by Doug Prince
What's life like for these people? Difficult, says Vörösmarty. Since there is inadequate water for irrigation, it is hard to grow sufficient food, and food imports are often necessary. There may be restrictions on water use, as the domestic, industrial and agricultural sectors compete for what water is available. Human health is affected by pollution problems, because there isn't enough unused water to dilute waste.
Signs of stress
While few areas in the United States are currently experiencing this degree of difficulty caused by extreme water shortages, some signs of stress can be seen. Cities and rural areas are increasingly in conflict over water in Southern California. Los Angeles has built pipelines to rivers and lakes hundreds of miles away, diverting water that used to irrigate cropland and orchards. Some years ago there was even talk of building a pipeline to Alaska.
The Colorado River offers a dramatic example of what happens when demand exceeds water supplies. The once-mighty river is literally sucked dry as it winds through the Southwest. Every drop of its flow--150,000 gallons a second--is gradually drawn off, primarily for irrigation, until the river slows to a trickle and finally stops miles short of the Gulf of Mexico.
In the Midwest, the Ogallala Aquifer--one of the world's largest stores of groundwater--is being depleted at an alarming rate. The aquifer lies beneath eight U.S. states, an area just slightly smaller than Texas. In the 1940s, farmers began to notice that they were having to drill deeper to reach water for their irrigation pumps. From then until the early '90s, the water level in the aquifer dropped at an average rate of less than half a foot each year. But by 1995, well measurements showed that the level was dropping three feet a year, causing the land above the aquifer to subside dramatically in places. Since then, irrigation has been cut back, and Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado have all been losing irrigated land over the last two decades.
Fortunately, the United States has the natural and the economic resources to compensate for these changes. A country that is both dry and poor faces much greater difficulties.
A 1997 trip to drought-stricken Kenya gave Vörösmarty a first-hand view of just such a situation. "We saw people with buckets on their heads traveling several kilometers to go to a single drain pipe that could give them clean water, because all their surface water supplies had dried up," he says. "People were spending large parts of their day getting their buckets of water. It's a different set of challenges if you're in the developing world, where you don't have the economic infrastructure to buffer you against these difficulties."
Many other nations also see a water crisis impending if not already present. For example:
The amount of water available for the future is only part of the equation. The quality of that water must also be carefully considered, as it affects human health. As many as 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, according to Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. Nearly half the world's population lives without sanitation--no sewers, toilets or latrines--and preventable water-related diseases kill an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 people every day.
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