Life Without Water

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It is difficult to encapsulate the scope of the global water crisis. According to Arjen Y. Hoestra, professor of water management at the University of Twente, roughly 4 billion people are affected by severe water deficits at least one month each year, and numerous studies have published estimates indicating that anywhere from 1.6 to 2.4 billion people are presently living in water-stressed regions year round. Unfortunately, even when barring all other reasonable influences on water scarcity, by 2050 that quantity is expected to rise by 37 to 53% due to the effects of population increases alone. This immense issue is compounded by the related – yet more solvable – problem of water contamination, which results in more than 3.4 million preventable deaths each year.

The combined effects of water scarcity and contamination can impact global food security, disrupt economies, threaten aquatic biodiversity, as well as negatively affect health, education, and virtually all aspects of human development. These ongoing issues are easier to miss in America, but without access to safe, sustainable water, life becomes a hell of a lot more difficult. Individuals suffering from water scarcity don’t get to assess how best to shape their careers, worry about what they’re going to wear, or debate life’s most alluring mysteries. Locked into survival mode, they seldom get to follow their passions and the option of reaching (or even identifying) their potentials is often removed entirely. Making matters worse, at least with respect to water scarcity, is the fact that scientific consensus suggests it’s getting worse, and the response to these pressing concerns have been underwhelming – to say the least.

Now all of this can seem a bit overwhelming. Yet, as bleak as this may sound, humans have an impressive history of solving earth’s most complicated challenges, and so long as we do not default to “business-as-usual,” there is much we can do.

Human beings are inextricably tied to the world’s water systems which are, in turn, inseparable from the environment as a whole. This premise suggests that if the trends of one change, so too must the others. Said another way, this premise raises the possibility that human beings can impact the others. It’s an argument that requires accepting a causal relationship between human behavior and the environment. But if we are able to arrive at that conclusion, then there is hope that we can solve for the immense challenges of water scarcity and contamination. In regard to the latter, there’s simply no doubt about it. Much of the developed world already have solutions to eliminate water contaminants; the issue is that these tools and technologies have not yet been widely dispersed to suffering regions around the world. (This is one of the reasons 100 For All is presently focused on this issue.) Nevertheless, concentrated efforts have significantly reduced the devastation caused by water contamination. Water scarcity, though, is a bit more complicated.

At present, no straightforward solution to water scarcity exists. Water shortages are due in part to excessive water utilization. The average American, for instance, consumes 176 gallons of water per day compared to the average African family which uses only 5 gallons per day. In short, current water consumption is simply unsustainable. This suggests that no genuine long-term progress will be made without requiring behavior change at the individual and societal levels (historically, a very difficult – but not impossible – thing to achieve). However, once climate change and population increases are added into the mix, the impact of which no one can predict with absolute certainty, the calculus gets a lot more problematic. In truth, humans will likely have to invent their way out. For that to happen, we simply must give water scarcity focused and sustained attention (perhaps a tall order if we’re being honest).

The most important takeaway is to understand that this looming threat is real. No one is going to fix this problem for us, and we need to be taking measures now – not later – to avoid any worst case scenarios. Absent any dramatic interventions, in the near future water scarcity is likely to result in a global re-evaluation of the value of water. (There is a reason some of the nation’s most reputable investors are buying up water stocks.) With respect to life on earth, there is no such thing as life without water, and it isn’t difficult to ponder how rapidly our prized civility would decay in the face of a global shortage. That, however, is far from inevitable. If we truly embrace this challenge – if we help raise social consciousness about water-related issues, develop and disperse tools and technologies to better conserve water, and motivate individuals to reduce water consumption – we can deal with the threats posed by water scarcity.