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
Voices
voices Simon Usborne: It's not about political correctness. It's about decency
Sport
Wojciech Szczesny watches the ball cross the line as Garath McCleary scores for Reading
football All the latest from Wembley as Gunners face Reading in semi-final
Life and Style
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Publishing

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Guru Careers: Report Writer / Reporting Analyst

£25 - 30k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Report Writer / Reporting Analyst is nee...

Guru Careers: German Speaking Account Manager / Account Executive

£24-30K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A German speaking Account Manager ...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...