The noted Hungarian chemist (and Nobel Prize winner) Albert von Szent-Gyorgyi once said, “Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” If you don’t believe it, try going for a few days without a glass of the cool wet stuff.
Water is fast becoming the most precious, and scarce, commodity the world has ever known. There looms over all of us, like a giant, inverted Poseidon’s fork, the prospect of eventual water shortages such as have not been seen in recorded human history. And let’s be perfectly clear here: many of the world’s most vulnerable are already experiencing the suffering and pure misery that accompany a lack of clean water.
The Importance of Clean Water
Regarding the absolute and unequivocal importance of water, one could take umbrage with even as brilliant a thinker as Szent-Gyorgyi. I wouldn’t respond with a direct refutation of his thesis, mind you, because he’s obviously correct, and he couldn’t have put it more eloquently. My problem is that ol’ Albert just didn’t take it far enough. Life’s mama and matrix water may be, but it’s even more simple and basic than that: water IS life. Ask anybody who ekes out a meager existence in the shantytowns of Port-au-Prince or the slums of New Delhi. Ask the people of Japan – the ones who’ve seen their homes devastated and who are wondering where their next drink of water is going to come from, and the ones who are emptying store shelves of water even in areas outside the earthquake zone. They’ll let you know about the importance of clean water. They’ll let you know what desperate acts they are willing to undertake to get it. Just ask. They’ll let you know. In a heartbeat.
Still not convinced that a sustainable water supply should be our number one focus – politically, scientifically, socially, and economically? Here’s what noted water resources expert Thomas Cech has to say about the significance of water to humanity throughout history:
“Water is the basis of life on earth and the foundation of all civilizations. To show its importance in their culture, the ancient Persians listed “water” as the first word in their dictionary, calling it ab. The Egyptian civilization used a wavy line to represent the word “water”. This symbol later became the Hebrew letter mem (representing mayim or water) and eventually the Latin letter ‘M’. Long before these early civilizations flourished, our Stone Age ancestors lived in caves and other camps that were close to sources of drinking water, such as springs and lakes… As time passed and human populations increased, prehistoric communities tended to form near lakes in central Africa and along rivers in the Middle East, northern China, and India.” – Thomas Cech, Principles of Water Resources, 2005, Wiley and Sons
Water, Civilization… and War
Cech describes how proximity to water was necessary for the establishment and survival of early civilizations – the closer the lake or spring, the better. It stands to reason, then, that population centers were clustered around lakes, rivers, and the like. Of course, I could have trotted forward any of a number of water experts to make this point, since pretty much all of them agree: water is essential to human life, since we depend on it for our survival; water sustains and supports human civilization; and “environments without water are hot, dry, uncomfortable, and unsuitable for living”(Mingteh Chang, Forest Hydrology, 2003, CRC Press).
But that sure doesn’t mean that people don’t live in hot, dry, waterless places, does it? Severe water shortages currently affect 400 million people, and 14,000 of them die from lack of water every day. The number of people affected by water shortages is expected to grow to 4 billion people by 2050. Areas plagued by extreme drought, such as the southwestern US, could be hit with severe shortages by as early as 2025. According to Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, political instability results when water supplies run low. The main issues are river and aquifer depletion, which are occurring on a scale that is both unprecedented and global. Areas of special concern are parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the southwestern US, specifically the Nile, Ganges, and Colorado River Basins.
You Can’t Drink Oil
Brown’s concerns are echoed in a documentary film and in testimony given by the Interior Department to the US Congress. The film, entitled “Running Dry” by James Thebaut, was termed “excellent” and “accurate” by the co-chairman of the UN-commissioned Millennium Project’s Task Force on Water and Sanitation. It predicts that large-scale armed conflicts will occur when countries run out of water. As narrator Jane Seymour says in the film, “ Nations fight over oil, but as valuable as it is, there are substitutes for oil. However, there are no substitutes for water.” Referring to the conflicts that will arise due to continued vigorous growth in both population and demand for water, Bennett Raley, the Interior Department’s former assistant secretary for water and science, said, “Unlike the past century, when water crises were intense but typically occurred in drought years and only affected resources and economies of local and regional importance, water supply-related crises in this century will affect economies and resources of national and international importance unless we take action now.”
Water Crisis in the Southwest
The southwestern United States, particularly the Colorado River Basin (WY, CO, UT, CA, NV, NM, & AZ), provides us with a perfect example of a region in the throes of a water crisis, but that doesn’t yet realize nor comprehend its ramifications. From a pure water supply standpoint, this watershed, especially its lower half (namely CA, AZ, & NV), has got practically everything that you could ever want in a futuristic nightmare scenario: prolonged drought, exploding population and growing demand, rampant waste, and, in many places, a devil-may-care attitude brought on by decades of unrealistically cheap, government-subsidized water. It’s worth noting that the urban centers of these states where the growth has been concentrated are located smack-dab in the middle of the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, two of the driest regions in the world. Of course, I’m referring to Phoenix and to the town that every water bureaucrat in the region loves to hate: Las Vegas.
Sin City – Water Wastrel or Fall Guy?
Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the United States for most of the past two decades. Between 1990 and 2000, the population in Nevada rose by 66%, with another 16.8% gain between 2000 and 2004. Nearly all of the growth occurred in Clark County, home to the glittering, proudly sinful metropolis. 90% of Las Vegas’ drinking water comes directly from the Colorado River (pumped from its giant in-stream reservoir, Lake Mead). This (in)famous city, and its powerful hydro-regulatory arm, the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SWNA), are constantly wheeling and dealing with other Colorado Basin states, as in 2004, when the agency was able to stave off pending residential and commercial water usage limits by convincing Arizona to fork over part of its entitlement to the overburdened river.
