If you think peak oil is a big deal, then just wait until the peak water crisis is in full swing. Experts say that in many areas aquifers and rivers are starting to run dry as human consumption and other factors are straining one of our most essential resources: fresh water.
In highly populated developing nations, water shortages and poor access to clean water has been a common concern. Currently 1.1 billion people living without access to safe drinking water. Even so, the problem seems far away in the minds of many who are living in more privileged circumstances. However, that may be about to change.
Milton Clark, a senior health and science adviser for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says he worries that these water issues that are currently emerging will eventually develop into bitter conflicts in the not too distant future when these dry states become increasingly desperate.
"We will, in fact, get into major water wars," Clark said. "You will see water wars coming in every way, shape or form. In the U.S., there are some leading politicians who have said the Great Lakes do, in fact, belong (to everyone) and all water should be nationalized and this certainly is a concern."
Ohio Lt.-Gov. Lee Fisher recently stirred up controversy when he told an economic development summit that the Great Lakes region may be only a few years away from selling water to other U.S. states in need.
"I think it's fair to say that we're going to see in the next decade states and other countries looking for ways to get access to our fresh water supply, and we're going to have to make some tough decisions about whether we want that to happen and, if so, how," Fisher said.
Last year the US government issued a report stating that the heavy growth in the American Southwest region "will inevitably result in increasingly costly, controversial, and unavoidable trade-off choices."
Of course, we’re not actually running out of H20 from a macro perspective. It’s still around like it was millions of years ago. What we’re running out of it the right kind of water in the right places. Humans haven’t always wisely built civilizations close to vast fresh water supplies, but vast fresh water supplies are exactly what large populations require. Nearly all of Earth’s water is in the ocean (97%) where it does us little good as drinking water unless it is desalinated—an expensive and energy intensive process. But people, plants and animals all need fresh water to thrive, and as we’ve seen with oil, when resources dwindle—or are even just perceived to be dwindling whether or not they actually are—things can get nasty.
Wired magazine’s Mathew Powers points out that “like oil, water is not equitably distributed or respectful of political boundaries; about 50 percent of the world's freshwater lies in a half-dozen lucky countries.”
He notes that “freshwater is the ultimate renewable resource, but humanity is extracting and polluting it faster than it can be replenished. Rampant economic growth — more homes, more businesses, more water-intensive products and processes, a rising standard of living — has simply outstripped the ready supply, especially in historically dry regions. Compounding the problem, the hydrologic cycle is growing less predictable as climate change alters established temperature patterns around the globe.”
But with all of this pessimism is there any good news? Well, the good news is that as people become more aware of the need for water conservation, the more wasteful habits are curbed. Americans are using 20 percent less water per capita than they did just a generation ago, so conservation education appear to be working to some extent.
With advanced technologies and more prudent water usage, the majority of Earth’s inhabitants will be able to continue to enjoy the luxury of clean water for a long time to come. Yes, we need to fundamentally rethink water usage and plenty of bigger changes are needed, but at least we’re heading in the right direction. With better stewardship and improved city planning, humans will likely be able to avert a good portion of the more disastrous scenarios.
Posted by Rebecca Sato.
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