In the United States, regional water shortages are not uncommon. Parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and other dry Southwestern states deal with water shortages and rationing on an almost annual basis. But for U.S. residents, such water shortages usually mean that we have to water our lawns or wash our cars a little less frequently. The United States has never had its supply of fresh drinking water threatened.
Now consider this: Worldwide, it is estimated that approximately 1.2 billion people lack access to freshwater. That’s about one sixth of the entire world’s population. Furthermore, one third of the world’s population has no basic sanitation facilities for bathing and cleaning. Why is this?
Most of us don’t even realize that there is a lack of freshwater. In the past, water has always been readily available and inexpensive, and thus we don’t consider it to be a precious resource. After all, 75% of the Earth is covered in water, right? This may be true, but most of that water is in oceans, and salt water is not drinkable. Of all the water on Earth, only about 2.5% of it is freshwater. And of that amount, much is contaminated and is not suitable for drinking.
Many of us are accustomed now to hearing in the news about various crises around the world. Wars are being fought, AIDS has become an epidemic, and global warming is causing climate changes that could lead to catastrophe. All of these are serious problems, but none more so than the lack of clean water. The difference between freshwater shortages and other issues is timing. Without freshwater for drinking, humans and animals cannot survive more than a few days. Furthermore, drinking contaminated water wreaks havoc on an otherwise healthy individual. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of illnesses and death in developing countries are caused by unsanitary water. This is a very real and immediate problem, killing people on an hourly basis.
While this issue doesn’t directly affect many of us in the United States, we must be aware that it will affect us sooner or later. The U.S. government estimates that within the next 3-5 years, at least 36 states will have to deal with water shortages. Most of us cannot imagine what it might be like to live without freshwater. In African countries, many people spend several hours each day in search of freshwater. It is essential to life, and we must have it in order to eat and live. Can you imagine taking two or three hours out of your day, every day, to walk several miles in search of freshwater for your family to drink and eat and bathe?
The biggest threat we face today to our supply of fresh drinking water is the world’s growing population. During the 20th century, the world’s population tripled, and it continues to grow today. Some scientists believe that within 25 years, half of the world’s population may have trouble finding freshwater for drinking and sanitation purposes. In China, for example, each year the country is consuming 30 cubic kilometers more water than can be replaced by regular rainfall. This amount is going to add up quickly as time goes by.
The fact is that water is the world’s most important resource, and it’s been taken for granted and wasted for a long time. When and if the day comes that we begin to see serious freshwater shortages in developed countries, war will undoubtedly break out over this precious resource. So while we should be concerned about issues like AIDS, foreign wars, and global warming, we should be just as concerned, if not more so, about the growing issue that may someday become more critical to us than any other: a worldwide shortage of freshwater.