Are We Starting to Run Out of Fresh Water?
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Peak water is here and unlike peak oil, there is no substitution for water. But like peak oil the low-hanging fruit of our fresh water supply has been picked and what is left requires costly environmental and financial impacts to extract. Peak water is about reaching physical, economic, and environmental limits on meeting human demands for water and the subsequent decline of water availability and use. There is a vast amount of water on the planet but sustainably managed water is becoming scarce.
Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.
Dr. Peter Gleick is a world-class expert in climate and hydrology, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Award and co-founder of The Pacific Institute. His expertise is in water and climate and above he talks about the challenges we face as the effects of climate change influence the water available for our current needs in energy, agriculture and municipal use.
The Pacific Institute has done research into more efficient use of our planet's water including a major study into desalination of sea water. The results show that the environmental impacts of desalination may at this time exclude its use as the silver bullet to our freshwater needs. And the economic costs are prohibited; as production of desalinated water costs 2.1 times more than fresh groundwater and 70 percent more than surface water.
The effects of climate change are already happening as evidenced by the extreme weather including floods and droughts which we have experienced recently. Currently, California is experiencing exceptionally dry weather which is leaving much of the state shockingly bone dry.
Nearly 90 percent of the state is suffering from severe or extreme drought. A statewide survey shows the current snowpack hovering below 20 percent of the average for this time of year. The AP is reporting that if the current trend holds, state water managers will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water needed for more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland.
California and the Midwest are considered to be America's "bread basket." The impact of the drought on California's farmland may be devastating and is a harbinger of more to come as the effects of climate change become more frequent. Clearly, we must find a more efficient use of our limited water if we are to feed our population in the future.
In Frances Moore Lappes' revision of her iconic book Diet for a Small Planet she states that "50% of all the water used in the U.S. goes to livestock production." This gives us an immediate way to reduce water use by simple reducing meat consumption. Indeed, it takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of meat, while growing 1 pound of wheat only requires 25 gallons.
Due to climate change the world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. As water tables fall and as wells go dry, world food prices are rising creating conflict. Is our species up to the challenge of preserving our future? To quote climate scientist Michael E. Mann "It is only through a massive, collective effort that we will turn this ship around, but we'll need all hands on deck".