Forget oil. The human race can't survive more than a few days without fresh water, which is slowly disappearing and will soon become the most precious commodity on earth.
Approximately 97 percent of the earth's water is salt water, unsuitable for human consumption. Another 2 percent is frozen in glaciers and ice caps, primarily in Antarctica. The remaining 1 percent is all that's available for residential, agricultural, industrial and community use, including keeping our cars washed, our public water fountains bubbling and our golf courses green.
According to a United Nations estimate, 2.7 billion people will be living in countries with a severe water scarcity by the year 2025. Outbreaks of waterborne diseases, such as cholera, will plague these nations. Presently, more children in third world countries die from diarrhea, 1.5 million preschoolers per year, as a result of drinking contaminated water, than from any other condition.
Another United Nations study has determined that approximately 1,400 square miles of land have turned into desert conditions each year over the last decade. This is an increase of 850 square miles per year from the previous decade. By 2025, the U.N. estimates two-thirds of arable land in Africa will disappear, along with one-third of Asia's and one-fourth of South America's.
As the human population expands, the environment becomes more stressed. Trees are destroyed for firewood, grasslands are overgrazed, fields are over-farmed (losing their nutrients), and water becomes scarcer and dirtier. This drives more people into cities and reduces quality agricultural output.
Scientists at the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution and NASA have been studying the Amazon rain forest through a combination of ground-based and space-based tools. They've measured rainfall, soil moisture, leaf characteristics and canopy features. They've concluded that there has been a "decrease in soil water and dehydrated leaves over time" and have labeled the tropical rain forest to be in a drought condition.
The USA has its share of the same problem. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey recently announced that the American West is in a severe drought that could be the biggest in 500 years, with the Colorado River basin in worse condition than it was during the Dust Bowl. The Colorado River is an important water source for millions of people across the West, including Southern California. The river has been in a drought for a decade, producing the lowest flow on record. In the Dust Bowl years (1930-1937), it had an annual average flow of 10.4 million acre-feet of water at Lees Ferry, Arizona. In 2001-2003, the annual flow was only 5.4 million acre-feet.
Underground aquifers are being tapped at alarming rates. The Ogallala Aquifer covers nearly 200,000 square miles from South Dakota to the Texas panhandle. It provides water to one-fifth of the irrigated land in this country. At present, it's being depleted at 14 times faster than the normal process of restoration.
Air pollution from the industrial states of Ohio and Pennsylvania has caused rainfall as acidic as lemon juice to fall on West Virginia and upstate New York, virtually killing many lakes. As the population expands in southern states, adequate supplies of water for agriculture and residential use have dwindled.
Toxins such as mercury, dioxins and PCBs from coal-burning power plants and waste incinerators are sent airborne and fall into waterways. High mercury levels in lakes and streams have forced health officials in 41 states to issue advisories warning the population to avoid fish caught in these areas.
In the not too distant future, the lack of fresh water will become a major dilemma for mankind. Unfortunately, this is the sort of problem that tends to sneak up on people until it reaches the crisis stage. Long-term creeping problems require long-term sweeping solutions. It's also a global catastrophe requiring a global remedy.
I do my part. I never water my lawn or wash my car, and only bathe during a full moon.