Water Shortages PDF Print E-mail


“There is simply no way to overstate the fresh water crisis on the planet today.” Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke,

Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water

A water crisis of catastrophic proportions is about to explode. Fresh water is a finite resource. The amount of fresh water supply provided by the hydrological cycle does not increase. Water everywhere on the planet is an integral part of the global hydrologic cycle. Precipitation originates as evaporation from land and the oceans. Soil moisture is used by plants, which return more moisture to the atmosphere, which then returns to Earth as rain or snow. Barlow and Clark add, “Unless we dramatically change our ways, between one-half and two-thirds of humanity will be living with severe freshwater shortages within the next quarter-century.

Humans share the Earth with other creatures who also need water, therefore, a water shortage is also a crisis for wildlife. Of the 25-biodiversity hotspots designated by Conservation International, 10 are located in water-short regions.

The way we treat rivers reflects the way we treat each other . Aldo Leopold


The World Is Running Out of Fresh Water

There are two principal signs of stress as the demand for fresh water outruns the supply.

Rivers are running dry. Many major rivers—including the Colorado, Ganges, Indus, Rio Grande, and Yellow—are so over-tapped that they now run dry for part of the year. Freshwater wetlands have shrunk by about half worldwide. In 1972, the Yellow River in China failed to reach the sea for the first time in history. That year it failed on 15 days; every year since, it has run dry for a longer period of time, until in 1997, it failed to reach the sea for 226 days. The story is similar with all of China’s rivers. China has almost one-quarter of the world’s population, but only 6 percent of its fresh water. In addition, these rivers are replenished by the glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains—but these glaciers are all disappearing.

Water tables are falling on every continent. Aquifer depletion is a new problem. Water tables are falling from the over-pumping of groundwater in large portions of China, India, Iran, Mexico, the Middle East, North Africa, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. India has the highest volume of annual groundwater overdraft of any nation in the world. In most parts of the country, water mining is taking place at twice the rate of natural recharge, causing aquifer water tables to drop by 3 to 10 feet per year. This enormous shift from sustainable water use to over-mining began when farmers changed from having oxen withdraw the water from a well, to using electric or diesel-driven motors.

Seventy percent of all the fresh water is used for irrigation

  • agriculture uses the largest amount of freshwater (70%)
  • 40 percent of the world grain harvest is produced on irrigated land, t herefore, a water shortage will become a food shortage.
  • Countries are importing grain as a way to import water. It takes 1000 tons of water to grow one ton of grain. On the other hand, exporters of grain are exporting water. (The U.S. annual grain exports of 90 million tons of grain represent 90 billion tons of water, an amount that exceeds the 67-billion-ton annual flow of the Missouri River. )
  • Producing one ton of grain requires 1000 tons of water, but producing one ton of beef requires 15,000 tons of water, (and nearly that much is required to produce a ton of cotton). Producing wheat or soybeans requires only 2% of the water required by beef.

We are creating a “food bubble” economy
The near-simultaneous depletion of aquifers (because of the near-simultaneous shift to electronically-powered pumps) means that cutbacks in grain harvests will be occurring in many countries at more or less the same time. And they will be occurring at a time when world population is growing by more than 80 million a year. In effect, governments are currently satisfying the growing demand for food by over-pumping groundwater.

According to the Earth Policy Institute roughly 160 million tons of the world’s grain supply is now being produced by over-pumping, which cannot go on indefinitely. S cores of countries are depleting their aquifers, including China, India, and the United States, which together produce half of the world grain harvest. One third of a ton of grain sustains one person for one year (current global average). Therefore, 160 million tons of grain will feed 480 million people. Of the world’s current population of six billion, we are feeding 480 million with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water. We are feeding ourselves with water that belongs to the next generation.

Farming needs to be done by using drip-sprinklers and other micro-irrigation systems, by changing cropping patterns and growing methods to get more crop per drop, and by adopting high-yielding and early-maturing crop varieties.

Twenty Percent of Fresh Water is used by Industry.
As water becomes scarce, demand for water in cities and by industry is satisfied by taking water from a country’s agriculture, with imported grain offsetting the shortfall. Conservation programs aimed individuals are not applied to industry.

Ten percent of fresh water is used for residential purposes.
Residential use accounts for 10 percent of fresh water use and about three-fourths of the urban water demand. Each day in the U.S., more than 4.8 billion gallons of drinking water is flushed down toilets.

