The water crisis: prepare to get thirsty

Paul Hazelton

Writer, scientist and ecologist Rachel Carson wrote in her 1962 book, “Silent Spring,” “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.” Though 70 percent of our planet’s surface is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of that is fresh and only 1 percent is easily accessible.

 

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Unfortunately, our reckless disregard for this vital resource has left humanity teetering on the cliff of a global water crisis. According to the UN, by the year 2025 approximately 1.8 billion people will be affected by water scarcity, and two thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. 

If nothing is done to negate this, these figures will continue to climb, leaving humanity’s future uncertain. We should be particularly concerned about this as Coloradans because despite our green lawns and man-made reservoirs like Horsetooth, we live in a desert where most of our water either comes from snow melts or aquifers. We will be one of those water-stressed areas.   

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that I am merely fear-mongering, consider the evidence.

There are approximately seven billion people on this planet, and up to this point we have been relatively safe from freshwater depletion. However, what many of us don’t realize is that water consumption doubles every twenty years, a figure that is twice the rate of our already-staggering population growth. Perhaps more shocking is that a report released by the U.S. intelligence community expects humanity’s annual water requirements to surpass current sustainable water supplies by 40 percent in the year 2030. If these trends persist it means less and less water for more and more people.

The reasons for this looming catastrophe could fill a library but one of biggest contributors by far is our lavish, inefficient and unrelenting use of this natural resource. According to NASA, 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being depleted faster than the water cycle can fill them up. This can and will lead to a plethora of problems in the future if not addressed, such as increasingly large and frequent sinkholes, the reduction of surface water levels, increasing water usage prices and an increased chance of saltwater intrusion.

Another major factor is our King Mitus-esque tendency to pollute everything we touch. To date, we have introduced industrial chemicals, lead, fertilizer, human waste, plastics, viruses and even nuclear radiation into our own water, something Leonardo da Vinci once called “the driving force of all nature.” This water pollution not only renders much of our fresh water non-potable and unsightly, but it’s also the world’s largest health risk and contributes to the deaths and extinctions of many waterborne species. If left unchecked, this dwindling and increasingly contaminated water supply could utterly decimate the biodiversity of our planet.

What’s more, if we fail to curb global warming it will lead to further effects on the future of freshwater and society itself. For example, a lowering of the water table within rivers would negatively affect hydroelectric plants, warming water temperatures could negate water’s ability to cool nuclear reactors, and both of these cause and effect relationships would render us electrically disabled.

A significant loss of mountain snowpack would also decrease the water available for irrigation, threatening millions of crops. This could, in turn, cause widespread famine.

Climate change might also decrease the safety and availability of drinking water. The Union of Concerned Scientists has argued that “Municipal sewer systems may overflow during extreme rainfall events, gushing untreated sewage into drinking water supplies.” Aside from being gross, this would assuredly cause an increase in disease.

Additionally, the inevitable rise in sea levels threatens to salinate fresh water reserves and environments. This would kill hundreds of freshwater species in coastal areas and make even more water undrinkable. Another fear is that if the glaciers begin melting — as they have — it will rob one-sixth of the global population’s freshwater supplies.

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We very likely will also take an economic hit when lowering lakes and rivers cause freight shipping to become more difficult and far more pricely. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics website, in 2002 freight transport within the U.S. moved “16 billion tons of raw materials and finished goods” and “ The value of [these] freight shipments… including domestic commodity shipments and domestic transportation of exports and imports, was [worth] $11 trillion.” This is a good chunk of our GDP and losing even a small fraction of it would be crippling.

And as if those possible ramifications of global warming on the water supply weren’t already frightening, they are nothing in comparison to the harsh droughts that could follow.

While climate change can mean that some areas get more rain, already dry areas are projected to become even more parched and expand beyond their current boundaries. This will, very likely, force large groups of people to relocate out of arid regions and into the few areas that contain large bodies of fresh water. In essence the current refugee crisis in Europe will look like rush hour in Wyoming.

Additionally, water’s blue hue may soon change into an attractive money green. Incidentally, most corporations favorite color is money and if they begin buying up water rights — as some have begun to — it could be disastrous. Getting even a small foothold within the water economy would allow them to charge exorbitant prices ,and unlike water, there will be no shortage of customers. If this occurs, as the rapper Mos-Def once said, “you’ll be buyin’ Aquafina just to take a f*ckin’ bath.” That said, it’s important to note that some believe the invisible hand of the market is the only way to solve this crisis, however, I say it is a one way ticket to a dystopian future.

But even if corporations are left out of the equation, the future could still result in a global Water Games situation, only in this scenario it would be country versus country. I understand that many of you may be skeptical about the possibility of water wars but according to Foreign Policy, U.S. Intelligence agencies take this threat just as seriously as the threat of nuclear proliferation. I would also remind you that wars have been fought over oil, a commodity with known alternatives. There is no alternative to water, no way to synthesize it in a lab, and it’s absolutely vital for crop production and a state’s validity. If these wars were to break out they would be astoundingly costly for both sides, neither of which would easily surrender.

Understand that this thirsty future can be avoided and that many of the solutions would be fairly easy to implement. One of the most straightforward solutions is to simply use less water. Taking baths or half-hour showers, keeping the sink running while brushing our teeth, and using the dishwasher or washer when it’s only half full are daily activities that waste gross amounts of water. The next solution, though disgusting to some, is to re-purpose sewage into drinking water by running it through water purification plants. This technology is being utilized in many parts of the world such as Singapore, and apparently the end result if fresh, clean water. However, while water purification may solve many of the problems associated with pollution and water sustainability, it does have one major drawback: the electricity and capital needed to power these plants is significant. Another possible solution would be to desalinate ocean water, but this too is problematic. Like water purification, we need to consider the cost of powering these inefficient plants. More daunting, countries would have to figure out what to do with the salt left behind. If we simply dump it back into the ocean without replacing the water we extracted, says WWF, marine animals could be negatively affected. 

Additional solutions include compulsory water meters coupled with increased usage prices, fixing leaking pipes that transport our water, attempting to stagnate climate change, reducing our pollution, and though controversial, regulating our collective population by way of limiting the number of children for each family.

To be frank, if we do nothing as a society to combat this coming water crisis we will screw the coming generations out of a resource that has quenched humanity’s thirst for hundreds of thousands of years. We will utterly destroy our agricultural industries, our environment, potentially destabilize the entire food chain and cause hellish wars in the process.

What’s ironic about Rachel Carson’s aforementioned quote is that our “indifference” towards our finite water supply will in turn make us the victims of ourselves.

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.