A World of Thirst
Poor sanitation. Pollution. Wasteful irrigation. The planet's freshwater supply is terribly managed
Over the course of the past 40 years, north Africa's Lake Chad has shriveled to one tenth its earlier size, beset by decades of drought and agricultural irrigation that have sucked water from the rivers that feed iteven as the number of people whose lives depend on its existence has grown. In 1990, the Lake Chad basin supported about 26 million people; by 2004 the total was 37.2 million. In the next 15 years, experts predict, the incredible shrinking lake and its tapped rivers will need to support 55 million. "You don't have much room for error at this point," says hydrologist Michael Coe.
The population growth has coincided with a 25 percent decrease in rainfall, with global warming very likely a factor. As oceans store more heat, the temperature difference between water and land dissipates, sapping power from rainmaking monsoons. At the same time, desperate people are overusing wells. Coe recently concluded that water supplies in the basin are "stretched to their limits, and future needs will far outstrip the accessible supply."
Lake Chad, with its confluence of troubles, is emblematic of a burgeoning water crisis around the world. While the western United States faces serious water problems, American money and know-how can at least soften the blow. Not so elsewhere. Worldwide, 1.1 billion people lack clean water, 2.6 billion people go without sanitation, and 1.8 million children die every year because of one or the other, or both. By 2025, the United Nations predicts 3 billion people will be scrambling for clean water. There are myriad problems: industrial contaminants flooding waterways, wasteful irrigation, an exploding world population, political corruption and incompetence, and a changing climateto name a few.
In a report issued in November, the United Nations declared water "a global crisis," announcing that 55 member nations are failing to meet their water-related Millennium Development Goal target, agreed upon in 2000, of halving the proportion of people without clean water and sanitation by 2015. The real crisis, experts say, is not a lack of water but a lack of water management. Water doesn't always appear in the right places, or at the right times. And it has to be cared for. "It's a terrible situation around the world," says Peter Rogers, a Harvard environmental engineering professor, "but it doesn't have to be."
One percent. Just 3 percent of the world's water is fresh. Of that, most is locked in the ground, glaciers, or ice caps. That leaves about 1 percent for the world's 6.6 billion people. As population grows, so does demand for waterbut at two to three times the rate. People consume water for drinking, for hygiene, through food production, and in a variety of industrial processes. A blossoming middle class in Southeast Asia, India, and China will join the West in consuming far more than the minimum 20 to 50 liters (about five to 13 gallons) of water per day necessary per person. (Americans lead the world by consuming 400 to 600 liters per day, or as much as 158 gallons.) Upward mobility has yielded more flush toilets and a dietary shift from grain to meat-heavy diets. Raising a cow requires a thousand times more water than the equivalent average for grain.
The rush from farms to cities in developing countries is increasing the stress on water sources and taxing inadequate infrastructure. With more than 50 percent of the world's population now in urban areas, cities are depleting groundwater sources and dumping industrial pollution and waste into rivers, destroying them as sources of clean water. "It's a failure of governments," says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, "to either set priorities ... or to meet basic needs."
In teeming New Delhi, middle-class denizens tote the latest cellphones, but their home faucets, at best, work a few hours a day. A third of the city's water is lost in cracked, aging pipes. The poor in India's expanding slums don't have even that much; they must wait for water to arrive in trucks, which costs them more than piped water. In cities like Jakarta, Indonesia, slum dwellers pay five to 10 times more for water than the wealthy.
Untreated. Sanitation is the bigger mess, so to speak, because of uncontrolled urban growth. The Yamuna River, once a lifeline to New Delhi, is now an open sewerused by those without toilets. And about half of the waste that goes through the city's sewage system is untreated before being dumped into the river. Open defecation is standard practice in much of the developing world. A lack of sanitation and clean water has helped make diarrhea the world's No. 2 killer of children. "They have water to drink. That's not the problem," says Andrew Hudson, director of water governance for the United Nations Development Program. "They don't have safe water to drink."
Studies have shown that providing clean water and sanitation brings tremendous benefits. Health costs go down. People live longer, stay healthier, and become more productive. But "financiers ... want to invest in energy, telecoms, highways, high-speed trains, you name it," says Harvard's Rogers. "The problem is [water] yields social benefits, so no one individual can afford to do it." Industrialization of the developing world is a primary driver of water stress. Factories provide jobs, which attract people. They also use a lot of water. In China, industrialization will require a fivefold increase in water use by 2030.
The countryside poses its own problems. The developing world has followed America's lead in relying heavily on groundwater irrigation to expand its farm economy. Agriculture is the world's top user of wateras high as 80 percent in some countriesand it's also perhaps the most inefficient. In Chennai, India, drinking water must be trucked in, but outside city limits, farmers use gallon after gallon to irrigate rice, an extremely water-intensive grain.
Solving these problems requires money, but aid is down to a trickle. In the late 1990s, public spending on water and sanitation was 2 percent of the GDP in most countries. Today it's less than 1 percent as countries devote more resources to education, roads, and other priorities. Foreign assistance, meanwhile, has stagnated at about $15 billion a year, though the World Bank is calling for twice that amount.
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.
The world, it seems, is drowning in water problems, but experts say there are also reasons for hope. New technology and practices like drip irrigation show promise. In India, entrepreneurs are making money with pay-and-use pit latrines that are cheap and sanitary. South Africa is making a massive financial commitment to deliver basic water services to its poor, even writing a guarantee of a human right to water into its constitution.
Water expert Rogers believes technology breakthroughs are rapidly making the expensive prospect of desalination-cleaning salty or brackish water enough to be drinkable-cheap enough for even the poorest cities of Africa. Others believe the planet's crust holds far more fresh water than previously imagined. Robert Bisson, a commercial geologist who founded a water exploration company called EarthWater Global, employs the same methods used to find oil, much to the delight of clients in Trinidad and Tobago, and elsewhere.
"We have a moral and fiscal responsibility here," Gleick says. "We have the brains, we have the money ... to solve water supply and sanitation problems, but we're not meeting those responsibilities." And for millions of people, the luxury of time is evaporating.
This story appears in the June 4, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.