Where the Crisis Is Greater
MARY, who lives in the United States, begins her day with a shower, brushes her teeth with the water running, flushes the toilet, and then washes her hands. Even before sitting down to breakfast, she may use enough water to fill the average bathtub. By the end of the day, Mary, like many others who live in the States, has used over 100 gallons [350 L.] of water, enough to fill a bathtub two and a half times. For her, a clean, plentiful water supply is no farther away than the nearest tap. It is always available; she takes it for granted.
For Dede, who lives in West Africa, it’s another story. She gets up long before dawn, dresses, balances a large basin on her head, and walks five miles [8 km] to the nearest river. There she bathes, fills the basin with water, and then returns home. This daily routine takes about four hours. For the next hour, she filters the water to remove parasites and then divides it into three containers—one for drinking, one for household use, and another for her evening bath. Any washing of clothes must be done at the river.
“Water hunger is killing us here,” Dede says. “Having spent almost half the morning fetching water, how much of the day is left for farming or other activities?”
Dede’s situation is hardly unique. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the total time spent each year by multitudes of women and children fetching and carrying water from distant, often polluted, sources amounts to over ten million years!
Some Have, Others Have Not
So while there is plenty of fresh water worldwide, it is not evenly distributed. That is the first major problem. Scientists reckon, for example, that while Asia has 36 percent of the water filling the world’s lakes and rivers, that continent is home to 60 percent of the world’s people. In contrast, the Amazon River contains 15 percent of the world’s river water, but only 0.4 percent of the world’s people live close enough to make use of it. Uneven distribution likewise applies to rainfall. Some regions of the earth are almost permanently dry; others, though not always dry, occasionally suffer from periods of drought.
A number of experts believe that humans may cause some changes in climate involving rainfall. Deforestation, overcultivation, and overgrazing all strip the soil bare. Some reason that when that happens, the earth’s surface reflects more sunlight back into the atmosphere. The result: The atmosphere becomes warmer, clouds disperse, and rainfall decreases.
Barren land may also cause a decrease in rainfall, for a great deal of the rain that falls on forests is water that first evaporated from the vegetation itself—from the leaves of the trees and undergrowth. In other words, vegetation acts like a huge sponge that absorbs and holds rainfall. Remove the trees and undergrowth, and less water is available to form rain clouds.
Just how dramatically human actions affect rainfall is still a matter of debate; more research remains to be done. But this much is certain: Water shortages are widespread. Already, shortages threaten the economies and health of 80 countries, warns the World Bank. And already, 40 percent of the earth’s inhabitants—more than two billion people—have no access to clean water or sanitation.
When faced with water shortages, rich nations usually manage to buy their way out of serious trouble. They build dams, employ expensive technology to recycle their water, or even remove salt from seawater. Poor nations do not have such options. Often they must choose either to ration clean water, which might curb progress and reduce food production, or to reuse untreated water, which results in the spread of disease. As demands for water increase everywhere, the future looks very, very dry.
A Decade of Hope
On November 10, 1980, the United Nations General Assembly spoke confidently about the coming “International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade.” The goal, proclaimed the assembly, was to provide, by the year 1990, full access to safe water and sanitation for all those living in the developing world. By the end of the decade, about $134 billion had been spent to bring clean water to over a billion people and sewage-disposal facilities to over 750 million—an impressive achievement.
However, these gains were offset by a population growth of 800 million people in developing countries. Thus, by 1990, there remained over a billion people who lacked safe water and adequate sanitation. The predicament seemed to echo what the queen said to Alice in the children’s story Through the Looking-Glass: “You see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Since 1990, overall progress in improving the lot of those without water and sanitation has been, according to WHO, “poor.” Sandra Postel, when vice president of research at the Worldwatch Institute, wrote: “It remains a grave moral shortcoming that 1.2 billion people cannot drink water without risking disease or death. The reason is not so much a scarcity of water or inadequate technologies as a lack of social and political commitment to meeting the basic needs of the poor. It would take an estimated $36 billion more per year, equal to roughly 4 per cent of the world’s military expenditures, to bring to all of humanity what most of us now take for granted—clean drinking water and a sanitary means of waste disposal.”
Rising Population, Rising Demand
The uneven distribution of water is complicated by a second problem: As populations grow, so does the demand for water. Rainfall worldwide remains roughly constant, but populations soar. Water consumption has doubled at least twice this century, and some estimate it could double again within the next 20 years.
Of course, growing numbers of people require not just more drinking water but also more food. Food production, in turn, requires ever greater amounts of water. Agriculture, however, must compete with the water demands of industry and individuals. As cities and industrial areas expand, agriculture often loses out. “Where’s the food going to come from?” asks one researcher. “How can we possibly meet the needs of 10 billion people when we can barely meet the needs of 5 billion and are actually taking water away from agriculture?”
Most of the population increase occurs in developing countries, where water is often already scarce. Sadly, those countries are least able, both financially and technically, to deal with water problems.
Add to the problems of water shortages and the demands of growing population a third related problem: pollution. The Bible speaks of “a river of water of life,” but many rivers today are rivers of death. (Revelation 22:1) According to one estimate, the amount of wastewater—domestic and industrial—that pours into the world’s rivers every year amounts to 110 cubic miles [450 cu km]. Many rivers and streams are polluted from their beginning to their end.
