Water Insecurity and the Paths to Global Water Security

I wrote this for a presentation in my ENS class. It was too long to finish, so I thought I would post it. It deals with humanitarian issues like water security and how it is connected with food security, farming practices, waste management and infrastructure.

Some basic water facts: 



Water Molecule Showing Shared Electrons

As many know, water itself is composed of H20 molecules, containing two hydrogen atoms with one oxygen atom held by covalent bonds. Fresh water has a salt concentration of less than 0.1%. Water exists in three phase states as a gas, liquid and solid. Temperature and gravity change the phase state of water.

Life evolved from nucleic acids in water aided by the hydrologic cycle, and water is vital for all known forms of life. [1] The human body contains 55 to 78% water and requires at least one liter of water per day. [2] Water helps provide oxygen, blood plasma, blood volume, and moisture to tissue. A male of average weight is about 57% water. [3] Infants can be up to 75% water. Different people require different amounts of body water based on physical condition, age and other physical characteristics.

97% of the Earth’s water is in oceans, and 75% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. Most water on Earth is salt water, which has a salt concentration of 3% or higher and it is not fit for consumption. [4] This essay will focus on how current mismanagement of fresh water, waste, food, and infrastructure impact ecosystems and human health.

Water and Human Health: 

Water deficiencies are not caused by scarcity of fresh water on Earth. Rather, the world has more fresh water than we need, but it is that is not distributed based on need. It is treated like another other commodity and not a right. Food is treated this way as well and sadly billions have died from malnutrition, dehydration, and dilutional hypoatremia, which is a condition of insufficient sodium in blood plasma.

Health problems from water are often due to the levels of electrolytes or pollutants in the water. Not all solutes in water are undesirable. Electrolytes, glucose, and other simple sugars are needed in small quantities in water for muscle, myocardial, and brain function, specifically for oxygen delivery, osmosis, and maintenance of healthy blood pressure. However, excess solutes including electrolytes can be fatal.

The body requires a healthy electrolyte balance inside and outside of cells. Intracellular fluid or cytosol is body fluid inside of cells and extracellular fluid is found outside of cells. Extracellular fluid is made up of interstitial fluid, blood plasma, and a small percentage of transcellular fluid. Excess water will dilute the body’s salt balance through frequent urination and kidney filtration. The result can be kidney failure, brain damage, hemorrhage, and death. Salt water is not potable without first being desalinated because large amounts will cause hypernatremia, an excess of sodium in the blood, and this condition can be lethal.

Pollutants are the result of the mismanagement of our fresh water, waste, and other resources. “Raw wastewater is 99.9% water to 0.01% waste.” [5] This ratio tells us we are wasting huge amounts of fresh water. One of most important steps to water conservation is cutting our consumption and waste of water. We also have to mix as little fresh water with waste as possible. Many contaminants that can lead to sickness and death can be found in water. “41,266 rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not meeting the recommended water quality standards and this excludes more than 60% of the US waters that have not been assessed at all.” [6]

Pollutants in Water:

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, arsenic, cadmium, and selenium also contaminate some drinking water. Botulinum toxin has been found in municipal drinking water, 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. Excess nitrates, phosphorous, and many other elements and chemicals can also contaminate drinking water, but nearly every solute in excess can be lethal. 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.




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 at these farms 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 (dead organic matter) 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.

Oligotrophs are organisms that require few nutrients to survive because they can store them, which makes them better suited for changing and extreme conditions. According to Environmental Science: “Nitrates are a common problem throughout the country. In 1996, the EPA found that in almost a third of the regions studied nationwide, less than 20% of the rivers met the standards for all designated uses… Almost 40% of lakes and rivers assessed by states are unsafe for fishing and swimming.” Nitrates 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 wealthy 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.

The Hydrologic Cycle:

To understand the path to clean water, the hydrologic cycle has to be understood. This cycle is the Earth’s natural filtering system of water and it has a few stages. One of these stages is transpiration, which is the release of water from plants. This is different from canopy interception, which is water that is not absorbed by plants, but that collects on leaves and evaporates off. Water also evaporates as runoff on impervious surfaces and from the soil where capillary water is held. Water generally evaporates because of heat from the sun and other sources that break bonds between water molecules, forming water vapor in the atmosphere that is clean and free of particulates. As clouds form from condensation, precipitation eventually occurs, completing the hydrologic cycle. Some water seeps deep down into the soil and percolates (this is also called “gravitational water”) until it hits impervious rock. Many particulates are filtered out in the process. Water that saturates the soil and rock stays there, making up much of the groundwater. The upper surface of this water is called the water table, which usually contains water that is safe to drink, unless the area has been contaminated.

Rock and soil that accommodates moving groundwater is called an aquifer. About 99% of all liquid freshwater is in underground aquifers where the water is recharged by rain, snow, and some surface water, removing excess salt and other particulates. 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.


