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The State of the Planet: Fresh Water

 
POINTS OF VIEW:

Ronald Rosenberg, U.S. Army Medical Research Unit

I think that Americans have a romantic view of Africa. They think about the savanna and these huge herds of elephant, and antelope and lions, but in fact, modern Africa is really much more like this, with large cities like Nairobi that act as magnets to bring people in from the countryside where they're having trouble making a living. When they come into a city like Nairobi, they bring with them a nucleus for epidemics.


Peter Gleick, Pacific Institute

Perhaps the greatest failure of development in the 20th century was our failure to meet basic human needs for water for everyone. And the direct implication of this failure to provide basic human needs for water are water-related diseases. Three to five million people die a year, 20 or 30,000 perhaps a day, from water-related diseases that are easy to prevent.


Thomas Homer-Dixon, University of Toronto


Squatter settlements need large amounts of water, and you'll find that often rich groups and powerful groups who control the water resources will use their power to basically extract huge profits by selling water to the squatter settlements.


Robert Engelman, Population Action International


Forty or fifty years ago water shortage wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen. Heck, twenty years ago it wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen. That’s typical of the way a lot of population and environment interactions are happening in the world. Things just get gradually a little bit more stressful in an ecosystem or an environment, but people figure they can live with them. And then suddenly some kind of tipping point is reached. Suddenly water that was available for generations just isn’t there anymore.

PROFILE:

Jimmy Steindinger

Jimmy Steindinger, Citrus Farmer



Jimmy Steindinger, a Texas citrus farmer, has prospered because of the Rio Grande.

“Without water, it's just like without money,” says Steindinger. “If you go to a banker, the first thing they ask is if you got any water for your farm or for your crop. If you don't, they won't hardly loan you any money, so water to me is like having money in the bank, because without that, I can't make a crop. And without makin' a crop, I don't make money. I've been farming 36 years now – I never did worry about the water because I always felt like I was gonna have plenty of water.”

Because of the adverse effects of the Falcon Dam on his supply of water, Steindinger has been forced to destroy twenty acres of productive grapefruit trees. There's simply not enough water for irrigation. For Steindinger, the destruction of a mature and fertile crop is both an emotional and expensive experience.

“It feels pretty bad to see these tress that I have planted eleven years ago – having to take them out because I don't have enough water,” he says.

We now live in a world where the quality of water can be considered a major human rights issue. In the poverty stricken slums of the developing world, people have little choice other than to dump raw sewage into their local river.

The health affects are significant, particularly in the developing world. In numerous cities, the biggest health problem is the lack of clean water. With economic prosperity, the advantage of newly acquired wealth is clearly apparent.

Suzhou Creek is an ancient canal cutting through the heart of Shanghai. Today it’s the city’s lifeline. Each day thousands of barges carry food and construction materials in and out of Shanghai. A few years ago the canal was literally a sewer.

Suzhou Creek received massive amounts of wastewater and pollution from factories flanking the canal. To remedy the problem authorities invested billions of dollars to build a series of huge tunnels to collect Shanghai’s wastewater, which was then treated and flushed out to sea. The clean up of Suzhou Creek was made possible because of a thriving economy.

 

Slum in Haiti

Slum in Haiti

Located 600 miles off the southeast coast of the United States is the Caribbean island nation of Haiti. This is the Western Hemisphere's poorest country and unlike Shanghai it suffers from severe economic depression and political instability.

When a nation can't afford to provide the basic necessities of life, water becomes a rare and often unaffordable commodity.

In the slums of Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, a quarter of a million Haitians are at the mercy of local gang members who control all forms of commerce, including the sale and distribution of safe drinking water. The children that live in these back alleys are the innocent victims of poverty. Their life expectancy is almost thirty years less than children born in the United States.

In Haiti, a week's supply of water could be equal to a day's wages. When a nation can't afford to provide the basic necessities of life, water becomes a rare and often unaffordable commodity. Fortunately, even in the world's poorest countries, there are small victories.

In a remote corner of Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa, during the dry season it may not rain for months. Watering holes and grasslands disappear. Elephants invade farms and pastures in search of food. An unforgiving sun turns villages into dusty wastelands.

Seasonal drought has always been part of this nation’s history. But when the rains don’t come most farm families are forced to struggle with hunger – sometimes famine – as their tiny plots of land turn brown. Yet there are communities in Zimbabwe that have found ways to cope with the lack of rain.

The Rio Grande River marks much of the twelve hundred mile border between Mexico and Texas. And for those living in one of the most arid regions of North America – the Rio Grande has always been a primary source of water.

Along the Falcon Dam reservoir, the history of the water crisis is literally etched in stone. A series of high water marks along the shore show a dramatic and steady loss of water.

Even in times of drought, the river always provided. Fifty years ago the Mexican and United States governments built the Falcon Dam across the Rio Grande. They also created a huge reservoir that was supposed to supply the region's water needs well into the 21st century.

But, in the five decades since the dam was built, much has happened in the Rio Grande Valley. New cities sprang up on both sides of the border. Commerce flourished – and as the population exploded from 200,000 to 20 million – the demand for water increased.

Along the Falcon Dam reservoir, the history of the water crisis is literally etched in stone. A series of high water marks along the shore show a dramatic and steady loss of water. The first to suffer were local farmers. These farmers have just become a statistic – victims of a global water crisis that threatens to be even more serious in the years ahead.

RELATED CONTENT:

 

Read more about The State of the Planet:
Introduction | Population | Fresh Water | Wetlands | Global Warming | Ecosystems

 

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Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization | State of the Planet's Oceans | State of the Ocean's Animals
State of the Planet's Wildlife | The State of the Planet | Future Conditional | On the Brink | Hot Zones
Seas of Grass | Land of Plenty, Land of Want | Urban Explosion | Rivers of Destiny


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