Of all the water on the earth, 97.5 percent is salt water. The polar ice caps and the glaciers hold about 68 percent of this fresh water. Another 31 percent of it is not readily accessible because it is buried deep underground.
Like oil, the problem of adequate water supply can be addressed by a combination of greater efficiency in consumption and the opening of new sources to expand supply. For example, between 1980 and 1995 increased efficiency of use in the United States reduced both total consumption of water (10 percent) and per capita consumption (20 percent). Agricultural irrigation is very inefficient and better irrigation methods are available for those who want to use them.
Or you could move water from surplus areas to deficit areas. In a reversion to ancient governmental practice, the Chinese are building three huge canals to carry fresh water from the Yangtze River to northern China. The canals will end up being more than 700 miles long and will carry 12.7 trillion gallons of water per year.
Only about one-third of total annual run-off water is “caught” by reservoirs and dams; therefore, more dams and reservoirs could catch a lot more water for human use.
Deep drilling for water could tap into the 31 percent of total freshwater that is currently unavailable for human use (as compared to the 1 percent of fresh water that is available).
A much more serious problem is the availability of safe drinking water. About forty percent of the world’s population—most of them peasants in developing countries, 1.5 billion in India and China alone–lack access to modern sanitation systems. What this means in real terms is that people and animals shit upstream from where they get the water in which they bathe, with which they cook, and which they drink. What this means, in turn, is that about 2 million children under the age of five in developing countries die each year from waterborne diseases. As many as 76 million people are going to die of water-borne diseases by 2020, according to one projection. This is because 1.1 billion people don’t have a regular supply of safe water for drinking and 2.4 billion people have no access to sanitation systems. As a result, there are about 4 billion cases of diarrhea per year.
How to control this source of illness and how to treat the illnesses it causes are well understood. (Developed countries have been doing this for more than a century.) The real sticking point is that it is expensive to build sewage systems, water treatment plants, and hospitals. In theory, “These nations don’t have a shortage of water; they have a shortage of money.” In practice, a decade of economic growth since this statement was made has generated a lot of national wealth for China and India. Of course the problem is how to get at it. Taxing rich people in developing countries is as difficult as drilling for oil deep off-shore and drilling for the deeply-buried water.
Still, if you want to ask “what is the good” in environmental crisis, the answer is that it is good for American engineering companies. They have the skills to build sanitation and water-treatment facilities. They have the skills for all kinds of deep drilling. Maybe the could capture melting polar ice at the source.
Or you could open a marina on Baffin Island.
Jen Joynt and Marshall Poe, “The World in Numbers: Waterworld,” Atlantic, July/August 2003, pp. 42-43; “Dirty Water: Estimated Deaths from Water-Related Diseases,” Atlantic, November 2002, pp. 46-47.