Our Thirsty Future


In March, twenty-four thousand delegates from around the world gathered in Kyoto for the World Water Forum. “Our discussions will have far more effect on humankind for the twenty-first century than…any other political problem of the day,” said William Cosgrove, vice-president of the World Water Council. The United Nations reported that it had identified three hundred potential “zones” in which there is now “water conflict.” Indeed, some development workers have insisted for the last two decades that water is becoming the planet’s most precious substance—“wet gold”—and that the next round of regional wars will be fought over rivers and aquifers.

And yet, even as they were supposed to be meeting, delegates gathered around large-screen televisions to watch the latest news from Iraq—from that other war fought in part over last century’s preeminent liquid, good old oil. Hundreds of delegates were leaving the conference early, and the heads of state were staying home. Kofi Annan sent his wife, and Jacques Chirac sent only a videotape decrying “resignation in the face of inequality.”

Water, in other words, is a problem whose time has not quite yet come. It hasn’t even risen to the status of the last crisis that wasn’t solved by a meeting in Kyoto, global warming. The burden of the books under review, however, is that the problem can’t be postponed much longer.

Clearly, water has long been a critical problem for poor people. In many places, access to clean water all but defines poverty. The consensus among experts is that 1.4 billion people in the world do not have access to safe water (that is, roughly, one person in four), and 2.3 billion people lack adequate sanitation (more than one in three). If you live in North America or Japan, you use on average 158 gallons of water a day (even though Americans now drink far more soda than tap water). If you live in Europe you use about 80 gallons, and if you live in sub-Saharan Africa 2.5 to 5 gallons. If you’re unlucky enough to live in rural Haiti, it’s less than that. As a result, 2.2 million people die annually from diseases related to contaminated drinking water—including about one child every ten seconds. “Every year two million children are dying from lack of access to water or waterborne diseases,” according to William Cosgrove. “That’s year in and year out, it’s been going on for decades.”

But that steady drip, drip, drip of daily dying has not led to a political crisis—it’s more like background noise. It doesn’t get louder and more ominous, as with AIDS in Africa; it doesn’t threaten visible people, as with SARS, which this spring claimed lives in affluent parts of Asia. Though there has been a growing number of protests in cities around the world, the worst water problems are often in the countryside, where protests rarely draw attention. Who has time to protest when you’re spending three, four, five hours a day walking to and from the well, the tap, the river?

For water to become as urgent an issue as oil, it will have to cause more immediate and chaotic disruption. That is what the veteran eco-statistician Lester Brown predicts in two of the chapters in his forthcoming book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. In Brown’s view, water shortages will soon manifest themselves as food shortages—because 70 percent of the water used by human beings is used for irrigation. The spread of irrigation is one of the things that have allowed us to avoid the Malthusian fate environmentalists used to predict; even as population has soared, so has grain production, in some measure because we’ve found access to enough water to make arid regions bloom. Water demand has tripled in the last half-century, a demand that has been met by pumping it from aquifers—underground layers of porous rock or sand containing water, into which wells can be sunk. The diesel-driven and electrically powered pumps that make the extraction of water possible became available around the world at roughly the same time; hence it is no surprise, writes Brown, that we now face “the near-simultaneous depletion of aquifers.” Consider the situation in the three great grain-producing countries: China, India, and the United States.

In China, a survey released in Beijing in August of 2001 revealed that the water table—the level below which the ground is saturated with water—under the North China Plain, which produces half the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, is falling fast. In the heart of the region, the water table fell nearly ten feet in the year 2000 alone. A new World Bank study reports that new wells drilled around Beijing have to descend a thousand meters, more than half a mile, to tap fresh water. Pumping from that depth makes agriculture marginally profitable at best, “often forcing farmers back to dryland farming.”

As a result of water shortages, reduced government grain supports, and the loss of farm labor as China industrializes, the nation’s wheat harvest has fallen in five of the last six years. After peaking at 123 million tons in 1997, it may not exceed 88 million tons this year. Similarly, the rice crop has fallen from a peak of 140 million tons in 2003 to about 121 million tons this year. Corn harvests have stayed steady—which makes sense because corn requires less intense irrigation.

