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Written by Brandon King   
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Thursday, 04 February 2010

Scarcity of Water

Paying the piper—water scarcity in the 21st century: When people talk about water scarcity, one of the many consequences of global warming, they do not mean that the earth is running out of water. While only two percent of the earth’s water is freshwater, that is still enough to go around.1 What water scarcity pertains to is the worldwide distribution of water rather than the worldwide volume of water. Put more clearly, water scarcity is “the problem… that some countries get a lot more [water] than others.”2 So while the Southwestern United States does not have an abundance of freshwater, it does have the infrastructure to pipe it in from other, wetter regions. Others are not so lucky, especially those in the developing world’s arid and semi-arid climates. For them, water scarcity is already a growing problem. Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that "Up to 1.2 billion people in Asia, 250 million Africans and 81 million Latin Americans will be exposed to increased water stress by 2020."3 By 2030, adds Britain’s Independent, more than half the world’s population will live in high-risk areas.4

Water scarcity brings an increase in waterborne illnesses such as cholera and typhoid, which occur when people get their drinking water from unsafe sources. It will mean more than sick people though: Dr. Rajendra is one of many who predict that water scarcity will come to be one of the primary causes of intra-national and international conflicts in the 21st century—unless humans worldwide change their water consumption habits.

How global warming causes water scarcity: Isn’t global warming melting ice worldwide, giving us more, not less, water? Yes, but as mentioned, water scarcity has nothing to do with total volume of water worldwide and everything to do with its distribution. As temperatures rise, upstream glaciers will melt, potentially disappearing forever as a source of water. Even if these glaciers remain, decreased annual snowmelt will cause many of the world’s rivers to diminish in size, and some will disappear completely. And melting ice caps mean rising seas will intrude into the lower reaches of many rivers.5 Floods and droughts will also become more common. Simply put, freshwater flows will become erratic, and the billions of people worldwide who bet on predictable seasonal changes in local waterways will find themselves holding an entirely new hand.

The haves and have nots: Are we prepared for less dependable sources of water? Not really. After all, water usage grew at twice the rate of the worldwide population in the 20th century,6 due in large part to urbanization and increased industrial water use. In spite of this worldwide growth, one in five citizens of the developing world still lacks access to the minimum recommended 20 liters day.7 And the four in five who are fortunate enough to get at least the bare minimum sometimes pay as much as 10 times more than those with access to piped water. In contrast, water use in the U.S. and Europe ranges from 60 to 200 liters per day.

Problem number one—Health
: Instead of paying a premium for water, however, most of the world’s poor opt to get it from unsafe sources. By doing this, they expose themselves to a number of health risks, especially diarrhoeal ailments such as “cholera, typhoid fever, salmonellosis, other gastrointestinal viruses, and dysentery.”8 Zimbabwe’s ongoing cholera epidemic, which has so far claimed 4,293 lives,9 results from a lack of safe drinking water in urban areas and is exactly the sort of tragedy we can expect to see more of. People in water-scarce areas also don’t bathe enough, and the consequences of this extend beyond bad body odor. For example, Trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, is “strongly related to a lack of regular face washing.”10 Another problem is that “Water scarcity encourages people to store water in their homes. This can… provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes - which are vectors for dengue, dengue haemorrhagic fever, and malaria and other diseases.”11

Political consequences: Water scarcity has political implications as well. The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security maintains a list of so-called water conflicts ( The first recorded conflict over water, as recounted in ancient Sumerian legend, dates back to 3000BC! Scroll through the Pacific Institute’s 46 page chronology and you might be surprised to see that control of water plays a part in the continuing violence in Darfur as well as the conflict between Pakistan and India. Indeed, Pakistan regularly accuses India of using waterways to exert its geopolitical will. Expect more of these conflicts as well because “over 260 basins are shared by more than 2 countries.”12 Water scarcity will demand increased intra-national and international cooperation if political equilibrium is to be maintained.

California—a troubled state: The impacts of water scarcity will be felt most acutely by the developing world, but the United States will be affected as well. California in particular faces pressing questions about its San Joaquin Valley, the most productive agricultural region in the world. The San Joaquin Valley relies on the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which may be gone by the end of the century. Because of this and “outdated water and flood management,”13 the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers and their tributaries were identified as America’s #1 most endangered river system in 2009. To read more about this, check out:

To save their livelihood, California farmers need to make the switch from water-intensive crops like cotton and rice to fruits and vegetables that use water more efficiently.13 Factions such as “farmers, cities, governments, taxpayers and environmentalists,”15 who have traditionally seen their interests as at odds with one another, need to cooperate and accept compromise. New canals and storage facilities will have to replace California’s outdated infrastructure.16 Together the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers provide water for 25 million people and for more than 5 million acres of farmland,17 and it is precisely this farmland from which California’s $35 billion dollar farm industry springs.18

It is not just California’s economy this is endangered by the water crisis. “The World Water Development Report, compiled by 24 UN agencies under the auspices of Unesco, adds that shortages are already beginning to constrain economic growth in areas as diverse…. as China, Australia, India and Indonesia.”19 Hopefully, California will set an example for the rest of the world by increasing its water productivity, or volume of food production per unit of water,20 and by emphasizing cooperation between different interest groups. The symptoms differ, but the disease is the same all over the world. While there is no panacea for water scarcity, there is still time to treat it.

Check out these Greeniacs articles and guides to see how you can conserve water at home:

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Comments (2)
RSS comments
1. 06-06-2012 04:41
It’s an especially sad irony that these conditions persist at the very time when water treatment equipment has experienced new and exciting technological developments that can remove virtually all pollutants from water in a single stage. Interesting fact - about 1k of all college graduates find jobs in water saving industry but in a global scale there's no real improvement.
2. 11-12-2011 10:21
I believe whole heart
I believe whole heart in renewables. It is not too difficult to understand that if you design your energy requirements around them, the future generations will have as much as you have at present. When you go onto carbon tax and politicians organising a reduction in carbon dioxide to save the world I am quite naturally suspicious. I mean we live in a democracy, and the politicians are elected to carry out the government requirements, but paying them money with the help of loans UK to try and reduce carbon emissions, it is so out of the ordinary it could be classed as unbelievable. I would put their attitudes and beliefs in the same category as folk who believe in Santa Clause or the Tooth Fairy, I must admit I hope there are still some of us around.

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Last Updated ( Monday, 07 February 2011 )