This poem penned by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was written back in 1797, but is truer than ever today. Everything and everyone alive on the face of this planet depends on the availability of fresh water for survival. (Even fish that live in the sea need to filter the salty brine via specialized ‘chloride cells’ on their gills). But, with ever increasing population levels and the increasing use of technologies that require large amounts of fresh water, the question becomes, ‘are we on a collision course?’ Specifically, will America, land of plenty, come under increasing scrutiny as other parts of the world dry up?
For a planet that is mostly covered with water to a depth of miles, it might seem somewhat of a joke to be talking about a pending lack of it. The key term here is fresh as in drinkable, as opposed to most of the water in the oceans which would require expensive technologies to clean it to the point where it would be considered potable. Of all the water that is present, only about 1 to 2.5% is fit to drink.
Water Use in the United States
In order to keep one person not only watered, but fed, copious amounts of H2O and other resources must be used daily in the States. Among these is the growing of produce in the form of grains, vegetable and fruit. Poultry, swine and other livestock all require food and water in order to be brought to market. In the US alone we grow and slaughter over nine billion animals each year. As a matter of fact, food and agriculture are the largest consumers of water, requiring well over one hundred times more than we use for personal needs. Up to 70 % of the water we take from rivers and groundwater goes into irrigation, about 10% is used in domestic applications and 20% in industry. Currently, about 3600 km3 of freshwater are withdrawn for human use. Of these, roughly half is really consumed as a result of evaporation, incorporation into crops and transpiration from crops. The other half recharges groundwater or surface flows or is lost in unproductive evaporation. So, while much of this water is returned to the earth, it is returned in the form of wastewater that is not fit to drink. The sad truth is that we can still afford to be wasteful here in the US. In other countries, fresh water availability is already becoming much scarcer! Take China for instance. Most of her major rivers are now choked with runoff pollution. In one study it was reported that the Yangtze River (China’s longest) absorbed about 25 billion tons of waste water last year. This river system has now been deemed ‘cancerous’ by some scientists.
While Americans currently luxuriate in the copious use of fresh water (estimates run into the hundreds of gallons per day) much of the rest of the world subsists on 25 gallons per day. That situation will become only worst as the population of the rest of the world sky rockets in coming decades. For every person born, more and more water resources must be tapped. (In just the space of time that it took you to read this far, about four hundred new babies arrived in a world that is supporting over seven billion). Just as we have all experienced a wake up call on oil reserves, we need also to look to the future of how water can be effectively managed here at home and elsewhere. The question that remains is what will happen when shortages become severe in other parts of the globe. Unlike food which can be cut back on in lean times, water availability is crucial and immediate. A sudden shortfall anywhere in the world will result in the instant and dire relocation of large populations with dire results probable for the location they move to. It’s very possible that the next major World War will not be fought over oil after all, but rather a substance that almost covers the earth.
Update: 2018 - Iran citizens were rioting over the lack of clean water. Also see this 2019 article.