Courseworks

The Ancient Mariner

The idea that we could run out of water here on Earth, the blue planet, where 71% of the surface is covered by the oceans (Lomberg, 2001) may seem to some to be a ridiculous notion. However, this omnipresent resource, omnipotent over humans and all life forms, is not always fit for consumption as suggested in The Ancient Mariner. We must first understand that when we talk about humans and other life forms the key resource required is freshwater and this particular portion of the hydrosphere amounts to just 0.65% (excluding glaciers and the polar ice caps which amount to 2.15% (Strahler & Strahler, 2000)) of which 0.62% is groundwater (Lomberg, 2001).Further, not all of this freshwater is accessible to us for use so in reality we are talking about the metaphoric ‘drop in the ocean’ in terms of usable, accessible freshwater as a resource. This self-renewing resource that in total remains a fixed amount segregated into varying portions moving through the reservoirs of the closed system of the hydrological cycle can not in theory ‘run out’. But perhaps we can begin to understand how the small section that is important to us may be over exploited or made unusable by human intervention and the concerns this raises for all of us.Water as a resourceWhen 1.1 billion people (Wood, 2003) lack access to potable drinking water have we in fact already run out of water? Ask the same of someone from certain parts of Canada and you could be fairly certain the response would be different. Freshwater is a resource of strong temporal and geographical variations that does not always correlate well with the human population. Asia, for example, receives 36 percent of global runoff but is home to 60 percent of the world’s people; South America, on the other hand, supports 6 percent of the population yet has 26 percent of the world’s runoff. The Amazon River alone carries 15 percent of the earth’s runoff but is accessible to only 0.4 percent of the world’s population (Postel, 1997). However, Asia receives 80% of it’s runoff between May and October (Lomberg, 2001) sometimes creating floods such as in Bangladesh leading to pollution and the result of a resource turning into a disease manifesting problem. Diagram one indicates the variation in freshwater availability across the globe.Diagram one: Availability of Freshwater in 2000.Although humans only need around 2 litres of water a day to survive we require much more to water our crops, supply industry and help to create energy as shown in diagram two.Diagram two: Evolution of Global Water UseThe hydrologist Malin Falkenmark established an approximate minimum requirement of freshwater known as the water stress index based on the quantity required to maintain an adequate quality of life in a moderately developed country in an arid zone based on the total of household (municipal) use plus agricultural, industrial and energy generating usage(Lomberg, 2001). This level is 1,700 m3 per person per annum of renewable freshwater availability, below that a population may be considered to be experiencing water stress, below 1,000 m3 per person, the population faces water scarcity (UNEP, 2002). Water stress is shown in diagram three as withdrawal relative to availability by country.Diagram three: Freshwater Stress 1995 ; 2025More People, Less WaterHumans and nature alike have learned to adapt to variations in freshwater availability. We have built water storage in the form of giant dams and developed different irrigation systems to suit local climate. Why then, as diagram three suggests is water stress forecast to increase? The answer is simple: population growth. World population increased 42% from 3.8 billion to 5.4 billion between the 1970s and 1990s whilst water usage increased 300% in the same time frame (Wood, 2003). No-one knows what the population will be in the future but the United Nations Population Division (2003) notes that a figure of 8.9 billion is the most likely with a low prediction figure of 7.4 and a high of 12.8 by 2050 from our current position of 6.3 billion. Water resources, as previously noted, will remain the same.This leaves us with a position of less freshwater availability per capita. What’s more is that the greatest predicted growth is in the developing countries, those which have the least resources to tackle these issues and sometimes the least availability of freshwater resources.Another factor to consider here is that historically economic development has incurred huge increases in water use and so a combination of population growth and economic development could really change the water consumption patterns of many countries. Growing populations also need more food, industry and energy all of which require water. Globally, people now use about 35% of their accessible supply (Postel, 2001) and some predict by 2025 we could be appropriating 80% of the total accessible water in rivers and aquifers (in view of expected pollution loads and their dilution needs) (Falkenmark, 1998). It is these increases in water withdrawal and usage that have led to speculation of up to 40% on the world population living in water stress or scarce situations come 2025 (Houlder, 2003).As shown in diagram three, many African countries appear not be suffering from water stress and yet we know many have suffered drought related famine in the past. How can this be? Water availability is not simply a matter of location. Economics and power relations also play a large role. Here in the UK we pay suppliers who deliver our water direct to our homes treated and safe to drink. In many countries, including those African nations, people have to collect their own water sometimes walking for hours a day to collect enough to supply their families. The poor are often those that suffer the most whether that be living the furthest away from a water source or having to work the driest land with little hope of raising the