Our Thirsty Species


Brian Merchant introduces a study finding that the number of people facing “absolute water scarcity” may double within the next few decades:

In other words, when global temperatures rise another 2˚C—they’re well on track to do so—there could be anywhere between 40 percent and 100 percent more people living in places—places like Yemen, Pakistan, India, Australia, the American Midwest—subjected to extreme water scarcity. Climatologists believe we may hit 2 ˚C rise—or more—by midcentury. As in, less than 40 years from now. The EPA, meanwhile projects at least a 4˚C rise by 2100. Which will really bring the thirst. …

The UN fears that conflicts over water-rich territory and transportation infrastructure could deepen or break out as the resource grows even scarcer. Analysts like Lester R. Brown has said that “it is now commonly said that future wars in the Middle East are more likely to be fought over water than over oil.”

Matt Ferner looks at another study mapping water insecurity around the world:

Researchers with the Aqueduct project looked at water risks in 100 river basins and 181 nations around the globe — the first such country-level water assessment of its kind. By taking a close look at regional baseline water stress, flood and drought occurrence over several years time, inter-annual variability and seasonal variability as well as the amount of water available to a particular region every year from rivers, streams and shallow aquifers, WRI was able to give each country a score 0 to 5, with a 5 being the greatest level of water risk.

Walter Russell Mead says we have nothing to worry about now that scientists have found an abundance of freshwater underneath the ocean floor:

Some of these reserves will be fresh enough that they won’t need to go through the energy-intensive desalinization process, while some of them will be only slightly brackish, and will be easier and, importantly, cheaper to desalinate. In fact, this kind of offshore drilling for water is already happening; NPR notes that there are already operations in places like Cape May, NJ to drill for and eventually desalinate low-salinity water.

Water scarcity has been a favorite topic for the Chicken Littles of the world. Just 18 years ago the vice president of the World Bank was ominously warning that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” It’s easy to drum up fears of “water wars” some undetermined time in the future, but studies like this one, and discoveries of new water sources like this one in Kenya, or this one under the Sahara, suggest that these fears that have gripped Malthusians—and that Malthusians have in turn used to push through otherwise unworkable policy recommendations—are a lot less serious.

Scientists, however, are not yet ready to declare drilling for freshwater a feasible solution:

[T]here are two ways to get to the water: “Build a platform out at sea and drill into the seabed, or drill from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers.” That’s not likely to come cheap. While places such as Cape May, N.J., are already drilling and desalinating freshwater underground for use, getting to freshwater reserves under the oceans will probably be more expensive, says Kenneth Miller, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers University.

Miller’s research has involved drilling into freshwater reserves offshore, and he says drilling three holes about 2,500 feet down cost around $13 million. And some reserves will be saltier – and need more processing — than others, depending on what kinds of sediment surrounds them. Finer grains seal in fresher water while coarser grains hold saltier water, Miller says. “[Tapping the freshwater reserves] represents a potential alternative that may be economic,” says [Mark] Person, the study co-author. He notes, however, that the scientists have not yet tapped into one of these reserves and that this is a non-renewable resource.