Are We Running Out of Water?

According to an Uzbek saying, “if you run out of water, you run out of life.” Some experts would say that those words seem more prophetic than proverbial. Each year about two million people die as a result of poor sanitation and contaminated water, and 90 percent of the victims are children.

HOW do you get water? Do you just turn on a faucet and out it pours? Or, as is common in some lands, do you have to walk a long distance, wait in line, and then carry a heavy bucket of the precious liquid back to your home? Does it take you several hours each day just to get enough water for washing and cooking? In many lands, water is that scarce and that difficult to obtain! In her book Water Wars​—Drought, Flood, Folly, and the Politics of Thirst, Diane Raines Ward notes that 40 percent of the world’s population “carry their water from wells, rivers, ponds, or puddles outside of their homes.” In some countries, women may spend up to six hours fetching water for their families, lugging it home in containers that, when full, weigh more than 40 pounds [20 kg].

The fact is that over a third of the world’s population is seriously affected by a water and sanitation crisis. The problem is particularly severe in Africa, where 6 out of 10 people do not even have a proper toilet​—a factor that, according to a World Health Organization report, contributes to “the transfer of bacteria, viruses and parasites found in human excreta which . . . contaminate water resources, soil and food.” Such contamination, the report notes, “is a major  cause of diarrhoea, the second biggest killer of children in developing countries, and leads to other major diseases such as cholera, schistosomiasis, and trachoma.”

Water has been called liquid gold, the oil of the 21st century. Yet, nations are squandering the precious commodity to such a degree that their principal rivers have hardly anything left to pour into the sea. As irrigation and evaporation take their toll, prominent rivers are drying up, including the Colorado River in the western United States, the Yangtze in China, the Indus in Pakistan, the Ganges in India, and the Nile in Egypt. What has been done to alleviate the crisis? What is the ultimate solution?

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WATER UNDER THREAT

▪ “The Aral Sea in Central Asia was the fourth-largest lake on the planet in 1960. By 2007 it had shrunk to 10 percent of its original size.”​—Scientific American.

▪ The five Great Lakes of the United States and Canada​—Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior—​are shrinking “at an alarming pace.”​—The Globe and Mail.

▪ At one time, Australia’s Deniliquin mill processed enough grain to meet the needs of 20 million people. Now, however, the rice crop has been reduced by 98 percent, and the mill closed in December 2007. The cause? “Six long years of drought.”​—The New York Times.

[Picture]

A boat left high and dry on the Aral Sea

[Credit Line]

© Marcus Rose/​Insight/​Panos Pictures

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“DRAINING DRY THE RIVERS AND STREAMS”

“Africa’s Lake Chad, once a landmark for astronauts circling the earth, is now difficult for them to locate. Surrounded by [Cameroon,] Chad, Niger, and Nigeria . . . , the lake has shrunk by 95 percent since the 1960s. The soaring demand for irrigation water in that area is draining dry the rivers and streams the lake depends on for its existence. As a result, Lake Chad may soon disappear entirely, its whereabouts a mystery to future generations.”​—Plan B 2.0—​Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, by Lester R. Brown.

[Maps]

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Water

☒ Vegetation

□ Land

1963

NIGER

CHAD

Lake Chad

NIGERIA

CAMEROON

2007

NIGER

CHAD

Lake Chad

NIGERIA

CAMEROON

[Credit Line]

NASA/​U.S. Geological Survey