When I was in high school, I worked for a local environmental advocacy group – canvassing throughout a warren of suburban neighborhoods on the issue of polluted underground aquifers that ran below those neighborhoods. While it was the kind of door to door work usually relegated to impressionable high-energy high school kids, our tight band of scruffy amateur ecologists knew too well that we were the only voices giving shape to the somewhat formless threat the wide variety of everyday runoff pollutants posed to this key regional water supply. Beyond a handful of non-profit organizations, the hard truth was that few people cared about the state of freshwater in an unseen underground aquifer – or the quality of the freshwater coming from any other source for that matter – even if it was being piped right into their homes.
Fast forward to the present day, and it is still difficult to imagine that the plastic bottle toting societies of western civilization can come to grips with the fact that 1 billion people are existing elsewhere without adequate drinking water. To complicate matters, the popular U.S. media outlets are courting the celebrity classes and the political left around the global warming issue – a meaty topic for the anthropocentric among us who believe our species can actually reverse the planet’s natural warming course by altering fossil fuel emissions. Under this backdrop of apathetic hydrated bliss and misdirected eco concern, it is easier to understand how the freshwater scarcity issue – which if not resolved will lead to world war considerably faster than the oceans will rise – can be overlooked.
One could say that a splash is needed – pun being intended – to elevate this topic on the collective minds of the more affluent countries in the world. One organization, Blue Planet Run Foundation, has taken a flashy if not intelligent approach to this challenge. Understanding that a common bond between national and regional cultures exists in the spectacle of sport endurance, (the Olympic games standing as a decent example), Blue Planet Run Foundation recently hosted the first-ever worldwide relay run – a 15,200-mile run around the planet in the name of safe drinking water. The run crossed 16 countries and 3 continents over 95 days and featured Dow as the presenting sponsor – a nice touch in the annals of corporate underwriting.
The Blue Planet Run Foundation believes it can solve the drinking water problem with individual donations – and they lay out the costs of specific projects quite clearly on their web site. But can these projects offer sustainable results in regions where freshwater scarcity has already become endemic to the local ecology? To better understand the scope of the problem, we need to examine the sources, treatments, and distribution methodologies available to the threatened localities.
Freshwater accounts for only 2.5% of the earth’s total water supply, two thirds of which is frozen in ice caps and glaciers. It is drawn from underground sources – springs, aquifers and deeper ancient wells – and from surface sources. There is a hundred times more water in the ground than is in all the world’s rivers and lakes, yet the majority of the water that is used by humans daily comes from surface sources. Contamination of present day surface freshwater has a disturbing domino effect, as the ruined water bleeds into the aquifers and groundwater supplies that humans will need to tap in the future. Developing nations like China and India face a significant challenge as more and more freshwater is contaminated with sewage and industrial/agricultural runoff – as well as naturally occurring chemicals such as arsenic and fluoride.
Sources of safe drinking water are also being depleted at alarming rates as human populations grow faster than the water tables can be replenished. The global human population is growing at a rate of roughly 80 million people a year. Given this pace, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health estimates an “increased demand for freshwater of about 64 million cubic meters a year – an amount equivalent to the entire annual flow rate of the Rhine River.” This population growth is powered by the regions most in need of safe drinking water. China, India, Africa, and the Near East have the highest population growth rates in the world and are increasingly facing water shortages that are certain to cripple their economies and ecologies.
The Johns Hopkins report details the problem further and identifies a likely and unsustainable solution. “Calculations of water stress and water scarcity are based on estimates of a country’s renewable freshwater supplies and do not include water withdrawn from fossil groundwater. Fossil groundwater is essentially a nonrenewable resource: it takes tens of thousands of years for these deep aquifers to replenish themselves. A country may temporarily avoid the effects of water stress by mining its nonrenewable water supplies, but this practice is not sustainable, particularly if the population continues to grow rapidly and per capita demand for freshwater increases.”
Freshwater treatment plants can clear some contaminants but cannot be relied on to salvage water sources that have been exposed to the biological and chemical byproducts of human existence and industry. Groundwater sources generally require less treatment than surface water sources. Desalination technologies can create freshwater, but the process demands the extensive use of energy and produces a highly concentrated brine waste product that must be disposed of properly to avoid significant environmental damage. Given these hindrances, it is unlikely that desalination approaches will offer a sustainable alternative in the coming decades.
The 1 billion people forced to consume inadequate drinking water also face the problem of water distribution. Plumbing is a luxury among populations with abundant freshwater supply. Good distribution requires good infrastructure. Some regions rely on water trucks, while others sell barrels of water at centralized water shops. But the highest growth in distribution methodologies is found in bottled water. Nations that use bottled water often have tap water infrastructures in place. However, according to the National Academy of Sciences, bottled water is on the rise in developing countries: “From 1999-2004 per capita bottled water use doubled in China and tripled in India.” As global demand for bottled water has risen, regions with the most pristine freshwater sources have begun passing legislation and enacting governments to protect their resources. For example, when Nestle Waters struck a deal with Michigan in 2006 to begin extracting bottled water from the Great Lakes – the largest surface water resource on the planet – the agreement was met with stiff resistance from citizens and the legislature and has found its place in the Michigan Supreme Court.
This brings us back to the Blue Planet Run and the need to highlight the drinking water issue in general. The challenges around freshwater sources, treatments, and distribution are mighty, and they expose the root cause of the problem – uncontrolled human population growth. 80 million additional human beings annually cannot be sustained. A relay race or other high-visibility event around this troubling reality is a great idea – however, a greater cause might be found in cross-culture family planning education and the worldwide encouragement of condom usage.