Planning for 7 Billion: Water Scarcity
This post is part of our Planning for 7 Billion series, highlighting the challenges posed by a quickly growing global population.
Two and a half years ago I celebrated Passover in China, attending Seder with Kehillat Beijing, a congregation composed mostly of Jewish expats living and studying in the Chinese capital. Gathered together to retell the exodus of our ancestors, I remember reaching the point in the story where Moses parts the Red Sea to lead the Jews out of Egypt. This is one of the most well-recognized and controversial narratives in the Haggadah. Moses gains control of the sea to lead the Jews to freedom, ultimately causing the death of many Egyptians. His God-given ability to control the sea is regarded as one of the most awesome of all of his mighty deeds; still, to this day, whether afflicted by violent hurricanes, tsunamis, or droughts, humanity seeks ways to wield power over water.
This idea of the power of water — a simple enough colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid — was a constant theme throughout my six months in China. In many ways water dictated daily life in the People’s Republic. We had to boil all water before drinking it, knowing that even this wouldn’t rid it of all toxics. Hot showers were not guaranteed, and as such, showers were much shorter and fewer between. Nearly every day Chinese newspapers would carry stories about rural protests over water contamination or national disputes over control of major bodies of water.
In China and around the world, access to clean water represents the difference between life and death for millions of people. Particularly during that Passover Seder in Beijing, a city of 20 million and growing, the connection between ancient teachings in the Haggadah and modern day challenges couldn’t be clearer. Water is precious; it is core to the survival of all life on Earth. With a global population expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, how will we ensure access to clean water for all?
With less than 1% of the world’s water currently able to be used for human needs, and approximately 2 billion people currently living in areas of water scarcity, we are facing a water crisis like never before. To those of us living in the U.S. or Canada, this may seem unbelievable, in the most literal sense of the world. Potable water flows from our taps, bathtubs, drinking fountains, and backyard hoses with no end in sight. In severe droughts such as the one much of the U.S. is experiencing this summer, our crops suffer and we cannot water our lawns. Nonetheless, in modern times we have never suffered from large-scale droughts leaving masses of people without water to drink.
Our sense of water security, however, is distorted by the U.S.’ and Canada’s access to plentiful water resources that the rest of the world, including China, does not currently enjoy. Experts predict that 2 out of 3 people on Earth will live in situations of water stress by 2025. The vast majority of those two-thirds of humanity will be living in Africa, Asia or South America, where “water wars” are already underway.
Perhaps the most ambitious national plan to ensure access to water resources is China’s South-North Water Transfer Project. This multi-decade project will be the largest water infrastructure project ever undertaken. The main portion of the project is redirecting water from the southern Yangtze River to the more northern Yellow River and Hai River to feed the region’s rapidly urbanizing population. But the impacts of the massive construction project will be widespread and may do more harm than good, including relocating millions of rural Chinese citizens, raising the cost of water to prohibitively levels, and risking draining the Yangtze River dry. The size of the project and its potential impacts, both helpful and harmful, are indicative of the dire nature of the water scarcity crisis in the region – and the enormous lengths governments will go to gain a leg up in the battle for the world’s finite water resources.
The solution to our global water crisis goes beyond bringing water from one region to another; it involved integrated approaches to watershed management, ecosystem restoration, and family planning, in order to lessen the burden on countries with booming populations. It will also require scaling up access to local wells and water sources. The privatization of water resources, a trend in the international economic development community which instead restricts locals’ access to water in their community, has led to disastrous results in low-GDP and low-income countries such as Bolivia and India. Water belongs to no one or everyone; it is not a commodity that can be “owned” by any corporation.
I am privileged to have been born in the United States, a country where I can drink water straight from the tap and do not have to travel outside the comfort of my home to bathe (the Western bathroom – a room devoted to lavish water use!). But the strain imposed by 7 billion people means that every day, while I enjoy those luxuries, others do not – and never will. The global community, led by the U.S. and other industrialized nations, must protect what finite water resources we have while also taking steps to expand access in local communities abroad by dedicating funds to build wells and invest in water filtration and distribution infrastructure. As Moses’ actions taught us, water can be our liberator or our destroyer. Let us choose the former.