Tapping Into the World's Water Crisis
The world is facing a crisis. Freshwater resources are depleting quickly. Growing population and pollution are both contributing factors to the problem. Water is essential to life, and yet the problem of contaminated water is rampant. It is estimated by the World Health Organization that 80 percent of illnesses and diseases are, in part, caused by contaminated water. Two-and-a-half billion people in the world live in areas where clean water is scarce. That means one in six people around the world cannot access adequate drinking water. Because of this, one child dies every twenty seconds from drinking dirty water.1 In addition to illnesses and diseases brought on by the scarcity of clean water, there are also the issues of crop failure, dying ecosystems and civilizations, and war over privatization and commodification of water. When water is the world's greatest renewable resource, how is it that such a crisis can occur and continue growing? This problem cannot be overlooked any longer. Solutions do exist, including desalination, conservation and harvesting, and manufacturing, just to name a few. The best source for change, though, would be a global water policy, because every human being has the right to water that is free, readily available, and clean. If no change is brought about, two-thirds of the world's population will face water scarcity by the year 2025. In order to effectively alter the path the world is currently on, every option – from the most to the least obvious – must be considered.
The cause of the worldwide water crisis cannot be pinpointed to a specific reason. Instead, there exist a multitude of underlying causes that have only increased over the years. Maude Barlow, author of Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water and Senior Advisor on Water Issues for the United Nations General Assembly, notes one source: water has been "displaced from the hydrologic cycle by massive urbanization and paving over of natural environments" (18). What this means is that for every expansion of an urban development – cities, suburbs, towns – that much more opportunity to access the groundwater in the area is gone. Land that is paved over and built upon is less able to retain water, which means the soil contains less water. Therefore, the water is less able to evaporate back into the air to continue the water cycle. Barlow says, "It is as if the rain is falling on a large cement umbrella" (18). This expansion of urban development is driven by population growth. According to the Population Institute, the current world population is seven billion people, and the World Population Balance website says that 200,000 babies are born every day. This means that 73 million people are born each year. The more people there are in a community, the more space is needed just to live, and so urban areas continue to grow.
Another cause of the world's water crisis is pollution from humans. Barlow asserts in Blue Covenant that humans, collectively, are destructive creatures. Humans have "polluted surface waters at an alarming and accelerating rate" in the last fifty years (6). Wastewater runoff contaminates rivers and other waterways, leaving an already diminished amount of clean drinking water. Humans use up large amounts of the water that is accessible, which leaves very little clean water for other animals and plants. Contaminated water is extraordinarily prevalent. For example, 700 million people living in China drink water that doesn't even meet basic safety requirements. Less than 25 percent of people living in Pakistan have access to clean water. In Bangladesh, 1.2 million people are exposed to arsenic through contaminated groundwater. Three-quarters of the water in India is so polluted it isn't suitable for drinking or bathing. But the problem of contaminated water isn't something that only occurs on the other side of the world. Forty percent of water in the United States' rivers, including the Mighty Mississippi, is considered unsafe for drinking, fishing, or swimming (Barlow 7). Large amounts of pollution, in India and China especially, stem from untreated wastewater running off into local lakes, rivers, and other waterways. Many impoverished third world countries lack adequate sanitation, which directly affects the local water supply. Another source of pollution comes from waste material in industrialized nations. Livestock operations and industrial farms are contributing factors, where toxic chemicals and waste from animals are either diverted into nearby waterways or contaminate groundwater in the area.
Where waste from animals and toxic chemicals from industrial farms pollute water that is easily accessible already, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, pollutes water before it even reaches groundwater level. Fracking is the process of drilling for oil a mile or more below the earth's surface between layers of rock called shale. Once the shale is reached, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, also called fracking fluid, is pushed between the layers with enormous pressure, fracturing the layers of rock and releasing oil. The oil then travels back to the surface through the pipe, creating an outlet for oil to be collected from. The problem with fracking is the contamination from the fracking fluid and oil, which seep through the fractures and into porous rock, permeating the ground above the shale, and eventually reaching groundwater stores. In some areas, contamination is so bad that people can set the drinking water on fire. One report comes from Sarah Hoye and Steven Hargreaves at CNN, who investigated an outbreak of flammable water in Pennsylvania. Current regulation on fracking is poor, and the Food & Water Watch website explains how oil companies that use fracking are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act because of a legislative loophole. With inadequate sanitation in less prosperous nations and sorely lacking regulation of big business and industry, the world water supply is already severely polluted and at risk of becoming contaminated to the point of being labeled unsafe for human consumption.
Such terrible stresses placed upon the world's drinking water bring with them a multitude of negative effects. For example, disease and illness caused by drinking contaminated drinking water is the cause for eighty-eight percent of death due to diarrhea, according to the UN Water Resources website. These deaths are related to lack of access to clean water for hygiene, sanitation, safe drinking. In addition to disease and illness, crop failure is another negative effect caused by the water crisis. In his book Food: The Key Concepts, Warren Belasco states, "Worldwide, agriculture uses sixty-five percent of the fresh water taken from rivers, aquifers, and lakes…" (109). The United States tops this number, devoting 80 percent of fresh water to agriculture. This water goes to the production of animals "from growing feed grains and watering the animals directly to cleaning the butchered carcasses and flushing away the detritus" (Belasco 109). This means that as clean fresh water becomes more and more scarce, what little resources that are available will be largely put to use towards farming and the production of food. This could deeply impact the amount of water used for drinking and sanitation.
