Andreas Späth

Let’s face it, we’re living on a drying planet

2016-02-22 12:44

Andreas Wilson-Späth

What is one of the first things astronomers look for in their search for life on other planets? That’s right, water. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that water is absolutely crucial to the evolution of living organisms.

Life requires water – at least life as we know it. And on earth we’ve been spoilt with the stuff. It’s the defining characteristic of our planet. It flows from our taps whenever we need it.

But that’s never been the case for everyone, of course. Access to clean, healthy drinking water is a massive problem for many people, especially in the developing world.

As the ongoing fiasco in Flint, Michigan illustrates, it’s a growing problem in industrialised countries as well. The 100 000 or so citizens of this middling Middle American city have recently discovered that they’ve been exposed to dangerously corrosive and contaminated water for months.

As bad as we know it is, the global drinking water situation may actually be even worse. A new paper just published by a pair of Dutch researchers suggests that previous estimates of worldwide water shortages represent significant underestimates.

Earlier investigations have tended to focus on annual water scarcity statistics, often neglecting the large seasonal variations that are common in many regions. The new study evaluates the availability of so-called ‘blue water’ – that’s fresh ground and surface water – on a finer, monthly time-scale. Here are some of the results:

- As would be expected, high water scarcity typically occurs in areas of low rainfall, high population density and intensive irrigation agriculture. Where consumption exceeds availability, the results are increasingly evident in falling groundwater tables, reduced river flow and shrinking lakes.

- A massive 4 billion people (i.e. two-thirds of the world’s entire population) experience conditions of severe water scarcity during at least one month per year. One billion of them live in India, 900 million in China and most of the rest in Bangladesh, the USA (surprise!), Pakistan, Nigeria and Mexico.

- A subset of around 500 million people, the majority of them in India, Pakistan, Egypt, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, face severe water scarcity all year round.

- Of most relevance for us is the fact that on all of the maps presented in the new paper, much of Southern Africa stands out as a region of year-round, severe blue water scarcity.

Think about all of that next time you open a tap and simply assume that clean, drinkable water will flow from it.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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