A World of Thirst
Poor sanitation. Pollution. Wasteful irrigation. The planet's freshwater supply is terribly managed
In 2005, Congress passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act, which requires the government to implement a strategy to help developing countries provide clean water, but not a dime has yet been appropriated. "We get an awful lot of interest and oversight from Congress on this issue," says Claudia McMurray, the assistant secretary for oceans, environment, and science at the U.S. Department of State, "but it really does need the financial backing in order to make it work." The United States still spent $1.7 billion on water-related aid from fiscal years 2003 to 2005, but occasionally that funding has been directed toward broader strategic interests; McMurray says a chunk of water-development money today goes to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, water problems worldwide are multiplying for a rainbow of reasons:
Scientists working on the United Nations' global warming reports released this year concluded that the changing climate could mean water scarcity for as many as 250 million Africans by 2020. The U.N. declared that Africa is "one of the most vulnerable continents" to climate change because of its dry climate and poor infrastructure. Africa's legacy of political unrest and corruption will worsen the problem. Some call the violence in Darfur, sparked in part by drought-induced distress and famine, the first climate-change war.
To fuel China's skyrocketing economy, the nation that built the Great Wall is doing much the inverse now through three grand canals, which will move 44 billion cubic meters of water per year from southern rivers to dry areas elsewhere. The $60 billion South-North Water Transfer Project will provide fresh water to the desert expanses out west, which China is determined to populate, as well as riverless Beijing. But the possible environmental and social impacts of the massive dig-and-divert operation caused the World Bank, a financier of major water development projects, to refuse funding. Scientists worry about the impact on rivers' ecosystems, as well as a decline in water levels, especially in the Yangtze River, fed by rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers. And groundwater has been pumped so low in places that salt water is intruding.
In April, Australian Prime Minister John Howard asked his citizens to pray for rain. Gripped by a five-year drought, Australia's breadbasket, the Murray-Darling river basin, is collapsing. The basin provides 40 percent of Australia's agricultural production, but Howard is poised to halt all irrigation for farms this summer to save dwindling river water for human consumption.
With its high Andes terrain, Peru is home to the world's largest tropical ice cap, the Quelccaya, and fields of glaciers that melt to provide fresh water and hydropower to a country with parching dry seasons and few energy reserves. As in the rest of the Andes and the Asian Himalayas, glaciers here are retreating at a record pace. Peru is perhaps most imperiled because "their cities and culture have developed around the abundance of [glacial] water," says Lonnie Thompson, a glaciologist at Ohio State University who's tracked Peru's ice for 30 years. The Qori Kalis, the main glacier flowing from the Quelccaya ice cap, is today shrinking at 10 times the pace it was when Thompson's research began. Locals are building small dams to store water for the dry seasons. Meanwhile, overcrowding and changing precipitation patterns have forced the capital of Lima, on the arid coast, to pipe water directly from the mountains.