Freshwater Scarcity: The Greatest Crisis Most Americans Have Never Heard Of

April 21st, 2010, by STEVEN SOLOMON

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” Benjamin Franklin
quipped wisely over two centuries ago, long before it seemed conceivable
that freshwater could become scarce across the planet or anyone
imagined the need for an Earth Day.

Today, for the first time in human history, the global well is starting
to go dry — and we are all about to learn the painful lessons of what
happens when societies run short of history’s most indispensable

Freshwater is overtaking oil as human society’s scarcest
critical resource. And just as oil transformed the history of the 20th
century, freshwater scarcity is starting to re-define the geopolitics,
economics, environment, national security, and daily living conditions of the 21st century.

What is happening,
essentially, is that under the duress of the voracious demand of our
global industrial society that uses water at twice the rate of our rapid
population growth, there is simply not enough available, sustainable supplies of freshwater in more and more parts of
the world on current trajectories and practices, to meet the needs for
food, energy, goods and accessible safe drinking water for our 6.7
billion, much less the 9 billion we’re becoming by 2050. Due to the uneven distribution of population pressures
and water availability, global society is polarizing into water “Haves”
and “Have-Nots.”

The impending water crisis presents two great challenges — one
environmental and one political. Because we’re drawing more water from
the environment than is replenished through the natural water cycle,
vital freshwater ecosystems are becoming seriously degraded across the globe, according to the first comprehensive audit of
the planet’s environmental health, the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem

For the first time since the dawn of civilization, we must
consciously allocate water  to sustain the health of the ecosystems that provide the source of water for all
society’s fundamental uses.

So much water is withdrawn from over 70 major rivers, including the
Nile, Indus, Yellow, Euphrates, and Colorado, that their flow no
longer reaches their deltas and the sea. Nearly all the world’s major
rivers have been dammed. Half the world’s wetlands — nature’s protective sponges — have vanished. Agrochemical and
industrial pollution is devastating fish life, and contaminating human
drinking supplies. Mountain glaciers from the Himalayas to the Andes are
melting at rates never before seen in history, drying up the sources of great rivers and threatening the
stability of the nations that depend upon its waters: the Indus River,
vital lifeline of nuclear-armed, Taliban-besieged Pakistan, is expected
to lose 30% of its flow as its Himalayan source glacier vanishes even as its population relentlessly increases by
a third over the next generations.

To make up shortfall of freshwater,
India, Pakistan, northern China, and California, among others, are
mining groundwater — creating “food bubbles” that are starting to burst as the pumps hit the bottom of the

As the environmental crisis worsens, the political perils
become more explosive. Freshwater scarcity is a key reason why 3.5
billion people — including those in current grain exporter India, as well
as throughout the bone-dry Middle East — are projected to live in countries that cannot feed themselves by 2025 and will depend
increasingly on volatile imported food prices for their well-being and
survival. Humanitarian and health crises are likely to emanate from the
2.6 billion without adequate sanitation and the 1 billion who lack safe, accessible drinking water.

Climate change is the water crisis in hyper-drive: It wreaks its damage
through unpredictable, extreme water-related events like droughts,
floods, mudslides, rising sea levels, and glacier melts that overwhelm
critical water infrastructures built for traditional weather patterns; within a decade there are likely to be 150
million climate (really water-crisis) refugees wandering within and
across borders seeking new livelihoods and homes.

(Watch Solomon’s conversation with Tavis.)

Failing states become
breeding grounds for regional instabilities, wars and international terrorism, such as came out of water-famished
Yemen in last Christmas’ failed airplane suicide bomber attempt in
Detroit, or sea piracy such as the rampant piracy off the coast of Somalia in the
Horn of Africa. 

China’s breakneck growth bid to become an economic superpower hinges partly on whether it can
overcome critical water scarcity challenges that are its economic
Achilles Heel — with only one-fifth the amount of water per person as the
U.S, it has had to idle factories and abandon major energy projects, and faces water pollution so severe that its waters
can’t even be used for agriculture.

From the irrigated agricultural revolution at the dawn of civilization
in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus, to the steam-powered Industrial
Revolution, to the 20th century’s giant dams pioneered at the Hoover
Dam, control of water has been a key axis of power and wealth. 

Major breakthroughs have been associated with the
rise and decline of great states and turning points of human
civilization. And so it is again today, with the impending freshwater
scarcity crisis.

History teaches that a difficult adjustment lies ahead, just as it has
whenever population levels and key resource bases have gotten
unsustainably out of balance. The chief question is how much suffering
the adjustment will entail, and which societies make the nimblest adaptations and emerge as world leaders and which will
not and decline.

There are two basic choices: 1) To boost the
productivity of existing water resources through difficult political
changes and improved efficiencies or 2) to buy time by mining groundwater or building long pipelines that transfer
water from regions with temporary surplus to those with current scarcity
in the hope that a new silver bullet technology akin to the 20th
century’s giant dams will emerge in the meantime to save the day.

In the main, societies have been following the path of least political
resistance and choosing the latter. Yet the savior
technologies — desalination, genetically-modified crops, recycling
wastewater  are most often mentioned — do not seem likely to arrive in time or sufficient scale to cover the growing global shortfalls.

Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously
predicted a quarter century ago that the “wars of the 21st century will
be fought over water.”

While nations so far have found more reasons to
cooperate than go to war over water, pressures are mounting rapidly with rising population and absolute scarcity levels.
The greater, imminent risk today is failed states, and all the fall-out
they will spread. To its credit, the Obama Administration recently
recognized that the global water crisis is a vital threat to U.S. national security and diplomatic interests, and is
elevating water security as a central objective of State Department
foreign policymaking. Yet it is not enough.
The Earth, like ourselves, is 70% water. So nothing is more
important on Earth Day than taking care of our water — which is also to
say, ourselves.

Steven Solomon is an economics journalist who has written for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire. He is the author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 11:08 am