Global Water Resources

Carl Sagan once called the Earth a “pale blue dot”. This is due to the fact that 97% of our little world is covered by water. This divine liquid has given rise to every form of life that currently exists on our planet as well as all the others that came before us. It is often said that water is the elixir of life. More specifically it is clean, drinkable, potable water that is the true enabler of not only our physical evolution but, more importantly, the ability of entire civilizations to pull themselves out of poverty and into productive, economically viable societies. Access to clean drinking water is most often the deciding factor in determining the heath and well being of a people. Unfortunately this all-important ingredient in the success of a stable and progressive society is often the hardest resource to acquire. If the global community cannot agree on a course of action to secure access to clean water for all inhabitants of our pale blue dot then not only will most of our fellow earthlings perish from disease and famine, many more will suffer in the eventual conflicts over the most basic of human needs…thirst.

According to “For want of a drink”, an article from The Economist, there were 2.5 billion people on the earth 60 years ago, that number rose to 6 billion by the year 2000 and now, only 11 years later, we are rapidly approaching 7 billion. It’s estimated that by the middle of this century we will have passed the 9 billion mark (3). In the face of such rapidly increasing numbers of human beings, all with a need to access clean water for food and basic survival, its hard to imagine how such a demand can be met by so little a supply. The instinct to survive is one of the strongest motivators for our species. The lack of access to water for the most basic of services is a situation poised to explode into regional conflicts that could potentially dwarf all of the wars of the past 1,000 years. Countries chronically short of water at the turn of the 21st century accounted for 8% of the world’s population (500m people), this number will rise to 45% (4 billion people) by 2050 (For want of a drink, 4). This staggering statistic means that by mid century almost half of the world’s population will be faced with the prospect of death if they can’t get their hands on water. More than one billion people lack access to clean water supplies and more than 2 billion lack access to basic sanitation (Hoffman, 57). The severity of the problem becomes clearer when you take into account the fact that the earth’s fresh water supplies are not uniformly distributed. A mere nine countries account for 60% of all available fresh water supplies with China and India, the world’s two most populated countries, possessing less than 10% of the earth’s fresh water (For want of a drink, 5).

One of the regions notoriously short on water is of course the Middle East. Many people forget that the lead up to the 1967 war in that region started with a disagreement between Israel and Syria over control of the water in the Jordan River. Allan Hoffman of the U.S. Department of Energy reports that the “total water supply on the earth is 329 million cubic miles with each cubic mile containing more than 1 trillion gallons. 317 million cubic miles of that water, or just over 96 percent, is found in the oceans and is saline. Another 7 million cubic miles is tied up in icecaps and glaciers, and 3.1 million cubic miles is in the earth’s atmosphere. Ground water, fresh water lakes and rivers account for just over 2 million cubic miles of fresh water. The net result is that 99.7 percent of all the water on earth is not available for human consumption. Of the remaining 0.3 percent of water, the vast majority is stored in ground water” (Hoffman, 57). The possibility of an increase in the number conflicts over this incredibly scarce resource in the coming decades becomes even clearer when you consider the link between water and energy. The United States relies heavily on the oil sitting beneath the sands of the Middle East. The lack of access to water in that region could potentially threaten our access to the oil we’ve become addicted to.

A considerable amount of energy is expended in the acquisition of water. We use energy to pump water from aquifers, to transport water through pipelines and to manage and treat waste-water for reuse. Additionally, many of the desalinization plants used to create clean drinking water from ocean water are powered by fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels compounds our water issues by contributing to climate change, which ultimately effects the distribution of precipitation across the globe through the warming of our atmosphere. The lack of access to affordable, environmentally friendly energy only exacerbates the problems faced by both developed and developing nations in their efforts to secure clean water. Furthermore, the link between water and energy is bi-directional. Not only do we expend energy in the search for water, we also use water resources in the generation of energy. The cooling of nuclear power plants is one of the most noted examples of this use. Power plant cooling accounted for 48% of U.S. water withdrawals in 2000 (Hoffman, 59). The generation of hydroelectric power further consumes our fresh water resources.

The treatment of raw water sources to prevent contamination during storage, distribution and handling further complicates global access to water. While necessary, Water Safety Plans (WSPs) add to the economic investment that’s needed to protect the public health. A total of 884 million people (13% of the global population) lack access to improved water supplies; 1.8 million deaths occur annually from diarrheal disease, hepatitis A, parasites, arsenic poisoning and fluorosis which are all contributable to contaminated water (Pollard, 389). More often than not the upfront investment, availability of staff and cultural barriers make implementing proper WSPs very difficult.

One option that’s been proposed to help combat contaminated water supplies is point-of-use (POU) water treatment technologies. The current implementations of these systems come in two forms, the BioSand filter (BSF) and the ceramic water filter. The BSF uses a combination of finely and coarsely ground rock to create a slow sand filter. A ceramic water filter is a clay pot with a colloidal silver lining that acts as a biocide. The largest implementation of both filters can be found in Cambodia. Two studies conducted in that country found up to 44 and 46% reduction of diarrheal diseases with the BSF and ceramic filters respectively (Farahbakhsh, 611). While this is far from a perfect solution it is an example of human ingenuity in the face of a growing crisis.

It has been said that in the coming decades water will become the new oil. While in many respects this may be true, there may be one silver lining to this possibly inevitable crisis. Unlike oil, our global water supplies are partly recycled by our planet. Ground water rises into lakes that flow into the oceans through rivers where it’s picked up by the atmosphere to be dropped back onto and into the ground through rainfall. While the filtering provided through this cycle of precipitation may help in lessening the impact of a coming global shortage of fresh water it is not enough. If we truly want to prevent a breakdown in public health and social advancement we will need global cooperation in managing our fresh water supplies for the good of all the earth’s inhabitants as well as early and heavy investment in water safety plans. Whether or not this outcome will materialize remains to be seen. Our collective history is full of defining moments where we came together as a species to overcome adversity, yet the annals of history are also full of examples when we couldn’t. My advice…drink up!!

Works Cited: Khosrow Farahbakhsh, et al. “A critical evaluation of two point of use water treatment technologies: can they provide water that meets WHO drinking water guidelines?.” Journal of Water & Health 8.4 (2010): 611-630. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

“For want of a drink.” Economist 395.8683 (2010): 3-5. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Hoffman, Allan R. “Water Security: A Growing Crisis and the Link to Energy.” AIP Conference Proceedings 1044.1 (2008): 55-63. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.

Simon Pollard, et al. “An international review of the challenges associated with securing ‘buy-in’ for water safety plans within providers of drinking water supplies.” Journal of Water & Health 8.2 (2010): 387-398. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Apr. 2011.