Recently, NASA satellite images were released showing that the world’s biggest supplies of underground water, an important source of H20, are depleting at lightning-fast rates.
The satellite data indicates that a third of our biggest aquifers, critical for the world water supply, are at critically low levels and drying up.
The 10-year study shows that 21 of Earth’s 37 biggest aquifers, important freshwater resources, are losing more water than is being replaced. The problem is global. Freshwater is drying up in countries such as the United States, France, China, and Libya.
Underground aquifers supply slightly over two-thirds of humans’ worldwide freshwater. This natural resource becomes increasingly vital in drought-hit areas such as California, which could get almost 100 percent of its fresh water from them by this year’s end.
The underground water source in biggest trouble is the Arabian Aquifer, which over 60 million people rely on. It was followed by the Indus Basin located in India and Pakistan.
Two new studies led by UC Irvine using data from NASA Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellites show that civilization is rapidly draining some of its largest groundwater basins, yet there is little to no accurate data about how much water remains in them.
The result is that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out, the researchers conclude according to findings in Water Resources Research.
“Available physical and chemical measurements are simply insufficient,” said UCI professor and principal investigator Jay Famiglietti, who is also the senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Given how quickly we are consuming the world’s groundwater reserves, we need a coordinated global effort to determine how much is left.”
The studies are the first to characterise groundwater losses via data from space, using readings generated by NASA’s twin GRACE satellites that measure dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which is affected by the weight of water.
For the first paper, researchers examined the planet’s 37 largest aquifers between 2003 and 2013. The eight worst off were classified as overstressed, with nearly no natural replenishment to offset usage. Another five aquifers were found, in descending order, to be extremely or highly stressed, depending upon the level of replenishment in each — still in trouble but with some water flowing back into them.
The most overburdened are in the world’s driest areas, which draw heavily on underground water. Climate change and population growth are expected to intensify the problem.
“What happens when a highly stressed aquifer is located in a region with socioeconomic or political tensions that can’t supplement declining water supplies fast enough?” asked the lead author on both studies, Alexandra Richey, who conducted the research as a UCI doctoral student. “We’re trying to raise red flags now to pinpoint where active management today could protect future lives and livelihoods.”
The research team — which included co-authors from NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Taiwan University and UC Santa Barbara — found that the Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people, is the most overstressed in the world.
The Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan is the second-most overstressed, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa is third. California’s Central Valley, utilised heavily for agriculture and suffering rapid depletion, was slightly better off but still labeled highly stressed in the first study.
“As we’re seeing in California right now, we rely much more heavily on groundwater during drought,” Famiglietti said. “When examining the sustainability of a region’s water resources, we absolutely must account for that dependence.”
As California experiences the fourth year of one of the most severe droughts in its history, Famiglietti also warned in an LA Times editorial in March that the state has about one year of water left.
In the article Famiglietti, who is also a professor at University of California at Irvine, called for a more “forward-looking process” to deal with the state’s dwindling water supply. He said the state had about one year of water in reservoir storage and the backup supply, groundwater, was low.
In a companion paper published today in the same journal, the scientists conclude that the total remaining volume of the world’s usable groundwater is poorly known, with often widely varying estimates, but is likely far less than rudimentary estimates made decades ago.
By comparing their satellite-derived groundwater loss rates to what little data exists on groundwater availability, they found major discrepancies in projected “time to depletion.” In the overstressed Northwest Sahara Aquifer System, for example, this fluctuated between 10 and 21,000 years.
“We don’t actually know how much is stored in each of these aquifers. Estimates of remaining storage might vary from decades to millennia,” Richey said. “In a water-scarce society, we can no longer tolerate this level of uncertainty, especially since groundwater is disappearing so rapidly.”
The study notes that the dearth of groundwater is already leading to significant ecological damage, including depleted rivers, declining water quality and subsiding land.
