Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Water Scarcity and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The importance of water cannot be overstated. It is vital to every aspect of our civilization from the survival of our ecosystems down to our own biological needs. It is intertwined with energy and agriculture, both of which are inextricably tied to climate change. On World Water Day we are called to recognize the fundamental importance of this crucial resource. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly officially designated March 22 as World Water Day. This day is a call to action on behalf of the 1.8 billion people who are at risk of contracting cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio because they are forced to drink contaminated water. This is the white horse, also called disease, the first of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The world water crisis is real. Only about 3 percent of total earth's water is drinkable, the other 97 percent is salt water. Water from lakes, ponds, swamps, streams, rivers and all other surface water make only 0.3 percent of the earth’s fresh water. 68.7 percent of the earth’s fresh water is frozen in glaciers; about 30 percent of earth’s fresh water is ground water.  In response to the shortage of water the world's aquifers are being tapped unsustainably.

Water scarcity also augurs another apocalyptic horseman, the red horse signaling conflict. A 2016 World Bank report finds that water scarcity, exacerbated by climate change, could hinder economic growth, spur migration, and spark conflict. According to the report water scarcity could cost some regions up to 6 percent of their GDP by 2050.

We are already seeing divisions over water. In 2016 the New York Times reported that ever expanding deserts are causing conflicts in China. Similar conflicts occurred during the Brazilian water crisis of 2014, between the people in São Paulo and the residents of Rio de Janeiro. Water is already a weapon of war and it is not hard to imagine a future in which wars will be fought over access to water.

State actors are failing to protect their water.  In 2014 Duke Energy repeatedly dumped coal ash into North Carolina's waterways. The first incident spilled 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater into the Dan River. In October 2016 North Carolina’s chief epidemiologist, Megan Davies resigned after accusing GOP state lawmakers of purposely misleading the states residents when it comes to the safety of their drinking water.  Republican have already started to gut water protections including regulations preventing the dumping of coal ash into America's waterways. 

This brings us to the third horseman, the black horse of oppression. In the US a dark cloud is descending over America's hard fought water protections. Republicans have already voted to remove regulations protecting streams. Trump has advanced a budget that kills projects to clean up the great lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Even more importantly Trump has vowed to kill the Clean Water Act (also known as the “waters of the U.S. rule”). In particular, he is targeting regulations adopted by the Obama administration to protect wetlands and marshes, the nation’s natural water filters.

Water is central to the interconnected challenges associated with both energy generation and climate change. As such its stewardship is key to resolving some of the central issues of our times. We celebrate water as a staple of life and we work to provide it to those in need. Including safe water in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is but one example of UN efforts to make water accessible to everyone.

Managing water demands international cooperation.  This includes the involvement of international bodies like the UN and all levels of government. Many corporations have been working on improving their water management practices. Increasingly sophisticated techniques to re-use water have contributed to some recent advances. Appropriately the theme of this year's World Water Day is "wastewater".

In 2015, when CDP first published its Water A list there were eight companies that achieved an ‘A’ rating. In 2016, 25 companies made the A list. While we are seeing progress, there is still a long way to go for corporations to be in a position where they can say they are doing all that they can. Only 25 companies out of 600 earned an "A" from the CDP and only two are based in the US.

The current problems will be exacerbated by growing demand and increasing scarcity. The UN predicts that the global demand for water will exceed supply by 40 percent by 2030. According to the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050 there will be catastrophic consequences if we do not change our current course. Failure to address pressing water issues will augur the fourth horseman, the pale horse which heralds destruction.

Water is a Key to Sustainable Development
Water Stewardship Steps: Developing a Water Strategy
Six Innovations for Better Water Management
Solutions to Diminishing Ground Water
A Condensed History of Responsible Water Stewardship
Worldwatch Institute: The Looming Threat of Water Scarcity
Video - Water in the Anthropocene
Alarming Facts About Water
Disturbing Water Statistics from the Food Tank

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