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The World's Water Problems
Volume 9, Number 16: 19 April 2006

In a "Forum" article in the November 2005 issue of the Ecological Society of America's Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, five people intimately informed about the enormous problems we face in finding sufficient water to supply our current and future needs discuss the many challenges that confront us in this regard (Glennon et al., 2005).

Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law states that "almost one-third of the world's 6 billion people lack access to safe drinking water." Then, noting that "as the world's population surges to 9 billion over the next 50 years," he asks "where will their water come from?" Lest one thinks that only less-developed countries face this problem, he adds that in a recent survey conducted in the United States, "36 states reported that they expect to suffer water shortages in the next 10 years."

Other parts of the world have even less time before they encounter major water shortages. In fact, Hussein Amery of the Colorado School of Mines' Division of Liberal Arts and International Studies reports that "the Middle East as a region ran out of water in the 1970s," quoting Allan (2001). Similarly, Gabriel Eckstein of Texas Tech University's School of Law notes that "half of the world's population obtain fresh water from groundwater resources," but as Glennon notes, "we are pumping groundwater faster than Mother Nature can replenish it."

Also focusing on the immediacy of our water problems is Dan Kappen of the Family Farm Alliance, who reports that "urbanization and competition for water supplies are driving western farmers off the land at a time when American food production in general is following other industries 'off-shore'." Noting "traditional farms and ranches are disappearing, and next year the US will become, for the first time in our history, a net importer of food," Kappen states that "the post 9/11 world of terrorist threats makes the stability of domestic food supply even more pressing," and that "for farmers to survive - and thus for food to be produced in the US - a stable water supply must be available."

Rounding out the forum discussion, Steve Werner of Water for People reminds us that "when there is so little water available, people don't have enough to consume, bathe in, dispose of waste, or use for purposes such as growing food." As a result, he reports that "the health impacts on humans is devastating; between 6,000 and 10,000 people - mostly children under 5 years old - die from water-related illnesses every day [our italics]."

So what can be done about the precarious situation? Glennon lists five options - (1) "encourage the reuse of municipal effluent," (2) "explore the technological boundaries of desalination," (3) "impose appropriate conservation requirements," (4) "raise water rates," and (5) "embrace water marketing as a critical tool to reallocate water" - all of which initiatives he acknowledges are fraught with complex problems of their own.

In closing, we would like to place one additional proposal on the table. We should allow the air's CO2 content to rise unimpeded, as market-driven technological evolution takes its natural course and gradually replaces (or not!) the burning of fossil fuels as our major source of energy. Why? Because CO2 is a potent anti-transpirant, as well as a powerful aerial fertilizer; and allowing its atmospheric concentration to continue its upward climb will enable nearly all of earth's plants to produce considerably more biomass per unit of water used in the process (see our Editorial of 21 Feb 2001). Indeed, even with the implementation of all of the options discussed by Glennon et al., as well as still others pertaining to additional aspects of agriculture, it has been estimated (see our Editorial of 2 May 2001) that we will still fall short of producing the food we will need to feed our numbers in but a few short decades. Consequently, to make up the difference, we may well usurp nearly all of the planet's remaining arable land and freshwater resources between now and then, leaving essentially nothing for nature, if we cannot continue to reap (see our Editorial of 11 Jul 2001) the important biological benefits of our CO2-accreting atmosphere.

Sherwood, Keith and Craig Idso

Allan, T. 2001. The Middle East Water Question. IB Tauris. New York, New York, USA.

Glennon, R., Eckstein, G., Amery, H.A., Keppen, D. and Werner, S. 2005. Turning on the tap: the world's water problems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3: 503-509.