BRICKS TO BABEL: World water crisis looms on horizon

Matt Haemmerle

Water scarcity will be the most serious crisis of the 21st century. The great paradox of our world is that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, but less than 1 percent is drinkable. 

Few people realize just how much water is used each day.

 On average, a person drinks more than one and a half gallons and uses 40 gallons for showering and flushing toilets. Sprinklers, swimming pools and sundry outdoor uses add to these figures. But the vast majority of water is used not for domestic purposes but rather to grow what we eat and drink. 

It takes up to 650 gallons to grow just one pound of rice and 1,000 gallons to produce one quart of milk. About 3,000 gallons of water are required to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger. 

But let’s make that a cheeseburger instead. It takes another 650 gallons of water for a cow to produce one pound of cheese. 

Bottom line: We use a lot of water, and as the human sponge sucks our planet’s lakes and rivers dry, there will be big problems.    

Water is life, and when people are deprived of their means to living, conflict is inevitable. 

The potential for geopolitical conflict is frightening when one considers the Sword of Damocles predicament of up-river and down-river countries. 

Because upstream countries have first access to the river and possess the power to divert water and construct a dam for agricultural use, downstream nations are at the mercy of others for its most basic and essential resource. 

This is the situation that Pakistan finds itself in as the Indus River flows first through India, a country whose relations with Pakistan are shaky at best. 

A similar situation exists on the Inguri River in Abkhazia where Russia and Georgia are perennially at odds. The Nile flows through 10 countries and the Danube, Rhine, Niger and Congo rivers all pass through nine countries.

The geopolitical conflicts have already begun. 

As recently as 2004, Peruvian farmers in the Urubamba Valley have had to call together community assemblies to mitigate fighting and address water concerns as the amount of seasonal runoff from glaciers in the Andes has significantly declined. 

Much of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about water. Three aquifers beneath the West Bank are virtually the only source of water for Palestinians. As Israel’s population grew in the 1960s, Israel began to tap underground water from the West Bank. Today, Israel’s massive concrete separation barrier deviates from the internationally accepted “green line,” in some places by more than three miles, and cuts off Palestinians from the most productive wells in the West Bank. On top of this, illegal Israeli settlements contest Palestinians for water from wells to which they still have access.

Two of the solutions for alleviating water demand have been to divert rivers and build dams. 

Both are mistakes. 

Diverting rivers and building dams are ecologically destructive and only exacerbate problems of water scarcity in the long run. Here are two examples that demonstrate the consequences of distorting the natural flow of water systems. 

First, there is the Mekong River in Southeast Asia which is in the process of being dammed and diverted to control flooding.  

Western engineers think of flood extremes as bad, but in Asia floods are generally a good thing because they drive the natural ecosystem, which millions depend on for their food. 

The ostensible cure to seasonal monsoon floods is catastrophe for fish migration and the fertility of the entire ecological infrastructure on which Southeast Asian rural life is built. Second is the Aral Sea where the Soviets diverted water for the unsustainable production of cotton. 

Uzbekistan’s prosperous fishing industry was replaced by a ship graveyard under what was once the sea along with dust storms that devastate the local population because of the salt and farm chemicals they carry. 

In the republic of Karakalpakstan, 97 percent of women suffer from anemia, and there are high rates of other cancers and noxious diseases.  

The best solution for addressing the water crisis is a whole separate topic of its own.  Without this article going into great detail, one sensible solution is harvesting rainwater, something that the most ancient civilizations have done. Theories suggest that the mysterious Nazca Lines of Peru that were built as early as 200 B.C. might have been used to channel water. Another solution is investment in solar desalination plants which would make entire oceans potential sources for usable water.  

The one certainty, however, is that an answer to the world’s water crisis must come soon, because its consequences are already here.    


Matt Haemmerle is a sophomore political science and economics major from Santa Rosa Beach, Florida.  He can be reached at [email protected].