Groundwater aquifers are typically located in soil or deeper rock layers beneath Earth’s surface. The depth and thickness of many make it tough and costly to drill to or otherwise reach bedrock and learn where the moisture bottoms out. But it has to be done, according to the authors.
“I believe we need to explore the world’s aquifers as if they had the same value as oil reserves,” Famiglietti said. “We need to drill for water the same way that we drill for other resources.”
Five of the World’s Lakes are drying up
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, more than 60 million people live in the Aral region – up fourfold since 1960.
As the lake began to dry out rapidly, Kazakhstan built a dam between the northern and southern parts of the sea, directing all the water from the Syr Darya into the northern part of the sea. This doomed the lake’s southern portion, but that was deemed to be too difficult to save by country officials.
Since the construction of the dam, water levels rebounded some, but the region’s fisheries collapsed and public health advisories were issued as dust from the dry lake bed contaminated the soil.
Lake Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on Earth, which is located in northwestern Iran, near the Turkish border, is also shrinking fast and is subject to drying out entirely within the next two years if actions are not taken to save it, according to an Associated Press article.
Waning nearly 80 percent, down to 400 square miles, in the past decade, rocks that were once deep underwater sit at the surface, AP stated.
Previously a popular tourist destination and migration point for numerous birds, including flamingos, pelicans and gulls, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and his cabinet, promised the Iranian people that he would work to revive the lake.
Foreign experts and scientists are being brought into the lake’s region, according to AP, to attempt to figure out the best solution for saving the lake and thus reviving the region’s economic and environmental atmosphere.
The lowest point on Earth, named one of the natural wonders of the world, is dying, the Associated Press reported.
The Dead Sea, commonly called the Salt Sea, borders Jordan to the east and Palestine and Israel to the west. It is divided into two sections – the northern and southern basins. However, the two basins do not connect to one another.
On the southern basin, the waters are actually rising as flooding threatens the well-being of the ecosystem. This portion of the sea has become an extraction site by many chemical companies, who extract lucrative minerals from the lake. Taking chemicals out of the lake leaves tons of salt on the bottom of the sea, causing the water levels to rise nearly 8 inches per year, according to the AP.
However, on the northern basin of the Dead Sea, the water levels are instead dropping.
As Jordan, Israel and Syria all redirected the Jordan River and its tributaries for drinking water purposes, the flow to the Dead Sea has been drastically reduced, the AP stated.
In an effort to help save the sea’s waters, the World Bank is considering channeling water through a canal from the Red Sea; however, the project would cost billions of dollars so it is unlikely that this solution would be plausible anytime soon, according to the AP.
Declining to only two percent of its normal surface area over the last five years, Hawaii’s Lake Waiau has also become almost eradicated. Fluctuating between 1.2 to 1.7 acres, the lake began quickly disappearing in early 2010. By last September, it had already been reduced to just 0.03 of an acre, according to the USGS.
According to detailed research by Idaho State University’s Geography Professor Donna Delparte, prior to 2010, the lake’s maximum depth was 3 meters. Today, it is less than 1 foot deep, and the current volume is less than one percent of its pre-2010 value.
The Office of Mauna Kea Management and the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Division of Forestry and Wildlife are trying to figure out the exact reasons. The state’s Mauna Kea visitor center weather station shows that the drought in Hawaii, which began in 2008 and intensified in 2010, may be the culprit, other factors such as permafrost are also being considered.
5) Lake Cachuma
Concerns in Santa Barbara County are also mounting, as the county’s main water source, the Cachuma Lake, is rapidly shrinking. For the Goleta Water District in particular, this poses special challenges. Goleta — which declared a Stage III drought emergency in May — lacks the infrastructure necessary to pump well water to about 23 agricultural customers who operate orchards on the very west end of the district. These growers consume about 200 acre-feet a year and are equipped to take only untreated water from Lake Cachuma. Without any flow from the lake, their circumstances are dire.
Nasa data shows that water storage has been in steady decline in California since at least 2002, before the drought began.
