Back to Square One
According to the US Drought Monitor Map, released last week by South Dakota State University, many American cities—including Atlanta, GA; Dallas, TX; Phoenix, AZ; and Oklahoma City, OK—are situated smack dab in the middle of a drought belt. Indeed, much of the western US appears to be headed in the same direction. The maps reveal—in vivid color—the swathe of severe-to-extreme drought conditions that cut across much of the American South and Southwest. And these cities aren’t alone. A second map, this one from the World Resource Institute (WRI), shows that many of the world’s largest cities are sitting uneasily in the crosshairs of extreme weather change and water scarcity. And if climate change models hold true, these urban centers and megacities can expect conditions to only get worse.
And here’s a taste of what we can look forward to (courtesy of 8020vision.com):
- By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in conditions of absolute water scarcity, and 65% of the world’s population will be water stressed.
- In the US, 21% of irrigation is achieved by pumping groundwater at rates that exceed the water supplies ability to recharge.
- The US is the largest exporter of wheat to the world, but it takes 1,000 tons of water to grow 1 ton of wheat.
- Lake Mead (the source of 95% of water for Las Vegas) will be dry in the next four to ten years.
- The Ogallala aquifer—which stretches across eight states and accounts for 40% of water used in Texas—is expected to experience a 52% volume reduction between 2010 and 2060.
We all know that the world’s cities are ill prepared to handle the vagaries of extreme climate conditions and exponential population growth, but we seem to be at a loss as to how fund and implement the changes needed. And the stakes are high. During times of severe instability, when all resource management is a challenge, water scarcity is not just a financial issue or a political question, it can mean the difference between life and death. That may seem like a melodramatic statement, but the UN and other international organizations have been sounding a similar clarion call for the last several years.
Most recently, a June 2011 study released by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN (FAO) released (“Climate Change, Water and Food Security”) argues that water scarcity in the Mediterranean, Americas, Australia, and southern Africa will have an immediate and severe impact on global food production. And a 2009 study by UNESCO substantiates this claim, revealing “water scarcity may limit food production and supply, putting pressure on food prices and increasing countries’ dependence on food imports”. Other predicted impacts: regional food shortages, increased fertilization costs, increased energy costs, and “possible financial speculation” leading to a steep increase in food prices.
This combination of inadequate water supplies and decreasing water quality is already negatively impacting not just food production, but industrial facilities, international trade, and diplomatic relations. How long before we see scenarios similar to what brought down ancient Angkor played out all across the globe? (See sidebar, “Ancient Cities, Modern Problems”.) And considering the strong connection between water and energy, we can assume that the impact of water scarcity will only be magnified and exponentially expanded once power generation and delivery begin to be effected by water shortages. As such, it’s not a stretch to say that when it comes to water scarcity, we might well be stuck with a one-way ticket to a futuristic nightmare.
So what to do? In a blog for Switchboard (the National Resources Defense Council Staff Blog), Kaid Benfield discusses the issue of urban growth, smart cities, and water scarcity in an entry titled “Reconciling cities with water scarcity”.
Benfield believes that the first step is to help our cities expand intelligently, with an eye on efficiency and sustainable water use. For cities, this means implementing both increased housing density—EPA research shows that building 1,000 new homes at 8 units per acre instead of 4 can “save as much as 27 million cubic feet of runoff per year”—and insuring that new (and existing) residential and commercial properties come equipped with built-in water efficient technologies.
Which brings us back to the solution we’ve been touting all along: water efficiency. It may not be the end of the world as we know it, but even if the 2012 doomsday cultists and ancient Mayan calendar enthusiasts are proven wrong, there’s no denying that as our global water scarcity crisis expands and explodes, the future’s looking rather grim. As such, our best—and perhaps only—option is to start a rigorous, well-funded course of smart, efficient water resource management.
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Water Efficiency magazine and Distributed Energy magazine