India is also overpumping its aquifers—studies of the wells in Rajasthan suggest the water table there has fallen more than 130 feet over the last two decades. The country’s harvests of wheat and rice are still increasing, but according to Lester Brown, “The loss of irrigation water could override technological progress and start shrinking the harvest within the next few years.” In the US, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains. Still, despite the “drawdown,” or lowering of the water level of the Ogalalla Aquifer, the huge underground reservoir west of the Mississippi, “irrigation water loss…does not appear to be large enough to reduce the grain harvest in the foreseeable future.” Mostly that’s because America, blessed with ample rainfall, grows only about 20 percent of its grain on irrigated land, compared with 70 percent in China and 50 percent in India.

Similar drawdowns seem to be taking place around the world—villages in eastern Iran are being abandoned as wells go dry, and the Saudis, who used mile-deep wells to create, among other follies, a large-scale dairy industry, are now cutting back sharply on water use. Even Israel, renowned for its water conservation technology, is phasing out irrigated wheat production.

In essence, Brown writes, we have created a food bubble economy. Just as we have built our industrial economy on cheap oil, so we have managed to artificially inflate food production by an unsustainable reliance on underground water. The pumping of groundwater has generated tremendous crop yields, even compared with surface-water irrigation from dams and canals, which can’t be as easily turned on and off at just the right moment. But when the water starts to run dry, that free ride is over, and farmers will have to return to growing what they can with the water that falls on their regions. For China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia, he says, the question “is not whether the bubble will burst, but when.”1

Brown studies the world’s water situation from a distance, through the statistical tables of about a hundred agencies and governments. But the few reporters who have taken to the field to look at this question corroborate many of his fears. Take Pakistan. With a population of 140 million (growing by four million a year) it is for the moment self-sufficient in food. But, according to Brown, this is mainly because it is overpumping the aquifers that lie beneath the fertile Punjab plain.

That’s not the only problem, however. As Diane Raines Ward points out in her recent book, Water Wars, many Pakistani fields have been abandoned because of a different sideeffect of overwatering: fields fed by the world’s largest irrigation system have become waterlogged. “Too much water, as damaging as too little, chokes off oxygen and life from the root systems of plants, interferes with the rotting of organic materials, reduces nitrogen, and encourages the accumu- lation of toxins in the ground.” Most of all it “dissolves more and more salts out of the soil or from saline rocks or rock formations.” In Pakistan, 55 million tons of salt are carried into the farmlands of the Punjab and the Sindh annually in canal water, but only 11 million to 16 million tons run off into the sea. The rest is left behind on the fields by evaporation, “coating the earth in a deathly crust…. A full quarter of Pakistan’s crop potential is disabled by salt.” Better drainage in the fields would help the problem—but “better drainage” is shorthand for truly enormous public works projects. Local experts estimate that they will cost perhaps $9 billion.

Robert Glennon’s Water Follies, a lively account of hydrology (the science of water) in America, makes the point that, even aside from the effects on agriculture, groundwater pumping can set off ecological catastrophes. Even in this generally wet nation, 25 percent of our water comes from groundwater pumping—about 28 trillion gallons in 1995. As water tables lower, the overuse of water has “caused rivers, springs, lakes, and wetlands to dry up, the ground beneath us to collapse, and fish, birds, wildlife, trees, and shrubs to die.” In the Southwest, verdant rivers, such as the Santa Cruz in Tucson, turned into “desiccated sandboxes.” In Tampa Bay, lakes have disappeared down sinkholes almost overnight.

How could Americans have been this careless? The answer is that they didn’t know what they were doing. Robert Glennon makes the useful point that hydrology is a relatively new science; it was easy to imagine that there were more or less inexhaustible quantities of water somewhere down there.

That sense informed the nineteenth-century legal debates about who would own water in the US. In much of this country, the doctrines of “capture” or of “reasonable use” govern how much water you can take from beneath your land. Under either doctrine, the answer is pretty much all you want. Glennon’s book has many stories of people who poked big holes in their property and used the water that gushed out to set up catfish farms in the desert or fill millions of liters of expensive bottled water—even as their neighbors watched creeks start to dry up and aquifers shrink. The tricky and complex systems of water rights that govern the American West in particular lead to truly ludicrous results. Cotton and alfalfa and rice are grown with irrigation water in arid climates, when there’s more than enough rainfall back east to grow the same things. Artificial lakes have been created in Phoenix suburbs. Hundreds of thousands of acres of lush fairway are maintained across the desert West. Some of those practices will clearly have to be limited. In fact, some of the worst excesses of desert agriculture are beginning to disappear as farmers figure out that it is more profitable to sell their “water rights.”

