This is article is part of a four-part series that examines the centrality of water supply for maintaining a large human population and keeping us from fighting over it in the latter part of the 21stcentury. It first looks at the present day, our starting point, and the demands that increasing population places on the water supply. Then it examines possible growth scenarios that can occur if we act responsibly but also if we don’t take the situation seriously. We then look at what it takes to desalinate sea water, the ultimate source of all freshwater and we’ll look at some of the 15,000 or so places on earth that already desalinate at least some of their water supply. Finally, in part four, we’ll examine what it takes to get to a solution.
Drought and its opposite, abundant water availability, could become the 21stcentury equivalent of last century’s war and peace. If we’re unlucky and ignore the impending problem these pairs could become additive. But unlike other aspects of climate change, water needs are so immediate that they can’t be ignored, and many nations are already working to supplement their natural water supplies.
It’s surprising to learn that the US with 13 percent of global desalination output, is in third place among nations that desalinate sea water behind only Saudi Arabia (17 percent of global output), and the United Arab Emirates (13.4 percent).
Many countries are heavily dependent on desalination, though in smaller quantities and Israel is a prime example. Some 80 percent of the fresh water used by Israeli cities originates in the sea.
But many nations are not as lucky. In 2017 the World Resources Institute warned that 33 countries face extremely high water stress in 2040. Those countries include Nigeria, Somalia, and Iran. In addition, there’s Cape Town, South Africa. A story in the New York Times said that Cape Town, South Africa, would run out of fresh water at least temporarily in April 2018 and reported that the government was working with all deliberate speed to build a desalination plant and to plan for disorder if water ran out.
Luckily strong rains in June led to refilling the reservoirs but significant water restrictions during the emergency also played a part in keeping the situation from getting out of hand. Cape Town is far from out of the woods because recent weather patterns show a succession of warmer years and lower rainfall. So the recent emergency may only be a preview of the new normal.
But poor, third world countries are not the only ones facing water stress. Climate change affects everyone and we can frequently see headlines like this from the New York Times chronicling that reality:
To understand the volatility of the water problem, consider Cape Town’s experience. Just a couple of years ago, the situation could not have looked more different there. In 2014, the dams stood full after years of good rain. The following year, C40, a collection of cities focused on climate change worldwide, awarded Cape Town its “adaptation implementation” prize for its management of water.
Like a thief in the night, climate change snuck up on Cape Town and that’s what is most dangerous. A water emergency can happen so quickly that you don’t have time to react. But you can plan.
As Cape Town saw first-hand, water scarcity can happen quickly. World-wide more than a billion peoplelive in regions where water scarcity is an active concern. As many as 3.5 billion people (about half the population of Earth) could experience water scarcity by 2025.
Scarcity is caused by pollution which causes climate change, which degrades coastal aquatic ecosystemsand causes precipitation patterns to shift. It’s also well documented that climate change is melting glaciers adding water to oceans and changing weather patterns can intensify both floods and drought.
War and peace
We all know something about Syria. If you think what’s happened there was merely a political event and a civil war, you wouldn’t be wrong but you’d be missing an important apart of the story. Syria suffered from an intense drought from 2006 to 2011. Cities ran low on water, there wasn’t enough for farming, crops failed, livestock died, people were uprooted by the conditions and migrated to the cities where resources were strained to the breaking point. There weren’t close to enough jobs.
Civil war began in 2011 and millions of Syrians were either killed or left the country on makeshift boats. Many died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Millions made it to Europe where their presence strained local governments. The migrants for the most part didn’t know the local languages, had no capital, and were unemployable. The European Union’s Schengen Area compact that gave free range to anyone traveling in Europe to cross borders without passports was sorely tested. The UK refused to allow migrants into the country and Brexit ensued in part as a reaction to the possibility of welcoming these migrants.
Syria is a humanitarian crisis, but it’s not the only one. The 2018 United Nations’ World Humanitarian Data and Trendsreport shows that in 2017 water was a major fact of in conflict in at least 45 countries. Water is such a constant and immediate need that water insecurity can easily serve as a flash point between the haves and have nots.
The situation is not likely to get better on its own. Water insecurity, stress, or whatever you wish to call it, is a function of population. The greater the population the greater the demand for it. And it’s not just water. Any commodity such as food, shelter, clothing, and energy are all under pressure from a swelling human population.
There are about 7.7 billion people on earth today and there will be 10 billion by mid-century. Ten billion is an important number because it matches the consensus estimate of earth’s carrying capacity which is simply the largest population of people that can be sustainably supported on the planet at one time. The key word here is sustainably, there’s no doubt that more than 10 billion people will simultaneously exist on the planet during this century just as it is possible for millions of chickens to inhabit a small factory farm in overcrowded conditions. But like the chickens the humans of that future time won’t have much of a life.
Earth’s carrying capacity is an idea that will gain cogency in the years ahead. The Syrian diaspora coupled with similar situations around the world like the northward emigration from Central America to the southern border of the US give us a foretaste of some of the dislocations that will be caused by climate change. Not only drought but flooding and the resulting collapses of food distribution systems, sanitary systems, and more will haunt increasing numbers of people.Already UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, estimates that there are more than 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, greater than the population of France.
If we are to avert a global catastrophe at mid-century our first goal should be to put the systems and technologies in place to buttress the ecosystem, to make enough fresh water available for all human needs including agriculture, and to keep migration down to a manageable level whose primary purpose is not simply movement to survive.
Last word (for now)
It’s not all doom and gloom. The water crisis is so proximate that it is forcing nations to act today–even nations that dismiss the idea of climate change can’t argue with water scarcity. This piece lays out some of the challenges we face in dealing with water insecurity. The next installments in this series will deal with evaluating solutions and how they might be implemented on a global scale. We’ll look at costs and, importantly, the energy requirements for desalinating seawater as well as other approaches that contribute to solutions. Even if you live in a seemingly wet northern or southern latitude, don’t let your guard down: water insecurity can happen anywhere and combating it is an all hands effort.