Showers account for about 20 percent of total indoor water use. The EPA says that by replacing standard 4.5-gallon-per-minute showerheads with 2.5-gallon-per-minute heads, which cost less than $5 each, a family of four can save approximately 20,000 gallons of water per year. Outdoor residential water use varies greatly, but on average, nationally, lawn care accounts for about 32 percent of the total residential outdoor use. Other outdoor uses include washing automobiles, maintaining swimming pools, and cleaning sidewalks and driveways.

It takes 2.5 billion gallons of water per day to irrigate the world’s golf courses.
It would take 2.5 billion gallons of water per day to support 4.7 billion people at the UN daily minimum. Worldwatch magazine Matters of Scale: Planet Golf.


Causes of the Shortage of Fresh Water

The Number One Cause of the Shortage of Fresh Water: Global Warming
Some scientists say that global warming is the single greatest cause of the fresh water shortage in the world. A rise in average temperature in mountainous regions can alter the precipitation mix between rainfall and snowfall, with more rain and less snow. This change means more flooding and more runoff during the rainy season, but also less water held as snow and ice in the mountains for use in the dry season. These mountain glaciers or “reservoirs in the sky” are all melting. The snow/ice mass in the Himalayas, (the third largest in the world, after the two polar ice caps) is now beginning to shrink at an accelerating rate. Every major river in Asia originates in that snow/ice mass.

Privatization of Water
In our economic system, “scarcity creates value,” so many corporations are trying to privatize access to water. To facilitate this, corporations want water officially designated as a need, rather than a right. If water is only a “need,” the private sector, through the market, could provide this resource on a for-profit basis. If water is officially recognized as a universal right, governments would be responsible for ensuring that all people would have equal access on a nonprofit basis.

Corporations are using the World Trade Organization to force Third World countries to privatize water markets and grant corporations access to them. The World Bank has made privatization of urban water systems a condition for receiving new loans and debt restructuring. There are places where people are resisting this trend to privatization of water. In August 2002, the Nicaraguan National Assembly became the first parliament in the world to suspend private profit making in the use of water.

Commercial water export would only perpetuate the basic problem that has caused the “water crisis” in the first place: responding to people’s growing demands for water by increasing supply. This demand has led to the draining of lakes, the depletion of aquifers and destruction of aquatic ecosystems around the world.

Pollution of Fresh Water
In addition to our using more water than is returned in rain, we are also polluting the water we have. Most of the pesticides and fertilizers used in agriculture, sewer overflows, and the oil and grease from roads, eventually run off into the water systems. Other sources of excess nutrients include lawn fertilizers, pet and farm animal waste, decaying plant material, failing septic tanks, and inefficient sewage treatment plants. Industrial plants and municipal wastewater treatment plants can also contribute to the amount of toxic substances entering streams and rivers and ultimately lakes, estuaries, and coastal waters.

More than 60 percent of U.S. coastal rivers and bays are moderately to severely degraded by nutrient runoff. Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters--the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Water sheds, inland forests, agricultural areas, and population centers are the source of about 80% of marine pollution. This runoff creates harmful algae blooms and leads to the degradation or loss of seagrass and kelp beds as well as coral reefs, all of which are important for spawning and nursery grounds for fish. ( Two-thirds of marine mammals are now classified as threatened species under the IUCN Red List.)

Large-scale farms which mass-produce animals, confining them in crowded feedlots and factory-style barns, create massive amounts of pollution. According to the EPA, U.S. animal feedlots produce about 500 million tons of manure each year, more than three times the amount of human waste. This animal waste, (with antibiotics) also ends up in groundwater and surface water in huge quantities.

The expanding loss of wetlands means these runoff nutrients aren’t processed and purified by nature before they enter rivers, streams, and ultimately estuaries.

In China, 80 percent of the major rivers are so degraded that they no longer support fish. The Yangtze River is contaminated with 40 million tons of industrial waste and raw sewage every day, and the water in the Yellow River is so polluted that it cannot be used even for irrigation. The rainfall on the European continent is so full of toxic pesticides that much of it is too dangerous to drink.