But some habits involving unsustainable use—living in Los Angeles, for instance—are simply too big to break. In A Dangerous Place, his posthumously published account of California’s past and future, Marc Reisner follows up on Cadillac Desert, still the classic work on western water. He describes the boosters who, decade after decade, directed Americans west to a coast with a relatively small water supply of its own, rigging together an improbable collection of pipes and aqueducts in order to supply the region. “If the contrived flow of water should somehow just stop,” he writes, “California’s economy, which was worth about a trillion dollars as the new millennium dawned, would implode like a neutron star.” (The water supply, he speculates, could be shut down by an earthquake large enough to wreck the dikes and levees of the Sacramento delta. But an equally plausible, if slightly less dramatic, possibility is the slow-motion effect of global warming. Computer models now indicate that the snowpacks in the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges, on which all California water schemes ultimately depend, may shrink dramatically as the century wears on.2 )

Glennon recommends a number of policies that might gradually change our ways of using water. Current holders of water rights, he concedes, are so powerful politically that there’s no use trying to take their “property” away—instead, he says those rights should be made easily transferable, on the theory that in a free market it’s unlikely they’ll be used to grow cotton in Arizona. At the same time, those who pump groundwater should be taxed for the privilege, and those who use the water, including consumers, should pay considerably more than they now do to help repay all the damage our thirsty lifestyles cause.

Plans to privatize water have become controversial in recent years. Egged on by the World Bank, big European firms like France’s Suez and Vivendi have taken over municipal water systems throughout the world, with mixed results. Theoretically the money they make allows them to extend water networks to those regions, usually slums, where residents rarely have sufficient water. In some cases that’s what has happened. But in other places the result has been chaos and anger. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, the Bechtel Corporation took over the water supply and started doubling and tripling rates—people making $100 a month were in some cases being charged $20 a month for water. The demonstrations that followed left a protester dead. Many more people have died from cholera in parts of South Africa when failure to pay led to their taps being turned off. Now the country is trying to use so-called “lifeline” rates, which offer enough water for basic needs at low prices, but then escalate the cost dramatically as more is used.3

Getting the price right” is, of course, what environmentalists have been demanding we do with fossil fuels for many years. And the difficulty of getting rich Americans to even imagine paying more for gasoline to run their SUVs should give some pause to those who think it will be easier for poor people who need water to survive. But in both cases, the logic is the same. If the realities of using oil (global warming, smog, military intervention) were reflected in its price, we would use less of it, and the alternatives (windmills, say) would be immediately more attractive. If the reality of water—that we’re overpumping a dwindling supply—showed up on the bill, the same thing should happen.

A few steps toward conservation are obvious ones. Irrigation canals, for instance, can be lined with plastic, which can eliminate losses from seepage. Wasteful field-flooding irrigation and huge center-pivot irrigation systems (which cause the beautiful circles you see as you fly above the high plains) can be replaced with lower-pressure sprinklers which release water near the soil surface where it’s less likely to evaporate. “The gold standard for increasing efficiency is drip irrigation,” writes Brown, referring to methods of releasing water slowly just below the surface. Not only does it use less water, it also grows more grain. Until recently, equipment costs kept drip irrigation beyond the reach of farmers except in a few special cases like Israel, but now it is rapidly expanding in countries like Tunisia. Sometimes the solutions are even more high-tech—American farmers often use “laser-leveling” to flatten fields for vegetable production; with no slope to drain water away, efficiency can rise by 20 percent or more.

Taking control of water out of the hands of centralized bureaucracies and putting it under the authority of local communities can also help enormously. Anyone doubting the long-term usefulness of such arrangements should look at New Mexico, the one western state whose water policies are semi-coherent, mostly because they descend from the Spanish system that emphasized local control over the ditches, or acequias. An essayist and a garlic farmer, Stanley Crawford, has written the classic book on this system, Mayordomo4; in it he describes the intricate web of social exchange that has kept his small farming town watered for centuries.


