We live on a planet covered by water (9.25 million trillion gallons), but more than 97 percent is salty, and nearly 2 percent is locked up in snow and ice.iThat leaves only a fraction of one percent of the earth’s total water supply to grow our crops, provide for industrial use, and supply drinking water. Unfortunately, these available water reserves are already strained – surface supplies are shrinking and groundwater is being depleted faster than it can be replenished. It is estimated that by 2025 almost two billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity and two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed regions. By 2050, one in 5 developing countries are expected to face water shortages.
At present, about 4.5 billion people live within an impaired water resource, 780 million people live without clean drinking water, and more than one-third of Africa’s population and 25 to 33 percent of China’s population lack access to safe drinking water.ii
Thirty-three countries depend upon other nations for a majority of their renewable water while only nine countries account for 60 percent of the world’s natural freshwater.iiiOne hundred and twenty river systems in the world flow through two or more countries. Almost two-thirds of the world’s countries have rivers flowing into their territories from upstream countries and there are 276 transboundary river basins. Seven countries share the Amazon river basin in Southern America region; eight countries share the Mekong river basin in the Southern and Eastern Asia region; eleven countries share the Nile river basin in Africa; and nineteen countries share the Danube river basin in Europe.iv
Currently, approximately 9 percent of countries experience absolute water scarcity, 6 percent experience water scarcity, and 10 percent are under water stress.vEighty nations now have serious water problems that are expected to become severe within twenty years.
Drought affects more people than any other type of natural disaster. Although droughts are not new, their increasing frequency and severity throughout the world in recent decades has heightened impacts resulting in massive famines and migration, conflicts and unrest, and food shortages and price increases. Since these shifts in population and resources are global concerns, we will need to approach drought in new, inventive ways.vi
In the world’s driest places, fossil water is becoming as valuable as fossil fuel. This ancient freshwater was created eons ago and trapped underground in huge reservoirs, or aquifers. And like oil, no one knows how much there is.
More than two billion people worldwide rely on wells for their water. As water tables continue to drop, many of them devote countless hours to collecting and hauling this valuable resource.viiBringing fossil water to the surface may cause other water quality issues. When aquifers are depleted, they can be subject to an influx of surrounding contaminants such as saltwater—a particular problem near coastal areas.
Also, like oil fields, depleting fossil water aquifers too quickly can reduce underground pressures and render large quantities of water essentially irretrievable.viiiGroundwater in aquifers between layers of poorly permeable rock, such as clay or shale, may be confined under pressure. If such a confined aquifer is tapped by a well, water will rise above the top of the aquifer and may even flow from the well onto the land surface. Water confined in this way is said to be under artesian pressure, and the aquifer is called an artesian aquifer. There is no problem if the water is withdrawn slowly, but human population has exploded threefold and water use has risen even faster. Of the 37 underground aquifers measured, one third was seriously stressed, with little or almost no natural replenishment.
Technological advances are helping scientists get a handle on just how much water can be found in a given locale. For instance, the European Space Agency’s AQUIFER project uses satellite imagery to estimate water resources from space and help aid trans border management, according to geophysicist Stefan Saradeth. In Northern India, scientists used NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) to measure aquifer usage. When underground reservoir levels change, they slightly alter Earth’s gravitational field—just enough to be detected by GRACE satellites 300 miles (480 kilometers) above the surface. That data is used to map water use. In northern India, they produced a disturbing picture. The NASA study found that humans are using more water than rains can replenish, and area groundwater levels declined by an average of one foot (30 centimeters) per year between 2002 and 2008.ix
Although fossil water can currently fill critical needs, experts warn, it’s ultimately just a temporary measure until conservation measures and advanced technologies become the status quo. Ensuring adequate food and water for all and achieving sustainable rural development and livelihoods for current and future generations all hinge upon the responsible management of our natural resources.
i Underground “Fossil Water” Running Out published by National Geographic May 8, 2010
ii Glogal Majority Water Shortages ‘within two generations’ published by theguardian.com May 24, 2013; The Coming Global Water Crisis published by theatlantic.com May 9, 2012; and Photogallery 0,29307,1724375_1552669,00 published by Time.com
iv Did you know published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
v Paving the way for National Drought Policies published by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
vii Time Magazine photogallergy 0,29307,1724375_1552667,00
viii Underground “Fossil Water” Running Out published by National Geographic May 8, 2010
v Water Wars Threaten America’s Most Endangered Rivers published by National Geographic April 12, 2016
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