We live on a water planet. Without water we would not be able to survive. However, despite this precious resource, in places like China, where I live, industries such as textiles are pouring a cocktail of toxic chemicals into the water.
Water is everywhere, is not it? In fact, to be such an abundant resource, drinking water is surprisingly scarce. Less than 1% of all fresh water is easily accessible for direct human use and accounts for only 0.007% of all water on earth. I bet he did not know
Facts and Concepts
For any understanding at all of the world water situation it is necessary to understand what is called the hydrologic cycle. This is the succession of processes by which water is evaporated (mostly from the sea), carried by winds over the oceans and continents, and precipitated back down to earth.
It then runs off in streams and rivers, or accumulates in lakes and ponds, where it is known as surface water, or penetrates below the surface to become groundwater. A lot accumulates as mountain glaciers or polar icecaps in the form of frozen water, while a lot remains in the atmosphere as water vapor which, under the right conditions, returns to earth as dew.
Other sources of water which will become more important in the future sea water, from which the salt can be removed (at high cost) by de-salination, and wastewater, or sewage, which is already recycled in quantities which may surprise a lot of people.
Supply and Demands
To appreciate the water issues that will bother greater and greater fractions of the world’s population as we move into the 21st century, it is important to develop some feeling for two basic, and closely related, elements of the situation, demand and supply.
To meet the ‘Demand’ for water, however this term is understood, planners have to seek alternative sources and ‘develop’ new supplies. With all close and convenient sources now near full exploitation, it is the costs of water development, transportation and distribution, rather than any real scarcity, that will that increasingly constrain water supply initiatives in the years ahead.
To understand the nature of the world’s water ‘problem’ requires a perspective on the balance between resources and current water use. As the level of use approaches the available resource, water stress and scarcity can be anticipated. Evaluating the effect of this sort of stress requires appreciation of the fact that ‘water’ is not all and everywhere the same. From a human use perspective there are in fact – several different kinds of water, and this is particularly important in relation to the emergence of water markets.
It is only after developing some understanding of these several aspects of demand and supply that one can begin to gain some perspective on the question of ‘water balance’ around the world.
Humankind, as it enters the 21st Century, is faced with a zillion water ‘problems’, and the most important of these are discussed on the web pages that follow. It is critical to remember, however, that most of these problems are NOT unique to water. All over the world precious natural resources are under pressure from the combination of increasing population and bad management. Water, though vital to our survival (in very small quantities) is no exception.
The first, and most difficult to deal with where water is concerned, is natural Distribution. The water on this earth is simply never where we need or would like it to be, in place or time. Then there is the world’s burgeoning Population; if the number of people on earth had stayed where it was 100 years ago, there would be in effect no water problem.
More than half the water that is ‘taken’ by society is wasted. Compared with those first two, extremely difficult to deal with, problems the third, Profligacy, is very much within our capacity to address. The fourth, Pollution, which now drastically reduces the amount of pure water available for human use, is also amenable to improved management.
Where rivers flow across national boundaries, the effect of water shortages, like so many international problems, is also compounded by Politics. Also in the political realm is the question of why, in a post Cold War world, the rich nations choose to spend more on weaponry than on water aid; the word that answers it best seems to be Parsimony.
All of these dimensions of the situation need to be factored in to our understanding and attitudes with respect to the possibility and prospects of a Global Water Shortage.
There must be as many solutions as problems in the world’s water situation. One of the first must reside in the articulation and acceptance of a universal environmental ethic. One that will teach us finally to value our natural world in general, and our water in particular.
Other more conventional solutions lie in the realms of better natural resource information systems and more integrated environmental planning.
New solutions, of increasing concern to international financing and aid agencies, are improved governance, public participation, and education.
Among the new solutions are some that are quite controversial; demand management – to reduce waste, and pricing – to change consumers perceptions of the value of water. Both are discussed in the pages ahead.