By Sonia Abdulbaki
California drought: a dry riverbed in 2009
Luxury is a concept synonymous with grandeur – at least in the first world. Strip away the layers and we find ourselves human. And being human means food, water, shelter and reproduction are our survival tools. Luckily for us, water is a luxury available with the turn of a faucet. Yet, water shortages are happening across the world, including in major cities.
Scope of Earth’s water distribution problem
Although Earth’s surface is composed of 70% water, only 2.5% is fresh water. According to National Geographic 1% of fresh water is accessible and only 0.007% is available to the almost 7 billion people. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), most freshwater lies in underground aquifers. Other freshwater sources include rainfall, reservoirs, lakes and rivers.
Thus, water is distributed throughout the world unevenly. According to the WBCSD, more than half of fresh water lies in nine countries: the United States, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Congo, Russia, India, China and Indonesia.
According to National Geographic, around 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates that one-fifth of the world’s population live in water-deprived areas and 500 million people will face this problem in the near future. Also, an additional 1.6 billion people experience water scarcity on an economic level.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that more than 3 billion people in major cities might experience annual water shortages lasting at least one month. And they will experience water shortages due in large part to climate change, industrialization, overpopulation, overconsumption, pollution, deforestation and destruction of wetlands.
As a child of first generation Lebanese-American parents, I have visited Lebanon many times. The electricity cut offs, low water pressure, lack of warm or clean water never resonated with me as a major issue that affected the whole world. But it was a taste of the reality that water deprived regions experience.
Mexico City, a sinking capitol
Mexico City, with 22 million residents and 25% of the Mexican population, is an overpopulated city where a small percent of citizens use a majority of the water, and demand exceeds supply. Although the city was built on top of Lake Texcoco during Aztec times, the Spaniards rebuilt the city, draining the water rather than building canals to help with the water flow.
Thus, the city’s infrastructure is unreliable; for example, distribution pipes lose 40% of the water before reaching the city’s homes. Yet Mexico consumes more bottled water than any nation in the world. Population growth is the cause of dried up wells, and the city sinking is into the lake-bed at three inches per year.
A sustainable solution for Beijing?
Water wheel in Lijiang Yunnan, China
China’s water shortage is predominantly due to drought. According to CBS, Beijing’s Yongding River, along with 27,000 other rivers in the country, ran dry. And although citizens are digging wells near their homes to access ground water, their efforts are not enough.
According to the World Health Organization, around 700 million people in China drink water that does not meet their health standards. In response, the city built canals and tunnels to divert water from the humid south to the dry north, according to The Guardian. This means that many citizens need to relocate. This is not a long-term solution. Additionally, water pollution and poor infrastructure are hard to reconcile without the budget to do so.
Brazil and the economics of water, rich or poor?
Brazil possesses one-eighth of the world’s fresh water due to the Amazon and other great rivers. It is infamously rich in water resources yet it is experiencing its worst drought in a century, according to the New York Times.
Residents of Sao Paulo have started drilling their own wells and taking other measures to reduce water use. The government is executing water cutoffs and warning that the solution may be to flee the country. Experts predict that this is just the beginning of Brazil’s water crisis and will exacerbate problems with already low prices on Brazilian exports that weaken the economy.
Fuel to the conflict in the Middle East and North Africa
Children fill tanks with water in Aleppo, Syria in 2012.
The Middle East and North African (MENA) region receives a lot of media attention with its current political upheaval. Included in its detrimental state is its water problem.
The World Resources Institute (WRI) listed the water crisis as a contributing factor to the Syrian conflict. An inherently dry region, intense heat waves recently overwhelmed the area. WRI ranks 14 of the 33 water stressed nations to be in the MENA region. According to The Guardian, “analysts urge ending water subsidies for large farms, the raising of energy prices to discourage over-pumping and the use of ‘smart’ irrigation technologies to reduce water loss on farms.”
These are just a few cities and regions that experience regular water shortages. But from Delhi to Johannesburg to California’s dire drought, water is an eminent issue. Governments and citizens need innovation, infrastructure improvement, more efficient water usage, better management and nature-based solutions. The predicted environmental catastrophes threaten global security, forcing governments to take these issues seriously.
Sonia Abdulbaki is a Freelance Writer and Communications Specialist with experience in the environmental and hospitality industries. She is currently the Member Services Assistant at Green America and a contributing writer for Business Traveler magazine, National Wetlands Newsletter and contributing editor for MovieswithMae.com.