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Is Water the New Oil?

Buzzle Staff Feb 26, 2020
As global warming looms, experts fear that dwindling water resources will become the new political source of conflict, replacing oil.
"Water, water every where, nor any drop to drink." ―Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Water is political.

If you don't think so, think about using precious oil to feed your lawn or take a shower. Imagine oil running down the drain from your kitchen tap, flushing away in your toilet, gallons ebbing away as your clothes swirl in oil. Send your kids through the oil-sprinkler in the summer, or soak in a warm tub of petroleum to soothe your aches in the winter.
You get the idea! And while only designer bottled water is currently more expensive than oil (especially when one considers the enormous water usage involved in converting petroleum into that plastic bottle used... to hold your drinking water), experts say that is about to change. Sooner than we thought it would.
The earth's population has more than doubled since just 1950, while our water use has tripled. And we're not going to stop growing any time soon. It's a bleak picture for the future, say water experts, and those authorities say that the future is already here.
The National Climate Data Center (http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/research/) reported that higher than average temperatures were recorded in almost 40 states for the month of September 2007, and 78% of southeastern states in the United States faced drought conditions.
A quarter of the area experienced 'exceptional' drought conditions, the most extreme level of drought. Some areas faced the driest year since record-keeping began in 1878.
Drought conditions also contributed to the recent southern California fires, which combined with fierce Santa Ana winds destroyed over 1,500 homes and almost 500,000 acres.
Most global warming predictions involve the slow rising of the world's oceans, effectively putting some of us under water. Yet, what water experts say is that despite the world's 'wetter' status, the future of freshwater is in jeopardy. Warmer temperatures have reduced mountain snow caps which provide a majority of potable water to many regions of the world.
Steven Chu, director of the research lab Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, spoke with reporters at The New York Times Magazine. According to Chu, the Sierra Nevada snow pack, which provides most of the water to northern California, is at its lowest level in 20 years. And it will only get worse.
"There's a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster," Chu told the reporters. "And that's in the best scenario."
Other countries face similar problems. Mountaintop snow packs account for 20 - 90% of potable water in various nations, and they are all at all-time low levels.
By the year 2050, the world's population is expected to increase by more than 2.5 billion people, yet, the percentage of available freshwater does not change from year to year. If the total of the world's water were contained in a gallon-sized jug, the supply of fresh, drinkable water would amount to about a tablespoon.
Two-thirds of that tablespoon is bound up in snow packs. And more than half of what is left is diverted to agriculture and industrial production. Meanwhile, we flush our toilets and water our lawns with drinkable water.
That tablespoon is starting to look a lot more valuable. We can live without oil (yes, we can). But humans cannot survive without water. It's that simple.
India and Pakistan, as well as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and others have been in near-constant discord over water-rights issues. Some areas of India face such severe shortages that crimes involving access to water mains are on the rise.
It's difficult to not feel despair when presented with these facts. One can easily envision increasing political wars, border conflicts, violence, etc., due to escalating panic over water. But there are things we can do to at least ease what some see as an inevitable global crisis.
The first necessity is to change the way we think about and use our water. The average American uses about 160 gallons of water per year, while people in the majority of developing world get by on about 25 gallons.
Peter Gleick, from the Pacific Institute, an organization that researches worldwide water usage, tells reporters there are other methods by which we can use recycled water for tasks which now employ fresh, drinkable water, like watering the lawn. "One might say that's a ridiculous use of potable water. In fact, I might say that," says Gleick to The New York Times. "But that's the way we've set it up. And that's going to change, that's got to change, in this century."
Conflicts over where to build dams, how to divert water to agriculture, who gets more water and why, have long been simmering issues, that will only increase as worldwide population increases and water supplies diminish.
Donald Wilhite, a representative of the National Drought Mitigation Center told reporters, "We think of water as an unlimited resource. But what happens when you turn on the tap and it's not there?"
Areas with abundant water supplies (such as Canada and the Great Lakes states of the U.S.) are busily drafting contracts that guarantee them rights or profitable gains over their water.
With only 1% of the world's population and 20% of its potable water, a water-wealthy country like Canada could be in a potentially powerful position as the water crisis advances. The United States would do well to be nice to our northern neighbors. We never know when we'll need to knock on their door to ask for a drink of water.