Six years ago The Guardian published an article on the freshwater shortage and a looming global crisis. At the time of publication, residents of São Paulo, Brazil (once known as the City of Drizzle) were so desperate to find water that they were drilling through their own basement floors to access groundwater amid strict rationing policies.
The situation has not improved.
How Bad Is The Water Shortage?
Lake Urmia in Iran is quickly becoming a salt plain. The lake’s demise was rapid, falling from “5,400 square kilometers (2,085 square miles) in the 1990s to just 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) today — according to the Department of Environmental Protection of West Azerbaijan.”
Like the water, the tourist revenue the lake generated has also disappeared.
Across the United States lakes are drying up, rivers are running low and freshwater sources are becoming more and more difficult to find as heatwaves wash over the country, setting new record high temperatures.
The Western half of the United States is categorized as being in a condition of severe drought. This has prompted the U.S. government to cut water allocations from the Central Valley Project to California by 75 percent, negatively impacting many farming communities and cities. In Oregon, there is not enough water to support both endangered fish and farmers. Water rationing is prompting outrage from farmers watching thirsty crops wither and die in the intense heat this summer has brought.
For the first time ever the federal government has declared a water shortage in the Colorado River basin. This means that states like New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada will have their water allocation cut in 2022. The water level in Lake Mead (the largest U.S. reservoir) on the Arizona-Nevada border is expected to be too low to meet the needs of many of the Western communities that depend on it.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River is facing unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” Assistant U.S. Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo said in a statement.
Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, along with governors from nine other states affected by the prolonged drought conditions, have asked the Biden administration to declare a federal emergency. This would free up funds to help struggling ranchers and farmers from having to sell off livestock because of dwindling feed supplies along with skyrocketing hay costs.
The Federal Emergency Management agency rarely makes declarations of this kind for drought situations. Rather it’s typically for hurricane damage or flooding. However, water shortages can lead to food shortages and local economic devastation that eventually affect entire states. That makes it a federal emergency as there is a critical need for funding to help farmers, ranchers, and the communities they live in survive.
Drought And Hunger
Worldwide, approximately 70 percent of fresh-water usage is for agricultural purposes. In the United States, that number is 80 percent. Most of the water is moved through old, leaky, outdated irrigation canals, pipes, and other infrastructure, resulting in waste.
With the world’s population living longer, the demand for food increases each year, straining water supplies to grow and sustain crops to feed livestock and people. When farmers can no longer adequately irrigate their crops they are forced to sell off the land reducing the amount of food available. Once the land is sold it is usually developed for commercial or residential use and its ability to support to the food chain is lost forever.
The resulting food supply shortages will inevitably lead to mass starvation especially in regions of the world where a majority of the population is already undernourished. This is predicted to give rise to conflicts internally in many countries and eventually externally as the fight for a precious natural resource like water intensifies.
No Easy Answers
To fight world hunger more and more land is needed to grow crops with an equal amount of demand for freshwater to sustain them. Expanding agriculture also means draining more of the planet’s freshwater supplies away from some areas to support others, for example, from cities to rural farming communities.
To address climate change there has been a push to develop biofuels. While better for the environment by reducing greenhouse emissions, these crops demand a lot of water.
“In India, increased biofuel production to meet 10% of its transportation fuel demand by 2030 will require an estimated 22 cubic kilometers more irrigation water, about 5% of what is currently used in Indian food production, pushing the country further into water scarcity. India can ill afford these additional water resources.” Issues.org
In the U.S., some states have offered farmers and ranchers money to leave water in the rivers and lakes so it can be diverted to thirsty cities. However, this means tough choices for those whose livelihood depends on water for crops and/or livestock to sell. If farmers plant less, that leads to food shortages, especially feed for livestock. Once livestock is sold off and slaughtered generations of animals are lost. For many forgoing their water means losing their family farm or ranch and the money is not worth it.
What Can Be Done To Conserve Water?
There is no doubt, water shortages are in the not too distant future and people will have to adapt. Innovation, creativity, and global initiatives will be necessary to ward off the worst of the water shortage crisis coming our way.
Technological advancements could be the key to manage and monitor the world’s freshwater supplies more efficiently, thereby reducing waste. The Western Nebraska Irrigation Project launched in 2004 was a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy, The World Wildlife Fund, John Deere, and Coca-Cola to help farmers better monitor their water use to aid in conservation. Over a three-year period, the ranchers involved ultimately cut water consumption from aquifers by 20 percent. The technology used included soil moisture probes, pivot telemetry (water data collection), and weather stations for better forecast information.
“Less groundwater pumping not only helps secure the resiliency of the underlying aquifer, it also saves the farmers time and money.” One participating farmer reported “the probes paid for themselves easily each year,” while another noted the technology saved time because he didn’t have to drive to his field to check conditions.”
A company called WaterChain.io is using blockchain technology to create a decentralized method to “fund the next generation of water treatment projects around the world with a dedicated organization, or project management company, to select and manage the treatment facility projects.”
The idea is to use cryptocurrencies to fund water treatment facilities to better recycle water and token holders share in the profits.
This innovative use of digital currency to help increase the amount of water released to be recycled instead would help communities across the globe have access to clean fresh water for drinking and irrigation by eliminating waste.
When the U.S. Fish and Game Service in San Antonio, Texas lost a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club to end the overconsumption of water from the Edwards Aquifer that was endangering several species of fish, the city quickly found ways to cut back on its water use.
Using regulation and incentives San Antonio reduced water consumption from 225 gallons per person per day to only 140 gallons. Their methods included:
- Replacing older high-flow toilets and urinals with more water efficient models.
- Rebates for water-saving efforts with improved irrigation systems
- Encouraging residents to replace lawns with native, drought-tolerant plants and patios in their landscaping
- Smarter lawn watering tips during the hot summer months
In Nevada, residents were offered cash incentives to replace their lawns with desert landscaping.
How The Water Shortages Will Change How We Live
If drastic measures are not taken right away many of the things we take for granted and enjoy could be lost to future generations. Even in our own lifetimes, we could see the dramatic negative consequences of careless water management.
A nation like the United States that wastes millions of pounds of food a year could find itself with food shortages.
Communities could face water rationing with meters installed on their homes to cut off water flow once the allotted amount has been used.
Lush green yards will have to be replaced with concrete and rock beds.
Natural grass sports fields will be a thing of the past.
Recreational organizations like public swimming pools, golf courses, and parks could be dramatically reduced meaning only the wealthiest will have access to these kinds of “luxuries.”
What Everyone Can Do To Conserve Water
The water shortage crisis can be avoided. It will take a global effort but locally everyone can do their part to reduce personal water use. Communities and states can vote for legislators who will work to adopt policies and write laws to better manage the nation’s water resources and support innovation and technology to conserve the planet’s most precious resource.