The World’s Looming Water Crisis

The World’s Looming Water Crisis August 8, 2019

A new report contains some alarming news about impending (and already present) shortages of fresh water. A full one-quarter of the world’s population live in countries that are already dealing with severe shortages or soon will. This will inevitably lead to massive dislocation and vast numbers of refugees and likely armed conflicts over this crucial resource.

Credit to Melody Ayres-Griffith:

From India to Iran to Botswana, 17 countries around the world are currently under extremely high water stress, meaning they are using almost all the water they have, according to new World Resources Institute data published Tuesday... In those countries are several big, thirsty cities that have faced acute shortages recently, including São Paulo, Brazil; Chennai, India; and Cape Town, which in 2018 narrowly beat what it called Day Zero — the day when all its dams would be dry... Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, is drawing groundwater so fast that the city is literally sinking. Dhaka, Bangladesh, relies so heavily on its groundwater for both its residents and its water-guzzling garment factories that it now draws water from aquifers hundreds of feet deep. Chennai’s thirsty residents, accustomed to relying on groundwater for years, are now finding there’s none left. Across India and Pakistan, farmers are draining aquifers to grow water-intensive crops like cotton and rice.

The solution to this seems to be obvious — desalination of ocean water. At this point, only about 1% of the world’s drinking water comes from desalination, but that is expected to increase by about 8% a year over the next seven years. It’s not a perfect solution, not by a longshot. Desalination comes with its own environmental problems, including the energy needed to run the plants mostly being generated with fossil fuels. All the more reason to invest heavily in solar and wind. Since most of the countries facing the most critical water shortages are desert environments that are very hot and get an enormous amount of sunlight, solar power is the ideal energy source for operating the plants.

All of this is going to require massive public and private investment, both on the energy production side and the desalination itself. Investments in R & D should lead to better, cheaper, more efficient technology that will address some of the other problems associated with it, like recycling the brine left over back into the oceans in the right concentrations and the right distribution to minimize its effect on ocean salinity and ocean wildlife. But choices must be made and there is no perfect solution. And the one thing we can’t do is allow a billion and a half people die of thirst or risk the inevitable refugee crisis and wars that would result from that.

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