN has declared water a “global crisis.”

A report issued last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated, “Across the planet, in developing and developed regions alike, poor governance and mismanagement of natural resources coupled with rising population growth, increasing urbanization, and economic development have led to a growing imbalance between water supply and demand. This imbalance is reaching crisis proportions in many regions. The disparity will have even more significant consequences for economic development, stability, and security unless there is a more dramatic and urgent international response, effective immediately.”

Despite the many other problematic issues faced by the world, the consequences of insufficient water supplies on a global basis must be viewed as the most grave. Next month’s Part II will elaborate.


At 10:28 PM, Anonymous al kling said...

Over population is the root cause of all shortages and the warming cycle.

The only way it will be overcome in
a Practical way is by a massively
terrible event.[plage, war etc.]
China's one child per family did
not lead to a lower population.

Modern medicine and farming has
lead up to the present problem.

The planet needs people who do not want chidddddddren.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger Natalie Burdick said...

There is never just ONE answer, that's the folly of all fundamentalist (religious, political or otherwise).

Population control is a solution, but not the ONLY one.

Sustainability through awareness, through choice, through action AND through economic incentive are others.

And btw, this is from someone who long ago choose not to reproduce.


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