Water. Can’t live without it. From different places across the world comes news of growing crises in access to this most basic resource.
In the arid south-west of the USA, water has been an issue for some time. That has something to do with building cities in deserts. The latest news on this topic concerns a simmering conflict between the states of Utah and Nevada. The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to extract ground water from the ice-age aquifer beneath the Snake Valley and run a 425 kilometres long pipeline all the way to thirsty Las Vegas. The ranching and farming communities in the Snake Valley are opposed. Utah’s Governor says he wishes Nevada would drop the idea. That seems unlikely.
Although the deal proposed would split the water evenly between Utah and Nevada, it is Nevada that has the greatest need for the water. Las Vegas, a city that grew rapidly in the period of frenzied property speculation before the banking crash of 2007 / 2008, is very dependent on the drought-prone Colorado River for water. Utah’s Governor fears that pumping groundwater could dry out the Snake Valley. This could then mean that dust storms would blow toward Utah’s heavily populated Wasatch Front and worsen air pollution.
China’s disappearing rivers
There are reports that 28,000 rivers have disappeared from China’s state maps. Nobody quite knows why. It may have been because previous surveyors were over-enthusiastic in their search for rivers, rather like factories used to report astronomical levels of output to deliver the targets of the five-year plan. More credibly, it is likely that the rivers have dried up because of a combination of climate change and water extraction for urban use. Either way, more than half of China’s rivers seem to have gone missing, according to the first water resources census that was undertaken by the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Bureau of Statistics.
The UN has identified China as one of 13 countries most affected by water scarcity. This is partly because of pollution. For a long industries have dumped waste into rivers. Last year the Yangtze turned red. Underground reserves have also been drained.
China like the USA has its deserts. The giant Three Gorges Dam has diverted water to arid regions. This may be another cause for the loss of some rivers.
Africa – paying high for potable water
It is a similar story in Africa. Already there are twice as many Africans living in urban areas as there were in 1990. The urban population is expected to double again by 2030, but many existing cities are already struggling, and those living in informal settlements often rely on polluted sources or have to walk and pay high for potable water.
A World Bank report cites the example of Mbale, Uganda. The town is located in an area of high rainfall at the foot of Mount Elgon. Surface water has traditionally been plentiful. Yet the city had to ration water in February 2012 for the first time, as one of its river sources dried up, and turbidity increased in the other. The origin of the problems was found to be people moving up the mountain in response to population pressure —and watering their gardens from mountain streams. In doing so they left less water for the city downstream.
Small island states
Tuvalu, with a population of around 10,600 is one of the smallest countries in the world. But it also suffers from water shortages, as I explained in my recent World View blog. Indeed water is an issue in many small island states, where the option of accessing extra supplies from a neighbour is not an option, or very expensive. Cyprus, for example, has imported water from tankers when supplies reached dangerously low levels.
The quality of water is also an issue, even in rich countries. When there are two millimetres or more of rain in an hour, untreated raw sewage flows into the River Thames. This happens on average once a week. Each year, some 30 million tonnes of raw sewage are discharged into the River Thames. Similarly, in Washington D.C. untreated heavy rain results in sewage flowing into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.
The situation is much worse in developing countries. The Third World Centre for Water Management estimates that only about 10 – 12% of wastewater in Latin America is properly treated. In India, Delhi discharges wastewater directly into the Yamuna River—the source of drinking water for some 57 million people. The picture is similar for India’s other growing cities. The dash to the cities outstrips the investment in essential infrastructure.
What can or should be done depends on the particular situation of any place. However, some general solutions are now widely discussed and put into practice. In essence they come down to a need for better, more integrated water management.
• Rainwater harvesting;
• Greywater recycling;
• Better maintenance of infrastructure – e.g. to reduce loses through leakages;
• More attention to the impacts of land use and irrigation on water retention and quality;
• Reduced per capita use of water.
These issues may seem remote to us on another wet day in northern Europe, where climate change threatens to bring even wetter summers to many parts. However, looking globally, water seems set to become a resource that has the potential to provoke conflicts in the not too distant future.
Picture: Copyright Fox_kiyo via Flickr