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.
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.