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Global Water Shortages Grow Worse but Nations Have Few Answers

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Image credit: José Manuel Suárez/Flickr

As we have been hearing, global water shortages are poised to exacerbate regional conflict and hobble economic growth. Yet the problem is growing worse, and is threatening to deal devastating blows to health, according to top water officials from the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) who spoke before a House panel hearing today.

Ever-rising water demand, and climate change, are expected to boost water problems worldwide, especially in countries that are already experiencing shortages. Globally, the world is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water by 2015, but it still must make strides to improve global sanitation, says Aaron Salzberg, the State Department’s Special Coordinator for Water Resources. In addition to supply problems, unclean water causes more than four billion cases of diarrhea a year which lead to roughly 2.2 million deaths, and most are in children under the age of five.

“The magnitude of it is extraordinary.” says Christian Holmes, global water coordinator for USAID.

The hearing comes on the heels of stark reminders of the current water shortages that are apparent across the globe. Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, is on the brink of crisis. A recent report from the Asian Development Bank, highlighted by The Atlantic, states that the country’s emergency water reserve only has enough supply for 30 days – more than 30 times below the 1,000-day recommendation for similar countries.  Pakistan, the report states, is “not far from being classified as ‘water scarce,’ with less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.” Among other factors, climate change is affecting snowmelt and reducing flows into the Indus River, the area’s main water source.

USAID expects its programs to provide a minimum of 10 million people with sustainable access to improved water supply by 2018.It also plans to provide 6 million people with sustainable access to improved sanitation by that time, according to the agency’s new water and development strategy, its first.  It is also supporting regional discussions on water scarcity issues. Despite such a large effort, almost 800 million people lack access to safe water, and more than double that number are unable to access sanitation. And without big changes, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to be living under “severe water stress conditions” — meaning that in a given year there would be less than 1,000 m3 of water available per person — by 2025, according to USAID.

To alleviate more of that stress, USAID will work with other countries to use emerging science and technology to track the problem and prepare communities to adapt.  It will continue to share NASA Earth Science and satellite data about water supply throughout the world to help detect and prepare for future threats. It will also help nations translate that data into decision-making for aid and how to better alert communities about likely food shortages.

At the hearing, House members pressed speakers for information on tools they might need to better address the problem. Answers, however, are challenging to come by, says Holmes, “It really doesn’t lend itself to easy fixes.” Moreover, when water shortages threaten to elevate tensions where the supply is scarce it can be challenging to provide assistance. “Many countries view water as a sovereign issue and discourage outside intervention,” Salzberg says.

Last year the U.S. government invested more than $700 million in global water activities as part of its congressionally mandated requirement to make global water aid a specific policy objective of U.S. foreign assistance. About 27 percent of those funds went to sub-Saharan Africa, where needs continue to be particularly dire. In 20 African countries, more than 30 percent of the population does not have access to safe water, and in seven of those countries more than half the people lack access to safe water, according to Salzberg.

China and India are also experiencing unprecedented strain on water supplies, due to water shortages fueled by climate change, urbanization and massive industrial growth.  Indeed, rising demand for water-hungry foodstuffs like beef coupled with already scarce water resources paint a stark picture.

Despite a continued focus on water issues, barely a dent has been made in the problem, says Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D), who today introduced new legislation with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) geared toward furthering U.S. water assistance and ensuring that work will have measurable impact. “We’ve just moved the needle a little bit, and in some cases—like the area of sanitation—we are at risk of falling behind because of rapid urbanization. But the key here, and part of what we are trying to do with the new legislation, is to leverage money that is already being spent.”

Editor’s note (8/2/2013): This post has been updated to include the definition of “severe water stress conditions.”

About the Author: Dina Fine Maron is the associate editor for health and medicine at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @Dina_Maron.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Jagdish 12:38 am 08/2/2013

    Two-thirds or more of heat energy is rejected in production of electricity. There is a need to use this heat once more in distillation of waste water. The design of electric plants should be integrated with water treatment progressively.
    This is equally applicable to coal,gas or nuclear generation.

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  2. 2. Owl905 2:04 am 08/2/2013

    There is lots of water; the foundation problem is portioning the use of the water and predicting the future availability of the water.
    Aquifers may be zero-sum games; well water can disappear with a channel-route change; and the value of water may be overturned by an industrial or commercial advantage: ex. – the hostility against the Coca-Cola Corporation isn’t minor or localized.
    They’re chasing an unattainable goal, but the effort is valuable because it will spur innovations in recycling and pollution responses.
    The golden key is an economical desalination process.

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  3. 3. Carlyle 3:08 am 08/2/2013

    We need more global warming to generate greater evaporation from the oceans resulting in increased rainfall on land. What would be really disastrous would be a cooler world which would result in less free water as more of the declining precipitation is locked up in ice. There is no evidence that global warming reduces precipitation. In fact AGW proponents claim that this is causing sea ice growth in the Antarctic. By the way, global sea ice is at record levels for the modern era.

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  4. 4. Trafalgar 5:21 am 08/2/2013

    The water goes up, who cares where (or when) it comes down, that’s not my department, says Carlyle.

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  5. 5. Active remedy researcher 7:39 am 08/2/2013

    The water cycle is interdependent with supportive living ecosystems. Particularly, reforestation of highland areas is essential for water security.

