Overdrawn at the River Bank: The Future of Water, Part II


This is the second of three posts about the future of water. The first can be found here.

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

Water scarcity has several causes, all of which compound each other. First is that of the freshwater available above ground or from precipitation, most of it is either located far from where people want it, or it falls at times and in ways so it can’t be adequately used, such as in torrential rainfalls or blizzards.

Hence, for instance, Canada is a freshwater heavyweight. With ½ of 1% of the Earth’s population, it has about 7% of the world’s renewable freshwater supplies, or about the same amount of freshwater as all of China, which has 20% of global population. But while 84% of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of to its southern border with the United States, over 60% of its freshwater supplies are far north of that, flowing up into the Arctic Ocean.

Beyond these naturally occurring barriers to the world’s fresh water, there are more recent developments that are tightening the water supply. Climate change is raising temperatures in many places, which puts more water into the atmosphere through evaporation and clouds instead of on the ground. It also changes rainfall patterns, which means many dry climates, such as California’s, are getting drier. It is changing the monsoon season in India, where agriculture is dependent on getting just the right amount of rain at the right times, so a changed monsoon season will leave it with either not enough rain, or with flooding, which quickly runs off. Either would severely restrain food production.

Water Abuses

Agriculture is a major factor in water mismanagement as well. Although there are a few farmers who use water wisely, in most of the world farmers abuse water supplies, as when they use it in open-ditch, or large-scale spray, irrigation schemes that can lose half of all the water allocated to evaporation before it ever reaches the crops being “watered.”

Our rising standard of living hurts as well, because, as with energy use, there is very strong correlation between how well we live, and how much water we use. The global trend towards greater urbanization hurts, too, as major urban centers not only use more water per person than rural areas, but waste more of it through aging, leaky infrastructure. In some places in India, for example, it’s guestimated (because nobody really knows) that perhaps as much as 40% of all the water that flows in municipal pipes leaks into the soil before it reaches users. But because water pipes are invisible, no one can see the problems developing or can tell precisely how bad they are. And no one wants to pay more taxes to maintain invisible infrastructure. As a result, water mains are in poor repair almost everywhere, in rich and poor countries alike.

And because surface water is not being used well, farmers, cities, and industry are all pumping a steadily increasing amount of water from underground aquifers. The problem here is that in many cases, these aquifers represent fossil water that has been deposited over periods of thousands or millions of year, and are replenished as slowly, if at all.

The Ogallala aquifer, also called the High Plains aquifer, for example, is one of the largest in the world, and runs through eight American states: Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. It provides approximately 30% of the water used for irrigation in the United States, as well as more than 80% of the drinking water for the people within its boundaries[1]. Yet, while the water level of the Ogallala is estimated to drop by five feet or more per year in places, it is replenished at an estimated rate of about one-half an inch per year.[2]

Nor is this unusual. In the year 2000, the residents in the basin of the Jordan River in the Middle East used 3.2 billion cubic meters of water, but received only 2.5 billion in rainfall, drawing the remaining 22% from the regions’ aquifers. (Three of these aquifers are on Palestinian lands in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the other in coastal Israel, all of which aggravates the political instability and acrimony in the region.)[3]

But perhaps the clearest example of the problems with the future of water comes from India, which has 17 percent of world population, but only 4% of freshwater supplies. There, in the breadbasket regions of Punjab and Haryana, the water table or aquifer is falling by 3 feet a year because of human withdrawals. In the drier state of Gujarat, the water table is falling anywhere from 50 to 1,300 feet a year. No other country in the world pumps as much water from their underground water supplies. As Steven Solomon, author of the remarkable and distressing book, Water, puts it, because of government policies encouraging the careless and profligate use of water, India is, as a nation, committing what amounts to “slow motion hydrological suicide”, with the result that:

Food produced from depleting groundwater is tantamount to an unsustainable food bubble—it will burst when the waters tap out. One warning occurred in 2006 when, for the first time in many years, India was forced to import large quantities of wheat … textile plants have been forced to shut down, and information technology companies have moved away from Bangalore, over water shortages and undependable supplies.[4]

Scapegoating Instead of Acting

India is a clear-cut case where water shortages changed a food exporter into a food importer in order to import “virtual water”, and where industries were forced to move because of water shortages. Partly as a result of growing water shortages, India decided they needed to take action – and did so by fingering foreign corporations as official scapegoats.

Coke and Pepsi are high-profile global companies whose products are water-based. India revoked their licenses to draw water from local supplies on the grounds that they were responsible for the region’s exhausted groundwater. The two companies were eventually forced to adopt a policy that will, over time, become widespread: that of becoming “water neutral.” They have managed to find ways of restoring to community water supplies as much water as they draw from them, which is a remarkable accomplishment, and one that all major corporations should keep in mind in their long-term planning. Water neutrality will join carbon neutrality as a desirable objective, even a mandated one.

But this is also a good example of another aspect of our future: scapegoating, deception, double-dealing, and theft. The history of water is replete with individuals, communities, states, and countries scheming to take possession of scarce water supplies at the expense of their neighbors, from Egypt to Turkey to Texas to China and beyond.

Indeed, at least one military conflict was acknowledged as being caused by water. Ariel Sharon, former Israeli prime minister and a former military commander in the Six Day War of 1967, commented that “In reality, the Six Day War started two and a half years earlier on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan [River]. While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death.”[5]

I have one more blog post about water for now, which I’ll put up next week, about how we are are reacting to the coming water shortages.

© Copyright, IF Research, July 2015.

[1] Wikipedia website, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ogallala_Aquifer.

[2] Solomon, p.345.

[3] ibid., p. 401.

[4] ibid. pp.423-4.

[5] ibid. p.402.