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The world water shortage looks unsolvable

The world water shortage looks unsolvable thumbnail

Many nations are experiencing unprecedented strain on water supplies, but few are coming up with solutions

As we have been hearing, global water shortages are poised to exacerbate regional conflict and hobble economic growth. Yet the problem is growing worse, and is threatening to deal devastating blows to health, according to top water officials from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who spoke before a House panel hearing today.

Ever-rising water demand, and climate change, are expected to boost water problems worldwide, especially in countries that are already experiencing shortages. Globally, the world is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water by 2015, but it still must make strides to improve global sanitation, says Aaron Salzberg, the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Water Resources. In addition to supply problems, unclean water causes more than four billion cases of diarrhea a year which lead to roughly 2.2 million deaths, and most are in children under the age of five.

“The magnitude of it is extraordinary.” says Christian Holmes, global water coordinator for USAID.

The hearing comes on the heels of stark reminders of the current water shortages that are apparent across the globe. Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, is on the brink of crisis. A recent report from the Asian Development Bank, highlighted by The Atlantic, states that the country’s emergency water reserve only has enough supply for 30 days – more than 30 times below the 1,000-day recommendation for similar countries.  Pakistan, the report states, is “not far from being classified as ‘water scarce,’ with less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.” Among other factors, climate change is affecting snowmelt and reducing flows into the Indus River, the area’s main water source.

USAID expects its programs to provide a minimum of 10 million people with sustainable access to improved water supply by 2018.It also plans to provide 6 million people with sustainable access to improved sanitation by that time, according to the agency’s new water and development strategy, its first.  It is also supporting regional discussions on water scarcity issues. Despite such a large effort, almost 800 million people lack access to safe water, and more than double that number are unable to access sanitation. And without big changes, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to be living under “severe water stress conditions” — meaning that in a given year there would be less than 1,000 m3 of water available per person — by 2025, according to USAID.

To alleviate more of that stress, USAID will work with other countries to use emerging science and technology to track the problem and prepare communities to adapt.  It will continue to share NASA Earth Science and satellite data about water supply throughout the world to help detect and prepare for future threats. It will also help nations translate that data into decision-making for aid and how to better alert communities about likely food shortages.

At the hearing, House members pressed speakers for information on tools they might need to better address the problem. Answers, however, are challenging to come by, says Holmes, “It really doesn’t lend itself to easy fixes.” Moreover, when water shortages threaten to elevate tensions where the supply is scarce it can be challenging to provide assistance. “Many countries view water as a sovereign issue and discourage outside intervention,” Salzberg says.

Last year the U.S. government invested more than $700 million in global water activities as part of its congressionally mandated requirement to make global water aid a specific policy objective of U.S. foreign assistance. About 27 percent of those funds went to sub-Saharan Africa, where needs continue to be particularly dire. In 20 African countries, more than 30 percent of the population does not have access to safe water, and in seven of those countries more than half the people lack access to safe water, according to Salzberg.

China and India are also experiencing unprecedented strain on water supplies, due to water shortages fueled by climate change, urbanization and massive industrial growth.  Indeed, rising demand for water-hungry foodstuffs like beef coupled with already scarce water resources paint a stark picture.

Despite a continued focus on water issues, barely a dent has been made in the problem, says Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D), who today introduced new legislation with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) geared toward furthering U.S. water assistance and ensuring that work will have measurable impact. “We’ve just moved the needle a little bit, and in some cases—like the area of sanitation—we are at risk of falling behind because of rapid urbanization. But the key here, and part of what we are trying to do with the new legislation, is to leverage money that is already being spent.”


21 Comments on "The world water shortage looks unsolvable"

  1. dsula on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 10:57 am 

    Get out? Those high-performance breeder nations are running out of water? Maybe they can use fracking to get more water, it worked for oil. Or stop breeding, that might also work.

    Will the west be stupid enough again and come to their rescue? Of course.

  2. BillT on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 11:32 am 

    Maybe if they stopped making the junk for the Western nations, they would have more water. Then again, the Africans can just migrate north into Europe and the Indians can migrate to the Us and run more 7-Elevens. As for China, all they need to do is export a few hundred million to the debtor nations or demand payment in water.

    Seriously, it is going to be a problem for every country soon. Even the US is running low and the droughts are only making it run low faster.

  3. Arthur on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 11:43 am 

    The West should offer third world access to water for those with 1+ children in return for sterilization only. China has a 1 child policy in place, so why not Africa and India.

