Is a global water crisis looming?

The world has resources that are limited such as oil, coal, gold, silver, silicon, iron ore, and resources that are unlimited such as sunlight, wind, geothermic power and water. Especially water appears to be abundant with more than two thirds of the earth’s surface covered with it. The problem, however, is that only 0.65% of this water is fresh water. But these 0.65% are essential for the survival of all known forms of life and water is next to oxygen the most important nutrient for humans. All this makes water the most precious resource.
Nevertheless, water resources are depleted, overused, polluted in an amount that will inevitably lead to a disaster unless rapid action is taken and the limited quantity of fresh water will turn out to be the most significant crisis for humanity. Water is not (yet) traded on stock exchanges like other commodities, partly because of concerns about the ethics of applying market principles to such a vital resource, but there is such a thing as water trading which is the buying and selling of water rights, especially in areas where water is already scarce. And obviously, water trading brings along a number of advantages: Giving water a price encourages economical use and the price shows the balance of water supplies. Australia has already an effective permanent water trading scheme. This prevents irrigation in areas where it’s almost perverse to grow crops and the demand for water must be limited in order to keep the ecosystem from collapsing. Right now, Australia faces a massive long-standing drought that threatens the country’s export-oriented agriculture. Experts even suggest that Australia should consider shifting away from this water-consuming and now, with rising costs for water, barely profitable business.

The urgency of the matter comes to the fore when considering the global situation. More than 1.2 billion people have no access to safe drinking water. In many parts of the world, there’s no sanitation and water-borne diseases as well as water pollution are the consequences. Every day, more than 5,000 children die because of drinking polluted water. In northwest China, the situation is especially tense. In this arid region, deserts are spreading and millions of people have no access to potable water. 90% of Chinese rivers are too polluted to be used for drinking water. With only few environmental regulations, many factories discharge their toxic sewages straight into rivers. Thus, most rivers in China cannot even be used for irrigation. Chinese authorities estimate an agricultural loss of more than $7 billion annually. In large parts of the country, water supplies are rationed. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has realized that water shortages and water pollution threaten both, the economic development and the stability of the society. Adverse effects on the health of the people are undeniable. On some days, factories have to disrupt production due to a lack of water. Especially industries consuming lots of water have to cease production from time to time. Steel production takes one ton of water for one ton of steel. Nuclear power plants which rely on cooling water from rivers have to go offline when the temperature of the river rises above a certain level.

Water scarcity is not only an issue concerning Asia and Africa. Some regions in North America and Europe are also at risk of falling dry: Spain has been suffering a severe drought for years and water shortages threaten many regions and cities. The latest example is Barcelona. The metropolis on the coast of the Mediterranean is forced to import water as the city’s water reserves are empty and the rivers in the area of Barcelona have almost dried up. Even the city’s drinking water supply is not secured unless heavy rains recover the reserves. Water shipments serve as a stopgap solution to win some time until a whole bunch of measures takes effect. Next to severe restrictions on water use, Barcelona also considers building a pipeline that should tap into the French river Rhone and transport the water to Spain. This water would of course not be used for irrigation or filling up hotel pools, but to provide drinking water to its citizens.
Water is not only scarce in Barcelona, but also in many other regions in southeast Spain. This can be accounted mostly to shortsighted policy. Spain has ever been a very dry piece of land, especially in summer. Water is not at all abundant there and a considerable share of the water consumed in Spain is tertiary water from underground aquifers. All the same, Spain wastes a lot of its precious fresh water. Most of it evaporates anyway after being used on one of the numerous golf courses recently built or for irrigation on Spain’s widespread fields where fruits and vegetables are grown for export. To no one’s surprise, Spain’s agriculture is the number one consumer of water and unfortunately, the way most Spanish farmers use water can hardly be more wasteful. More than 50% of the water is lost in leaky conduits. This is only possible because Spain has one of the lowest prices of water in the EU.

But arid areas in the US also struggle to provide sufficient potable water to its citizens. The water level of Lake Mead, which is the largest man-made lake and fresh water reservoir in the United States, has been dropping so that the lake is currently at only 50% of its capacity. Las Vegas which gets most of its water from Lake Mead is at risk of falling dry. The water of Lake Mead is from the Colorado River whose water flow has been below average for many years. The total volume of water carried along in the Colorado River is decreasing alarmingly fast. As a result, the reservoir of Lake Mead which releases water to southern California and Nevada, most notably Las Vegas, is generally not expected to recover any time soon. Even worse. Researchers from the University of California in San Diego concluded that Lake Mead might run dry in 13 years so that it cannot anymore release any water to Las Vegas and other cities.

