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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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In ancient fossil aquifers – in the Great Plains of the United States, the North China Plain, or Saudi Arabia – water levels are not recharged by rainfall. Elsewhere, as in northern India, ground water is used faster than it can be replenished. According to the United Nations, ground-water extraction globally has tripled in the past 50 years, during which time India and China's ground-water use has risen 10-fold.

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As a result, half of the global population lives in countries where water tables are rapidly falling. These supply problems are compounded by new land use patterns, like deforestation and soil grading, as well as leakage from poorly maintained infrastructure in cities.

Climate complications

To make things worse, climate change is expected to cause water shortages in many parts of the world, making ground water all the more important as a buffer.

The spike in global grain prices caused by the US drought last summer, on the heels of an epic winter drought in Spain and summer heat waves in southern Europe, showed the cascade effect of the sort of droughts that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects will multiply in the decades ahead.

Not surprisingly, the greatest impact is on the poor. While American households spend, on average, 13 percent of their budgets on food, that expenditure is often 50 percent or more in the developing world. So a spike in food prices can trigger explosive riots like those that erupted there in the past five years.

According to Richard Seager, a drought specialist at Columbia University in New York, the recent US drought was mostly a result of naturally occurring weather patterns. But it's probably influenced by a background of unprecedented record-high temperatures that reflect an already warming environment. A significant recent development in climate research is that scientists have begun linking climate change to the probability of individual weather events. Professor Seager's own research predicts that, owing to climate change, the aridity levels experienced in parts of America during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and again in the 1950s will be the new normal in the American Southwest by midcentury.

Seager says that climate change exacerbated the impact of superstorm Sandy, as well – contributing to higher sea levels: "We've known forever that hurricanes of this intensity can get up to New York City. Nothing there that couldn't be due to just natural variability. But it's happening with sea levels higher, and sea levels are still going up. So when these things happen, they can do extra damage because it's easier to breach the sea wall protections."

He says Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have accurately gauged the threat climate change poses to the city. "The sea levels are going to continue to go up. So, boy, do we have a problem. There's no reason to believe this won't happen again in the next two decades."

Climate change increases variability, says Dabelko: "That's the challenge that we have to [face] as individuals, as societies, as governments, as businesses ... to understand that it's going to change. It's going to be bigger swings. And some people may benefit ... and many are not going to be well adapted..."

There's also another misconception about the global water crisis, he says, which is the assumption that "it's somebody else's problem, on the presumption that we're wealthy enough to just deal.

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