An effect of the water crisis that perhaps hits a little closer to home is the impact of war over privatization of water. With a diminishing supply of fresh water resources, the "private sector" has had its eye on taking control "for decades" (Barlow 34). While water has always been seen as something every person needs in order to live, companies have taken water – an otherwise free resource – and turned it into a for-profit business. Corporations sit and wait, watching the supply and demand of fresh water. These cartel-like operations wait for the opportune moment to export water in bulk to areas suffering without it. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water, by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, explains that the goal of these companies is to "secure control over bulk water supplies," which are then delivered to areas in need of water "based on the ability to pay" (130). The price for this water covers costs for transportation and bottling as well as the desired profit margin. Rather than helping areas stricken with fresh water depletion, big companies are controlling access to water by pricing what should already be free. In her book Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit, Vandana Shiva states that access to water is a natural right, something that can be "used but not owned" (21). Yet companies are still taking over and selling water to areas around the globe. Many of these areas are in conflict because of privatization. A website created by a geography class at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire names Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Morocco, Canada, Britain, Bolivia, and South Africa among those impacted by privatization. These countries experience illnesses brought on by drinking dirty water, protests over privatization, and fights over who should be able to access the water. In more ways than one, privatization of water hurts rather than helps a community.
As intimidating as the crisis may seem, there are solutions to the world's growing problem. Conservation of water is one of these solutions. For this to happen, rainwater must be able to permeate the ground and collect in watersheds. This calls for the restoration of "the natural spaces where rainwater can fall and water can flow" (Barlow 157). In order to conserve, humans must also stop polluting groundwater resources. Water conservation would be an idyllic option, were it not for the droughts that occur every year and the already sprawling urban areas covering natural watersheds. Indeed, there must be an additional solution.
Another option to consider is the desalination of ocean and seawater. According to Alex Prud'homme in The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century, 97 percent of the water on earth is "too salty for human consumption" (330). Yet, scientists are looking to the seas as a new source of drinking water. The best-known process of removing salt from saltwater is called reverse osmosis, but these plants and operations require "huge amounts of energy" and are "too expensive and technically complex" (Prud'homme 331). Over time, desalination technology has gotten smarter which, in turn, has dropped costs, yet the fact remains that this process uses such large amounts of energy that it cannot be argued this is the best solution to the crisis.
Of course, there is always the option to "manufacture" water by bottling and selling it. This commodification of water would allow for mass transportation of clean drinking water to the rest of the world. As mentioned before, however, is the problem of big companies taking advantage of those who could not afford a basic human necessity. Further, on top of having to pay for something that ought to be free is the matter of the plastic in which the water is bottled. Chemicals in the plastic, such as polystyrene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), PET, and polycarbonate all run the risk of leaching into the water itself and causing illness in those who drink it. Some plastics, like polycarbonate, also can prove dangerous when cleaned with abrasive materials. Further still, these plastic bottles are supposed to be thrown away after one use. In areas where clean water is scarce, people could become dependent on plastic bottles to transport that clean water, reusing a bottle well past its intended throwaway date. When water scarcity is not a problem, what happens to plastic water bottles once they've been emptied? According to Werner Boote in his film Plastic Planet, it takes 500 years for plastic to degrade. Plastic bottles that are thrown away after being used end up further polluting the environment, creating a never-ending vicious circle.
The best way to solve the world's water crisis is to implement a global water policy. Instead of treating water as a commodity or even a kindness, it should be seen as a basic human right. Drinking water should be available to every person when they need it. A global water policy would set worldwide health standards for drinking and take measures to make sure those standards were being met. The World Water Council passed a resolution in part with the Human Rights Council to adopt a new approach to accessible drinking water. The resolution called upon nation-states "to develop comprehensive plans and strategies . . . to achieve progressively the full realization of the right to safe drinking water and sanitation for all." Strategies could include recycling wastewater, harvesting rainwater, creating new and many wells in especially barren areas, and conserving the water available already. Water is too precious a resource to humans to squander away any longer. It is a basic necessity of life, and every single person in this world should be able to access free, clean drinking water whenever they need it.
The fate of freshwater as it stands is bleak. Without change, resources will diminish rapidly, too quickly to keep up with a growing population. One change could send humans further down the wrong path, where another could be a step in the right direction. At this point, any change is better than no change. The first step to fixing a problem is realizing there is a problem, though. A global water policy that sets in stone standards and regulations would help millions around the world gain access to one of the most fundamental rights known to humankind.
Barlow, Maude. Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: The New Press, 2007. Print.
Barlow, Maude and Tony Clarke. Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World's Water. New York: The New Press, 2002. Print.
Belasco, Warren. Food: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg, 2008. Print.
Hoye, Sarah and Steve Hargreaves. "Fracking yields fuel, fear in Northeast." CNN. CNN, 3 Sept. 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.
Plastic Planet. Dir. Werner Boote. Narr. Werner Boote. First Run Features, 2011. Film.
Population Institute. Population Institute. N.p., 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Prud'homme, Alex. The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Scribner, 2011. Print.
Shiva, Vandana. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution, and Profit. Cambridge: South End Press, 2002. Print.
"Statistics: Maps and Graphs: Drinking Water and Sanitation." United Nations Water. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
United Nations General Assembly. World Water Council. "Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council: the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation."
VanOverbeke, Dustin. Water Privatization Conflicts. Professor Zoltan Grossman, 2004. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.
"Water Facts: Global." Food and Water Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.
"What Is Fracking and Why Should It Be Banned?" Food & Water Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
World Population Balance. World Population Balance. N.p., 2012. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
1 While numbers I found range anywhere from eight to twenty-one seconds, the United Nations Water website includes statistics and graphs concerning drinking water and sanitation. This is where I found the stats for deaths due to dirty drinking water, and I have concluded that, in the time it takes to read the introduction of this paper, three children will have died.