In the first seven years of the new millennium, more studies, reports and books on the global water crisis have been published than in all of the preceding century. Almost every country has undertaken research to ascertain its water wealth and threats to its aquatic systems. Universities around the world are setting up departments or cross-departmental disciplines to study the effects of water shortages. Dozens of books have been written on all aspects of the crisis. The WorldWatch Institute has declared: “Water scarcity may be the most underappreciated global environmental challenge of our time.”
From these substantial and recent undertakings, the verdict is in and irrefutable: the world is facing a water crisis due to pollution, climate change and a surging population growth of such magnitude that close to two billion people now live in water-stressed regions of the planet. Further, unless we change our ways, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water scarcity. The global population tripled in the twentieth century, but water consumption went up sevenfold. By 2050, after we add another three billion to the population, human will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where this water is going to come from.
Scientists call them “hot stains” – the parts of the Earth now running out of potable water. They include Northern China, large areas of Asia ad Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the Midwestern United States and sections of South America and Mexico.
The worst examples in terms of the effect on people are, of course, those areas of the world with large populations and insufficient resources to provide sanitation. Two-fifths of the world’s people lack access to proper sanitation, which has led to massive outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by people with an easily preventable waterborne disease, and the World Health Organization reports that contaminated water is implicated in 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide. In the last decade, the number of children killed by diarrhea exceeded the number of people killed in all armed conflicts since the Second World War. Every eight seconds, a child dies from drinking dirty water.
Some wealthier countries are just beginning to understand the depth of their own crisis, having adopted a model of unlimited consumer growth based on industrial, trade and farming practices that are wasting precious and irreplaceable water resources. Australia, the driest continent on Earth, is facing a severe shortage of water in all of its major cities, as well as widespread drought in its rural countryside. Annual rainfall is declining; salinity and desertification are spreading rapidly; rivers and being drained at an unsustainable rate; and more than one-quarter of all surface water management areas now exceed sustainable limits. Climate change is accelerating drought and causing freak storms and weather patterns just as the population is set to expand dramatically in the next twenty years. (Ironically, this is, in part, to take in the climate-change refugees such as the inhabitants of the Solomon Islands, who will lose their lands to the rising seas.)
Many parts of the United States are also experiencing severe water shortages. Pressure is mounting on the Great Lakes governors to open up access to the lakes to the burgeoning megacities around the basin. In 2007, Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, dropped to its lowest level in eighty years and the water has receded more than fifteen maters from the shoreline. Florida is in trouble. The state’s burgeoning population, with a net influx of 1,060 people every day, relies almost entirely upon its dwindling groundwater sources for its water supplies. To keep its fast-spreading lawns and golf courses green, the Sunshine state is sucking up groundwater at such a rate that it has created thousands of sinkholes that devour anything – houses, cars and shopping malls – unfortunate enough to be built on them. California has a twenty-year supply of freshwater left. New Mexico has only a ten-year supply. Arizona is out: it now imports all of its drinking water. Lake Powell, the man-made backup for the western water supply, has lost 60 percent of its water. A major June 2004 study by the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Geological Survey found that the parched Interior West is probably the driest it has been in five hundred years. As in Australia, anxious American politicians talk about “drought” as if this is a cyclical situation that will right itself. But scientists and water managers throughout the American Midwest and Southwest are saying that it is more than a drought: major parts of the United States are running out of water. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency warns that if current water use continues unchecked, thirty-six states will suffer water shortages within the next five years.
Because of the wealth of theses countries, most of their populations are still not suffering from water shortages. That is not so for those in the global South – hence the term water apartheid. The world’s poor who are living without water are either in areas that do not have enough water to begin with (Africa), where surface water has become severely polluted (South America, India) or both (Northern China). Most of the world’s magacities – those with ten million or more inhabitants – lie within regions experiencing water stress. These include Mexico City, Calcutta, Cairo, Jakarta, Karachi, Beijing, Lagos and Manila.
In 2006, the number of city dwellers surpassed the number of rural dwellers for the first time in history. The urban populations of the Third World are growing exponentially, creating enormous slums without water services. In the last decade, the number of city dwellers without reliable access to clean water increased by more than sixty million. By 2030, says the UN, more than half the population of these huge urban centers will be slum dwellers with no access to water or sanitation services whatsoever. One report cited a current example of an area in Mumbai, where one toilet serves 5,440 people.
Not surprisingly, there is a huge gulf between the First World and the Third World in water use. The average human needs fifty liters of water per day for drinking, cooking and sanitation. The average North American uses almost six hundred liters a day. The average inhabitant of Africa uses six liters per day. A newborn baby in the global North consumes between forty and seventy times more water than a baby in the global South.
These appalling disparities have rightly created a demand for more water equity and commitment to providing water for the 1.4 billion people currently living without it. The UN Millennium Development Goals include reducing by half the proportion of people living without safe drinking water by the year 2015. While laudable, this initiative is failing not only because the UN has worked with the World Bank to promote a flawed model for water development (see Chapter 2), but also because it assumes that there is enough water for everyone without seriously addressing the massive pollution of surface waters and the consequent massive overmining of groundwater supplies.