The Planet’s Water Crisis – An Indepth Look

Stephen Lynch, OFM Features

Water, water everywhere and only about 11% of the current effective supply is drinkable. One of humankind’s deepest worries is the future of the planet’s fresh water supply.

Salt water, water locked up in ice caps and water buried deep underground account for nearly 90% of the world’s water. Distribution, sanitation, inefficient irrigation and climate change contribute to water scarcity. 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, of which 2.5% is freshwater. Only one percent of the world’s freshwater is accessible for human use. One flush of a Western toilet uses as much water as the average person in the developing world uses for a whole day’s washing, drinking, cleaning and cooking.

The average American uses about 160 gallons of water per day, of which about 40% is wasted. One billion people in the world suffer illness and often death caused by unsafe water and sanitation. Unsafe water kills 6000 children a day. Human survival depends upon the conservation and reclaiming of water. China’s Yellow and Yangtze Rivers, lifelines for well over half of China’s population, are increasingly dried up. The same is true of Egypt’s Nile River and the U.S. Colorado River. These rivers no longer reach the sea, and offer dramatic examples of demand exceeding water supplies.

St. Francis of Assisi offers the world a very powerful example in terms of cherishing the earth, and especially Gods gift of water for the well-being of humanity. Francis intuitively understood the vital role water plays in facilitating life and growth.

In the early 1970s, the CIA produced a study speculating that the cause of WW III would probably be over fresh water. Thirty years later it looks as if this study may have been prophetic. The 21st century is seeing the world’s supply of fresh water running out. Already one person in five has no access to safe drinking water.

Lack of Water

In terms of water use, drinking water, and water-related disease, the facts are that 1.1 billion people lack access to an improved water supply — approximately one in six people on earth.  2.6 billion people in the world lack access to improved sanitation.  Less than 1% of the world’s fresh water (or about 0.007% of all water on earth) is readily accessible for direct human use.

A person can live weeks without food, but only days without water.  Humans need 4 to 5 gallons of water per day to survive. The average American individual uses 100 to 176 gallons of water at home each day. The average African family uses about 5 gallons of water each day.  Millions of women and children spend several hours a day collecting water from distant, often polluted sources.

Water systems fail at a rate of 50% or higher. Every $1 spent on water and sanitation creates on average another $8 in costs averted and productivity gained.  Almost two in three people lacking access to clean water live on less than $2 a day.  Poor people living in the slums often pay 5-10 times more per liter of water than wealthy people living in the same city.

In terms of water-related disease, every 15 seconds, a child dies from a water-related disease. For children under age five, water-related diseases are the leading cause of death. At any given time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from a water-related disease.  1.8 million children die each year from diarrhea – 4,900 deaths each day.  No intervention has greater overall impact upon national development and public health than the provision of safe drinking water and the proper disposal of human waste.  Human health improvements are influenced not only by the use of clean water, but also by personal hygiene habits and the use of sanitation facilities. Close to half of all people in developing countries are suffering at any given time from a health problem caused by water and sanitation deficits. The water and sanitation crisis claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns.

Depleting U.S. Supply
Ninety-five percent of the U.S. fresh water is underground. As farmers in the Texan High Plains pump groundwater faster than rain replenishes it, the water tables are dropping. North America’s largest aquifer, the Ogallala, is being depleted at a rate of 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) a year. Total depletion to date amounts to some 325 bcm, a volume equal to the annual flow of 18 Colorado Rivers. The Ogallala stretches from Texas to South Dakota, and waters one fifth of US irrigated land. Many farmers in the High Plains are now turning away from irrigated agriculture, as they become aware of the hazards of over pumping, and realize water is not in endless supply. Climatologists, for the first time in more than 100 years, are warning that much of the American Southeast has reached the most severe category of drought.

In some places, the emergency is so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water. The governor of North Carolina recently asked residents to stop using water for any purpose “not essential to public health and safety.” He warned that he would soon have to declare a state of emergency if voluntary efforts fell short.

Some rivers and lakes in the Southeast, such as Lake Lanier in Cumming, Ga., are turning to dust as the region grapples with an epic drought. Officials in the central North Carolina town of Siler City estimate that without rain, they are 80 days from draining the Lower Rocky River Reservoir, which supplies water for the town’s 8,200 people. In the Atlanta metropolitan area, which has more than four million people, worst-case analyses show that the city’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 121 days. This drought has broken every record in Georgia’s history.

Arab-Israeli Tension
Water represents an important dimension to the Arab-Israeli tension. Disputes over water, not oil or even land, could precipitate the next Mideast war. Without water, there is no agriculture, and agriculture is the ultimate security for any nation. Food doesn’t come from the supermarket. A solution to the water disputes is an indispensable condition for a lasting peace in the region. The supply of water is a matter of life and death, war and peace for the peoples of the Middle East. Israel is likely to face a shortage of water for drinking and for agriculture because of recurrent droughts, an increase in consumption, and pollution. Moreover, territorial compromise with its neighbors could put as much as half its water supply at risk. This makes securing its existing supplies and developing new ones vital for its future prosperity. Consequently, water is a key element of any peace negotiation, but it is widely neglected in the public debate.

If Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it could divert water flowing into the Sea of Galilee, which supplies about 25 percent of Israel’s water. The effort to do so between 1965 and 1966 was one of the causes of the Six-Day War. Syria could severely compromise Israel’s water supply even if its intentions were not hostile. For example, increasing the population in the area would produce sewage and other contaminants that could pollute the Sea of Galilee. Syria’s foreign minister has said that “Israel has no right even to a single drop of water.” Any peace treaty would have to ensure Israel’s water rights, but can Israel afford to put one-quarter of its water supply at the mercy of a foreign power, especially one whose leaders have talked about denying Israel all “Arab water”? Ultimately, Israel may have to choose between water and peace with Syria.

Israel’s water security is further threatened by the fact that the mountain aquifer, which supplies another 25% of Israel’s water, including most of the drinking water for the major cities, is partially located in the West Bank. Even if a future Palestinian state had peaceful intentions, it could significantly reduce the water available to Israel because of the desire to satisfy the needs of its own population.
In ancient times, Iraq was called Mesopotamia, which means literally “the land between two rivers.” It is topographically shaped like a basin between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Although these two large rivers run through Iraq, the country’s residents are still desperate for water. Lacking electricity to run pumps and fuel to run generators, Iraqi farmers cannot water their crops. Many can no longer plant winter wheat, which could bring economic disaster.
The Iraqi government is spending huge amounts of money on research into agriculture and irrigation. But in the opinion of one Iraqi researcher, “I think that is simply a way to steal more money from the government budget. The research is not much good because the real problem is clearly the shortage in electricity and fuel. To be more precise, the reason is the American occupation and the corrupt governments it brought to the country.”

A Growing problem in China
China’s rapidly expanding and often wasteful style of economic growth is pushing the country toward a water crisis.  From the inadequate flow of the Yellow River in the north to deforestation and excessive dam construction along the Yangzi River in central China to the serious and persistent drought conditions in the cities of the southeast, as well as the impact of pollutants on the high plateau of Tibet – all spell serious trouble for China.

China’s two major rivers, the Yellow and the Yangzi, face massive reductions in water flow caused by man-made problems threatening the very existence of the Yellow River, on the one hand, and the violent cycle of flood followed by drought in the Yangzi River basin, on the other. The same is true of China’s multitude of smaller but no less vital rivers where the same issues of soil erosion and agricultural runoff are played out on a smaller yet more intensive scale. Many of China’s large-scale reservoirs are in disrepair.

Wastewater, often untreated, is now routinely dumped into rivers and open channels. Studies show that roughly three-quarters of the region’s entire aquifer system is suffering some level of contamination. Without groundwater there is no sustainable development in the future.
Water pollution is rampant nationwide, while water scarcity has worsened severely in North China. Demand keeps rising everywhere. China is scouring the world for oil, natural gas and minerals to keep its economic machine humming. But trade deals cannot solve water problems. Water usage in China has quintupled since 1949, and leaders will increasingly face tough political choices as cities, industry and farming compete for a finite and unbalanced water supply.

Water in the Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, with more than 800 illegal wells, is as scarce as it is in Israel. In Israel, people regard water as more important than life itself.  Unfortunately, in China people seem more focused on the economy than on the water crisis.  Americans at present fail to see the water crisis for what it really is: the world’s greatest threat to human survival, and the key to war or peace.

St. Francis Valued Creation

St. Francis well knew the value of water in God’s creation. He saw the hand of God in the parting of the Red Sea so that Moses and the Israelites could cross to safely.

St. Francis also had a special love for the Jordan River because Jesus himself was baptized there by John the Baptist. Unfortunately, all too often water has been the cause of hostility, rather than peace and friendship. Francis encouraged his brothers to share their blessings with others in the spirit of Christ, who gave all out of love. St. Francis lived by the motto, “Peace and goodness.” He wanted all people to do the best they could to be instruments of peace and neighborliness.  Kindness was St. Francis’ special quality of character. Many were the times Francis imitated the compassionate Jesus, who said even a cup of cold water given to a thirsty person brings a special blessing from God. Francis loved to journey into the mountains and sit by the rushing streams, listening to their joyful sounds. For St. Francis, water was a gift of God’s love and symbolized both spiritual and physical cleanliness, as well as life, growth and tranquility.

Unless our world cherishes God’s gift of water, as did St. Francis of Assisi, we may soon come to experience the sentiments of Byron: “Till taught by pain, men know not water’s worth.”

— Fr. Stephen, who lives at St. Francis friary in Providence, R.I., writes frequently for both religious and secular publications.