Scientists are working to determine what role climate change has played in California’s drought. A study by Stanford researchers in March showed that high temperatures increase the risk of drought conditions. Last year, two research teams said in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that they could not definitively pin the drought on climate change.
A third team, which includes a Stanford researcher from the previous study, said that rare atmospheric conditions are exacerbating the drought.
Supplying approximately 200,000 people across the Southern California county, officials and residents are waiting for the rain to come, as the water supply available today from the lake is under 20 percent.
6) Lake Mead
Nevada’s Lake Mead — which sits down river from Lake Powell on the Colorado River — has been supplying southern Nevada and Las Vegas with about 90 per cent of its usable water.
When Lake Mead began to fill in 1935, it was destined to be the largest reservoir in the United States and has been the lifeblood for growth in the southwest. It gave birth to Las Vegas because without it the desert gambling Mecca would never have been built.
The lake, which has been over politicised and given life to millions people for almost 75 years, has now seen its total volume drop by more than 60 percent. Persistant drought and increased demand have wreaked havoc on water levels, sometimes draining three feet of depth in a month. Now, the lake is listed at about 1,100 feet above sea level, a foot below the previous all-time low set in 1937. With demand not letting up and climate change warming things up, it doesn’t look good for Lake Mead. Water managers have the option of releasing water from Lake Powell to raise Lake Mead, but that doesn’t solve the problem of not having enough water in the system in the first place.
However, a local journalist’s op-ed said that what it is really happening that the “water scare” is “a major political snafu that happened during the original allocation of the lake before 1935. Government officials over promised the involved states allocations and now they are using the visible water line as a political tool to scare voters into believing the lake is going to dry up”.
The journalist also pointed to the fact that when it comes to Lake Mead, people start understanding two things: “First, the cycle of nature and “second, the politicians don’t know science or how to read a historical scientific chart” because the snow each winter in the Rockies feeds the Colorado River, which feeds Lake Mead, which feeds the desert southwest. And if the stats are correct Nevada is due for another 100-year flood”.
What are we doing?
With the current state of affairs, the crisis of our fresh water is due to poor management globally, whether it is in agriculture, industry, and domestic use. We hear every day about the need to conserve freshwater. While that goal seems sensible, we don’t exactly know if humankind is making any progress unless there’s a reliable way to quantify how much water nations use.
Luckily we have now. Engineers Arjen Hoekstra and Mesfin Mekonnen at the University of Twente in the Netherlands calculated in 2012 the water footprint of the world’s countries as well as per capita water consumption in many nations. Basically, they added three quantities: the consumption of rainwater (the so-called green water footprint); the use of ground- and surface water (blue); and the volume of gray water polluted (and therefore depleted). The specific calculations can be found in their online paper as well as its supplemental material.
Overall, the world is using 9,087 billion cubic meters of water per year. China, India and the U.S. consumed the highest annual totals: 1,207 billion, 1,182 billion and 1,053 billion cubic meters, respectively, followed by Brazil at 482 billion. But the water consumed per person in these and other countries varies considerably, due primarily to higher living standards or widespread waste among consumers. The U.S. had the world’s highest per capita water footprint, at 2,842 cubic meters per annum. Meat consumption accounts for 30 percent of the American figure, and sugar consumption is responsible for another 15 percent, Hoekstra says. In India, where few people consume much meat, the individual footprint is only 1,089 cubic meters a year. The global annual average per capita is 1,385 cubic meters, according to the study.
The Women, the Poor and the Coloured
The people hardest hit by the water crisis are in developing countries — places it is easy for many world leaders (and the rest of us) to overlook. More than one out of six people lack access to safe drinking water, namely 1.1 billion people, and more than two out of six lack adequate sanitation, namely 2.6 billion people (Estimation for 2002, by the WHO/UNICEF JMP, 2004). 3900 children die every day from water borne diseases (WHO 2004). One must know that these figures represent only people with very poor conditions. In reality, these figures should be much higher, according to Water World Council.