funds to buy the technology that could increase their freshwater supply such as water stores or irrigation pipes. These are the people least likely to have ‘property rights’ over water resources.DevelopmentFor all it’s increases in water use development can also bring water saving technology. Once a population has developed an ability to manufacture or trade for technology it may be in a position to exploit new resources and/or make significant reductions in usage of existing resources. Examples of these include Kuwait and Israel. Kuwait with its vast resources of oil and natural wealth has the power to buy technology to deal with its crippling natural water shortages. With only 30 litres available per capita per day (Lomberg, 2001) Kuwait really is a water poor nation but its economic wealth allows for the development and procurement of technology and as such more than half of all supplies come from desalination of sea water which is a costly process requiring large amounts of energy, just the thing Kuwait has (Lomberg, 2001).Israel manages its low water resources efficiently by both use of drip irrigation and recycling of household water for irrigation (Lomberg, 2001). However, Israel compliments this by importing large amounts of grain, 87% (Lomberg, 2001), as a way of indirectly importing water. One ton of grain requires 1,000 tones of water to grow, likewise the ratio of chicken to water by tons ratio is 1:3500 , beef 1:10,000 and perhaps most astonishingly cotton 1:17,000. (Wood, 2003). This trade of embedded water, if able, is a clever way of changing a populations water usage. Land use, trade ability and technology all then affect the efficient use of water and what use this resource is acquired for.Inability to trade for food and lack of technology could explain why the poorest countries use 90% of their water fro agriculture compared to the 37% of the richest countries (Lomberg, 1998). This further exemplifies the divide between the rich and the poor more as a factor of freshwater availability rather than geographical location. Christian Aid journalist Andrew Pendleton puts it, “The only water that is available to many poor people free of charge lies in festering pools and contains killer diseases such as cholera.” (Howard, 2003). Howard (2003) goes on to note ‘diseases caused by unsanitary water kill 5 to 12 million people a year’.Management and mismanagementAs early as the sixth century BC civilisations in Egypt and Mesopotamia have been managing water both for irrigation and flood control (Mather ; Chapman, 1995). Irrigation as part of the Green Revolution has allowed for 40% of the world’s harvest to be grown on only 17% of the cultivated land (Lydon, 1999) as thus in essence allowed world population to grow to the size it is today. However, with all our technology many irrigation systems waste between 60% and 80% of all water (Lomberg, 2001) and when agriculture accounts for 70% of all water diverted from rivers or pumped from underground (Ecologist, 2004) that amounts to a lot of water and an unsustainable loss in changing times.Diagram two displays the waste water associated with agriculture. Through trial and error we have also learned the many pitfalls of water diversion and storage. The most classic example must be that of the Aral sea, an enormous saline lake near Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which has decreased in volume by 66% over the last 30 years due to irrigation extraction upstream (Strahler & Strahler, 2000). It is important to realise that this and other such events do not just amount to a loss of water but also to a loss of livelihoods, in this case that of the local fishermen, and a loss or change in the biodiversity (in the Aral Sea salinity increases killed many of the resident species).The Way ForwardThe issue of water security has been on the international agenda since the 70s with the UN water conference at Mar del Plata in 1977 being perhaps the first to seriously influence national policies calling for priority in the supply of safe drinking water and sanitation services to all people and also for national water resource assessment (UNDP, 1998). This second point is most important as the effective management of water resources requires accurate data on those resources. When looking at country resources it is important to note a further complication that takes us back to the geography of water, river basins are not confined by international boundaries.In fact 214 of the world’s river or lake basins, accommodating 40% of the world’s population are shared by two or more countries (Mather & Chapman). Thus any effective global water strategy must be holistic to be truly effective. The first World Water Development Report was published last year (2003) on the back on the 3rd World Water Forum held in Japan the same year, the International Year of Freshwater. It notes the complexity of managing this global resource and under the heading ‘Challenge 11: Governing Water Wisely for Sustainable Development’ it states that’it is agreed that the basic principles of effective governance include: participation by all stakeholders, transparency, equity, accountability, coherence, responsiveness, integration and ethical issues.’ConclusionThere are pessimists and optimists creating predictions for the future state of the world’s freshwater resources, in truth only time will tell. There are many hurdles to overcome along the way, not least of all climate change and the myriad of potential changes that may have on the hydrological cycle. Humankind will need to be dynamic, imaginative, holistic and committed to achieve the sustainable development of freshwater resources. And so perhaps the question should not be ‘will we run out of water?’ but ‘will we learn to manage this precious resource in an integrated and sustainable fashion allowing equitable access to all?’

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