In the world’s developing nations, raw sewage pollutes nearly every major river. A survey of 200 major Russian rivers showed that 8 in 10 had dangerously high levels of bacterial and viral agents. The rivers and water tables of highly developed countries, while not flooded with sewage, are often poisoned by toxic chemicals, including those that come from agricultural fertilizers. In just about all parts of the world, seaside countries pump raw sewage into shallow waters off their coasts, seriously contaminating beaches.
Thus, water pollution is a global problem. Summarizing the situation, the Audubon Society booklet Water: The Essential Resource states: “One-third of humanity labors in a perpetual state of illness or debility as a result of impure water; another third is threatened by the release into water of chemical substances whose long-term effects are unknown.”
Bad Water, Bad Health
When Dede, mentioned earlier, said that “water hunger is killing us,” she was speaking figuratively. Yet, the lack of clean, fresh water does kill, quite literally. For her and millions like her, there is little choice but to use water from streams and rivers, which are often little more than open sewers. Small wonder that, according to WHO, a child dies of a water-related disease every eight seconds!
In the developing world, according to World Watch magazine, 80 percent of all disease is spread by the consumption of unsafe water. Waterborne pathogens and pollution kill 25 million people every year.
The water-related killer diseases—including diarrheic disease, cholera, and typhoid—claim most of their victims in the Tropics. Yet, waterborne diseases are not limited to the developing world. During 1993, in the United States, 400,000 people fell ill in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after drinking tap water containing a microbe that was resistant to chlorine. In the same year, dangerous microbes found their way into the water systems of other cities in the United States—Washington, D.C.; New York City; and Cabool, Missouri—forcing residents to boil the water that came from their faucets.
Rivers to Share
The interrelated problems of water shortages, the demands of growing populations, and pollution leading to ill health are all factors that can lead to tension and conflict. Water, after all, is hardly a luxury. Said a politician in Spain who was grappling with a water crisis: “It’s no longer an economic struggle, but a fight for survival.”
A major area of tension is the sharing of water from rivers. According to Peter Gleick, a researcher in the United States, 40 percent of the world’s population lives in the 250 river basins whose water is competed for by more than one nation. The Brahmaputra, Indus, Mekong, Niger, Nile, and Tigris rivers each flow through many countries—countries that want to extract from those rivers as much water as possible. Already, there have been disputes.
As the demand for water spirals, such tensions will increase. The World Bank’s vice president for Environmentally Sustainable Development predicts: “Many of the wars in this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.”
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A Molecule on the Move
Let us follow the travels of a single water molecule on its endless journey. The series of accompanying pictures, numbered to correspond to the written text, illustrates just one of the myriads of paths that a single molecule of water could take to return to the place from which it came. —Job 36:27; Ecclesiastes 1:7.
We will start with a molecule on the surface of the ocean. (1) As water is evaporated by the power of the sun, the molecule rises until it is several thousand feet above the earth. (2) Now, it joins with other water molecules to form a tiny droplet of water. The droplet travels with the wind for hundreds of miles. In time, the droplet evaporates, and the molecule rises again until, finally, it joins a raindrop big enough to fall to the ground. (3) The raindrop falls on a hillside with billions of others; the water rushes downward into a stream. (4)
Then a deer drinks from the stream, taking in our molecule. (5) Hours later the deer urinates, and the molecule passes into the ground where it is picked up by the roots of a tree. (6) From there, the molecule travels up the tree and eventually evaporates from a leaf into the air. (7) As before, it drifts upward to help form another tiny droplet. The droplet glides with the wind until it joins a dark, heavy rain cloud. (8) Our molecule falls yet again with the rain, but this time it reaches a river that carries it to the ocean. (9) There, it may spend thousands of years before it reaches the surface, evaporates, and becomes airborne once more. (10)
The cycle never ends: Water evaporates from the seas, travels over land, falls as rain, and runs back into the seas. In doing so, water sustains all life on earth.
[Box/Picture on page 9]
What Has Been Proposed
Building desalination plants. These remove salt from seawater. Usually this is done by pumping the water into low-pressure chambers, where it is heated until it boils. The water evaporates and is directed elsewhere, leaving behind the salt crystals. It is an expensive process, beyond the reach of many developing countries.
Melting down icebergs. Some scientists believe that massive icebergs, which contain pure, fresh water, could be towed from the Antarctic by large tugboats and melted down to provide water for arid countries in the Southern Hemisphere. One problem: About half of each iceberg would melt at sea before it reached its destination.
Tapping aquifers. Aquifers are water-bearing rocks deep in the earth. From these, water can be pumped, even in the driest of deserts. But extracting this water is expensive and lowers the level of the water table. Another disadvantage: Most aquifers are renewed only slowly—and some, not at all.
[Picture Credit Line on page 8]
Photo: Mora, Godo-Foto
[Pictures on page 5]
Obtaining water can take four hours each day
[Pictures on page 8]
Some 110 cubic miles [450 cu km] of wastewater pours into rivers each year