Nature Notes, August 2008

The Liquid of Life


            Recently in Alabama we have seen the skirmishes of a potential “water war” between Alabama , Florida , and Georgia over two river systems.  Specifically, the three states are fighting over water in the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, and Flint Rivers , which begin in Georgia , run along Alabama ’s border and empty into Florida ’s Apalachicola Bay .  The second river system is the Alabama , Coosa, and Tallapoosa Rivers, which also begin in Georgia , run through Alabama and empty into Mobile Bay .  Rapid population growth, poor planning by city managers, lack of holistic planning by the Corp of Engineers, and uncontrolled sprawl have all converged to fuel a heated contest over who controls water flows in these river basins.  This skirmish is happening in a region that is blessed with plentiful water supplies but is also plagued with too much demand for clean water.  This situation is not unusual.  Around the world conflict occurs every day over water quality and quantity.

Researchers have calculated that by 2025 water scarcity will affect over 75% of the world’s population.  Currently, 2.8 billion people face some level of water scarcity. [1]  

Globally, “excessive withdrawals from surface waters and aquifers, industrial pollution, inefficient use, climate change and variability, and natural disasters are major causes of water stress, threatening human well-being and ecological health.” [2]   In Africa more than 300 million people out a total population of over 800 million, live with water quantity challenges.  The water scarce conditions exist despite the fact that Africa contains one-third of the world’s major international river basins and Africans use less than 6% of their renewable water resources.  Asia also has severe water quality and quantity issues.

China alone has over 22% of the world’s population and only 8% of the world’s fresh water.  This fact has contributed to a shortage of drinking water for more than 12 million Chinese.  Water shortages are already causing rising food prices and forced migrations in some areas of China . [3]   In India , water resources are under growing pressure as, “urban water demand is expected to double and industrial demand to triple by 2025.” [4]  In the Middle East, “between 1985 and 2005, its overall per capita freshwater availability fell from 1,700 to 907 cubic meters(m3)/year and based on projected population increases, it is expected to decline to 420 m3/year by the year 2050.” [5]   Europe’s water quantity and quality challenges are not as acute as Africa or Asia but do exhibit individual state-centered problems. 

Cyprus, Bulgaria, Belgium, Spain, Malta, FYR Macedonia, Italy, the UK, and Germany, Ukraine, and Belarus, for example, all have water quantity and quality challenges.  Salt-water intrusion into underground aquifers is already beginning to affect water resources in Italy , Spain , Malta , Cyprus , and Turkey . [6]  Overall, 14% of Europe ’s people are affected by water scarcity. [7]  Even though most Europeans are adequately provided for, some still do not have access to filtered clean water and even more Europeans do not have access to sanitation facilities. [8]   Like Europeans, Latin Americans have sufficient water supplies yet still suffer from acute water conflicts.

Overall, Latin America is a region rich in water resources with approximately 28% of the world’s water resources.  Yet again the spatial and temporal aspects of water supplies continue to cause disagreements as almost 80 million people in the region do not have access to safe drinking water. [9]  In addition, some areas of Latin America are quite dry, for example areas in Bolivia , Chile , Peru , and some parts of Brazil and Argentina receive very little precipitation.  Also, in “2005 nearly 50 million inhabitants of the region still lacked access to improved drinking water, with 34 million of them in rural areas.” [10]   As of 2004, only 14% of sewage was adequately treated and approximately 127 million people lacked access to sanitation facilities. [11]   Unlike Latin Americans, Americans and Canadians overall have ample access to clean water. 

The United States and Canada possess “about 13% of the world’s renewable freshwater, but despite the apparent abundance, users are not always close to water sources, and some experience periodic water deficits.” [12]  In addition, in the last 20 years North Americans have lowered their per capita water consumption yet remain the highest per capita water users in the world. [13]   However, sections of the western US are beginning to experience water quantity problems and water rationing affects approximately 16 million Americans. [14]   “The past 20 years have seen important regional water shortages, and climate change is expected to exacerbate water deficits.  Agriculture is the major water user, and irrigation continues to increase, competing with urban centers for limited supplies.  In response, water restrictions and conservation strategies have become widespread.” [15]   Americans have also “experienced some 250 disease outbreaks and nearly 500,000 cases of water-borne illness from polluted drinking water between 1985 and 2000.  Some 3.5 million US residents get sick each year from exposure to pollution from sewer spills and overflows while swimming, boating, and fishing.” [16]   In general, the greatest challenge North Americans face in the future will be the equitable allocation of water resources.  Unfortunately, rising energy costs along with climate change will make fair allocation decisions even more difficult. 

In sum, sustaining the liquid of life is a challenge today and for the future.  Nevertheless, emerging innovations in three broad areas could increase the level of cooperation and reduce the potential for conflict.  These three areas are: technological, managerial, and economic.  Specifically, the practical application of “more inclusive and transparent decision making, new technologies to enhance water use efficiency and water productivity, and a careful alignment of economic signals and incentives” could reduce conflict and enhance cooperation globally, regionally, and locally. [17]   The new advances will help states avoid violent conflict over scarce water resources while ensuring future populations have high quality, sustainable water supplies now and tomorrow.  Sustainable water quantity and quality must be a legacy of this generation of water users to the next generation.



[1] Ger Bergkamp and Claudia W. Sadoff, “Water in a Sustainable Economy,” in 2008 State of the World: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy, ed. Linda Starke, ( New York : W. W. Norton and Company, 2008), 108; International Water Management Institute (IWMI), World Water Supply and Demand 1995-2025, ( Colombo , Sri Lanka , 2000): 108.

[2] United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Global Environment Outlook: GEO-4 Environment for Development, ( Malta : Progress Press Lt., 2007), 197.

[3] Jerome C. Glenn and Theodore J. Gordon, 2007 State of the Future, The Millennium Project, ( Washington DC : World Federation of UN Associations, 2007), 2-20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] UNEP, GEO-4, 264-265.

[6] Glenn and Gordon, 2007 State of the Future, 2-38.

[7] Ibid., 2-20.

[8] Ibid., 237.

[9] Glenn and Gordon, 2007 State of the Future, 2-20.

[10] Ibid.UNEP, GEO-4, 244; GEO Data Portal.  UNEP’s online core database with national, sub-regional, regional and global statistics and maps, covering environmental and socio-economic data and indicators.  United Nations Environment Programme, Geneva or (last accessed 1 June 2007); WHO and UNICEF (2006).  MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Target: Assessment Report 2006.  World Health Organization, Geneva and United Nations Children’s Fund, New York , NY (in GEO Data Portal); UNPD (2007). World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision (in GEO Data Portal).  UN Population Division, New York , NY, (last accessed 4 June 2007);  OPS (2006).  

[11] Glenn and Gordon, 2007 State of the Future, 2-20.

[12] UNEP, GEO-4, 260.

[13] Ibid., 261.

[14] Glenn and Gordon, 2007 State of the Future, 2-45.

[15] UNEP, GEO-4, 198.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ger Bergkamp and Claudia W. Sadoff, “Water in a Sustainable Economy,” 109, 115-121.