Home Environment As fresh water supplies dwindle and droughts worsen, the poor suffer

As fresh water supplies dwindle and droughts worsen, the poor suffer

Global warming is causing droughts and reducing access to potable water, and that spells trouble for the world's poor.

Credit: Tim J Keegan https://www.flickr.com/photos/suburbanbloke/381634787

As global warming causes weather patterns to shift, snow accumulation to shrink, and glaciers to melt, water is becoming an increasingly rare resource, and for the world’s poor, that could spell trouble.

Approximately 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, yet the vast majority, about 97.5 percent is salt water and thus undrinkable. Further, much of the world’s fresh water is trapped as ice, or else stuck in clouds. In fact, only about 1 percent of the world’s water is accessible for human use, making it a rare and valuable resource.

Usable” water refers to the water found in lakes, rivers, streams, and water reservoirs, and under normal circumstances, these sources are able to replenish themselves through rainfall and snow melt. Now, however, this sustainable cycle of replenishment is being disrupted by climate change. 

Currently, some 700 million people already lack access to adequate amounts of potable drinking water. Over the next ten years this number will explode to 1.8 billion. Global warming will contribute to this by changing weather patterns, melting valuable ice reserves, reducing the amount of accumulated snow, and thus snow melt in the spring, and increasing the rate at which rain makes its way back to the oceans by causing heavier but less frequent rain falls.

Changing weather patterns have always been a part of human history. For example, while North Africa is now known for being dry and arid, during the classical times of the Greeks, it was actually a lush, fertile region. Regardless, man-made climate change is speeding up the rate at which weather patterns are changing, depriving areas of vital rainfall and snow melt. Take California, which is suffering from record droughts that will likely only worsen over time.

At this point it may be too late to prevent further damage and increased water scarcity. Yet efforts to reduce global warming could prevent more serious damage in the future. For now, humanity needs to turn to its intellect and ability to develop technologies to overcome the on-going water crisis.

The most obvious technologies that could aid humanity in the face of a “water apocalypse” are desalination methods. Technologies already exist for converting salt water into potable water, but so far most of the technologies are prohibitively expensive. This is especially true for poorer areas of the world, such as North Africa.

The most efficient desalination plant currently in operation is located in Israel, near Tel Aviv. The plant is able to produce 627,000 cubic metres of fresh water per day, enough to meet the needs of about 1.65 million people. Yet the plant came with a price tag of about $500 million, and daily costs to run the plant aren’t precisely cheap. For a wealthy nation like Israel, such a plant is feasible. For a poorer country like Libya, paying for such a facility is still out of reach. Even debt-ridden California would struggle to pay for such a massive desalination plant.

One technology being explored is small-scale solar powered desalination units. These units could be used by families and individuals to convert small amounts of salt water into drinkable water, but even these “cheap” devices will cost at least $450 dollars, which is a huge sum for people earning only a few thousand dollars a year.

Given the costs, desalination won’t be enough to prevent the water crisis from worsening. If supply cannot be increased, than demand must be reduced. In most countries agriculture is, by far, the biggest consumer of water. As thirsty as humans are, plants require even more water and with the world’s population growing, more food will be required in the future. Growing more food means using more water.

That’s why many emergent technologies are focusing on reducing water consumption in the agricultural sector. A Silicon Valley company, CropX, is working on a sensor and software package that will allow farmers to determine exactly how much water is needed for different parts of their field, allowing farmers to water more judiciously. The sensors can consider topography, soil type, and moisture to provide highly accurate measurements.

Of course, the problem remains the same for poorer farmers. Buying a sensor system is a great solution for the corporate mega-farms in the United States, but impractical for a share cropper in Sierra Leone.

As with many of the world’s problems, solutions are available if you have the money to pay for them. For the poor, however, the coming water crisis will not only be very real, but nearly impossible to address. Ironically, while poor nations will have to bear the brunt of the burden, global warming is disproportionately the result of decades of industrial activities in wealthy nations like the United States.

In order to reduce the impact of water scarcity, a two-pronged approach is a must. Countries need to work together to reduce the rate at which the world is warming, which should help avert even worse droughts and over time may be able to reverse the impact. At the same time, new fresh water production technologies and water saving techniques must developed, but with an emphasis on affordability.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic we recommend that you check out a new series from National Geographic Channel, Breakthrough:  Water Apocalypse.