When Water Runs Dry — The Reality of a Diminishing Resource

California is littered with signs asking readers not to call authorities. They’re not a gimmick, nor do they have anything to do with violent crime.

The signs are water related.

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Sign at a cemetery near Oakland, California. Image by Thomas Hawk. (Flickr Creative Commons.)

The state is experiencing one of its worst droughts in recent history, with aquifers running dry. In fact, many parts of the western United States are experiencing a deep drought — The Atlantic published a series of photographs highlighting just how serious the water situation has become.

But it’s not just a problem for California or the American West — a NASA study shows that more than half the world’s aquifers are running dry.

An aquifer is a layer of rock from which groundwater can be extracted — the rock serves as a kind of naturally occurring storage tank.

Compounding the problem of aquifer depletion is the fact that researchers aren’t sure how much groundwater is left in them.

Agricultural irrigation uses more water than any other human activity. A 2013 research article published in Environmental Research Letters suggested that if farmers in areas that received less rain improved their ‘crop water productivity’ — the amount of food produced per unit of water consumed — that enough water would be saved ‘to meet the annual domestic water demands of nearly 1.4 billion people.’

In 2010 J.A.A.A. Jones, former chair of  the IGU Commission for Water Sustainability, published his global look at the issue of water sustainabilityWater Sustainabilty: A Global Perspective explored both the human and natural factors leading to a global lack of water before suggesting some solutions — including desalination, rainwater harvesting, and improved legal frameworks.

Aqueduct, a project of the World Resources Institute, has an interactive map showing where the most water stressed parts of the world area. Places particularly at risk include the Middle East, Central and South Asia, as well as the western United States.

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Writing at the Guardian, Charles Iceland of Aqeduct notes that “Forthcoming projections for global water stress in 2020, 2030 and 2040 by WRI’s Aqueduct project indicate that the global water picture is likely going to get worse over the next few decades. Larger populations and growing economies demand more water and in some places climate change will likely reduce available water supply. While our vulnerability to drought grows, the incidence of extreme weather events, including drought, will grow as well, according to most climate change experts.”

Various organizations are working to find ways to mitigate what experts consider a global water crisis. The Stockholm International Water Institute awards a prize each year to someone in the water industry working toward solutions to the crisis. The 2015 winner was a Colorado organization focused on creating clean recycled water as well as on increasing public acceptance of it.

A group of students at Northeastern University created a solar-powered desalination device as their capstone project — one student saying, “We wanted to work on this project precisely because of the world’s water problem. Developing nations … need a cost-effective method for obtaining usable water without power input.”

But, as pointed out by Aqueduct, NASA, and others, it is not only developing nations who are facing a water crisis, though they are likely to be disproportionately impacted by a global water shortage.

The specter of depleted aquifers and water stressed areas brings up the issue, again, of whether water is a human right. In 2010 the United Nations passed a resolution recognizing a human right to water and sanitation. That’s something we’ve written about here on the blog and that Framing Fellow Michael Mascarenhas is exploring in his research for Framing the Global.

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