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Water, water, everywhere?

Fri, Mar 21st, 2008
Posted in Commentary

Recent newspaper and television stories have reported scientific concerns with the appearance of medications, both human and animal in our water supplies. These are only a tiny drop in the enormous bucket of the problem. I believe that in the future, water scarcity will be much more of a worldwide and U.S. crisis than the oil supply. People can't live more than hours without water, and they require water to stay clean and to raise food---these are basic life needs. We also use huge quantities of water for manufacturing processes.

It's hard to sell people on water scarcity in a state whose license plates boast "The Land of 10,000 Lakes." But are these lakes potable, or will they continue to be with our current practices? Will they be clean and free from chemical and natural contaminants?

World-wide, according to the United Nations, one-third of the world's population already lives in areas with water shortages, 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6 billion are without enough water for good sanitation. (solcombhouse.com/drought.htm)

Climate changes, which increase drought and desert areas, as well as melting glaciers that are a major source of most of the world's largest rivers, especially in Asia, are also contributing to the scarcity of water. The oceans are not presently an important source because our desalinization processes are costly and low in production. And even the oceans are increasingly polluted.

The world's population doubled just in the 20 th Century, while water use grew six times. Population is still growing rapidly. In the U.S. alone, our water withdrawal by 2025 will increase to between 20 and 40% of the total resources available (U.N.); continue that to 2100 and - our water use in the U.S. will be beyond a replaceable figure, not sustainable. By that time, two-thirds of Africa will be in stress or scarcity. A large part of southeast Asia will also be in severe need.

Small scale wars are already being fought over water, and conflicts in this country are increasingly bitter. On the Colorado River, e.g., communities and agriculture are quarreling over who gets how much water from the river, and for what purposes. The river is almost gone by the time it reaches the Gulf of California. The states and cities which bound the Great Lakes are attempting to complete an agreement that forbids these fresh water resources to be sold or shared with anyone else. And these lakes are not very clean.

Medications, hormones, fertilizers, pesticides, sewage, industrial wastes; the list of water pollutants goes on and on. Irrigated crops grown on land not naturally suited to cropping, people who move in great numbers to arid areas of the country and still expect to have green lawns and golf courses; these practices also contribute to the problem. Industry gulps huge quantities in the manufacture of metal from raw materials being turned into finished products. An example from our own area: Check the figures on the amount of ground water it takes to make a gallon of ethanol, and look at how the water tables are dropping around those plants. That is a "hot button" issue right now, but it needs to be addressed.

I'm not saying that we should return to olden times, but I am urging people to be aware of this imminent crisis (I've been talking about this since I taught biology). We can conserve, reuse, and cut back on water use. There are appliances and plumbing that require much less water. In Sweden and Norway, they are using "gray water" (non-sewage-bearing waste water) for flushing, for watering and irrigating. New methods of sewage treatment need to be developed that can filter out medical residue and other pollutants. Much can be done right here in our own country.

It is also our responsibility to help our world brothers and sisters solve their water problems. Our own self-interest encourages this, even if we don't care what happens to the rest of humanity. Conflict often begins when "have-nots" seek to possess the resources of the "haves." I'm not afraid for myself; I'll not be alive by 2025. But I am very concerned for my children and grandchildren, and for yours, and for our fellow inhabitants on planet Earth. I think we all should be.

Jeanne Martin of Mabel is a regular Journal contributor.

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