Water Insecurity and the Paths to Global Water Security

Life on Earth evolved from nucleic acids in water aided by the hydrologic cycle, and water is vital for all known forms of life. [1] 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, 97% of which is salt water in oceans.  Salt water is not potable without first being desalinated (which is not sustainable) because large amounts will cause hypernatremia, an excess of sodium in the blood, and this condition can be lethal. Of that remaining 3% that is fresh, just 0.3 percent is accessible in rivers and lakes. The rest is underground and frozen in ice caps and glaciers. Still, this amount of fresh water is more than what is needed to sustain humanity and life on Earth. But because it is not distributed based on need and treated like another other commodity like food, sadly millions of people have died from malnutrition, dehydration, and diarrheal diseases from drinking polluted water.  Only 40% of the rivers, lakes, and estuaries in the US have been tested for water quality and of that percentage, 41,266 of them do not meet quality standards primarily due to human pollution. [6] This means it is dangeous to swim in them, consume untreated water from them, or fish from them.

Pharmaceuticals contaminate many American waterways, and some have major side effects. Water has also been contaminated with herbicides, dioxins, chlorine, fluoride (often used to kill pathogens in water), and sulfuric and nitric acids from acid leeching and acid rain. Excess heavy metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium also contaminate some drinking water. Botulinum toxin can be found in untreated drinking water around the world, and consumption can lead to botulism. Fecal coliform bacteria can also infect water-ways and it is common in poor regions where sewage is not managed properly. Consumption of water infected with this bacteria can lead to diseases like dysentery, Hepatitis A, typhoid fever, and gastroenteritis. Chlorine is used in very small concentrations in most municipal water systems in the world. But if too much was used it would be lethal. Chorine is not needed to make water potable and there are many less dangerous ways of doing so.

Eutrophication

Eutrophication

The excess of nutrients (particularly nitrogen) in many of our water-ways has resulted in hypoxic (oxygen poor) zones like the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Excess nitrogen usually comes from the mismanagement of waste and runoff from factory farms. Farmers there often pile waste (high in nitrogen) near water ways, which spills into them. This nitrogen promotes the growth of photosynthetic phytoplankton, which shades submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) below it. SAV relies on sunlight that penetrates the water, so when that light is blocked by photoplankton, the water becomes turbid and SAV dies. Other marine organisms that rely on the SAV then die and bacteria eat the dead algae and other detritus while consuming large amounts of oxygen in the water in the process, which suffocates the remaining fish and shellfish. This turns healthy, evolving oligotrophic environments into nearly completely dead eutrophic ones. This can affect our water quality and our food supply from rivers and fisheries. Another source of eutrophication also comes from farms that use synthetic fertilizers, most of which contain water soluble nitrates. These can cause various human health problems, and eutrophication itself can affect human health. Consumption of water high in nitrates reduces the amount of oxygen carried to the brain, and it can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants less than six months old. The blood sample of an affected baby is a chocolate brown color, instead of red.

Nitrate poisoning can be treated, and in most cases babies make a full recovery. However, lack of treatment can result in death. Consumption of water with moderate levels of nitrates also increases the risk of developing insulin-dependent diabetes. Recent studies have also shown a link between nitrates in drinking water and goiter, a condition that causes swelling in the neck.

The Mississippi River watershed encompasses “40% of the land mass of the lower 48 states. Runoff from this huge area delivers 500 million tons of sediment and 1 million tons of nutrients to the Gulf of Mexico yearly.” [7] Mostly massive farms owned by billion dollar corporations contribute most to the waste. They drain aquifers. They don’t compost or dispose of their waste and many just dump it into the river.  Some animal waste isn’t reused properly because many large farms treat their animals with antibiotics, and these end up in their waste, making it unfit for compost.

Water from the Mississippi river and its watershed is used by millions of people. The communities furthest down the river are the most polluted because nitrates and other pollutants accumulate from infrastructure and farming operations that have been built around the river and watershed upstream. Food and water security in the Gulf of Mexico are affected as well by this nutrient pollution.

About 30% of the Earth’s water is underground, of which 46% is fresh. Water is generally clean in underground aquifers as the water is recharged by rain, snow, and some surface water, removing excess salt and other particulates. But aquifers are often sucked dry by large corporations that then bottle the water to sell it at the highest price possible. Some water is also sucked up by small wells in more sustainable amounts.

