Water, Water, Everywhere – But Not a Drop to Drink

By Doug Williams
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Water, Water, Everywhere – But Not a Drop to Drink

Doug Williams
 
 
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We’ve ben reading and hearing about water shortages for years, it’s the most important resource we have on the planet after air and rather than the word getting to grips with the shortages, not much is happening to prevent a future disaster that could well affect the whole world.

The Earth: the blue planet, as it’s sometimes known. Although the Earth’s surface consists of over 70 percent water, only around 1 percent of this water is accessible freshwater, fit for consumption.

As every day passes, more and more humans are born into this world, and the current supply of drinkable water becomes more and more scarce. The global water supply is becoming an enormous issue.

 

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As the UN calls it, the planet is going through a “water crisis”. We can’t make more water; there’s a set amount on the planet. However, the problem isn’t how much water there is, it’s how much of it we can actually put to use.

You can’t use salt water or contaminated freshwater to do your laundry, grow crops, or to drink, but unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from trying. Each year, millions of people die from completely preventable diseases caused by drinking or using a contaminated water source. Most of these deaths occur in underdeveloped countries, but a water shortage can occur anywhere.

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As recently as 2007, the town of Orme, Tennessee in the United States of America ran dry. A small town of 145, they managed to source water from the nearby, and aptly named, town of New Hope, Alabama. A drought can happen anywhere, whether it’s a first or third world country.

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The same year, a minor “water war” occurred between the states of Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. Due to a severe drought, the water supply in the area diminished greatly, and there was immense tension regarding the rights to the water supply.

Due to water’s tendency to stretch over land borders, it can be difficult to determine water ownership. Luckily, the situation was resolved peacefully through a publicity battle between governors.

 

Apart from the aforementioned three states, seven western states with a common water supply also underwent a similar process. All across the world, water related feuds are being solved through diplomacy. So far, during the 20th century, 145 water treaties have been created and agreed upon in such places as the Middle East and Asia, where water is scarcer.

Not all “water wars” have been resolved peacefully, however. A few years prior, in 2003, an estimated 400 000 people died in a conflict that was partially caused by a water rights dispute in the African city of Darfur, Sudan.

What started as a local problem engulfed an entire region. As correctly predicted in 1995 by the World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin, “the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” The issue of a reliable water supply goes back much further than modern history, though.

Approximately 2500 BC, the ancient kingdom of Mesopotamia, one of the so-called cradles of human civilization, was surrounded by water; the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as well as the sea to the south. Still, the early centuries of Mesopotamian society were marked by warfare. Even though they were surrounded by water and fertile farmland, the city states organized the first true armies in human history to dispute ownership of these territories.

From the very beginning of recorded human history, water has been fought over, from times well before the population put such a strain on the global supply.

Unfortunately, water is becoming a luxury item, even though it is recognized as a basic human right. As it stands, there simply won’t be enough to go around if the population continues to grow at the rate it is.

Our generation is tasked with figuring out solutions to the declining water supply. As with all problems, however, each solution we’ve come up with so far has pros and cons. Dams secure vast swathes of water, but lose a large portion of the water they hold to evaporation and thus aren’t maximally efficient.

 

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They also gradually collect salt from stagnation, which can lead to crop losses. Crops take an immense amount of water to grow in the first place; one ton of grain can take up to 100 tons of water to grow. Thus, losing any amount of crop to water salinification is a colossal loss of water.

Loss of farmland could also potentially push rural families to move into an urban environment, which might inadvertently put a strain on the city’s sewer system. An overloaded sewer system might rupture, and further contaminate the water supply.

Thankfully, modern technology could play a key role in saving us from our water woes. With the advent of water desalination plants, we’ve been able to turn salt water into fresh water en masse. Unfortunately, these plants employ a costly process, but they may become more efficient through further development.

Any means of creating more usable water is likely a sound investment, and the cost of developing these technologies could potentially be partially or even completely offset by how much money seaside cities could save by not having to import water from inland.

Until these technologies are developed, the common folk’s primary focus should likely fall to water conservation. It only takes around 12 gallons of water a day for the average human to subsist, but the average American uses around 158 gallons daily. That’s over 13 times as much water used than is necessary.

 

Water must be used thoughtfully, or else we may find our wells running dry. Among many other techniques, irrigation techniques for agriculture must be improved to reduce wastefulness. Agriculture makes up around 70 percent of all human water use, but close to 40 percent of all water used for irrigation is lost due to outdated, inefficient techniques.

Recently, though, a technique called drip-irrigation, which is apparently 95 percent efficient is gaining popularity. Though it’s more expensive to install than traditional irrigation systems, the investment is well worth it in the long run, and companies selling these products are finding ways to reduce the initial cost to make them more affordable, especially for poor regions.

Another step we could take to reduce agriculture’s blow to the water supply would be to cultivate crops that require less water to grow, namely genetically modified foods.

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Bioengineers are reportedly going as far as trying to create plants that could grow well with next to no water at all. While some have an aversion to the genetically modified theory, it may be a necessary step towards the future, HowStuffWorks reported.

Some analysts have also suggested the government step in and ban the sale of water for anything but a public utility. If the government has complete control of the water supply, some have also suggested raising the price of water a little could sharpen resolve to be more conservative with water use.

We would have to bid farewell to water parks and fancy fountains, but for the continuation of our race as a whole, most would likely agree to these terms.

At any rate, with proper water conservation and advancing technologies making up for the population boom, perhaps the human race will overcome this obstacle. As they say, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

 

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