Saturday, November 8, 2008

Water Makes The World Go

The UN defines “water scarcity” as less than 1,000m3 of renewable clean water for every person to drink, clean, grow food and run industry every year. This standard leaves one-half the world’s population in countries suffering from water scarcity. Jordan, our example country, averages 160m3 of renewable water per person per year.

11 million children under the age of five die each year from disease and malnutrition due to a lack of clean drinking water and sanitation. Lack of water accounts for nearly 1 billion people being chronically hungry. Another 2 billion suffer what the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization calls “food insecurity” – a nice way of saying they do not have adequate food and nutrition for an “active and healthy life”. Lack of clean drinking water keeps more than 60 million girls out of school. These are the people who get caught in the water-poverty trap: two-thirds of the people who lack enough water for even the most basic needs live on less than $2 a day.

“Variability of water availability is strongly and negatively related to per capita income,” says Professor Jeffrey Sachs, author of Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, and a special adviser to the UN Secretary General. Poor health, lack of education and hunger make it hard to escape.

So, with half of the world’s population living in water-stressed countries, how do so many keep the irrigation taps open and the kitchen taps running?

There is a saying that goes, “Water flows uphill to money.” Professor Tony Allan of Kings College says, “Water shortages don’t pose serious problems to gardeners in Hampshire or California homeowners with pools to fill.”

Tony Allan has found what he calls “virtual water” to be one answer to the conundrum of water scarcity – who gets it and who doesn’t it. He wondered why Middle Eastern countries without abundant water supplies were not suffering the water crisis they should have. The answer was trade. They bought food and along with it these water-poor societies were also buying what he dubbed “virtual water.” Virtual water is the water used to bring these foodstuffs to the point where they can be sold. These countries are not only buying the food, they are buying the water contained in that food. This is water they don’t have to find.

The other answer is that peoples and communities around the world have been forced to use water they wouldn’t normally tap for drinking, agriculture, or industrial uses. Rivers, lakes and aquifers, some of them millions of years old, have been empties far beyond the limit at which they can replenish themselves. Above ground, lakes are receding or drying up; rivers are reduced to mere trickles or drying up while underground, the crisis is just as large; but, harder to see. Aquifers worldwide are beginning to dry up as more water is being removed than can be replenished. Sometimes the empty cavities simply collapse and the aquifer can never be used again.

All these dams and irrigation channels and pumps and pipes allow billions of people to run up a gigantic global water overdraft. What worries experts is that there is no sign of humans withdrawing less water.

Debates are raging worldwide regarding ways to save water and reduce our water footprints. Rich countries can make huge inroads just in domestic efficiency alone; but, most of the world’s peoples do not have power showers, swimming pools or waste great quantities of food. The focus is mainly on reducing water used for agriculture by improving the efficiency of irrigation, engineering seeds to grow in arid and/or salty condition or even shifting crops. Unfortunately, there is a widespread resistance to raising prices for water or energy for pumping to increase efficiency, suspicion of genetic modification and reluctance among farmers to abandon water-hungry; but, lucrative crops when they are struggling to feed their family. “It's a socioeconomic dilemma,” says Al-Nuimat. “You can't stop now: it's the source of their life.”

Many communities are reinstating simple, more traditional methods: tree replanting, taking out thirsty non-native species and replacing them with hardier native species, stone walls to hold back erosion and rain harvesting with the use of ponds and/or storage tanks.

Some are even urging a more vegetarian diet for all. Vegetarian (or mainly vegetarian) diets require approximately one-half the water that a typical American meat-eater’s diet requires. This is, according to Lord Haskins, the former chairman of Britain's Northern Foods group and a government adviser, "the most virtuous and responsible step of all".

1 comment:

Kathi said...

Last night there was a report on Sixty Minutes about our computer waste being shipped to China and the devastation to the land and water in the area where they recycle and burn the highly hazardous components. Did you see it?