    Simply reacting to Oxfam Novib and USAID bleeding heart pictures without demanding something in return only makes the situation worse.

  4. Arthur on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 12:06 pm 

    “the Africans can just migrate north into Europe and the Indians can migrate to the Us and run more 7-Elevens.”

    Only if western governments will let them and pick them up per airplane. Not going to happen, certainly not in Europe. Any idea how hazardous the trip from Subsaharan Africa is to Europe? Only a handful strong young men make it, only to arrive in an increasingly hostile environment. Go study how life is for an illegal immigrant in Athens in 2013. When the financial collapse will arrive, as it probably will, the last droplets of humanitarian goodwill will evaporate and the whole of Europe will be one big Athens, with only message: “this is our land, get lost”.

    “As for China, all they need to do is export a few hundred million to the debtor nations or demand payment in water.”

    Well, unfortunately for China there is no bailiff to collect international debt; nationalization of foreign industries located in China is all China will be able to do. After the crash, there will be a local US dollar, with exchange rate 1:10 compared to the old one (if China is lucky), so the US can make a post-collapse fresh start with a clean slate.

    And to add to an old discussion where Bill predicts that the EU will fall apart, here an article by the Greek columnist Taki Theodoracopulos (“Taki”) who despairs as a typical right winger at the pro-EU attitude of his countrymen:

    “When I speak with my countrymen and women, they all complain about the EU’s harsh terms for bailing out the country. But when I tell them Greece should never have got into the macabre business in the first place, and should have left the euro the moment the gun was pointed at our temple, they say no, we belong in Europe and the euro is our only hope. It is a typical Greek reaction. We want both our cake and so on.”

  5. TIKIMAN on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 12:23 pm 

    In the 70’s liberals said by 1985 millions would die in the US from starvation.

    Places on Earth where water is in short supply and dirty has been like that for hundreds of years, yet Africans keep breeding.

  6. Arthur on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 1:28 pm 

    The Rhine river in the Netherlands has a flow of 2200 m³/s. Humans need 2 liter per day minimum. That river alone can provide for 86 billion people.

    Not difficult to find a destination for all these superfluous tankers at the end of the oil age. A large oil tanker carries 550,000 ton, or 550 million liter water. So it would take ca. 20 oiltankers leaving Rotterdam every day filled with water to provide for the third world at it’s present population size. That could be done even today, provided the tanks can be cleaned. Current oil volume Rotterdam: 100 million ton/year or 200 of the largest ships.

    Total oil tanker capacity world wide = 960 million ton. One percent would be enough of that capacity to do the job.

  7. jeyeykei on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 1:30 pm 

    Sea water desalination is the answer. Whatever happened to this technology?

  8. TIKIMAN on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 2:11 pm 

    jeyeykei –

    water desalination is VERY expensive.

  9. Arthur on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 2:14 pm 


    Nothing happened to that technology. Saudi-Arabia is provided almost entirely via this technology:

    Cost 0.5-1$ / m3

    An oil tanker full with desalinated water will cost you 250-500k$.

    Average cost oil tanker transport to the US is 2-3 cent/gallon. Using this number, an oil tanker filled with drinking water from a US river, heading to Saudi-Arabia will cost ca. 10$ / m3.

    In other words, it is ca. 10-20 times less costly to apply desalination techniques than transport water from the developed world to the third world. Solar energy could be applied perfectly in this case, because water can be stored easily.

  10. Arthur on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 2:37 pm 

    From the same link, desalination costs 3 kwh / m3.

    Africa has 6 kWh energy per square metre a day. Applying an efficiency of 15% –> 1 kwh / m2.

    So you need 3 m2 solar panel to produce 1 m3 fresh water every day. An average African uses 16 liter water / day –> 63 people can be supplied with water for 30 years on an investment of 300 euro (excluding desalination equipment and inland transport. Pipelines?). That’s peanuts. And solar panels are getting cheaper every year.

  11. efsome on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 2:57 pm 

    Who uses most water? industries, golf areas, lawns and farms. Maybe we need to start getting rid of ones we need least. Needless to say, a mass forestation in the whole world might make dried springs flow again some years later, add biochar (lasts like 100-500?) to the equation maybe we could revert climate change.

