Where is the Water?

There’s only so much oil on the ground
Sooner or later there won’t be much around
Alternate sources of power must be found
Cause there’s only so much oil on the ground

That comes from a song by Tower of Power, a funk/R&B big band from the 70s. They were no stranger to the political activism that defined much of the era’s music.

This was during the great oil crisis of the 70s, from which the world recovered. The song is a testament to foresight, though, as we face a future in which the oil will run out and will need to be replaced with some other energy source. But we often forget that there’s a resource much more valuable, the most valuable of all. Water.

News of water crises are becoming increasingly commonplace in daily newspapers. They’re not the crises of past that were often concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. These are happening all over the world, making us quickly realize that no one is immune to the threat, even in regions previously characterized as water-rich.

For example, from February 13-17, three articles appeared in the New York Times about water shortages and droughts in Pakistan, São Paulo, Brazil, and California. If you had predicted these issues twenty years ago for any of these regions, one would probably be laughed at. They’ve all had an abundance of the precious resource that quickly slipped away.

Pakistan receives the majority of its supply from a mountain spring in the Himalayas, melting snowpack from glaciers and other rivers. These sources combine to form the Indus River, flowing into Pakistan and nourishing a huge amount of fertile farmland and potable water for the entire country. The river has been a source of life for thousands of years, serving as the backbone of the Indus Valley Civilization (one the earliest and most prosperous civilizations in history) over 5000 years ago. Today, this tradition is in peril, with shrinking Himalayan glaciers, diminishing rainfall, and governmental mismanagement as contributing factors. More importantly, the well-being of 182 million Pakistanis is at stake, who will surely face chronic shortages in the years to come.

Although its current state is not quite as dire as Pakistan, California shares many of the same characteristics and potential consequences. Thanks to a severe drought and diminishing water returns from the snow- and rain-fed rivers of Northern California, battles over the remaining supply have become one of the state’s hottest points of contention. According to the Times, “the rivers supply water through the [Rio Vista] delta for about two-thirds of Californians as well as vast tracts of rich farmland.” This includes much of the urban populations in Southern California. The State Water Resources Control Board says that residents in some northern San Diego areas averaged 580 gallons per day per capita, while some in East Los Angeles used as little as 46 gallons per day. All of this water isn’t traced back directly to the supply from the north, but important to highlight nonetheless.

For the almost twenty million people who live in the São Paulo metropolitan area, water could run out this year. Yes, the year 2015. It’s staggering to see in a country like Brazil, which holds 1/8 of the world’s freshwater supply. Due to staggering population growth, a notoriously leaky delivery system, and terrible pollution and deforestation in the region’s forests and wetlands, the reservoirs are running dangerously low. Access to water is already extremely spotty in areas, with citizens complaining of not having water for days. Without water to drink, bathe, clean or even brush teeth, one realizes how quickly an area can be paralyzed by a problem like this. In Brazil and Pakistan, government officials have been rightfully blamed for their negligence in addressing this issue earlier. With more sophisticated resources and infrastructure, California’s burden seems to be on people and businesses. Some of these issues could not predicted either, as the effects of climate change have quickly put a stranglehold on regions and their water use.

In all three areas, these recent stories serve to remind us of the biggest issues behind it all: consumption and habit. The actions of individuals and businesses are what largely determine the health of an area’s water supply. In California, consumption has largely exacerbated the four year drought. According to the State Water Board, “in peak warmer months, outdoor water use contributes to 50 percent on average of the water used every day by urban residents.” When multiplied by the millions and millions of residents in the state, that water is lost quickly. The State Water Board also estimates that “outdoor watering accounts for as much as 80 percent of urban water use in some areas.”

When water is so abundant, over-consumption usually becomes habit. Habits are hard to break, which is especially apparent in the crisis in São Paulo. The State of California encouraged a 20% reduction in use in January 2014. Residents seem to be taking that encouragement to heart. “Since data collection began in July, more than 134 billion gallons of water have been saved compared with last year,” according to the State Water Board. In addition, California is spending more money to do its part, most notably by investing in water recycling programs.

If the drought ends, one can only hope that this progress in conservation will continue. But will it? Humans seem to be drawn to action when their immediate livelihood is threatened. When water problems seem less evident, it’s quite possible that people will revert to their old habits. And this is in California, where residents and governments have many tools to address shortages and how much is being consumed. In places like São Paulo and Pakistan, water appears to be consumed blindly, without any regard to levels or rates of consumption. Of course, Pakistan and São Paulo are different form each other and from California. Systems are not in place to track consumption as comprehensively and effectively as a place like California.

Maybe it’s time for that to change. Water is our most precious resource. Without it, we simply cannot survive. Only 1% of the global water supply is potable. Aside from desalination on a small scale, we don’t have the technology available to drastically add to our supply. In cases of extreme drought, how do we crawl out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves? And in places where we have an ample supply, how do we limit consumption for future use?

As our century continues, we might quickly forget about oil and instead sing: There’s only so much water in the ground.

Tell me your thoughts below.

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