Polluted water and Health. The World Health Organization has identified clean water as the single most important factor in determining public health. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said that “Water-related diseases kill a child every eight seconds.” U.N. Secretary-General also said, “One person in six lives without regular access to safe drinking water. Over twice that number— 2.4 billion—lack access to adequate sanitation.” He said that big investments were needed in everything from sewage treatment to irrigation.

The Water crisis is the most pervasive, most severe, and most invisible dimension of the ecological devastation of the earth. Vandana Shiva, Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. P. 1


Protecting the Oceans
Runoff from lawns, roads and farms is the primary source of ocean pollution. The pollution that reaches the ocean creates a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where farm fertilizer and industrial runoff deposited by the Mississippi River depletes the ocean of oxygen needed for marine life. One of the major findings of the Pew Oceans Report is that oceans don’t start at the coastline. “There are 41 states and two Canadian provinces that cause the dead zone in the gulf, so everyone’s in the ocean business.” There are now some 50 'dead zones' in the world's coastal areas. The largest in the Western Hemisphere is the one in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus flowing down the Mississippi River.

The Pew Oceans Commission—with a nonpartisan membership including fishermen, scientists and elected officials—recommended "a serious rethinking of ocean law, informed by a new ocean ethic." The report concluded that having “focused on oceans as a frontier with vast resources ... we have failed to conceive of the oceans as our largest public domain, to be managed holistically for the greater public good.” “ What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile.”


Some Solutions
There are solutions: better public and community control of water utilities; repairing old water systems, using less water for agriculture by using drip irrigation, stopping polluting the water we do have, increasing water conservation and focusing resources on watershed management.

Lester Brown says to create the needed changes, we must eliminate subsidies that create artificially low prices of water, and raise water prices to the point where they will reduce pumping to a sustainable level. Low-income urban consumers can be protected with "lifeline rates" that provide for basic needs at an affordable price. The second required change, Brown says, is to stabilize population, especially in water-short countries. Most of the (at least) 3 billion people to be added worldwide by mid-century, will be born in countries already experiencing water shortages. Without these changes, he says, “there may not be a humane solution to the emerging world water shortage.”

Some suggest that we use desalination, but in their article “Who Owns Water,” Barlow and Clark say that d esalination “is prohibitively expensive, highly energy intensive--using the very fossil fuels that are contributing to global warming--and produces a lethal byproduct of saline brine that is a major cause of marine pollution when dumped back into the oceans at high temperatures.”

"Future food security may depend not only on stabilizing population, raising water productivity, and stabilizing climate, but on doing all these things at wartime speed. "
Lester Brown, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress & a Civilization in Trouble http://www.earth- policy.org/Updates/Update28.htm


LINKS To Water Sites
American Oceans Campaign
American Rivers
Center for Watershed Protection
Clean Water Network
Coastal America
Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC)
EPA Office of Water
EPA Wetland, Oceans, Watersheds http://www.epa.gov/owow/
Information on the world’s freshwater resources
http://www.worldwater.org. Links at http://www.worldwater.org/links.htm
International Water Management Institute
Know Your Watershed
Groundwater Foundation
National Institutes for Water Resources
Natural Resources Defense Council http://www.nrdc.org/water/default.asp
Ocean Conservancy
Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Restore America's Estuaries
River Network
River of Words
Water Environment Federation
Watershed Education for Teachers
Watershed Management Council
Water Use in the United States
What's An Estuary? Now You Know Campaign http://www.whatsanestuary.com/
World Commission on Dams
World's Water
United Nations Environment Programme, Freshwater
U.S. Federal Government Water Related Agencies


Blue Gold by Maude Barlow & Tony Clarke (p. 25)
Who Owns Water?
Worldwatch Magazine Jan-Feb 2003, p. 15.
Barlow 22
(Barlow 24)
November 23, 2001-3 Earth Policy Institute World Grain Harvest Falling Short by 54 Million Tons Water Shortages Contributing to Shortfall Lester R. Brown
Barlow (47)
(75) Barlow
Blue Gold p.42
Blue Gold p. 30
Barlow and Clarke – quoting researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Environmental Science and Technology p. 31
The Pew Oceans report is online at
www.pewoceans.org. The Defying Ocean’s End conclusions are online at www.conservation.org.
http://www.pewoceans.org/ . or http://www.pewoceans.org/oceans/index.asp
Who Owns Water? by Maude Barlow & Tony Clarke [from The Nation September 2, 2002 issue] http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20020902&s=barlow


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