In its home page on World Water Day the United Nations points out the following facts:
- today, 1 in 3 people live without safe drinking water;
- by 2050, up to 5.7 billion people could be living in areas where water is scarce for at least one month a year;
- climate-resilient water supply and sanitation could save the lives of more than 360,000 infants every year;
- if we limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, we could cut climate-induced water stress by up to 50%;
- extreme weather has caused more than 90% of major disasters over the last decade;
- by 2040, global energy demand is projected to increase by over 25% and water demand is expected to increase by more than 50%.
A critical resource
Clearly, water is a crucial resource, and the future well-being of human society depends on how well we manage our global supply of fresh water. Because of climate change, some regions are increasingly threatened by drought, while others experience catastrophic floods.
Water tables throughout the world are falling, as aquifers are overdrawn. Falling water tables in China were the reason why that country adopted its one-child policy. Because of water shortages, China may soon be unable to feed its own population, but, as Lester R. Brown has pointed out, this will not cause a famine in China, but as China increasingly buys grain on the world market, the price will increase beyond the purchasing power of some of the poorer countries, and it is here that the Chinese water shortages will cause famine.
Countries in the Middle East and Africa have been plagued by drought in recent years. Millions of people are now threatened with starvation because of failing agriculture and deaths from lack of water among cattle herds. In Zimbabwe, grain production is down by 53%. Water levels on the Zambezi River are lower than they have been for decades, and Victoria Falls has become a trickle. Fish stocks on the river are in danger of collapsing.
Drought is also hitting the western hemisphere. Today, California and the southwestern states are plagued by drought. The Colorado River is reduced to a trickle when it reaches the Pacific, Water tables are falling. The Ogallala aquifer is overdrawn and disappears as it flows southward. Wildfires caused by extremely dry conditions have hit California and the Pacific Northwest.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are part of an area that has come to be known as the Dry Corridor. It is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and drought because a large percentage of the people in this region live in poverty and are dependent on agriculture, which, in turn, depends on adequate rainfall.
2019 was the fifth consecutive year of drought in the Dry Corridor. Because of failed crops and food insecurity, many people in the region plan to migrate, despite the hardships and risks that this entails.
During the years 2014-2017, Brazil experienced a severe drought, which affected the southeast part of the country, including the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Over half the area of Brazil was affected by the drought, which was considered to be the worst in 100 years.
I fear that by the middle of the present century, growing populations, water shortages, the effect of climate change on agriculture and the end of the fossil fuel era will combine to produce a famine involving billions of people, rather than millions. Today the high-yield Green Revolution crop varieties have warded off famine, but these varieties are dependent on intensive irrigation and heavy use of fertilizers (often produced today with the aid of fossil fuels). Thus, high-yield agriculture may be difficult to maintain in the future.
In many countries, large corporations have taken control of water supplies, and are now selling water at prices that poor citizens cannot afford. Maude Barlow, born in 1947 in Canada, is leading the struggle against the commodification of water. As the result of her campaign, the United Nations has declared water to be a human right. This is particularly important at a time when fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce.
Water plays a role in present conflicts, for example, in the conflict between the government of Israel and the country's Palestinian population. In the future, there may be many other conflicts over water, for example between China and India. China is building a canal to take water from the Tibetan Plateau to Beijing, thus reducing the amount of water in rivers flowing down from the plateau into India. Other dangerous water conflicts loom in regions such as Sudan.
Between 1751 and 1995 the amount of H+ ion in ocean surface water is estimated to have increased by 35%. Living organisms are very sensitive to acidity, and today we can observe the alarming death of many forms of marine life, for example, the death of coral in the Great Barrier Reef and other coral reef systems. Over a billion people depend on fish from coral reef habitats for protein in their diets.
Our oceans are now massively polluted with carelessly discarded plastic waste. Plastic waste is found in huge quantities on the beaches of the remotest islands and in the blocked digestive systems of dead whales. A recent study found that in 2010, 8 million tonnes of plastic went into our oceans.