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Access to fresh water is not a given for many, including this Indian girl carrying bottles of drinking water filled from a municipal tap two kilometers from her village. (AFP/Getty Images)

Water Crisis Looms For A Thirsty Planet

by Sheril Kirshenbaum
Apr 24, 2012

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Sheril Kirshenbaum

Twelve years ago, I was an intern working with the American Museum of Natural History on marine protected areas. One afternoon, after reading mountains of articles that documented the declining state of fisheries and reefs, I naively proclaimed that ocean conservation must be the most depressing field in the world of science.

"Not at all," countered my mentor. "It's the freshwater scientists that have it the worst." He was right.

At first this notion seems counterintuitive. Earth is covered in H2O, after all. Yet, in reality, only 2.5 percent of it is fresh and two-thirds of that happens to be frozen. So, sure, there's water everywhere on this planet; but very little of it is actually available to use.

According to Jay Famiglietti, director of the University of California's Center for Hydrologic Modeling, when it comes to the future of water, "we are, on many levels, completely and totally hosed."

His is a very well informed opinion. Famiglietti has been tracking water availability around the world using NASA satellites for over 15 years. His team has not only documented changes in water on land, they've also discovered something deeply disturbing: the water cycle itself is changing.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, evaporation and precipitation have increased. This means that the atmosphere holds more water. Unfortunately, the condition is anticipated to lead to storms and floods of increased severity in some parts of the world, with prolonged and more intense droughts elsewhere.

"Extreme extremes," says Famiglietti, which could lead to greater conflict over the scarce resource.

But is the looming water crisis "news?" Of course not. Long before satellites were tracking the problem, prior generations of scientists and policymakers realized water security was a big deal.

Over half-a-century ago, President John F. Kennedy challenged the United States to invest in desalination technology to "competitively—at a cheap rate—get fresh water from salt water." He surmised that success would dwarf every other scientific accomplishment because it would bring men and women around the world out of poverty, while vastly improving human health.

That was 1961 and Kennedy's plea for freshwater didn't make the history books because we failed to follow through on it, unlike the seemingly outlandish challenge he made one month later. Most Americans do remember the call to put a man on the moon because it took less than a decade to make it happen. Water here on planet Earth never became a headlining priority.

That is one of many missed opportunities. Decades later, with more than 7 billion people milling about the planet, one-in-six do not have access to clean drinking water. According to the United Nations, this leads to over 1.5 million preventable deaths annually. Further, waterborne illnesses are associated with 80 percent of disease and mortality in the developing world. Many of the victims are children.

So, freshwater research can be depressing. The good news is that there is still much we can do about it.

Looking ahead, the most recent estimates project that Earth will host 10.1 billion people by 2100. This means more demand for a diminishing resource. So let's get serious about finding ways to save more and waste less.

How? The solutions aren't rocket science. What it will take is a dedicated effort across people and boundaries.

Considering that 70 percent of all freshwater used worldwide goes straight into agriculture, we should be focused on creating incentives for more efficient irrigation practices. That alone would have an enormous impact at home and worldwide. Concurrently, increased federal investment for research toward developing more drought tolerant plants has the potential to carry us even further. And, most importantly, we need policymakers to address the political and legal hurdles related to water regulation.

The benefits of better water conservation would ripple out. We'd not only save human lives globally, but less agricultural runoff means healthier oceans and coral reefs as well. In other words, marine biology would get a little less depressing too.


Guest blogger Sheril Kirshenbaum writes frequently on the relationship between science and culture. She is also director of The Energy Poll at The University of Texas at Austin. You can keep up with what she's thinking on Twitter and on the Web.

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