Imagine a large body of water – about the size of the Dead Sea – simply disappearing. It sounds like a science fiction movie. But it’s not. It’s happening in real life – and we’ve only just found out.
A pioneering study from NASA and the University of California Irvine shows how the Middle East is losing its fresh water reserves. As you can see from the satellite imagery in the video, we’re going from blues and greens, to yellows and reds: that’s 144 cubic kilometers of lost water between 2003 and 2009. What do we mean by “lost water”? Most of it comes from below the Earth’s surface, from water trapped in rocks. In times of drought, we tend to drill for water by constructing wells and pumps. But the Earth has a finite supply. NASA’s scientists say pumping for water is the equivalent of using up your bank savings. And that bank account is dwindling.
This could have serious implications. Conflicts over water are as old as the story of Noah – in 3,000 BC. The Pacific Institute lists 225 such conflicts through history. What’s fascinating is that nearly half of those conflicts took place in the last two decades. Are we going to see a new era of wars fought over water?
Consider that NASA’s study is of one of the most volatile regions in the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and its upheavals as defined by oil. Perhaps in the future it will be defined by water. We often talk of a world of nuclear haves and have-nots, but a world of water haves and have-nots could be even more dangerous.
Part of the problem is that the world’s needs have changed. Look at the population boom. We’ve gone from 4 billion people in 1975, to around 7 billion today. The United Nations projects we will hit 9 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, as India, China, and Africa continue to add millions to their middle classes, global demand for all kinds of food and products will increase. All of those products cost money – except for water, which we like to think of as abundant and free. Yet water is the resource we need to worry most about. According to the World Health Organization, more than 780 million people – that’s two-and-a-half times the population of the United States – lack access to clean water. More than 3 million people die every year from this shortage. As our needs expand, so will the shortfall.
What can be done? Most of our water is actually wasted – and the United States is actually one of the worst culprits. We can change that. Singapore already treats sewage water to convert it into clean drinking water. We need to consider large-scale desalinization, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are world leaders. And remember, agriculture uses up as much as 70 percent of water. We need to fund research into more effective crops. A village in India reportedly set a world record this month for rice produced in a single hectare. How? Simply by changing when the seedlings were planted, a process which saves water.
Perhaps most simple and effective would be to put some kind of a price on water – so that people use it with a greater sense of efficiency and care.
All kinds of innovations are underway.
Next month the United Nations will mark World Water Day and the international year of water cooperation. It’s a good time to start thinking about big global measures to regulate the world’s most important resource.