Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Water: The Worldwide Crisis Grows

In the summer of 2008, the UK newspaper The Guardian published a story on the drought in South Australia, commenting that:

Australia's epic drought is tightening its grip as a deepening ecological crisis unfolds in the south of the country. After seven years of the Big Dry, water levels in lakes at the mouth of the mighty Murray river have fallen by up to 50cm below sea level and environmental damage is spreading on a massive scale, according to conservationists.

At Bottle Bend Lagoon, drought and over-use of water by farmers for irrigation has left swaths of riverbed exposed, producing a toxic chemical reaction that is spreading. The banks are lined with poisonous aluminium and manganese salts and the water is dun-coloured, smells like rotten eggs and is as corrosive as battery acid. Fish have died in their thousands and red gum trees and plants are also dying.


The crisis has come about because Australia is in the grip of the worst drought in a century. Years of scant rainfall have left vast areas parched and last month it was predicted that up to a million people could face a shortage of drinking water if the drought continues. The report from government officials warned that there could be problems supplying drinking water from the Murray Darling in 2008-2009 unless there is significant rainfall soon.

In a follow up story published yesterday, The Guardian is reporting that the dire predictions of last summer are, unfortunately, coming to pass:

The water in Australia's biggest river is running so low and is so salty that the nation's fifth-largest city, Adelaide, is at risk of having to ship water in to its residents, politicians have warned.

Adelaide's water crisis follows similar problems in cities around the world, as the combination of growing population, increasing agricultural use and global warming stretches resources to the limit. Experts are warning of permanent drought in many regions.

Salinity levels in some stretches of the Murray river already exceed the World Health Organisation's (WHO) recommendations for safe drinking, and South Australia's water authority and 11 rural townships east of Adelaide have been told to prepare for the worst.


"There's simply too many people pulling water out of the river," said Roger Strother, Coorong council mayor. "We've been saying that one day it would catch up, and this summer is when it is going to happen. It could be next week."

As the story make plain however, this is not exclusively an Australian problem:

Adelaide is one of many cities around the world facing acute water shortages as populations grow, long-term droughts continue and ground water is not replenished. The Chinese water minister, Chen Lei, today told engineers at a water conference that two-thirds of Chinese cities now face serious shortages due to rapid industrialisation and climate change.

"Compared to 1956-79, the average rainfall has dropped 6% in three major river basins," Lei said. "Most parts in the north of China are now facing water shortages problems, especially because of the increasing influence of climate change and the faster speed of industrialisation and urbanisation."


According to a new UN environment programme report, perennial drought conditions are developing in south-eastern Australia and south-western North America. "Projections suggest that persistent water scarcity will increase in a number of regions in coming years, including southern and northern Africa, the Mediterranean, much of the Middle East, a broad band in central Asia and the Indian subcontinent," the report said.

With the impacts of climate change only just beginning to be felt, and the added issues of growing human populations and increasing urbanization, reports like this will become commonplace. The report concludes with this short list of cities around the world that are dealing with these impacts right now:

Beijing: Most of Beijing's water comes from the Miyun reservoir, but a decade of drought and huge population increase has left extreme shortages. Water diversion projects are helping, but this is depleting resources from other regions. The city must spend $3.5bn (£2.2bn) in the next five years to cope with a population expected to rise to 17 million.

Nairobi: The city has imposed water rationing, following an acute drought that has affected all Kenya's water catchment areas. River and reservoirs are at historically low levels. Flower farms and export-oriented agriculture are also reducing supplies available to people.

Mexico City: 2009 has been the driest year recorded in the city of 19 million people. Water is rationed and many areas have no piped water for days at a time. The government has imposed fines of up to $1,200 for hosing down cars and sidewalks or watering lawns during daytime hours. Signs warn that the city could run out of water next spring unless residents switch to low-flow showers and toilets, and plug leaks.

Gaza: Water fit for human use will run out in the Gaza strip within 10 years, the Gaza Coastal Municipal Water Utility and UN agencies said this month. Tap water is already salty, and only 5-10% of groundwater is drinkable. Gaza's population is expected to increase to 3 million by 2025.

Kathmandu: Erratic rainfall and drier winters have left Nepal's capital very short of water. The water company can provide only 160m litres a day but the demand is well over 200m litres. Many households are drilling their own boreholes to extract groundwater with electric pumps, but the water table is sinking approximately 2.5 metres a year and this is not sustainable in the medium term.

It's time we all recognized that water is now a critical resource, in increasingly short supply worldwide. Smart water management needs to be on everyone's radar as a critical issue to be addressed at every level, from governments to corporations to individuals. There's no escaping our need for water and the longer we wait to apply corrective actions the harder and more expensive they will be.


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