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The Water Crisis Upon Us

The Water Crisis Upon Us

By Sherwood Ross

From Brazil to India and from California to Detroit, taps are running dry, as the water crisis spreads around the planet.

Detroit grabbed headlines when the city cancelled the water and sewerage service for more than 50,000 residents for lack of payment. But Detroit's trials are not unique.

"Caught between unaffordable rising water rates and the imposition of European-wide austerity measures, thousands of families in Spain, Portugal, and Greece have had their water service cut off," writes Maude Barlow in the August 3 edition of The Nation. Barlow has served as senior adviser on water to the president of the UN General Assembly.

What's more, a new NASA study found that 21 of the world's largest aquifers…have passed their sustainability tipping points, putting hundreds of millions at risk," Barlow said.

"Stunningly, more than half the rivers in China have disappeared since 1990. Asia's Aral Sea and Africa's Lake Chad…have all but dried up due to unremitting use for export-oriented crop irrigation," Barlow asserts.

And according to an article published in Global Research of Canada, "The Yellow River Conservancy Committee estimates 34 per cent of the river is unfit for drinking, aquaculture, and agriculture. An estimated 30 per cent of the tributaries of Yangtze River are extremely polluted and in India, 50 per cent of the Yamuna River, the main tributary of the Ganges is extremely polluted."

Population growth everywhere is straining world water supplies. The planet's population, which stood at one billion in 1800, climbed to two billion in 1927, then accelerated to 7 billion in our time and could hit 11 billion by 2050. It's accelerating like a rocket after the countdown.

In California, 54 of 58 counties are battling deep drought, which has resulted in the loss of 17,000 seasonal and part-time jobs, according to a report by researchers at the University of California's Davis campus. Seems water availability and prosperity are inextricably linked.

The U.S. Agriculture Department says the Ogallala Aquifer is so overburdened that it "is going to run out…beyond reasonable argument." The aquifer, underlying 225,000 sq. miles of the Great Plains, provides water to Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and Nebraska.

All across America, old water mains that have been neglected for years by the authorities are springing leaks. The U.S., (whose military-industrial complex can churn up a $1-trillion a year to make wars,) needs to spend $1 trillion over the next 25 years "for water infrastructure," Barlow writes.

(Instead, President Obama, who campaigned for office on the platform of a "nuclear-free world," has quietly authorized a trillion dollar plan to upgrade America's nuclear arsenal. As for infrastructure….)

"To pay for this (water-works repair) in a time of tax-cutting hysteria, it is likely that the burden will fall on families and small businesses, pushing water rates even higher," Barlow writes, noting that the price of water in 30 major U.S. cities has risen by 41 per cent since 2010, "with no end in sight."

What's more, "Melting glaciers, warming watersheds, and chaotic weather patterns are upsetting the water cycle everywhere," Barlow said. "Higher temperatures increase the amount of moisture that evaporates from land and water; a warmer atmosphere then releases more precipitation in areas already prone to flooding and less in areas prone to drought."

In fact, drought, as in California, is intensifying in many places and deserts are growing in more than 100 countries, Barlow found. In Brazil, "The destruction of the rain forests and ground-water mining for biofuels has created a killing drought in a country once considered the most water-rich in the world."

In a related article published in the same issue of The Nation, Sasha Abramsky writes,"In addition to drying up wells (in California), the drought has also caused the land to sink, as groundwater levels fall and salination of the remaining water increases. Now the economies in many of these agricultural regions are crumbling, as jobs in industries tied to high water usage evaporate."

California agriculture, Abramsky continued, worth more than $40 billion in a good year, "contracted by roughly $1.5 billion last year, as farmers plowed up crops they could no longer water and focused their efforts on preserving their most profitable harvest." He notes there are no restrictions on how much water big agricultural combines can monopolize during a drought.

In some communities, the taps have already gone dry. He quotes Lois Lee Davidson of Fairmead, CA, who said her well had gone dry and rented space in a nearby trailer park at $600 a month so she could shower. "I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be without water," Davidson told him.

"This is California in the year 2015. This is the fate of tens of thousands of people who have been left to scrounge for water in a land of lush orchards, rolling golf courses, and enormous swimming pools," Abramsky writes.

He adds, "And it could be the fate of millions of other Americans if the country doesn't confront the bleak reality of what happens when we consume a vital---and increasingly scarce---resource with utter abandon."

Indeed, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an influential environmental watchdog, asserts, "Albuquerque's groundwater is becoming seriously depleted and Fresno's groundwater is highly susceptible to contamination."

NRDC says further that runoff and industrial or sewage contamination threaten water supplies in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Diego and Washington, D.C.

Also, water supplies in Baltimore, Fresno, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Diego and other cities "are vulnerable to agricultural pollution containing nitrogen, pesticides or sediment."

Writing in The Nation, author Laura Gottesdiener cited a spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Mayors who said municipal budgets across the country are buckling under the costs of the needed upgrades of the water and sewerage infrastructure. "From coast to coast, the United States is careening into an age of widespread water instability," Gottesdiener summarized.

Barlow calls on governments "to stand up to the powerful industries, private interests, and bad practices destroying water all over the world." Water, she says, "must be declared a public trust, to be protected and managed for the public good."

The United Nations, she says, "reports that we have 15 years to avert a full-blown water crisis and that, by 2030, demand for water will outstrip supply by 40 percent."

According to the UN's Food & Agricultural Organization,"By 2025, 1 billion 800 million people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions. The situation will be exacerbated as rapidly growing urban areas place heavy pressure on neighboring water resources." #

(Sherwood Ross formerly served as Administrative Assistant to the Commissioner of the Department of Water & Sewers of Chicago, and also as public relations director of the Illinois sector of the American Water Works Assn. His views do not necessarily reflect those of either entity. Reach him at


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