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Global water crisis: too little, too much, or lack of a plan?

The global water crisis – caused by drought, flood, and climate change – is less about supply than it is about recognizing water's true value, using it efficiently, and planning for a different future, say experts.

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With each step up the economic ladder, people demand more water for sanitation, industry, hydroelectric power, and water-intensive diets – such as preferring beef to wheat, a shift that requires 10 times as much water per kilogram to produce. Urban-rural competition for water has already pushed countries to import grains – "virtual water" – or, in the case of wealthier countries like China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, to lease land in developing countries.

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By 2030, the Water Resources Group forecasts, global water requirements may outstrip sustainable use by 40 percent. And almost half the world's people will be living under severe water stress, predicts the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Already, water stress – where the reliable water supply is being used up more quickly than it can be replenished – is widespread and is expected to increase significantly in the years ahead, particularly in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. By 2050, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, 1 in 5 developing countries will face water shortages.

Too many straws in the glass

In 2009, twin NASA satellites – orbiting 300 miles above Earth, measuring changes in the mass of underground water in northern India – yielded disturbing data: Excessive irrigation practices were sucking the region dry. Even though rainfall had been slightly above average, millions of tube wells – like too many straws in the glass – were draining ground-water levels by as much as a foot per year, threatening farm output in the country's fertile breadbasket and raising the risk of a major water crisis. Over the past seven years, an amount equivalent to nearly three times the water in Lake Mead, America's largest water reservoir, had been lost.

"If measures are not taken to ensure sustainable groundwater usage," NASA scientists concluded, "the consequences for the 114 million residents of the region may include a collapse of agricultural output and severe shortages of potable water."

If renewable water supplies – rainfall in lakes, streams, and rivers – are like an annually replenished checking account, then ground water and deep aquifers are the savings. A few thousand years ago, when civilizations first branched out from rivers, they populated areas where they could draw from that savings in the form of ground water 20 to 30 feet below the surface. Globally, this was the norm until the 1950s, when fossil fuel energy became widely available to allow pumping water from ever-deeper depths. Ever since, humanity has increasingly lived beyond the margins of its renewable water supply.

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