Like our economic, food, health and climate crises, women, persons of colour and/or poor, is the hardest hit. According to the United Nations, a poor person living in a slum pays five to 10 times more for water than wealthy people living in the same city. Women disproportionately affected because they are the ones responsible for getting water each day in most developing countries — work that often means hours of difficult labor under dangerous conditions.
Reliance of wealthy nations on costly technological remedies to overcome their water problems and deliver water services does little to abate the underlying threats, producing a false sense of security in industrialised nations and perilous water insecurity in the developing world.
One reoccurring issue is the attitudes of many businesses towards serving the poor. While business attitudes on investing in poor areas varied from country to country, they were generally conservative. Firms believe it is too difficult and costly to serve the poor. Companies also lack incentives to enter harder markets with uncertain consumer demand.
Unreliable power supply has also become a major barrier in the water sector, causing disruptions in service provision and inhibiting expansion to energy-poor areas because energy is the single largest element of operating costs, placing a large burden on the budgets of water companies. The looming shortages may be aggravated by an 85 per cent increase in water demand from the energy sector by 2035, the International Energy Agency anticipates.
Published in its Global Risks 2015 report released during this year’s WEF’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, the WEF report survey reveals a belief that water crises pose the greatest risk in terms of global impact. This places it ahead of hazards such as the spread of infectious diseases, the failure to adapt to climate change and interstate conflict, prompted by the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL). The report also projects that, by 2030, the global demand for water will exceed sustainable supplies by 40 per cent.
Within the next fifty years, the world population will increase by another 40 to 50 %. Today, nearly 80% of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. By 2050, the report says, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. In countries such as India and regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, urban centres are predicted to expand up to five times.
Massive investment in water technology enables rich nations to offset high stressor levels without remedying their underlying causes, whereas less wealthy nations remain vulnerable.
A similar lack of precautionary investment jeopardises biodiversity, with habitats associated with 65% of continental discharge classified as moderately to highly threatened. Efforts to abate fresh water degradation through highly engineered solutions are effective at reducing the impact of threats but at a cost that can be an economic burden and often out of reach for developing nations.
With urbanization and changes in lifestyle, water consumption has increased and will continue to do so. We are also faced with a problem which goes hand in hand with our water scarcity: Food insecurity.
Most of the world’s water supply is currently used in agriculture, according to the UN, with the World Bank predicting that food demand will rise by fifty per cent in the next two decades, as population grows and dietary habits change.
Water withdrawals for irrigation represent 66 % of the total withdrawals and up to 90 % in arid regions, the other 34 % being used by domestic households (10 %), industry (20 %), or evaporated from reservoirs (4 %). (Source: Shiklomanov, 1999)
As the per capita use increases due to changes in lifestyle and as population increases as well, the proportion of water for human use is increasing. This, coupled with spatial and temporal variations in water availability, means that the water to produce food for human consumption, industrial processes and all the other uses is becoming scarce.
When evaluating water efficiency, there is much more to the story than simple estimates of how much of the water applied to farm fields is used productively by crops according to the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI).
Typically, we are told that irrigation is only 40 per cent or 50 per cent efficient. But what does an estimate of 40 per cent irrigation efficiency really mean? Usually, it means that only 40 per cent of the water applied is needed for crop use while the remaining 60 per cent is lost. Where does the 60 per cent excess water go? Is it all lost or wasted? That question can only be answered by scientifically based water accounting, they said.
SIWI speculates that some of the 60 per cent of the water not used by the crop likely runs off the farmer’s field and into a drain or stream, from which the water can again be withdrawn for irrigation or some other use. The rest of the excess water applied to the field often percolates to groundwater, where again it is a resource at times or places where other sources of water are inadequate. In such cases, improving local irrigation “efficiency” reduces the water available for use by other farmers, or the amount of water flowing downstream, without saving “lost water”. There are also cases where some of the excess water delivered to farm fields is lost to evaporation or the water flows to a saline sink.