Image

San Joaquin CA Drop in Water Table. (USGS, 1977)

Maintaining the health of the water table is vital because if groundwater is sucked up by welling too much water, the water table will lower and the soil will erode often leading to desertification. The actual land will also sink. In heavily welled areas of California, the land has dropped by more than 400 feet.

Aquifers must be given time to recharge. Farmers have a responsibility to maintain the health of the soil and not exploit aquifers. Just because a large dairy farm has land and wants to pump an aquifer dry to keep their cows cool doesn’t mean it has the right to do so. Farms often raise too many cattle than they can manage for profit. Land has to be managed sustainably. We need to pump less and also designate more areas as free from asphalt, other impervious surfaces, agriculture, and livestock to ensure we all have healthy drinking water. Planting trees will aid this process as well.

Concentrations of people in densely populated, industrialized cities today like Boston and Bangkok require enormous amounts of energy. They also generate huge amounts of pollution and waste, and waste collection and management become very large-scale and concentrated operations because of this, ensuring most waste mixes with their drinking water. Expensive waste treatment productions often don’t work as efficiently as they could. Waste management and reuse is far easier in less densely populated areas because nature can use its mechanisms more effectively to treat these human problems and residents have the space to compost.

Composting toilets and individual treatment of waste are much easier to manage than large-scale sewage plants in the same way that small farms are easier to manage than large, polluting farms. The simplest solution might be to invest in composting toilets to prevent water pollution and better manage waste. Urine can also be directly added to soil and compost to increase its phosphorous content. Phosphorus can also be recovered in urine by adding calcium and magnesium.

Tapped well in Tanzania. (Lynn Johnson, National Geographic)

Tapped well in Tanzania. (Lynn Johnson, National Geographic)

As mentioned, the world has more than enough food and water to sustain everyone, but because these resources are hoarded, sold, and wasted mostly by large corporations (like Nestle, which mines and bottles water for six to eleven cents per bottle and sells it for 1900 times the cost of tap water) [8] but also by individuals. These issues disproportionately affect the poor of the world. “1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. 2.6 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation services, and more than 1.8 million deaths are traced to waterborne diseases (mostly in children under five).” Water has been privatized by many governments so large corporations in some areas become our only source for water and if we don’t have the money for it, we die. This has happed in Guatemala and several South American states. In 2000 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, water was privatized by the city’s water supply company, Semapa, resulting in widespread water insecurity, dehydration, massive protests, and police terrorism.

Water may be the most important, life-giving resource that exists, but because it is treated like a commodity like food it is distributed to the highest bidders. Ninety percent of the world’s food comes from land-based agricultural systems, and we use 70% of our water on crops while we drink only 10%. Most food that is grown goes to feed animals because the meat industry is very profitable and livestock require a great deal of water. Much of our fresh water also goes to grow lawns and other grasses for aesthetic purposes. It is then cut and often not reused. This is senseless.

Groundwater is not established as public property by US laws, so large corporations like Nestle can buy state, federal, and private land with aquifers, deplete the groundwater there, sell the property back, and suffer none of the ecological consequences of draining them. Aquifers take time to recharge, and if they are pumped too rapidly the underground ecosystem sustains damage and the land erodes, resulting in less biological diversity above ground. In Maine the law of “absolute dominion” applies, which dates back to middle ages, and it gives those with the “biggest pumps” the ability to extract as much water as they please as long as they have legal access to the land.

Nestle made $3.6 billion in bottled water sales in 2008 alone and America bought more than 29 billion bottles of water the year before. They have taken much of their water from the US. Fyreburg, Maine was without municipal water for 1 ½ days and they were reliant on a single well because of Nestle’s overexploitation of the town’s aquifer. (The fire department had to bring water to nursing home.) Nestle has also extracted water from aquifers in Arkansas River Valley AR, Chafee County CO, California, Michigan and many other states, resulting in large protests over water rights.

Natwarghad Village Well in India. (Amit Dave, Reuters)

Natwarghad Village Well in India. (Amit Dave, Reuters)

Hot and arid countries with little capital have the worst, water problems by far. Despite the aforementioned problems, the US has more clean water than most other countries. In fact, 92% of America has water that meets the drinking water standards while 70% of Somalia’s population lacks access to clean water. [9] According to Environmental Science, “Although 40% of rivers are still unsafe to swim in, this is an improvement on the 70% of rivers that were unsafe when the Clean Water Act was first implemented 25 years ago. Many individual rivers and bays are now much cleaner than in the past: examples include Long Island Sound, Tampa Bay, Galveston Bay, and San Francisco Bay.” However, the US and the most of the rest of the world is far behind on fracking, which ought to be criminalized since it causes earthquakes and the pollution of groundwater, affecting everyone who relies it.

Fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) has become popular among natural gas barons, but it is hated by those who live near it. Fracking is the process of fracturing rock with pressurized water, sand, and other chemicals like benzene, toluene, and glycol-ethers for the purpose of extracting resources like gas, petroleum, and uranium. Fracking often leaks these chemicals into the water table and aquifers. Some fracking liquids like benzene are also carcinogenic.

Many residents near fracking sites in the US have seen their clean drinking turn into a toxic, brown, and even flammable soup. Natural gas companies have countered these scandals with propaganda about the “safety of fracking” and the allocation of meager settlements to those affected. Rock fractured while drilling and fracking also becomes more porous as it is fractured, resulting in more absorption and less accessible groundwater.

Satellite image of crops in Kansas on center-pivot irrigation farms. (Wikipedia Commons, 2006)

Satellite image of crops in Kansas on center-pivot irrigation farms. (Wikipedia Commons, 2006)

The Earth’s supply of fresh isn’t just being polluted but also becoming scarcer because of other industries that consume a great deal of water and affect soil composition. Mining, deforestation, excessive foot traffic, the construction of impervious surfaces, mass monoculture, and CAFOs all cause soil degradation because they compact the soil. Soil compaction prevents oxygen delivery to plant and tree roots. Preventing the natural passage of water through soil causes salts to rise to the surface, drawing more water away from plants and altering the soil composition, which can result in less vegetation, less water held by soil, in turn less rainfall, and ultimately desertification. Mining with large drills displaces and compacts a great deal of soil. This affects surrounding organisms and increases runoff.

Dairy CAFO (NRCS.USDA.gov)

Dairy CAFO (NRCS.USDA.gov)

In monoculture only one crop is grown and modern large farms that use this technique tend to automate every agricultural process to produce uniform crops. Many also rely on one center well, (this is called central pivot irrigation) which very inefficiently sprays water above crops and drains the aquifers they rely on. CAFOs (concentrated feeding operations) resemble monoculture in that they are meant to produce nearly identical livestock at the cost of biodiversity and the health of the ecosystem. The goal of monoculture and CAFOs is high and consistent yields. Many large farms use genetically identical crops and GMOs to achieve these ends. This essentially creates a feast for pests that eat that crop and they become better adapted when there isn’t plant diversity and evolving phenotypes being selectively bred.

Widespread aerial spraying of harmful pesticides that try to kill these pests is not sustainable either. It simply creates more problems as pests evolve to pesticides, to which agrochemical corporations respond with the creation of new, more harmful pesticides, and the pesticides themselves often leech into water-ways and the crops. This so-called ‘pesticide treadmill’ must come to an end. Fields were not meant to grow uniform plants of the same species. It is unsustainable, unhealthy for the ecosystem, and not even cost effective. Plants and animals evolve fastest when the water table is healthy, the underground ecosystem is healthy and life (aside from invasive species, pathogens, and viruses) is diverse and evolving. Diverse plant life attracts beneficial predators that eat pests.

When giant tractors are used on large farms, instead of hand-tools, the soil becomes much more compacted where their wheels traverse. Diesel-powered tractors, which large, unsustainable farms tend to use, also contribute to pollution. In order to keep as much land in production as possible at all times, dead plants are not returned to the soil, but instead hauled away and dumped in landfills, and compost isn’t added either. Crops are also not rotated, resulting in the recurrence of diseases that overwinter in the soil. Soils don’t have time to regenerate when farms operate this way, so they become barren. The US did not always contain so much desert land, but large, unsustainable farms and large increases in infrastructure have changed that.

Biomimetic techniques for pest reduction like biological controls, (soldier bugs, ladybugs, etc.) careful composting, hand tilling, and pulling weeds by hand, rake, or hoe takes attention to detail and time, which large farms generally don’t want to take because it increases their labor costs. Modern mass agricultural companies have taken the jobs out of farming simply to make more profit. But these profits are short-term as farming this way destroys the soil, making agriculture at these farms more difficult in the future.

Concentrates of natural, organic compounds like neem oil that selectively kill pests without harming anything else are also biomimetic. Nature has its own pesticides and predatory animals that kill pests, which have worked very well before humans ever evolved, so it only makes sense to work with them and natural recycling (composting) while we grow food that is evolving and provides a habitat for wildlife. 99% out of the 50,000 plant-eating species are still held back natural enemies. Therefore, our growing needs can be managed without using any synthetic pesticides.