  12. drwater on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 3:06 pm 

    There is no general shortage of of water for domestic use, except maybe in a few hugely overpopulated desert areas. The shortage is water for more irrigation. Peak irrigation anyone?

  13. Kenz300 on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 3:06 pm 

    Oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants use a lot of water to produce electricity.

    This is one more reason to switch to safe, clean, alternative energy sources.

    Wind, solar and wave energy provide electricity with little or no water use.

    As the price of water and fossil fuels continues to rise alternative energy sources will increase their share of power generation.

  14. Jerry McManus on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 4:35 pm 

    Trying to solve the other problems while not doing anything about population is like trying to mop the floor with the faucet overflowing.

  15. GregT on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 5:07 pm 

    I think people need to start focussing on where they live first, before they focus on other parts of the world. Water shortages are not going to be restricted to third world countries, and the biggest issue will be lack of water for irrigation. Crop irrigation is somewhat important. Food is necessary for our survival.

    The reason for cheap water desalination in Saudi Arabia, is cheap Suadi oil, and when oil production drops off, less of their oil will be exported to maintain domestic water supply.

    Building alternate energy infrastructure could be used for desalination, for a while, but it will not replace oil in food production.

    Overpopulation IS the elephant in the room, and no matter how you look at it, oil is what is supporting that population. As goes the oil, so goes the population, and the more oil we continue to burn, the less the carrying capacity of the planet will be, in a post oil world.

  16. Kenz300 on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 6:52 pm 

    A growing world population meets the worlds declining resources…

  17. Hugh Culliton on Mon, 5th Aug 2013 10:40 pm 

    Could it be that some people are waking up to the realization that you can’t run a growth-based economy off of finite resources?

    Yes, we need to deal with controlling population size, but Arthurs’ suggestion of sterilization for water trade will never fly – it smells too much like eugenics, and we know how well that one went. No matter how bad things get this dog won’t hunt. Besides, how can we force developing countries to do what we wouldn’t do ourselves? Personally, I don’t think we’ll get Attrition above the birth rate in time to prevent a population crash: the ultimate re-set button.

  18. BillT on Tue, 6th Aug 2013 1:48 am 

    As usual, the only answer the techies have is more tech. And those with rivers may find they are not useable when there is no way to purify the water except by boiling over a wood fire, except that that will not last long. Ask the Easter Islanders.

    If a river flows past a large city, it is polluted with chemicals and drug residue that will not be removed by most filtration systems and certainly not by boiling unless it is distilled, using a lot more energy which will be in short supply. What happens when chlorine is not available?

  19. Arthur on Tue, 6th Aug 2013 8:39 am 

    “Yes, we need to deal with controlling population size, but Arthurs’ suggestion of sterilization for water trade will never fly – it smells too much like eugenics”

    Eugenics is something completely different, which is about application of techniques to humans, every horse breeder applies to horses or gardener applies to tulips. We obvious don’t want better people as we all love Al Bundy, he is so funny and he is one of us!

    Seriously, China could implement a one child policy because it has a strong autoritarian state, populated by intelligent people. Nothing like that exists in the countries that are going to fail first.

    So, what is the alternative, besides hand-wringing about all these billions that are professed here to die and switching off the television, because the images are too depressing?

    There aren’t any. Instead we get PC marxist statements about events in the previous century or Kenz’ ideas about ‘family planning services for all who want to’. That’s not going to work. Nothing wrong with a simple short voluntary operation, after you had your 1-2 children. Many people in the West do it. Saves a lot of cost for preservatives or dubious chemicals for women.

  20. Arthur on Tue, 6th Aug 2013 8:48 am 

    “If a river flows past a large city, it is polluted with chemicals and drug residue that will not be removed by most filtration systems and certainly not by boiling unless it is distilled, using a lot more energy which will be in short supply. What happens when chlorine is not available?”

    Holland has very good quality drinking water and much of it comes from the Rhine river, that was once one of the most poluted rivers in the world, but no longer. No necessity to boil it first or use chlorine or other chemicals. Water is upgraded to drinking water quality using:

    – air
    – FeCl2, Aluminium salts
    – filtering through sand
    – desinfection through UV light and sometimes using H2O2 and active coal
    – again sand filtering

    No energy usuage, other than pumping.

  21. Arthur on Tue, 6th Aug 2013 8:51 am 

    “As usual, the only answer the techies have is more tech.”

    The only answer you have is the Four Horsemen and massive die-off. That’s not a strong selling point.

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