Water Crisis: Not a drop to drink

Tomorrow is WaterAid Day, the celebration in the UK of the UN World Day for Water. Geoffrey Lean reports on the planet's plight - water, water everywhere but...

Perhaps the oddest thing about our planet is its name. Christening it "Earth" is like calling the Highlands "Flat" - for its defining feature is water, not the soil on which our short-sighted species happens to live. All life began in its waters and still depends on them - and on the rains they constantly pump out to refresh the dry land - while the great civilisations grew up beside the liquid highways of great rivers and sheltered seas. There is a lot of water on the Earth - 1,400 million cubic kilometres of it - and yet, for our purposes, it is scarce. All the world's people, and all the rest of its land-bound life, has to share only about 0.007 per cent of the world's water, equivalent to a thimbleful in a bath tub. Only about 2.5 per cent of it is fresh, rather than salt, and four-fifths of that is frozen in glaciers and the polar icecaps. More than 95 per cent of the tiny proportion that is left is stored deep underground.

Even then there might seem to be plenty. Enough rain falls on the land each year to cover all the world's countries two and a half feet deep. True, two-thirds of this evaporates, and two-thirds of what is left runs away in floods - but there is still enough, in theory, to meet the needs of twice the world's present population.

But there are two big snags. First the rain does not always fall where the people are: Iceland gets enough to provide each of its 250,000 people with 674,600 cubic metres of water a year, while Kuwait, with seven times as many people, scarcely gets a single drop.

Secondly, our use of water has multiplied sixfold this century, at twice the rate of population growth, largely because of a soaring increase in its use in agriculture.

Some two billion people in 80 countries are already afflicted by serious water shortages. Over the last half-century by United Nations' estimates, the amount of water available to each Asian has slumped by two-thirds, and to each African and Latin American by three-quarters. All over the world, people are trying to meet shortages by mining water, sinking wells into underground stores which have taken thousands of years to fill. The Ogallala aquifer, a vast subterranean sea that lies under eight Great Plains states in the US, is being drawn down by a metre a year to help fill the world's main breadbasket, which provides food for 100 countries.

This cannot go on forever - every year only a half of an inch works its way down to replace what is taken.

Mexico City, says the United Nations, has sunk more than 30 feet over the last 70 years because so much water is being taken from the ground beneath it. Cities as diverse as Bangkok and Houston are sinking too. Two-thirds of China's cities are short of water, while a quarter of the wells in the Indian state of Maharashtra have run dry. The water of Colorado River is now so fully used that it no longer reaches the sea.

Everyone expects things to get worse as populations and environmental degradation increase: cutting down forests, for example, cuts supplies.

Trees trap water and allow it to filter down into the earth to replenish springs and underground aquifers. And the enormous disruptions to the world's weather predicted as a result of global warming are expected greatly to aggravate the crisis.

As supplies tighten and demand grows, water will increasingly cause conflict. The first flash point is likely to be the Middle East where, the World Bank estimates, supplies per person will fall fivefold between 1960 and 2025. Already there have been tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over sharing the waters of the Nile, and between Turkey, Iraq and Syria over the Euphrates.

Boutros Boutros Ghali, when Secretary-General of the United Nations, said: "The next war in the Middle East, will be fought over water, not politics."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?