October 8, 2015

Five Reasons We’re Running Out Of Water — And What We Can Do About It

By Seth Siegel

Dry cracked earth is visible on the banks of Shasta Lake at Bailey Cove in Lakehead, California.

Dry cracked earth is visible on the banks of Shasta Lake at Bailey Cove in Lakehead, California.

Edited from an excerpt of Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World, Copyright © 2015 by Seth M. Siegel and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

There’s little question these days that we’re running out of water.

In the next 10 years, 40 of the 50 states in America will face a water shortage. And 60 percent of the earth’s surface will see the same.

Yet many nations will miss the warning, and not just the usual list of developing countries with resource and infrastructure problems. (California, for instance, is in its fourth year of a devastating drought).

Water problems are a proxy for bad governance, and there is a lot of bad governance. But there are five trends in particular that have driven much of  this imminent water crisis, many of which are a long time in the making.

Population. World population keeps growing. Sure, birth rates are falling in many countries, but that doesn’t address the much longer life expectancy in most places, even as compared to just a few decades ago. The world’s population is now more than 7 billion and isn’t expected to level off until 2050, when it will reach 9.5 billion people.  No matter how little those extra 2.5 billion people eat or bathe, it is certain that finding, cleaning and supplying that additional water for even basic needs will be a challenge.

Rising Middle Class. The world population isn’t just growing: It is growing wealthier. Hundreds of millions of people recently living in poverty have already risen out of it and into the middle class, a trend that will largely continue. There were 1.4 billion middle- class people in the world in 2000. That number grew to more than 1.8 billion in 2009.  By 2020, the world’s middle-class population is projected to reach 3.25 billion people.  This is good news for humanity, but bad news for the global water supply. The daily showers, backyard pools and green lawns these more affluent people will enjoy will be a further stress to our water resources, but the much bigger withdrawal from our water supply comes from the eating habits associated with a middle-class lifestyle. People living in extreme poverty tend to have vegetable- and grain-based diets; middle-class people overwhelmingly have protein-based diets. Raising a pound of beef uses 17 times more water than it does to grow a pound of corn.  But being middle class isn’t just about food. The energy needed for operating cars, air conditioners, computers, and other appliances that are now a normal part of middle-class life utilizes almost unimaginable amounts of water. Several gallons of freshwater are needed to produce each gallon of oil, whether produced at home or abroad. Natural gas and fracking require millions of gallons per site. With the U.S. now a major energy producer, billions of gallons of water are consumed for it just in the U.S. each day.

Climate Change. Climate change causes surface temperatures of lakes and rivers to rise, which in turn causes faster evaporation. Higher temperatures require more water just to get the same amount of irrigation to crops. Rain patterns are also changing: The interval between rainfalls has been growing as has the intensity when it does fall. The longer intervals without rain have led to a hardening of surface soil. When the rain does come, much of it runs to sewers and rivers, or sits on the surface before evaporating, but either way it is lost because the rainwater can’t permeate the ground.

Tainted Water. Pollution is also reducing the amount of available water. Growing food for so many people and feed for so many animals requires ever larger amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, a portion of which is carried by irrigation or rain into aquifers, lakes, and rivers.  Energy-extraction techniques like fracking not only require the use of large quantities of water, but the chemical additives used in the fracking process are alleged to be polluting nearby drinking water reserves. Whether that claim proves to be correct or not, it is certain that all around the world, chemicals are seeping into water supplies. Some of these industrial compounds are carcinogens.  Regardless of how the water becomes tainted, undoing the damage to compromised aquifers and lakes is expensive and, at times, impossible. When water supplies become polluted, they are lost, sometimes permanently.

Leaks. Finally, a staggering amount of municipal water is lost every day in cities all over the world from leaks, open hydrants, theft, and neglect. London loses about 30 percent of its water; Chicago loses about a quarter.  Some major Middle Eastern and Asian cities can lose up to 60 percent of their system’s water every year to faulty infrastructure; losses of 50 percent are not uncommon.

New York City has reduced its water losses due to leaks, but still loses billions of gallons. One massive hard-to-repair leak amounts to 35 million gallons of water lost every day.  These losses may be invisible, but they are enormous.

Luckily, each of these challenges  can be overcome. But it will take focus, will, creativity, trained personnel and money. While every country should begin addressing these challenges, it is a near certainty that not every country will. Rising demand and limited quantities don’t have to restrict economic growth or lead to political instability. The lack of a natural supply of water, or declining rainfall, need not determine a country’s destiny. If handled wisely, these limits can propel a country and create new opportunities.


Want more? Listen to our full hour on water scarcity – and what some countries are doing about it.


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