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Thursday, June 1, 2006 09:23 pm

Conserve water

How could there ever be a water scarcity?

Dear “Earth Talk”: How could there ever be a water scarcity? Isn’t water the most plentiful thing on Earth? — Chris Carroll, Austin, Texas
Seawater may cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, but thirsty human beings rely on finite supplies of fresh water to stay alive. With exploding human population growth, especially in poor countries, these finite supplies are quickly spoken for. Further, in places without proper sanitation, water can become tainted with any number of diseases and parasites. According to the World Bank, as many as 2 billion people lack adequate sanitation facilities to protect them from waterborne disease, and a billion lack access to clean water altogether. According to the United Nations, which has declared 2005-2015 the “Water for Life” decade, 95 percent of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their water supplies. Therefore it should come as no surprise that 80 percent of all the health maladies in developing countries can be traced to unsanitary water. Sandra Postel, author of the 1998 book Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity, predicts big water-availability problems as populations of so-called water-stressed countries jump by perhaps sixfold over the next 30 years. Developed countries aren’t immune to freshwater problems either. Researchers found a sixfold increase in water use for only a twofold increase in population size in the United States since 1900. Such a trend reflects the connection between higher living standards and increased water usage and underscores the need for more sustainable management and use of water supplies even in more developed societies. With world population expected to pass 9 billion by midcentury, solutions to water-scarcity problems are not going to come easy. Some have suggested that technology — such as large-scale saltwater-desalination plants — could generate more fresh water for the world to use. But environmentalists argue that depleting ocean water is no answer and will only create other big problems. Others believe that applying market principles to water would facilitate a more efficient distribution of supply everywhere. Analysts at the Harvard Middle East Water Project, for example, advocate assigning a monetary value to fresh water rather than considering it a free natural commodity. They say that such an approach could help mitigate the political and security tensions caused by water scarcity. As individuals, we can all rein in our own water use to help conserve what is becoming an ever more precious resource. We can hold off on watering our lawns in times of drought. When it does rain, we can gather gutter water in barrels to feed garden hoses and sprinklers. We can turn off the faucet while we brush our teeth or shave and take shorter showers. As Postel concludes, “Doing more with less is the first and easiest step along the path toward water security.”

For more information: United Nations Water For Life Decade, www.un.org/waterforlifedecade.
Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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