Drought Dilemma

May 27, 2021

Global water issues are growing

About the author:

Frank Brigano, Ph.D., is vice president and senior research fellow for Marmon Water Inc. Brigano can be reached at [email protected]. Andrea Scarpino, Ph.D., is president & CEO for PVS Associates. Scarpino can be reached at [email protected].


In 1962, Rachel Carson published her seminal environmental work “Silent Spring” with the dedication, “To Albert Schweitzer, who said ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” 

Schweitzer could have been referring to global warming. Whether or not you agree with the political arguments around global warming, it is tough to argue that our climate is not changing, and these changes, particularly in weather patterns, have resulted in water scarcity in many parts of the world and an overabundance of water in other parts of the world.

A Growing Crisis 

Issues pertaining to global water are so severe that the World Bank estimates nine out of 10 global natural disasters are water-related. It is estimated that the crops lost due to repeated drought could feed 81 million people. Earth’s population is approaching 8 billion humans, and feeding 81 million of them just from the crops we currently are losing to drought would be a substantial global human benefit. 

In many parts of the world, water is not readily accessible in the home and must be gathered. Six out of 10 people globally use sanitation facilities that are not safely maintained. The disparity of access to water is so great that the World Bank has set Millennium Development Goals to reduce in half the number of people who must travel 30 minutes round trip for water. Even if there is a water source in the home or nearby, there is no guarantee of the quality of the water or the quantity of water. Water availability at the residence or commercial establishment is dictated by the amount of water that can be stored onsite above ground, below ground or both. 

It is helpful to look at these global water issues with some numbers. Although Earth’s surface is approximately 71% water, approximately 95% of that water is ocean or non-potable. That means only approximately 5% of the world’s water is freshwater that can be used for drinking, farming and cleaning. Freshwater is found in lakes, streams, glaciers and aquifers. The availability of freshwater depends on its location, and the drinkability depends on nature and human involvement. If clean freshwater is trapped in a glacier, for example, it is difficult for humans to readily access that freshwater, and if a readily accessible lake is polluted, humans will not be able to use what they can access. The drinkability of accessible freshwater is dictated by both the chemical content and the microbial or sanitary purity of the water.  

Complicating matters more, water is incredibly dynamic in nature. Nowhere on Earth is water 100% consistent from location to location. For example, municipally distributed drinking water can vary in chemical makeup depending on the water source being tapped, and if or how it is blended. Many in our industry have tried to correlate zip code to water quality only to find that within a given zip code, water quality can vary considerably.

Infrastructure Concerns

Water distribution within a region also can be influenced by economic status. In many regions of the world, water distribution is limited due to lack of infrastructure, political upheaval that disrupts infrastructure, aging infrastructure, or other infrastructural issues. Often in these regions, water distribution is prioritized by economic status. We would argue that the Flint, Mich., lead crisis is an example of economic disparity leading to an unsafe water situation that overwhelmingly negatively impacted those of lower economic status. There are many more examples in the U.S., alone. 

The National Public Radio (NPR) recently reported that in the Great Lakes Region, the cost of delivered water to households has substantially risen due to the cost to repair and maintain aging infrastructure. With federal water infrastructure funding reduced from $76 per person in 1977 to $11 per person in 2014, the cost to maintain water systems has shifted to the consumer. That means that in Chicago, a city built on one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, the cost of water nearly tripled between 2007 and 2018. Unfortunately, the urban poor in the six major cities on the Great Lakes have not been able to sustain these increases, resulting in more than 367,000 water shutoff notices. 

“An analysis of shutoff data revealed disproportionately high concentrations of water shutoffs in poorer areas and in majority black and Latino neighborhoods in every city,” reported NPR.

Even within one region or zip code, access to clean freshwater can vary due to water source, infrastructure, and economic issues, among other reasons. We know that access to freshwater, sanitation, resource management, and agricultural use of water not only has huge social and economic impacts on society, but is key to human survival. These issues are not confined to one location, region or continent. They are global. 

The American Water Works Assn. estimates that in the U.S., “restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years.” 

This is a substantial cost and a substantial undertaking. Globally, the cost of infrastructure replacement and expansion only increases, as does the costs associated with our changing environment. As more drought comes to some areas of the world, how are we going to meet the World Bank’s Millennium Development Goal of decreasing by half the number of people who must travel 30 minutes round trip for water? How are we going to feed our increasing population if we lose more crops to drought? As more rain falls on other areas of the world, what infrastructure are we going to build to reduce flooding and keep human populations safe? 

These are complicated, complex issues that will need multi-faceted local and global solutions. It is necessary to plan solutions now, on the local and global levels, so that we hopefully can prove wrong Schweitzer’s prediction that we will destroy Earth.

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