Water A Disappearing Economic Input

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From Site Selection magazine, September 2000


Freshwater is the lubricant that fuels development. And that means development is in trouble:

"Forget oil. In the 21st century water will be king. Already, a supertanker full of water from a pure source . . . is worth more than any supertanker full of oil to thirsty populations in Asia," says U.S. Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga.)

Water makes up some 70 percent of Earth's surface, but only 3 percent is freshwater (and less than 1 percent is readily accessible). Simply put, water is the source of life (the human body is some 70 percent water). Yet, people around the world are using water faster than it can be replaced -- "unsustainably mining what was once a renewable resource," say researchers.

As populations increase, so do freshwater demands. Unfortunately, the freshwater supply is static. As water demands grow, countries are beginning to face the fact that their freshwater supplies are limited, and increasingly polluted water supplies are compounding the problem. Rising water demands for agriculture, domestic consumption and industry are spurring battles between both geographic areas and usage types.

Today, 31 nations face chronic freshwater shortages. In 2025, 48 nations are expected to face shortages affecting more than 2.8 billion people -- 35 percent of the world's projected population. Many developed countries currently face water tensions, including Belgium, Poland, Singapore, the UK, and the United States. Regions within many large nations also face water stress or scarcity.

Disputes Rage Worldwide

India's states, for example, are embroiled in water-rights and dam disputes pitting one state's interests against another's. "Water disputes, if not attended to, will become a major headache for Indian society's stability," says Mohan Katarki, a Karnataka state representative.

With 22 percent of the world's population but only 7 percent of all freshwater runoff, China is already experiencing chronic problems. China's freshwater supplies are estimated to be capable of sustaining 650 million people, roughly half the population. Critical water shortages abound. Beijing's water table is falling roughly 5 feet (1.5 m.) a year. And the Yellow River is so overtaxed that for the past decade its waters have dried up before reaching the Bohai Sea for an average of 70 days a year.

U.S. groundwater use is running 25 percent higher than its replenishment rate. Some areas are depleting aquifers even more quickly. The U.S. and Mexican governments are trying to resolve a dispute over the hundreds of thousand of acre-feet of water that Mexico has over-utilized from the Rio Grande. (An acre-foot is enough water to cover an acre to a depth of one foot -- 325,851 gallons/1.238 million liters.) U.S. states are battling over river-basin and river rights, and seemingly every state has a farm-vs.-city water-usage war. Outdoor watering restrictions have become the norm, rallying homeowners' cry for a fairer distribution between industry use and water use.

A Disappearing Economic Input

Freshwater is an economic input -- just as important as infrastructure or intellectual capital. Industry is water-intensive. With regulations, cost cutting process redesigns and recycling, water-intensive industries have made impressive water-usage reductions. Consider that U.S. industrial water use declined over 33 percent during 1950-90, while industrial output nearly quadrupled.

But developing nations are clearly less efficient. In China, for example, 30 to 73 cubic yards (23 to 56 cubic meters) of water are needed to produce a ton of steel; the averages in Germany, Japan and the USA are less than eight cubic yards (six cubic meters). Similarly, a ton of paper produced in China requires around 585 cubic yards (450 cubic meters) of water, twice as much as in European countries.

Without better management of scarce water supplies, sustainable development will be impossible.

Until taps actually run dry, most people will continue to take freshwater access for granted, incredulous at the idea that water is more valuable than oil. Of course, these are the same people who already today routinely pay more for a gallon of fancy spring water than they would for a gallon of gasoline.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), October 12, 2000

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