In a previous post, Serenity of Water, the emotional relationship between humans and water was discussed. That post focused on our deep attachment to bodies of water and the benefits we derive from that attachment. But what about our total, unalterable, physical dependence on fresh water? Our emotional ties to water in general are strong and binding but our ability to survive—and thrive—as a species is inexorably linked to our access to fresh water. Few other catastrophes would equal the threat posed by a gradual and protracted shrinkage of our global supply of clean, consumable water. What is the current status of freshwater resources on this planet and what are the threats?
Our planet has a lot of water. The earth’s surface is ~ 70% water. However, ~ 96% of that water is contained within our oceans and seas—salt water. Only 4% of our total water volume is fresh water.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html that 4% of fresh water is contained within the following resources:
- 69% of that 4% is locked up within our glaciers and polar ice caps
- 30% of that 4% is underground—groundwater
- 1% of that 4% is surface water—lakes, rivers, ponds, etc….
This means that 99% of our planet’s fresh water is either frozen or hard to reach. The water that sustains our lives is predominantly contained within that small 1%.
How Much Fresh Water are We Working With?
Our natural resources are not infinite, despite our predilection to believe otherwise. Our freshwater reserves are no exception. How much do we have?
That 1% of fresh surface water amounts to ~23,000 cubic miles. The 30% of fresh ground water equates to ~2,500,000 cubic miles. Those numbers sound impressive until compared with the volume of salt water…..~324,000,000 cubic miles.
Put another way…..if you could pour all of this planet’s fresh water (surface and ground) into a single lake that lake would only be 170 miles in diameter! A 170 mile diameter lake providing fresh water to the entire population of this planet.
Although finite in quantity our fresh water is renewable. That imaginary 170 mile diameter lake is refreshed via the natural process of evaporation and rain. But, the resource is, and will always be, finite. No new fresh water is being created. That lake of fresh water can only grow relatively smaller due to the pressures that we humans are putting upon it.
The Threats to our Freshwater Resources
The two primary threats to our supply of consumable water are pollution and human population explosion.
Pollution and contamination, the previous number 1 threat, has been at the top of many environmental agendas over the past 30 years. That increased focus has paid some dividends. Increased awareness, education, and technological advances have resulted in significant reductions in the amount of pollutants being dumped into our water supplies. Much work remains to be done—especially within developing countries—but, on the whole, the negative trend appears to have been reversed, or at least stabilized.
Global population growth is now the dominant threat. The threat is extremely complex and will be the most difficult to mitigate.
The Ultimate Threat
World population currently stands at 7.7 billion. During this past year (2017) we added ~80 million inhabitants to this good earth. That equates to ~220,000 new souls every day. The hard, cold, reality is that that is not sustainable.
Many locales are already feeling the biting pressure. That pressure is sure to be ratcheted up as we approach a population of 10 billion by the year 2056. Areas that have historically been susceptible to drought and fresh water shortages will be hit first and hardest. But, eventually, all life will be affected.
If the trend continues unabated there will be a sharpening of the contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots”. Regardless of what is being measured (wealth, power, food, etc.) our history has shown that we typically respond to those pressures by devolving back to our most base instincts. The results have usually been disastrous.
We have the same amount of fresh water at our disposal as we did 200 years ago. The problem is that 200 years ago there were 1 billion of us consuming that resource. Now there are almost 8 billion. By the middle of this century that figure will have grown to 10 billion. At some point the math just catches up, regardless of our hubris.
No Easy Answers
What is to be done? There is certainly no easy answer and no apparent “quick-fix” on the horizon. But, one thing is certain, we had best start putting some hard thought, energy, and resources toward the problem. The unlocking of untapped resources coupled with a seismic shift in our capacity for desalination of salt water are logical steps and would provide some additional headroom. Population growth is another matter entirely.
The issue will not resolve itself and the potential impending calamity would likely show little mercy. We have had ample advance warning…..