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The biggest crisis of our times may be the absence of clean water.

Down the Drain

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A roadside village between New Delhi and Agra, India, is obscured by clouds of dust and smoke from passing trucks and scooters. Between an open-air restaurant and a tire-changing shop is a stagnant pond, its banks bare of vegetation. Bright green algae the color of artificial turf floats on the surface, which is periodically disturbed by splashing children and thirsty cows.

There's nothing unique about this contaminated water supply; the scene is repeated hundreds of thousands of times throughout the world. Our beleaguered planet is in the midst of an acute fresh-water crisis that is likely to intensify in the coming years, exacerbated by global warming, industrial pollution, high-tech agriculture, misplaced development priorities and the steady pressure of exploding populations.

Fresh water is the most finite of finite resources, constituting just 2.5 percent of the planet's total moisture (with two-thirds of that supply entombed in glaciers). A mere 0.008 percent of the earth's water is part of the hydrologic cycle, meaning it falls as precipitation. Of that tiny percentage, two-thirds evaporates or is used by plants. The rest, so-called runoff, is what's left to fill our rivers, streams and aquifers.

In water-scarce California, more than 80 percent of that limited resource goes to agriculture, energy production, recreation and the need to ensure adequate water flow. Cities get less than 10 percent of the total. As California goes, so goes the rest of the world. Agriculture consumes 65 percent of all the water that people take out of rivers and streams or pump from underground, according to a 1996 article in Science magazine. Twenty-two percent goes to industry. A mere 7 percent is left over for towns and cities.

It takes 291,000 gallons of water to supply a single person with a modest, low-meat diet for a year. To grow just one ton of grain, farmers need to use 1,000 tons of water. In her book, "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity," Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, predicts that providing drinking water for the 2.4 billion people expected to be added to the world's population in the next 30 years would take resources equivalent to 20 Nile or 97 Colorado rivers. "It is not at all clear where that water could come from on a sustainable basis," she says.

Because of our chronic misuse of water, shortages loom around the world. Based on a subsistence level of 1,700 cubic meters of water per person per year, the World Bank estimates that 31 countries have scarce water resources, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization predicts "a worsening in food security" in Sub-Saharan Africa, because irrigated farmland is disappearing and grain imports are growing. By 2025, Postel estimates, 1.1 billion Africans, or three-quarters of the continent's population, will be living in water-stressed countries.

Unsanitary water is responsible for as much as 80 percent of all disease in the developing world and around 10 million deaths a year, according to Alan Dupont of Australia's Strategic Defense Studies Center. Writing in a recent issue of the Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, he asks, "Will future wars be fought over increasingly scarce fresh water resources?" It's becoming a common question. Former U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has predicted that the next war in the Middle East will be "over the waters of the Nile, not politics."

The world's cities are projected to gain more than 2 billion people (the population of India and China combined) by 2025, and it's unknown whether the water resources exist to serve them. "We can see examples of cities collapsing in the developing countries because the water is no longer useable," says Malin Falkenmark, a professor at the Swedish Natural Science Research Council and co-winner of the 1998 Volvo Environmental Prize with Canadian scientist David Schindler.

Speaking with Falkenmark at a press conference in Belgium, Schindler said that the acceleration of global warming is worsening the water crisis by, among other things, melting glaciers and releasing pollutants that were stored in the ice during the '60s and '70s. The two scientists warn that unless food exports to dry developing countries increase six-fold, industrial and agricultural water pollution is cut to a minimum, and conflicts between upstream and downstream water users can be resolved (as in the case of people living on the lower Yellow River in China, who are deprived of water 200 days a year because of intense upstream industrial use), the world will face a series of increasingly bloody confrontations over water.

It won't simply be water rights they're fighting over. Rivers, lakes and ponds are important ecosystems, which are losing biological diversity because of relentless human intervention. Today, our rivers are becoming biological deserts, thanks to overfishing, direct and runoff pollution, and an ongoing policy of "taming" our wild waterways with endless dams. Dams, especially the giant, pharaonic projects that are proliferating in the developing world, have come under intense scrutiny, but that hasn't kept them from being built. China today has more than 20,000 large dams, half of the world's count, and is building the stupefying Three Gorges Dam, which will displace 1.5 million people and create a 372-mile reservoir.

In the United States, eight major dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers as they flow through Washington and Oregon have nearly wiped out wild salmon, which once sustained whole communities. The commercial catch of salmon in the Columbia River alone totaled 50 million pounds in 1920; today, it is virtually zero. In 1992, only one sockeye salmon, nicknamed "Lonesome Larry," made it through a formidable gauntlet of dams and industrially polluted water to reach the spawning grounds in Idaho's Redfish Lake.

In a 1996 Worldwatch report entitled "Imperiled Waters, Impoverished Future," Janet Abramovitz notes that the Great Lakes once supported a commercial fish harvest of 3 million pounds annually. Of the 11 species taken, four are now extinct and the remaining seven are "at risk." Commercial fishing in the Mississippi River basin declined 83 percent in the past 50 years. Similarly, the Rhine River supported a catch of 150,000 salmon at the turn of the 20th century. The fish were completely gone by 1958. The 15 individual salmon seen in the river five years ago were believed to have been escapees from a Norwegian fish hatchery.

There are examples like this all over the world. Diverted water and sediment buildup in the Nile River have destroyed the economic viability of 30 of 47 commercial fish species. Africa's Lake Chad has shrunk 90 percent in the past 30 years, partly because of agricultural diversion. The Caspian Sea has become an oil-saturated stinkhole, threatening the last caviar-producing sturgeon, and projections are that the pollution will get worse as a huge new international pipeline is built. Such tragedies as January's Romanian cyanide spill have destroyed entire river-based ecosystems. According to a Hungarian environmental group, the Szamos and Tisza Rivers "are so highly polluted that practically the total flora and fauna have disappeared."

Are there any hopeful signs? Most American rivers and streams are cleaner than they were 30 years ago (though the reverse is true in many developing countries). Massachusetts' sewage-ridden Nashua River, for instance, ran red with paper mill dye in the '60s; the highest form of life it supported was sludge worms. But through the work of groups like Adopt-A-Stream and Save Our Streams, rivers like the Nashua have been cleaned up. Other rivers, like Colorado's San Juan and Florida's Kissimmee, now teem with life because their natural flow has been restored, saving them from near-death at the hands of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Internationally, some countries have agreed to work together to better share their water resources. The U.N. General Assembly started observing a World Water Day (March 22) in 1993, and one of its objectives is building an international movement for universal clean water. As In These Times went to press, the second World Water Forum was beginning in The Hague. While it may be long on rhetoric and short on action, some practical progress toward resolving international water disputes may come out of it.

There's a lot that can be done at the grassroots level. For instance, Postel says investing farmers with water rights could produce dramatic results. She notes that when farmers can make more money selling water to the city than spreading it on crops, then they have an incentive to irrigate more efficiently, and there's less pressure to build municipal dams. "The cities benefit, and the farmers do, too, because they're getting extra income from the sale of the water," she says.

Ultimately, the world will have to learn to live within its natural limits. Just as we will have to cope with a declining supply of oil in the face of increasing world demand, so too will we have to learn how to cope with this vastly more precious and equally finite resource.



Jim Motavalli is editor of E: The Environmental Magazine and author of "Forward Drive: The Race to Build 'Clean' Cars for the Future."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.






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