This article by Russell Sticklor appeared originally in the Fall 2010 issue of the Izaak Walton League’s Outdoor America magazine. Read part one here.
As concerns over water resources have grown around the globe, so too have proposed solutions, which range from common sense to absurd. Towing icebergs
into the Persian Gulf or floating giant bags of fresh water across oceans to water-scarce countries are among the non-starters. But more moderate versions of those ideas are already being put into practice. These solutions showcase the power of human ingenuity — and reveal just how desperate some nations have become to secure water.
For example, India is doing business with a company out of tiny Sitka, Alaska, laying the framework for a water-export deal that could see huge volumes of water shipped via supertankers from the water-rich state of Alaska to a depot south of Mumbai. Depending on the success of this arrangement, moving bulk water via ship could theoretically become as commonplace as transoceanic oil shipments are today.
There is far greater potential, however, in harnessing the water supply of the world’s oceans. Perhaps more than any other technological breakthrough, desalination offers the best chance to ease our population-driven water crunch, because it can bolster supply. Although current desalination technology is not perfect, Eric Hoke, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of California-Los Angeles, told me via email, it is already capable of converting practically any water source into water that is acceptable for use in households, agriculture, or industrial production. Distances between supply and demand would be relatively short, considering that 40 percent of the world’s population — some 2.7 billion people — live within 60 miles of a coastline.
The Lure of Desalination
Although desalination plants are already up and running from Florida to Australia, the jury is still out on the role desalination can play in mitigating the world’s fresh water crisis. Concerns persist over the environmental impact seawater-intake pipes have on marine life and delicate coastal ecosystems. Another question is cost: Desalination plants consume enormous amounts of electricity, which makes them prohibitively expensive in most parts of the world. Desalination technology may not be able to produce water in sufficient scale — or cheaply enough — to accommodate the growing need for agricultural water. “Desalination is more and more effective [in producing] large quantities of water,” notes Laval University Professor Frédéric Lasserre in an interview. “But the capital needed is huge, and the water cost, now about 75 cents per cubic meter, is far too expensive for agriculture.” Although desalination might be “a good solution for cities and industries that can afford such water,” Lasserre predicts it “will never be a solution for agricultural uses.”
Nevertheless, desalination’s promise of easing future water crunches in populous coastal regions gives the technology game-changing potential at the global level. “Desalination technology,” Columbia University’s Upmanu Lall told said in an email, “will improve to the point that [water scarcity] will not be an issue for coastal areas.”
A Glass Half Full
With world population projected to grow by at least 2 billion during the next 40 years, water will likely remain a chief source of global anxiety deep into the 21st century. Because water plays such a fundamental role in everyday life across every society on earth, its shared stewardship may become an absolute necessity.
Take India and Pakistan’s landmark Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, which is still in effect today. The agreement — signed by two countries that otherwise can’t stand each other — shows that when crafted appropriately and with enough patience, international water-sharing pacts can help defuse tensions over water access before those tensions escalate into violence. Similar collaboration on managing shared waters in other areas of the world — a process that can be a bit bumpy at times — has proven successful to date.
Meanwhile, more widespread distribution of reliable family planning tools and services across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia will also be needed if the international community hopes to meaningfully address water scarcity concerns. Better access to healthcare and family planning tools would empower women to take greater control over their reproductive health and potentially elevate living standards in crowded parts of the developing world. Smaller family sizes would help decelerate population growth over time, easing the burden on water and soil resources in many areas. The key is ensuring such efforts have adequate funding. The United States recently pledged $63 billion over the next six years through its Global Health Initiative to help partner countries improve health outcomes through strengthened health systems, with a particular focus on improving the health of women and children.
Putting a dent in the global population growth rate will be important, but it must be accompanied by a sustained push for conservation — nowhere more so than in agriculture. Investing in the repair of a leaky irrigation infrastructure could help save water that might otherwise literally slip through the cracks. Attention to maintaining healthy soil quality — by practicing regular crop rotation, for example — could also help boost the efficiency of irrigation water.
Setting a Fair Price
The most enduring changes to current water-use practices may have to come in the form of pricing. In most parts of the world, including parts of the United States, groundwater removal is conducted with virtually zero oversight, allowing farmers to withdraw water as if sitting atop a bottomless resource. But as groundwater tables approach exhaustion, the equation changes; as Ben Franklin famously pointed out, “when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
The key, then, is to establish the worth of water before this comes to pass. Smart pricing could encourage conservation by making it less economical to grow water-intensive crops, particularly those ill-suited to a particular climate. “Some crops being grown should not be grown . . . once the true cost of water is factored in,” Nirvikar Singh, a University of California-Santa Cruz economics professor who focuses on water issues, told me via email. Pricing would also provide a revenue stream for modernizing irrigation infrastructures and maintaining sewage systems and water treatment centers, further bolstering water efficiency and quality both in the United States and around the globe.
To be sure, implementing a pricing scheme for water resources — which have been essentially free throughout history — will be unpopular in many parts of the world. It’s natural to expect some pushback from the public as water managers and governments take steps to address the 21st century water crunch. But given the resource’s undeniable and universal value on an ever-more crowded planet, few options exist aside from using the power of the purse to push for more efficient water use.
In the end, however, water pricing must be combined with greater public value on water conservation — we must not flush water down our drains before using it to its full potential. Whether that involves improving the water transportation infrastructure, recycling wastewater, taking shorter showers, or turning to less water-intensive plants and crops, steps big and small need to be taken to better conserve and more equitably divide the world’s water to irrigate our farms, grow our economies, and sustain future generations.
Sources: Columbia Water Center, National Geographic, Population Reference Bureau, White House.
Photo Credits: “Juhu Beach Crowded,” courtesy of flickr user la_imagen, and “Irrigation (China),” courtesy of flickr user spavaai.