Some countries also export significant quantities of water in the form of food and products, complicating their own water balance, as shown in Scientific American‘s June 2012 Graphic Science column.
The Earth’s limited supplies of fresh water and irreplaceable biodiversity are vulnerable to human mismanagement of watersheds and waterways. It is now critical that increased water use by humans does not only reduce the amount of water available for industrial and agricultural development but has a profound effect on aquatic ecosystems and their dependent species. Environmental balances are disturbed and cannot play their regulating role anymore.
Rivers maintain unique biotic resources and provide critical water supplies to people. Multiple environmental stressors, such as agricultural runoff, pollution and invasive species, threaten rivers that serve 80 percent of the world’s population as well as the biodiversity of 65 percent of the world’s river habitats putting thousands of aquatic wildlife species at risk.
Water, air and land pollution together are main contributors to the reduction of water quality. Sewage, oil discharges from industries, waste dumping into water bodies, radioactive waste from mining activities as well as dirty water fro sanitation work in hospitals, hotels, oil companies, mining, schools and restaurants all end up polluting our waters. Water contamination and wastage from some mining industries through Hydraulic Fracturing (fracking) has also been a worry for many people.
Trees help prevent excessive evaporation or water bodies. They also enrich and condition the climate. This means the destruction of forests by fire, logging and farming has exposed soil moisture and water bodies to the sun’s intense heat, leaving them dried out.
All over the world, places that used to have lots of rainfall do not have enough again and dry places suddenly are getting colder and wetter. Both cases result in clean water shortage because less rainfall means less water, and excessive rains cause flooding and which brings all sorts of debris and destroy water treatment installations.
In addition, lack of comparable investments to conserve biodiversity, regardless of national wealth, help to explain accelerating declines in freshwater species.
Water privatisation has been politically hot since Britain became the first and only country to sell off its entire water industry in the 1980s. As a matter of principle and the belief that water, which is essential for life, should be publicly controlled and not run by a company that has its shareholders as its top priority.
The current Chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, the largest producer of food products in the world, believes that the answer to global water issues is privatisation.
A record of large bottling companies like Nestlé having a track record of creating shortages:
Large multinational beverage companies are usually given water-well privileges (and even tax breaks) over citizens because they create jobs, which is apparently more important to the local governments than water rights to other taxpaying citizens. These companies such as Coca Cola and Nestlé (which bottles suburban Michigan well-water and calls it Poland Spring) suck up millions of gallons of water, leaving the public to suffer with any shortages.
However, the tide of water privatisation has now turned. Many cities that rushed to sign 20-year or longer concessions with water companies in expectation of clean water at a socially acceptable cost have chosen to terminate agreements and return urban water provision to public control, according to The Guardian.
A report by the Transnational Institute (TNI), Public Services International Research Unit and the Multinational Observatory suggests that 180 cities and communities in 35 countries, including Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Paris, Accra, Berlin, La Paz, Maputo and Kuala Lumpur, have all “re-municipalised” their water systems in the past decade. More than 100 of the “returnees” were in the US and France, 14 in Africa and 12 in Latin America. Those in developing countries tended to be bigger cities than those in richer countries.
There is more waste water generated and dispersed today than at any other time in the history of our planet. Humans are a lot more careless in recent time, and we waste more water than ever before. This has placed a lot of pressure on the same amount of water that we have.
Water stress results from an imbalance between water use, water resources and its management. Water stress causes deterioration of fresh water resources in terms of quantity (aquifer over-exploitation, dry rivers, etc.) and quality (eutrophication, organic matter pollution, saline intrusion, etc.)
Protecting the world’s freshwater resources requires diagnosing threats over a broad range of scales, from global to local. Pressure on fresh water resources looks to be the main global threat in the next decade, but the world is failing to mitigate the risk and avoid a crisis, according to a survey of leaders from business, government, universities, international organisations and NGOs according to non-profit foundation the World Economic Forum (WEF).