The gambling capital in the desert is not really known for water conservation with its irrigated parks, lawns, fountains, lakes and other greenery. This could, however, change rapidly with major disruptions in water supply looming in the medium term.

Next to water waste excesses like in Las Vegas, climate change, the ongoing industrialization in emerging countries and the world’s growing population could make things even worse. Meteorologists warn that by 2025, more than half to of the earth could be affected by water shortages. This will threaten growth and prosperity and unsettle riots, warfare an unprecedented flow of refugees. The World Water Council (WWC) predicts that until 2050, the number of environmental refugees could rise to 150 million due to climate change. The UN says that tensions over water will increase as scarcity increases. Experts say the next war in the Middle East is likely to be over water, as it is a strategic resource in the region. And in the medium term, water will be of a higher strategic importance than oil is today. No one can survive without water, not even a few days. Controlling the water supplies of a country is tantamount to controlling the country.
How global warming in combination with human mismanagement (which is also the cause of global warming) of water resources can effect intact water reservoirs can be seen at the Aral Sea which was once the fourth largest lake on earth but has been shrinking rapidly due to overuse. Most of the water formerly flowing into the lake from the rivers Syr Darya and Amu Darya was used for the irrigation of vast cotton plantations. What is left over of the Aral Sea is less than one tenth of its original size, three small lakes with high salinity, polluted by pesticides and fertilizer runoff, surrounded by the dried-out seabed covered with salt. This ecological catastrophe impacts the entire region. Former fishing towns have become ghost towns, almost no jobs remained, salt-laden air impacts people’s health and agriculture. Drinking water is polluted and the climate is becoming drier.

All around the world, deserts are expanding and at the same time, the water infrastructure is poor. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that by 2025, $300 billion need to be invested to maintain water supplies in the U.S. Sufficient investments in better water conduits without leaks, a wastewater system, water preparation and desalination are necessary to maintain water supplies. But investments in the water system will result in higher prices. On the other hand, higher prices encourage a more efficient use of water. The per capita water consumption per day varies significantly. While in the average U.S. citizen consumes about 339 liters a day, the average water consumption in Germany, where people have to pay twice as much, is about 130 liters a day. But this could change. Whereas in Germany, the price of water fell over the last five years, in Australia, Canada and South Africa, the price of water is up 60 to 80%.
With water being unequally distributed, but, unlike oil, being a renewable resource, water could be exported. Though this is not easy, it’s possible as it can be seen in the case of the planned Barcelona water pipeline. Companies specialized in water technologies have great opportunities. Berlin, which is the city that gets most of its drinking water from rivers and lakes in Europe, could serve as a role model. Bank filtration, which is biological, not chemical, is the process of preparing the water so that it’s safe for drinking.
44% of the world’s population lives in areas affected by high water stress and areas of water scarcity are expected to expand over the next years. This puts pressure on governments to find solutions to tackle that issue. The first step would be to invest heavily in a proper water infrastructure, but also to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation. In China, where water is subsidized, the price of water must be raised to true market levels to avoid waste and make the necessity to act visible. In China, water means prosperity, how true it is! Water will mean prosperity in the future.
According to the USGS, it takes between 1,300 gallons and 620 gallons of water to grow a hamburger. It takes water to grow the vegetation the cow eats, water for the cow to drink and water for processing the meat. With more people changing their habits to eating more meat, the water consumption rises. Four fifth of the total water supplies are consumed by agriculture and industry. Generally, both can increase the efficiency considerably. Building a car consumes 39,000 gallons of water.


“I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man.”

– Henry David Thoreau

Water scarcity in Spain – Barcelona is drying up

The most precious resource I

The most precious resource II



Filed under Economy, Environment, Global Issues, Politics, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Is a global water crisis looming?

  1. Pingback: Amazing opening ceremony of the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing « What Matters

  2. Thankfully, new research shows that global warming equals gains in precipitation. It is certainly raining more than usual here in Scotland (I am nearly sixty years of age)

  3. Pingback: I’ll take a summer break… « What Matters

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