The Century of Water

Is the world prepared for water scarcity?

by Juda Jelinek

The earth is entering a resource-shocked state that humanity has never encountered before, according to the United States Intelligence Community, an assembly of 17 government agencies. Climate change will produce irregular weather patterns that will increasingly challenge at-risk regions’ ability to cope with the results of too much or too little water. Given water’s deep connection to food security, poverty, energy security, and eco-system functions, it is becoming commonplace in geopolitics to say that while the 20th century was the century of oil, the 21st century will be the century of water.

Over the last century, oil was at the root of all industrial and commercial developments. Everything was propelled by oil, including agriculture, industry, trading, and transportation booms. In some countries, such as Venezuela and Norway, even social development was a product of oil. As a result, oil became the measuring stick for the wealth or poverty of states, and it became a resource for which states were ready to form alliances or go to war. It was a global factor.

The 21st century is now facing the consequences of the irresponsible use of carbon fuels. A multitude of scientists, humanitarian advocates, and both governmental and nongovernmental organizations are successfully drawing attention to the consequences of humanity’s unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. According to the UNHCR Water Summit Report, the most endangered and at the same time increasingly precious of these natural resources is water.

The world’s industries are expected to wean themselves off fossil fuels over the next hundred years, but the demand for water is only increasing. At the same time, extreme droughts are making this vital resource increasingly scarce.

Of the globe’s 7 billion inhabitants, 1.1 billion lack access to drinking water and 2.7 billion live in areas subject to frequent water shortages, defined as supplies running low for at least one month of each year. Nor is this simply a Third World problem: California, a state that would be the world’s 8th-largest economy if it were an independent country, has been suffering a drought for months. More than half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared in the last hundred years. Many rivers, lakes, and aquifers that sustain eco-systems have become stressed—over-polluted or drying up—and are already failing to meet the increased demand of rapidly growing and urbanizing populations.

By 2050, the earth’s population will have grown from 7 to 9 billion. Coupled with industrialization, the demand for water will rise by over 50 percent. Water security is becoming a central issue; its consequences will be wide-reaching. Policies to avert and manage the coming crisis are …

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