What Las Vegas needs to understand here is that, although it promotes (and fancies) itself as a trendy enclave for the ultra-hip, it’s actually behind the times. Las Vegas’ lower Colorado River Basin neighbors (AZ & CA) are unhappy with its blatant waste of water a la giant casino water fountains, relatively shallow and evaporation-prone mega-pools, and other such extravagant luxuries. Many California municipalities have taken great forward strides in water conservation in recent years, and some Arizona cities such as Tucson are models of water conservation in a dry desert environment. These towns, cities, and counties can rightly feel irritated, even outraged, by water waste on a scale like that seen in Las Vegas. However, some other Arizona cities, like the incriminatingly named (and fountained) Fountain Hills lend credence to the idea that Arizona’s stance on water conservation relies heavily on the “do as I say, not as I do” model.
Troubled Past, Troubled Present
The allotment of the water of the Colorado River with 7 thirsty states at the trough is undoubtedly a complex political issue, and I run the risk of oversimplifying by concentrating on Nevada’s relationships with its Southwestern neighbors. To counteract that possibility, I should make it clear that none of the other Colorado Basin states get along with each other where water is concerned, either. Arizona’s representative at the 1922 negotiations, the outcome of which largely govern the river’s apportionment to this very day, nearly walked out of the Colorado River Compact meetings because he didn’t feel his state was getting a fair shake. Subsequently, Arizona’s governor George W.P. Hunt blasted California for trying to take more than its fair share of Colorado River water. This led to feelings of animosity that linger to this day, which culminated in a 1933 armed standoff between the California and Arizona militias at the portion of the Colorado River marking the border between the two states.
The massive water development projects meant to reclaim the arid west (think Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams on the Colorado) resulted in years of what can only be frankly termed as lazy and shortsighted attitudes and policies about water and its use in the American Southwest. You better believe, however, that water planners from small communities and large metro areas alike are waking up and realizing that, in some cases, not only is there not enough water to sustain future growth, there’s not enough water for the growth that has ALREADY OCCURRED. You also better believe that these concerns are not limited to a few American states, but exist the world over, often in places much less financially and socially capable of dealing with widespread and severe water shortages.
Global Warming, Icebergs, and Mayans – Oh My!
Aggravating all of these various water shortage fears, many of which are, chillingly, both logical and reasonable, is the specter of human-induced global climate change. This phenomenon is very real, even though it often lurks in the background of conversations about severe water shortages as a kind of politically-charged, invisible, yet very stinky 400-pound gorilla. Actually, you’d have to be kind of obtuse not to suspect that all the carbon that we have burned since the Industrial Revolution has SOME kind of negative effect up there in the atmosphere where it now resides. Sure, some areas of the world may see moderate increases in precipitation with global climate change, which could increase the local supply of clean drinking water. But don’t kid yourself for a minute thinking that areas that expecting substantial increases in rain and snow are the lucky ones. Many of these areas are already prone to flooding and, as we see on the evening news all the time, floods result in a lack of available clean water just as often as do droughts. Most areas of the world, however, will NOT see precipitation increases. Their fate instead will be to grow steadily hotter and drier – which translates to a steadily shrinking water supply, especially as population continues to increase.
It seems we need to take a hard look at our water policies and practices. Water waste remains rampant in areas that are likely to experience shortages in the very near future (Las Vegas, anyone?). And, as we’ve seen, water waste is just the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of icebergs, how long until the most precious real estate on earth is on top of a glacier? Ahhhh…. all that water, locked away from the plebian masses, just glistening in the sun and waiting for its new billionaire tycoon owner. I can just see it now. But I digress. Back on topic. Here’s a question for you, disbeliever or not:
Still think that all the water you ever need will keep on running right out of the tap as long as you need it? Well, that’s what ancient societies like the Hohokam and Anasazi people in Arizona and the Mayans in Central America thought, too. (OK, maybe not the running out the tap part). Even if that’s what you think, you shouldn’t feel bad, because you’re certainly not alone. A perception of an endless supply of water is common (pervasive, even) in more developed countries, who can afford to subsidize it. That’s the number one reason why so much water is wasted – we just don’t place the value on it that it actually deserves. As most of us probably remember, we used to feel the same way about oil. We’re crying now that gas is $4 a gallon – but how are we going to cope if we have to pay that much for water?
It wouldn’t be pretty, but we can live without oil, as well as a lot of other commodities and resources we think we are dependent on. I don’t know about you, but my dependency on oil pales considerably in comparison to my (daily!) need for a drink of water. Contrary to popular opinion, I also enjoy an occasional shower. Given the certain catastrophic effects of a pandemic global or even regional water shortage on the global economy, not to mention the global society that powers it, shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to prevent (or at least postpone) such shortages? If we don’t, I’m afraid a lot of us are going to be awfully thirsty awfully soon. I’ll outline a scientifically proven solution to some of these water woes (at least for the Southwest and ecologically similar areas) in a future post. CMW
Private note to Las Vegas: Dear LV, we’ve had some great times (and that one really CRAAAAAZY night, remember? I know you do.), so I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you with this blog post. It’s just that you’re so glitzy and you call so much attention to yourself it’s hard not to notice you and your wasteful habits (which, as you are well aware, is why we broke up in the first place). Love (long distance-style only please), CMW