As our precious natural resource for survival of our species is becoming scarce, tensions among different users will intensify, both at the national and international level. In the absence of strong institutions and agreements, changes within a basin can lead to transboundary tensions as over 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries.
When major projects proceed without regional collaboration, have become a point of conflicts, heightening regional instability. The Parana La Plata, the Aral Sea, the Jordan and the Danube may serve as examples. Due to the pressure on the Aral Sea, half of its water has disappeared, representing 2/3 of its volume. 36 000 km2 of marine grounds are now recovered by salt as The Santos Republic reported.
If regional economic development and cultural preservation is strengthened by states cooperating of water, instead of resorting towards war, but build a trend towards cooperation and peace, populations will have a chance of survival.
When it comes to agriculture, reducing those water losses through improvements in irrigation technology would indeed save water. But we must first conduct a careful water accounting exercise to identify the scale of such opportunities, SIWI reported.
Water World Council recommends that doing changes in our food habits, for example, may reduce the problem, knowing that growing 1kg of potatoes requires only 100 litres of water, whereas 1 kg of beef requires 13 000 litres.
Water should be recognized as a great priority and that decision-makers at all levels must be implicated, according to Water World Council. One of the Millenium Development Goals is to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and sanitation. To that aim, several measures should be taken:
- guarantee the right to water;
- decentralise the responsibility for water;
- develop know-how at the local level;
- increase and improve financing;
- evaluate and monitor water resources.
The WEF survey suggest that a water crisis, along with extreme weather events and natural disasters, is among the problems the world is least prepared to deal with.
World population growth – coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation – will result in an increasing demand for water and will have serious consequences not only on the environment. It ever more important that governments, development agencies, policy makers, business groups, NGOs and others understand that they all have critical roles to play in creating the conditions that will continue the survival of our world. We all must work together to craft a set of approaches that delivers equitable value to assure global water security for both humans and freshwater biodiversity.
Overcoming this global crisis of water insecurity for both humans and biodiversity requires deliberate prevention of impairment rather than simply offsetting threats once they arise. It is more cost effective to ensure that river systems are not impaired in the first place. This could be accomplished through better land use management, better irrigation techniques and emphasis on protecting ecosystems and the life forms within them.
In remote areas with low value for both human water security and biodiversity threat, preserving critical habitat and ecosystem processes may be the single best strategy to contain future risk. Across the developed world existing human water security infrastructure will require re-engineering to protect biodiversity while retaining existing human water services. Across the developing world, establishing human water security for the first time while preserving biodiversity constitutes a dual challenge, best met through an approach known as “integrated water resource management.”
Water is wasted and critically depleting globally, with nearly 80 percent of the world’s population and 65% biodiversity of aquatic wildlife species at risk. As long as people continue to be in denial and apathetic, still believing access to water is an obvious and natural thing, and not facing the reality that our civilisation and biodiversity is now threatened by water scarcity, our world and our very own survival will be questionable.
Lady Michelle Jennifer Santos is the Chief Visionary Founder and Owner of TheSantosRepublic. A motivational speaker, she also specialises in high finance, commodities, strategy and geopolitics. Her Twitter is @mj_santos and Facebook/ladymjsantos
You can follow TSR on Twitter: santosrepublic and Facebook/TheSantosRepublic.
- Alexandra S. Richey, Brian F. Thomas, Min-Hui Lo, James S. Famiglietti, Sean Swenson, Matthew Rodell. Uncertainty in global groundwater storage estimates in a total groundwater stress framework. Water Resources Research, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017351
- Alexandra S. Richey, Brian F. Thomas, Min-Hui Lo, John T. Reager, James S. Famiglietti, Katalyn Voss, Sean Swenson, Matthew Rodell.Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE. Water Resources Research, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017349