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Are we Running out of Freshwater?

Countless debates exists concerning nearly every natural phenomena that are potentially disastrous for the human race. This is partly because many people think they are smart enough to beat the “global propaganda” that our system feeds us, but mostly because as humans we are scared to admit our mistakes and face the consequences. The water crisis is one such debate being discussed today. This year’s water shortage in California–the worst so far–has sparked conversation in the United States about how the water crisis is a very real threat to our species.

In order to fathom the gravity of the situation, we need to understand the process by which the water we drink or bathe in reaches our homes. We learned in elementary school that the water cycle involves only 0.3 percent of the world’s fresh water. It is derived from surface level sources such as rivers and lakes or via rain. Several thousand feet below the ground, is where about 30 per cent of the world’s freshwater is stored in aquifers. These aquifers contain ground water that has accumulated over the last five to 50 million years. Much of the water that reaches farms and homes is harvested from these aquifers. Most importantly, once harvested, it takes thousands of years for groundwater to restore through the natural processes. Hence, desalination plants are built in order to extract fresh water from salt water. As anyone can see, the actual cycle to acquire fresh water is a complicated process, but seems promising enough.

Owing to this promise, many believe that there could be no water crisis because it is all coming back to us, one way or another: it is physically impossible for water to actually go anywhere outside the planet and our technology is advanced enough to desalinate seawater. 

Simultaneously, 70 percent of the world’s water usage goes into agriculture, according to the United Nations Inter-agency Mechanism on Water.

If the water is going right back into the earth, there is no reason to panic at all. Such people are absolutely right about the availability of technology. However, desalination is incredibly expensive and not so readily available in the developing countries, which make up for more than one-third of the Earth. Even if we did have all of the money to fund desalination plants, the speed at which the world is consuming water versus the rate at which it can be desalinated leaves a tremendous time gap, enough to imagine a world without any drinkable water for decades. Those decades would easily render mankind extinct. Today’s agricultural industry uses an increasing amount of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides on crops, which chemically bond with water molecules, irreversibly depleting the worldwide freshwater stores.

Meanwhile in the United States, the water reserves take a hit everyday due to human indulgences. Golf courses and lawns are highly maintained in the most arid areas such as California, Washington and Nevada. Our very own sunshine state, along with many others, is witnessing fast urbanization in its cities. For example, Orlando is a rapidly developing tourist hub because of its theme parks and annual events. According to Senior GIS Scientist at Southwest Florida Water Management District and professor at UT, Dr. Al Karlin, “The topography of Orlando is mound-shaped. Consequently, it is highly unsuitable for water retention because the slopes wash the water to the sides, leaving the city dry and its extensive theme parks in constant need of importing water from other places.” Evidently, the water usage is overwhelming in emergent cities because of uncontrolled population growth resulting from various tourist attractions. Unfortunately, only two things can be done to evade a water crisis in cities like Orlando: either shut down a majority of the theme parks or increase the price of water.

Increasing the prices of water might appear to be yet another victimization of consumers. However, certain realities that surround the issue of fresh water availability completely justify the need for such a step. Shutting down major businesses is not a possibility when the economy is based on the principles of capitalism. It would compromise the nation’s overall economic growth that large-scale businesses facilitate with their equally large-scale revenues. The water usage for agriculture cannot be reduced for it is obvious that we all need food to survive. The steady growth in population justifies the increase in demand for food, hence validating the growth in supply with the equalizing effect of market forces. Since it is the consumer who benefits from the supply of food and who indulges in the recreational activities big businesses provide, it is only fair that they pay more money for water for domestic usage.

One ought to keep in mind the fickle-mindedness intrinsic to human nature. As a species, we never grasp the significance of anything till it is taken away from us. Dr. Karlin believes, “Water is too cheap and far too easily available for people. They neither appreciate it nor understand its value. So, they continue to use it without giving a second thought to the vast amount they waste in tasks that require only a little bit.” It is our daily experiences that deem his argument unfalsifiable. Surely, we all could use a bucket of water to take a bath, instead of a shower or a soaking bubble bath. We could easily brush our teeth without the water running. We could harvest the rainwater that nature has blessed Florida with, and use it to water our plants with little effort. Yet we do nothing. Instead, we don’t care until there are penalties. We need to be economically steered towards sound judgment to reiterate sustainable development. Increase the price of water and give it the value that it deserves or else the crisis will unquestionably leave us globally parched. Water will be everywhere without a drop to drink.

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