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, and restrictions have to be put on groundwater. Farmers and water and agricultural corporations 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.

Human Waste Treatment:

In large sewage treatment facilities, treatment is a long process and requires a good deal of resources. In the first step of this process raw sewage enters a bar screen, which removes debris that is often incinerated. (Soot from this debris can be composted, which increases the potassium content of the compost.)  The slightly less dirty water then enters a grit chamber in which smaller grit settles down to the bottom. The grit is often added to landfills, instead of being reused.  In the primary clarifier, fat and oil float to the top while particulate organic matter settles. The fats and oils are then siphoned off and combined forming raw sludge, which is eaten by detritus feeders.

In trickling filter systems, water is treated secondarily through a bed of rocks, which allow water to percolate through while detritus feeders eat its bacteria. This is a very biomimetic (nature-mimicking) technique because water is cleaned in the same way through streams and underground rocks. Water can also be treated secondarily by an activated sludge system, which utilizes large, aerated tanks and “activated sludge” (detritus feeders) to produce carbon dioxide, usable minerals and water. The water that goes through secondary clarification then goes through a final cleansing (chlorine gas is often used for this step) and disinfection.

Sludge can also be treated by anaerobic digestion, (which produces biogas), pasteurization, (which uses heat to kill pathogens) or by composting. Detritus feeders underground make composting possible. Composting is the simplest and least expensive option. Organisms that break down organic waste in nature are often used by humans in treatment operations. Examples of organisms that break down waste are paramecia (phase contact), rotifer (metazoa) nematodes, zooglea, Earthworms, wireworms, carpenter ants, millipedes, centipedes, slugs, snails, mites, springtails, wood roaches, soil fungus, and dung beetles. These organisms all play important roles in the natural recycling of waste.

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 land 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 for all countries 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.

Water and Food Insecurity:

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. According to Environmental Science:  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 many South American countries. 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, even though this food could feed starving people. 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 actors 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)

Poor, hot, and arid countries 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] Legislation in America on clean water has made large improvements and other countries need similar legislation so long as we have governments. 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 affected by 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.

Monoculture, Mining, Aquifer Exploitation, Deforestation, Erosion, and Desertification:

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)

Mining, deforestation, excessive foot traffic, the construction of impervious surfaces, mass monoculture, and factory farming all cause soil degradation because they compact the soil. Soil compaction prevents oxygen delivery to plant and tree roots and carbon dioxide release from the soil. 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 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 for uniform crops. Many also rely on one center well, (this is called central pivot irrigation) which very inefficiently sprays water above crops. CAFOs (concentrated feeding operations) resemble monoculture in that they are meant to produce nearly identical life forms at the cost of biodiversity and ecosystem health. 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. The so-called pesticide treadmill needs to stop now and forever. 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.

When giant tractors are used on large farms, instead of hand-tools, the soil becomes much more compacted where their wheels traverse. Gas-powered tractors also contribute to pollution, which large, unsustainable farms tend to use. In order to keep as much land in production as possible, dead plants are not returned to the soil, but instead hauled away and dumped in landfills. Crops are also not rotated, resulting in erosion and loss of nutrients in the soil. Soils don’t have time to regenerate and feed off what they have produced, 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, (neem oil, 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 they would have to hire more people to take this time and attention. This would mean less profit. Modern mass agricultural companies have taken the jobs out of farming simply to make more profit.

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 while we grow food that is evolving and good for other organisms. As Environmental Science points out, 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.


I believe 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 waste water. Every individual can also be taught how to sustainably grow food and  collect clean water. This will also help address humanity’s nutrient and water needs, resulting in fewer excesses and shortages and fewer deaths. I believe we have to 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.

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 to 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 governments exist, this will mean heavy regulations on polluting corporations, their shrinkage, and eventual bankruptcy if they don’t comply. It will also mean major political changes.  Huge weapons stockpiles need to be dismantled without harming water-ways and education must be considered a right for water security to be possible.

Self-sufficiency, Sustainability, Autonomy, and Collaboration:

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 whatever they please like drilling oil, spilling it, removing mountaintops, and establishing CAFOs and monoculture as the norm, water problems will also persist. For permanent changes to exist, water has to be considered a fundamental human right. It must be considered common property that is used and managed sustainably for current and future generations. Water has to be used efficiently for this to happen.

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 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.

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. This means we have to recycle all of our waste and compost our food waste. But these are actually not difficult tasks. They just differ from some ingrained habits.

Sustainable lifestyles carry many benefits for the Earth and us individually. Using our energy and resources efficiently costs us less money and doing so helps us to avoid the guilt that can come from wasting resources that could save other people. Clean water and nutritional food for every person on Earth is not an unrealistic goal. It is well within our capabilities as human beings that all live on the same planet. But it will take effort, collaboration, education, understanding, time, and love, another life-source.

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

  1. Reblogged this on Cleantech Solutions and commented:
    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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