The resource problem you probably haven't heard about
March 22nd, 2013
10:09 AM ET

The resource problem you probably haven't heard about

By Christiana Z. Peppard, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Christiana Z. Peppard Ph.D. is assistant professor of theology and science in the Department of Theology at Fordham University and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

World Water Day today is as good a time as any to consider one of the most important issues you’ve probably never pondered before. It’s a subject you’re going to hear about all the time in the coming decades.  Oil and gas are important, yet there is one resource that is irreplaceable, but which is going to become increasingly scarce, with serious implications for agriculture, health, our economies – even civilization itself.

Fresh water.

If you live in the longitudinal belt of the United States between Nebraska and Texas, then the water used for those fields – and now the suburbs – comes from the Ogallala Aquifer. Unfortunately, it’s depleting and polluted. Or perhaps you live in Israel or the West Bank, atop the Mountain Aquifer. There, a new study by NASA and University of California Irvine charts how groundwater depletion is accelerating. Likewise, Maryland residents may be surprised to learn that last year, the U.S. Geological Survey found the dwindling Patasco Aquifer to be over a million years old.

In these and many more cases worldwide, groundwater from aquifers is being extracted at a rate that is utterly unsustainable. In fact, water wonks refer to aquifer extraction as “groundwater mining” – precisely because once you take it out, it doesn’t replenish, at least not in any humanly meaningful time frame. That’s why people call it “fossil water.”

Aquifers are geological caverns or spaces that contain groundwater, and constitute 30 percent of all the fresh water on this planet. For most of human history, we used the tiny proportion of fresh water that was renewable through annual cycles of precipitation and evaporation. To be sure, humans have long dug wells and sought deeper sources of water – but for most of human history large-scale groundwater extraction simply wasn’t possible. It was too deep, too diffuse, required too much energy to draw up – basically, it was just too hard to get.

The 20th century was a watershed during which new hydraulic technologies enabled us to tap into aquifers on an unprecedented scale.  This had a cascading effect: massive agricultural expansion, significant population growth, and amplified industrialization.

In short: our invisible aquifers contain ancient, finite water supplies. It’s this fossil water in cavernous, underground formations that has built our civilizations. However, our contemporary, civilization-scale thirst is draining those very aquifers that make our day-to-day lives possible. We won’t be around long enough for them to refill.

Welcome to the century of water.

In this century of water, global problems resist silver bullet solutions. The good news is that we tend to be an ingenious species: technology has a role to play within a framework of sustainability, and we can work to decrease demand across industrial, agricultural and domestic sectors, while we also strive to reconsider water subsidies and establish ever-more sensitive pricing mechanisms. But when the water hits the hose, we have to figure out how to stop taking out more than we put back in. That’s the crucial economic equation of the future, one that is more vital than markets or oil. And how to wager on water without waging war or injustice to at-risk populations: this is the greatest ethical dilemma facing the 21st century.

The problem is that these fighting words will need to be backed up by far more than individual actions like shortening showers or shuttering the family farm. Aquifers will literally shape civilizations this century. We’ve tapped into our aquifers, but to sustain ourselves, the extraction rates must be brought down towards renewal rates.

It’s the only way we will be able to tap out of this fight.

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Topics: Energy • Water

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. Muin

    In VA, I obviously have to filter water in order to drink it. In some places of California, you can just drink the water right out of the tap. Water problem is worse for countries like Bangladesh. It's not like they can't solve it but they have a weak political system. Politicians in power are usually more interested in their self-interest than to solve any national problems.

    March 22, 2013 at 10:53 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Muin. How true that is!

      March 22, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
  2. allthingsgeography1

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

    March 22, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
  3. GEORGE THORN

    we at d wall, gluck to ya all.

    March 22, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Reply
  4. Christiana Z. Peppard

    Thanks, folks–Muin, it's true: geography, hydrography and political frameworks dictate much of how water is provided. And thanks for the reblog, allthingsgeography.

    March 22, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Reply
  5. karthick

    Muin is very right . Bangladesh is worst affected but they have much resource of water they have rivers. but the developed nations should create awareness and take a step for those countries ,how do they know ?after all we are humans and living in one planet aren't we?

    March 22, 2013 at 11:19 pm | Reply
  6. mrdon

    We are depleting the Ogallala and at the same time have more acres of our arable land under cultivation in the Great Plains than any time in our history. And nearly half of one of our largest crops is using precious water and going into our gas tanks in the form of ethanol. In time, the Ogallala will be depleted. It already is in some of its southern limits. Irrigated cotton farming has returned to dry land farming. While its depletion is inevitable, its waste is not. And growing corn to put in our gas tanks is a colossal waste. And while we concern ourselves with the damage hypothetical oil spills might cause over a very small part of the aquifer, we dump millions of tons of insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers all across it with some part of those chemicals making up the pollutants which degrade its quality. Go figure.

    March 23, 2013 at 6:59 am | Reply
    • Christiana

      Great point, mrdon. Industrial agriculture, with its massive swaths of monoculture and herbicide/pesticide use, is a major concern. Your point about our selective attention to pollutants is well taken. Two scholars who discuss these aspects of petrochemicals are John Wargo (Yale), and Sandra Steingraber. The "dead zones" in the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico are due to industrial herbicides/pesticides entering the water supply–the book "Petrochemical America" by Kate Orff and Richard Misrach is worth checking out on that topic.

      March 25, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply
  7. Angelo

    There is enough water on earth, it is not scarce. Viva ITALIA.

    March 23, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
    • mark

      no, water is not scarce, but drinkable water will be.

      March 29, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  8. johnny

    Iceberg melting at the Poles is accelerating, threatening to rise sea level 7 meters from 2050. Global warming will also caruse most mountain top icecaps to melt.

    Yes, a water supply crunch is now within sight – and would overwhelm many countries that arent yet concerned with global warming. If your only water supply source come from a mountain and glaciers – its time to worry.

    Lets all cut down on our personal carbon emissions.

    If you are driving a petrol driven SUV, it is aiding global warming . Your town is in danger because your river will not be able to continue supplying fresh water.

    March 23, 2013 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  9. deep blue

    For most contaminated water, distillation works perfectly well. For now, distillation is financially unfeasible because of the cost of energy. As energy costs drop, perhaps the need for fresh water, as opposed to any water, will be diminished.

    Not saying this isn't a problem. Wasting a resource because we might be able to get a lot more of it if we can distill salt water isn't a good idea.

    March 24, 2013 at 1:20 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    In Singapore, the authorities' solution to water shortage is the re-use of reclaimed water. As they have no space to store rainwater, they recycle sewage.

    March 24, 2013 at 11:42 am | Reply
  11. Christiana

    I agree with many of these comments–technology certainly has a role to play, and much depends on geographical and hydrological location, as well as financial feasibility and the possibilities of technology transfer. Technology can help to make our water systems and use more efficient and therefore streamline demand, which ultimately also hardens demand. Desalination will be (and is already) important. But it's not a panacea. It's time to think about our aquifers carefully, much, much more carefully than the twentieth century did. Aquifers are invisible but essential to life as we know it in many societies. Creative, sustainability-oriented minds are needed!

    March 25, 2013 at 8:42 am | Reply
  12. Keenan Grays

    The general meaning of ethics: rational, optimal (regarded as the best solution of the given options) and appropriate decision brought on the basis of common sense. This does not exclude the possibility of destruction if it is necessary and if it does not take place as the result of intentional malice.:.

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    May 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Reply

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