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  6. 6. Conser Vit 8:52 am 08/2/2013

    Carlyle, so much misinformation – so little time. No one is claiming that climate change is reducing overall precipitation – it’s raining in ways that harm people. In 2010, Pakistan (in severe drought conditions today) had floods that displaced 20 million people. To put that in perspective, that more than the entire combined populations of Alaska, Idaho, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virgina and Wyoming.
    By the way, snowfall has increased in the Antarctic desert, but not ice volume. Please provide a reference to record ice levels.

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  7. 7. Carlyle 9:35 am 08/2/2013

    Garbage. AGW believers deny anything beneficial in global warming. Catastrophic weather events are down, not up though with increased population in vulnerable areas, damage is inevitably going to increase. Deserts are greening, world food production continues to increase. More people now die from the effects of obesity than starvation for the first time in human history. Humanity is much better off in a warmer world than a colder. That does not condone the pollution that AGW adherents foster by refusing the only technology that can significantly reduce the consumption of fossil fuel.

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  8. 8. Carlyle 9:49 am 08/2/2013

    As for my claim about global sea ice, look it up yourself. You will find it difficult to find the figures for global extent. Why do you suppose that might be?

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  9. 9. Portobello 9:59 am 08/2/2013

    OK, I looked it up, Carlyle… :

    ‘The net result is a statistically significant global decrease of more than a million km2′

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  10. 10. Owl905 1:20 pm 08/2/2013

    Carlyle’s circus freakshow never ends:
    “There is no evidence that global warming reduces precipitation” There was never any claim that it did, does, or will – the opposite: CC will change patterns, increase heavy rainfall, and increase global humidity.
    “In fact AGW proponents claim that this is causing sea ice growth in the Antarctic.” Anything bigger than this fib would have to be a lie of Goebbels proportions. Sea-ice growth in the Antarctic is happening in the same latitudes that’s also the fastest rising-temperature zone on the planet. Childish attempts to claim sea-ice means cooling lacks a shred of evidence. Arctic sea-ice loss is like cubes in a bowl; Antarctic sea-ice growth is like a pile of ice cubes melting down and spreading out. Everyone not drinking the pro-pollutionist kookaide has understood this fundamental process difference for almost a decade.

    “Garbage. AGW believers deny anything beneficial in global warming.” Garbage in garbage out. The benefits of the disruption are meager and transient. The big picture is a larger version of similar pollution problems that are by-products of the Industrial Revolution.

    After that, the usual mud-at-the-wall rants continue to evoke pictures of Abraham Simpson waving a cane.

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  11. 11. hanmeng 2:24 pm 08/2/2013

    “price can be used by water managers as an effective and efficient instrument to manage this scarce resource.”

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  12. 12. Carlyle 6:28 pm 08/2/2013

    We must be reading different articles Owl905. Repeatedly the article cites ‘Climate change’ as one of the causes of water shortage. Code for Global Warming or are you suggesting it is code for global cooling?

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  13. 13. Carlyle 7:00 pm 08/2/2013

    Well I have found a very useful site though it does not show the actual figures for daily global sea ice extent. It shows Antarctic sea ice extending 1150 miles out from the continent & still growing. How can melt water explain that? In an area of the world subject to the world’s wildest winds & waves the idea that less saline melt water sits on top of more saline water that far out from the continent without mixing is a joke. How can claims of warmer ocean temperature & increased salinity in the ocean surrounding Antarctica be reconciled with growing sea ice extent? Does not compute. It is the typical AGW trick of fitting the arguments to suit the undeniable facts by ignoring other irrefutable facts.

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  14. 14. Cheeba934 9:47 pm 08/2/2013

    Many recommendations are presently available based on the type of treatment required to achieve the objective:economics, type of treatment to achieve the goal. At present we have all types of source and output of each required installation. I am actively pursuing the several technologies lately and hopefully post blogs etc. in the near future.

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  15. 15. Carlyle 10:17 pm 08/2/2013

    Well this comprehensive study has been published since my original post. Average global sea ice was down by about 400 thousand square kilometres in 2008 from my initial reading. The extensive data & discussion is exactly what I have been seeking & is the type of genuine science SIAM should be engaged in.

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  16. 16. ddlmach 7:09 pm 08/4/2013

    Create inland rivers and reservoirs from the ocean into desert or dry areas. This water could fill aquifers while being filtered by the soil. Also the water would evaporate creating moisture in dry areas. Developing reservoirs could also create recreation areas and possibly electrical generation. Having the ocean water return to the sea would prevent stagnant salt water areas by always having the water moving. The infrastructure needed to pump the water inland would be rather extensive but once everything was going it could sustain itself. May sound rather simplistic but is worth looking into.

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  17. 17. Carlyle 7:03 am 08/5/2013

    I remember Operation Plowshare in the ‘60s & ’70s. This could have created incredible engineering results but public fear of radioactivity, probably justified, killed it. Soil does not filter salt out of water but there are huge areas such as inland Australia that could one day be flooded, creating an inland sea. This in turn would result in increased rainfall in a presently arid are.

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  18. 18. Daniel35 6:36 pm 08/7/2013

    Maybe the Maldive Islands could sell their excess water to the rest of the world, but they’d probably charge us extra for the salt.

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