Looking at a satellite photo of our mostly blue Earth, it’s hard to believe that dwellers on our planet could ever worry about water. And yet more than 2 billion people live in regions that are “water stressed,” where, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s definition, “the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development predicts that by 2025, one-third of all human beings will face serious and chronic water shortfalls. And according to the World Health Organization, contaminated water is implicated in an astounding 80 percent of all sickness and disease worldwide.
Because the most dramatic challenges have affected the global South, the water crisis can seem far away — another sad Third World dilemma. Yet there are plenty of Americans for whom the water crisis is very real.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in early 2009 as his state entered a third year of crippling drought. Mandatory water conservation hit Los Angeles last June and the Austin, Texas, area in August. And the mushrooming population of Atlanta, a city that receives a generous 50 inches of rain a year, has stressed municipal water supplies to the point that some government officials are concerned that the city will go dry unless it gains full access to the water of Lake Lanier, about 50 miles to the northwest. (Georgia is currently embroiled in a bitter “water war” with Florida and Alabama over Lanier.) Meanwhile, depletion of underground aquifers in Florida has created thousands of sinkholes — spots where the earth has given way and half-swallowed cars and houses.
Even more troubling is the question of safe drinking water. A December 2009 New York Times report underscored the unsettling fact that regulatory agencies haven’t kept up with the increasing toxicity of America’s waters; current law regulates only 91 of the approximately 60,000 chemical substances found in our drinking water.
While there is no firm consensus on how much of a health threat pollution poses, many scientists point out that we have enough data to take action now, before remedial measures become more difficult and costly — as they did with asbestos and dangerous food additives.
Americans also have to contend with a trend toward privatizing water — for-profit companies controlling all or part of municipal water supplies. Takeovers of water systems by private firms — which has happened in Bolivia and the Philippines as well as in Kentucky and California — have led to increased water rates, reduction of service and other problems.
Even if the water crisis doesn’t yet seem to have hit home where you live, it’s almost certain that it eventually will. So here’s what you should know about the top four threats to Earth’s water, and how you can protect yourself and your loved ones.