Right now, more than a billion people live without access to fresh water. When the number is expanded to include those who spend at least one month out of the year without fresh water, it comprises more than one-third of the world population. Even though water covers 71 percent of our planet’s surface, very little of it can be used by humans.
“More than 97 percent of the world’s water is too salty to drink. Another 2 percent is locked up in ice caps and glaciers,” explains National Geographic. “Less than 1 percent is left for drinking, agriculture, industry, and nature.”
For those of us unfamiliar with the science, however, it’s important to understand why water policy reform is so important. Here’s a short list of the reasons.
1) Climate change has made floods and is causing droughts to become longer, more frequent, and more severe
Although climate change isn’t solely responsible for the fact that major floods—which used to occur once every century or so—are now happening every couple decades, it certainly plays a significant role. As the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) puts it, even the restoration of forests and wetlands to absorb precipitation won’t necessarily make a meaningful dent in flooding since “if more intense rainstorms hit a region because of climate change, there will simply be more water—and catastrophic floods will become regular events.”
The disruption in weather patterns has also increased the prevalence of droughts. According to the National Resources Defense Council’s recent report, “Climate Change, Water, and Risk,” 1,100 counties (one-third of those in the main 48 states) “face higher risks of water shortages by mid-century as the result of climate change. More than 400 of these counties will face extremely high risks of water shortages.”
Because much of the United States covers mid-latitude areas, those regions are particularly susceptible to these effects of climate change. “We’re expecting two important things to happen that can contribute to drought,” explains Michael Brewer, a climate scientist from the National Climatic Data Center, in the video above. “First, temperatures are going to increase. As temperatures increase, that means more evaporation, which can mean more drought. The second thing is, we’re expecting precipitation to get more extreme,” which in addition to exacerbating flooding “can also mean a longer time between rains, which can contribute to drought as well.”
2) California has about one of year of water left
“[Californians] have two levels of problems,” explains Jennifer Buckman, General Counsel for Friant Water Authority, in a YouTube video produced by ProtectTheHarvest. “The first is Mother Nature just wasn’t very generous to us. … The second, and more pernicious or damaging level, is that what we got wasn’t managed very well.”
Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth Science at UC Irvine, recently published an editorial warning that “as difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water.” He predicts that the situation will become catastrophic in “about one year.”
California governor Jerry Brown has already mandated a 25 percent reduction in urban water use, but since most of California’s water is used for agriculture, this will only make a small dent in the problem.
3) The water shortage in California will cause major food shortages
There is a reason why farmers use 80 percent of the state’s total water supply. Many of the crops we take for granted are grown primarily in the Golden State, including 99 percent of our nation’s artichokes, 94 percent of its broccoli and fresh plums, and 84 percent of its fresh peaches, as well as other staple vegetables like lettuce, carrots, and celery.
And these aren’t even the state’s top crop. That distinction belongs to alfalfa, which is commonly used as cow feed. Its second most prevalent crop, almonds, will be particularly devastated by the water shortage: Because they require very specific conditions to be effectively cultivated, 80 percent of the world’s almonds are produced in California’s Central Valley.
4) There are potential solutions to the water crisis
However, there is some good news.
Water policy experts are increasingly voicing support for a cap-and-trade system that would promote stable water use through market regulations. Australians have made international headlines by cutting their water consumption in half with various water conservation measures, relieving the parched nation after a decade-long drought at the start of the century (the so-called “Millennium Drought”).
The problem right now is that these solutions, though effective, aren’t necessarily expedient. “When do we purposely hurt our economy in order to save water,” asked Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, in an interview with Politico, “and how do you explain to people that’s what you have to do?”
In a similar vein, roughly 13,000 desalination plants have been constructed to make seawater fit for human consumption—despite concerns that this practice exacerbates climate change—because the increasing water needs of thirsty areas of the world have been trumping long-term sustainability among political and business leaders.
So how can the public be roused to act on this matter?
5) People need to be better informed about the seriousness of our water shortage
According to UNESCO, water education should help public officials and ordinary citizens become familiar with “science, water-fetching, sanitation and hygiene, as well as to develop the relevant knowledge, skills, values and behaviors in a water sustainability-friendly context.”
Another United Nations entity, the Food and Agricultural Organization’s Land and Water Division, has released a video outlining the water crisis that has received over 130,000 views. It encourages viewers to take small steps, like not throwing cooking oil down the drain, closing the tap when brushing one’s teeth, and not buying unnecessary goods (“everything produced uses water”).
The water crisis isn’t unsolvable—solutions range from the large-scale plans proposed by climate and water policy experts to the small eco-friendly actions every of us can perform. We are lucky that the current situation, though alarming, has not yet resulted in massive food shortages or other comparable humanitarian calamities.
That said, both science and current events clearly demonstrate that we can’t wait on this indefinitely. If we continue to use our water irresponsibly, it won’t be long before we find that it simply isn’t there for us anymore.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at [email protected].
Photo via Bert Kaufmann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)