FEW environmental, economic, demographic - and therefore political - issues today are not connected to that most mundane yet valuable natural resource, water: What (or maybe even whether) we eat. Where we live and how we get around. How much we pay for these essentials. How we relate to our neighbors up or downstream or across the aquifer, including international allies and adversaries. In all cases, water is at least as important as oil.
When we think of oil, recent major international conflicts and environmental disasters come to mind. We've heard of "water wars" and of course occasional droughts, but not usually of the same scale as clashes over oil. That relative complacency may be a mistake, however, according to a new and troubling study by Sandra Postel of the Worldwatch Institute.
In "Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity," Ms. Postel reports that "in many parts of the world, water use is nearing the limits of natural systems; in some areas, those limits have already been surpassed."
For example, hydrologists consider 26 countries with a total population of 232 million to be water-scarce. This includes 11 countries in Africa and nine in the Middle East where the population is projected to double in about 25 years. In all, Postel writes, "Nearly one out of every three people in the developing world - some 1.2 billion people in all - do not have access to a safe and reliable supply [of water] for their daily needs."
This problem has a direct effect on food supplies. Per capita irrigated land peaked in 1978, and per capita grain production has been falling since 1984. Meanwhile, the world has another 95 million mouths to feed every year.
Such problems are not limited to less-developed nations. About one-fifth of irrigated land in the United States uses water faster than it can be replaced naturally. Water tables are dropping, and improper irrigating techniques in some areas ultimately poison the soil.
Historic and political reasons exist for such problems. Many early pioneers believed that "rain followed the plow" as they pushed westward into arid regions. The Reclamation Act of 1902 was meant to provide carefully monitored irrigation water for family farms of limited acreage, whose owners would repay the cost of dam and pipeline construction.
But loopholes in the law allowed large corporate farms, and the projects became a huge taxpayer subsidy to water users, who paid far less than the true cost of the construction and operation of water-management systems. No wonder gross inefficiencies became the norm, as well as environmental damage to ecosystems hurt by too much water diversion.
George Bush got hammered for not living up to his claim to be the "environment president," but his administration took two major positive steps in this regard. It blocked construction of the environmentally damaging Two Forks Dam in Colorado, and it approved legislation that will reform the massive Central Valley Project in California. One hears that Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly has blocked Vice President Dan Quayle's lame-duck attempt to loosen regulations on wetlands, which are important to water quality as well as quantity.
There are good-news parts to the story. Some farmers are using drip systems and other forms of "microirrigation" (although this still accounts for only 0.7 percent of total irrigation in leading agricultural countries). Many industries have become more efficient in their use of water. Since 1965, for example, Japan has tripled its industrial water productivity. Many city dwellers are conserving water as well. Through an extensive program of water audits, retrofits, and education, Boston has reduced its a nnual demand by 16 percent.
But a great deal needs to be done. A good place to start - especially for the Clinton administration, which has pledged itself to a better record on resource conservation - is the "Water Quality 2000" report released last week. This project was begun in 1988 by representatives of more than 80 environmental, industry, and government organizations.
The report cites many problems in water management but also poses 85 recommended solutions well worth considering.