• Water, water nowhere
    September 11,2013

    The complaining will soon begin at the convenience store down the road from you as gasoline prices inch closer to $4 a gallon. It shouldn’t be too long. Last time I checked with friends in Ireland, gasoline at a Dublin convenience store cost $8 a gallon.

    Curiously, those down the road who will complain the loudest won’t think twice about dropping a dollar on the counter for a 1.25-pint bottle of Poland Spring water, which translates to $6.40 a gallon for artesian well spring water that bubbled up out of the ground.

    Flip to the business section of most any daily newspaper and you’ll see unleaded gasoline among the commodities listed, along with gold, copper, cattle, corn, wheat and other staples of domestic and international commerce. Last week, unleaded gasoline was listed at $2.97 a gallon. What you won’t find included in the commodities list is fresh water. At least not yet. But you will.

    Perhaps not in my lifetime, but sooner or later, fresh water will be sold by the barrel, much as crude oil is today. Fresh water will be carried by pipelines and transported by tankers to countries of means. Their citizens who can afford it will survive, while the have-nots who live in countries that can’t afford it won’t survive.

    U.S. Agency for International Development officials told a congressional hearing last month that it expects two-thirds of the world’s population to be living under “severe water stress conditions” by the year 2025 due to lack of access to clean fresh water. That’s only 12 years from now. Between now and then, a problem that is already devastating wide areas of Africa as well as Pakistan, India and China will be exacerbated by growing populations and rising sea levels and drought conditions being driven by climate change.

    While 70 percent of Mother Earth is covered by water, only 2.5 percent of that water is fresh water, and only 1.7 percent is easily accessible, much of it trapped in glaciers and snowfields, according to the National Geographic Society. A mere 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is readily available to meet the needs of the 6.8 billion people who can’t survive without it. By one estimate 1.8 billion people will be living by 2027 in areas where fresh water is scarce.

    By volume, most of the world’s fresh water reserve is in Brazil, which has a population of 188 million. Russia, the world’s largest country in terms of area, is second in terms of fresh water supply but has a population of 142 million. Canada is in the enviable position of laying claim to 20 percent of the world’s fresh water supply, with a population of only 33 million people, which is 5 million fewer citizens than the state of California. With a population of 305 million, prolonged Western and Southeastern drought is taxing America’s claim to the world’s fourth-largest fresh water inventory.

    “I think it’s pretty clear we’re operating as if water were a resource that would never dry up, and I think it’s pretty clear we’re wrong,” Bill McKibben, a distinguished scholar and climate change expert from Middlebury College, recently told me. “Just look at the headlines of the last few days about the drying of the lakes behind Glen Canyon and Hoover dams. We’re in uncharted territory here.”

    To no small degree, fresh water consumption is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind phenomenon. You know those hamburger patties you intend to throw on the grill for tonight’s dinner? Each required 630 gallons of fresh water to produce. The milk you’ll serve the kids tonight? Each gallon required 880 gallons of fresh water. And that 750 milliliter bottle of Napa Valley red wine you’ve set aside for dinner? Just over 1,000 gallons.

    Bon appetit. I think that’s French for “get it while you can.”

    Tom Walsh is an award-winning science writer who lives in Maine and writes for newspapers around New England.

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