Friday, July 18, 2008

Time to Think About Impending Fresh Water Crisis

Of the 6+ billion people on the planet, it is estimated that around 1 billion do not have access to clean, fresh water on a daily basis. In the U.S., there are signs of shortages in numerous locations around the country, where combinations of drought, agricultural irrigation, insisting on having golf courses in the middle of deserts, and rising populations are draining water supplies to the point where there needs to be restrictions during good portions of the year. I fear we have already fallen into a pattern of not anticipating severe trouble both nationally and internationally and thinking about long-term solutions. Such a pattern has already put us in near crises with social security, the health care system, long-term debt issues, energy sources, climate change, and so on, where we have known of issues and problems for decades but refused to do the necessary work to find solutions to those problems. Now they are all upon us with, apparently, not too many policymakers who are willing to take on the leadership roles we need to get us through these problems. Water supplies should, in my opinion, be next on this list of 'MUST ADDRESS NOW' issues.

There is a fine article in the August issue of Scientific American dealing with this water issue. The numbers are impressive, but one that stands out is that the minimum amount of water a person needs for one year is 1000 cubic meters, which is one-fifth of an Olympic-sized pool. Multiply this by the 6 billion people on the planet, and just the shear volume of water necessary for every person is staggering. Obviously, as rivers and freshwater lakes dry up, potential disasters await. Besides the health issues associated with dehydration and lost crops, the potential for future outbreaks of war are real. The U.S. military, for instance, has begun to develop response scenarios to military conflict in anticipated regions around the world, including in the Mideast and sections of Asia that depend on the water runoff from mountainous glaciers for their drinking water; some of those glaciers are either melted or may be gone in just a few years as climate change picks up its pace.

Technologies exist that allow for the desalination of sea water, and some larger plants have been built overseas. It is likely a matter of time before the U.S. will build such plants along the national coastlines. Perhaps it is prudent to consider this future use of the coastal waters before we try more offshore oil drilling. I don't think today's policymakers who are pushing for such drilling have ever considered such a possibility because rarely do you hear anyone in Washington ever mention anything about water shortages, but imagine what a major accident or spill would do if we rely on seawater as drinking water. I believe water is a priority over oil. But water and energy relationships do not stop here. Many of the rivers where there are hydroelectric plants run the risk of dropping in water level, and may one day cease producing energy at their capacity. This is a potential problem in the western portion of the country, and new energy sources will need to be added to that portion of the power grid. Wind and solar sources are obvious candidates. Another option may be fuel cells, where one of the byproducts is in fact pure water. This is how NASA vessels, for example, combine energy sources and fresh water needs.

In the end, this is a major problem that will continue to grow not only in other parts of the world, but in the U.S. as well. Action needs to be taken, but our track record for attacking major problems has thus far been depressingly poor. It will take public pressure and demands for action to get policymakers to step up, and I encourage everyone to contact their congressional representatives and demand that they begin addressing big issues both in the near and long terms. It will take some amount of time to plan, design, and build the infrastructure needed for clean water (as well as new energy sources), and decisions need to be made now.

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