The easiest and most cost-effective way of treating and reusing waste is to teach every individual on Earth how to treat their own waste. This way we won’t need large sewer systems that often infect waterways and do not always adequately treat wastewater. Every individual can also be taught how to sustainably grow food and collect clean water. This will help address humanity’s food and water needs, resulting in fewer excesses, shortages, and deaths. We must consider the health of the Earth as a whole and its diverse ecosystems. Everything that is created naturally is ultimately reused by Earth for something, and this is partly why we have evolved so much, but humanity’s activities have created large amounts of “waste” by preventing natural processes that turn waste into energy for life, and man-made chemicals that are not biodegradable create waste products that nature can’t recycle.

In order to achieve whole-Earth health, many of us will need to vastly change the way we live. We need to sustainably use renewable sources of energy, preserve jungles, biodiversity, and natural ecosystems, as well as curb the global population while empowering the people that live here already to live sustainably on Earth. So long as water is allowed to be privatized, (stolen) bottled, and sold, people will continue to die from water-borne diseases and dehydration. As long as corporations are allowed to do as they please, drilling oil, spilling it, removing mountaintops, and operating CAFOs and monocropping GMOs, water problems will also persist. For permanent changes to exist, fresh water must be managed sustainably for current and future generations.

As mentioned, large tracts of land have become eroded and dead because of the human mismanagement of water, land, and livestock. But this damage can be reversed. Deserts can be transformed into forests by redirecting water from rivers and oceans to dry areas based on human and ecological need. Artificial waterways and basins have already been made, but they aren’t always made with both human and ecological need in mind and they are not made on the scale they need to be to achieve massive reforestation. All of the most lush, rain-forests on Earth have great access to waterways. This is no coincidence or surprise. Redirecting water to dry land that has been mismanaged helps detritus feeders underground live, and they make the soil healthier. Eventually, as the soil becomes more fertile and loose, it will attract native grasses and shrubs. This process can be helped along by planting drought-resistant grasses where water is being reintroduced. Grasses attract herbivores and other organisms that help add nutrients to the soil and improve the underground ecosystem further. Shrubs, trees, herbs, and food crops can eventually be grown once a former desert has recovered. This can be done in conjunction with building shelter-belts, which block heavy winds and prevent further erosion of the top soil. (Tall vegetation and trees do the same.)  Adding detritus to desert land also helps reestablish soil tilth. This will increase the water capacity of the soil, and bring in more rainfall.

The road to worldwide water security is a holistic one that includes many factors. For clean water to be allocated equitably and sustainably, we all have a role to play in the fight against water barons and food barons, and we have to try to be stewards of our environment. We can have clean water and food sovereignty for everyone, as well as healthy biodiverse ecosystems. But we must resist privatization of water and other natural resources that out to be considered a part of the commons, start to transition out of cities, and live off of the land sustainably. Industrial civilization can learn a great deal from indigenous peoples to these ends and returning ownership of land stolen by states to these indigenous communities would lead to a far more sustainable world.

Works cited:

1. <<Un.org/waterforlifedecade/background.shtml >> Online.

2. Utz, M.D. Jefferey: What percentage of the Human Body is Composed of Water?  MadSci Network Year. 2000. Online.

3. Arthur Guyton: Textbook of Medical Physiology. W B Sauders, 1996. Print.

4. Richard Wright, Dorothy Boorse: Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future, 12 E, page 243. Pearson. 2014. Print.

5. Richard Wright, Dorothy Boorse, et al.: Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future, 12 E, page 526. Pearson. 2014. Print.

6. Richard Wright, Dorothy Boorse, et al.: Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future. 12 E. Page 516. Pearson. 2014. Print.

7. Richard Wright, Dorothy Boorse, et al.: Environmental Science: Toward a Sustainable Future, 12 E, Page 506. Pearson. 2014. Print.

8. Soechtig, Stephanie: Tapped. Warner Brothers, USA, 2009. Film.

9. WHO: Combined Global and African Ranking – 25 Country Populations with the Least Sustainable Access to Improved/ Clean Water Sources. Health & Social Development, Research, Policy, Analysis & Info from Africa & on Africa. 2012. Online.

 

5 responses to “Water Insecurity and the Paths to Global Water Security

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    The road to worldwide water security is a holistic one that includes many factors. For clean water to be allocated equitably and sustainably, we all have a role to play in the fight against water barons and food barons, and we have to try to be stewards of our environment.

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