At least at first glance, however, water is different from oil in that there appear to be no alternatives to it—no windmills to replace it with. On close examination, the high-tech responses—large-scale desalinization of seawater, or iceberg towing, or huge pipelines from the Canadian north—usually turn out to be either economically or environmentally impossible, and often both.

On the other hand, there is a lot of water that currently goes uncaptured. This is particularly true in monsoon countries, where water is short because it all comes in a few soggy months and then drains away—India gets most of its 2.1 trillion cubic meters of rain between mid-June and mid-September. Governments have long tried to capture that water by building big dams—but the cost is so enormous and the environmental consequences are so damaging that the pace of giant dam building is slowing down; and anyway most of the prime spots have already been used. Instead, as Diane Raines Ward reports in Water Wars, villagers are increasingly turning to older solutions that emphasize the conservation of soil moisture and groundwater.

She tells the story of the district of Dholera along the Gulf of Cambay in the Indian state of Gujarat, which was

literally dying of thirst. The thick green forests that had once surrounded them had long since fallen to the woodcutter’s ax. There were no permanent rivers, no lakes, no available groundwater, just endless cracked earth and overlying layers of salt.

During the monsoon they could manage, but as the water dried up in its aftermath, the people would wait all day for the sporadic visit of water tankers, trucks which “when they finally arrived, doled out just two quarts per person.” The people of the district were forced to wander with their cattle eight months a year.

In 1985, though, the residents of one village decided not to migrate. “Instead they resolved to work together to build a pond the size of a football field, then lined it with heavy plastic to keep monsoon water from seeping into the ground.” The village’s women organized the work, and did much of the digging and grading themselves; and they welcomed people from neighboring villages to come and drink when, months after the next monsoon had ended, they still had water. Soon other villages in the district had built ponds of their own—and soon similar low-tech storage tanks were being built across India. Or, rather, rebuilt: three thousand years ago, says Diane Raines, “nearly every Indian community had its own water tanks.” They had fallen into disrepair, but now, in one region after another, they are being slowly rehabilitated. And similar schemes are underway in other regions. Lester Brown tells of success with the construction of moisture-holding “ridge terraces” in semi-arid parts of Africa. The Kyoto conference heard reports on large-scale construction of rain storage tanks similar to India’s in China’s Gansu province.

Other kinds of change are possible, too. Modern “flush-and-forget” sewage systems use immense quantities of water. One economist calculated that an Indian family of five, producing 250 liters of excrement in a year, would use 150,000 liters of water to wash it away. Instead, the world may find itself turning toward composting toilets, which were pioneered in Scandinavia but now are coming into wider use in many places. These odorless units require no water at all; they’re emptied once a year or so by a company that can sell the composted waste as a soil supplement. But we waste water in much more centralized fashion too: in the US, for instance, 30 percent of industrial water is used to cool fossil-fuel and nuclear power plants. As these are replaced by solar panels and wind turbines, that water should be freed for other uses.

All these strategies—drip irrigation, sensible pricing, rainwater storage, sewage system redesign, among others—will need to be pursued with great determination if they are to make much of a difference in the dismal statistics of water supply. Whether or not they can ever refill the overpumped aquifers and raise the falling groundwater tables is a difficult question. Because the answer is in doubt, most experts on water supply put stabilizing human population near the top of their agenda. Great progress has been made in doing so. As women around the world have decided on smaller families, human fertility has fallen sharply, to the point where most demographers believe human population won’t double again. However, the question of whether our species tops out at, say, 8 billion, or grows to, say, 11 billion remains both open and critical. A billion people here, a billion people there, and pretty soon you’re talking about lots of water.

Brown suggests that we will be able to keep track of our progress by watching the price of grain. Since it takes about a thousand tons of water to grow a ton of wheat, he says that

countries are satisfying their growing demand for water by tapping international grain markets. As water shortages intensify, so too will the competition for grain in these markets. In a sense, to trade in grain futures is to trade in water futures.

And, he points out ominously, there may very well not be enough grain in well-watered places to make up for the coming shortfalls of grain production in China, India, and elsewhere.

It is probably appropriate that like the talks over global warming the water meeting was held in Kyoto. The city seems to be serving as a graveyard for problems so big that they can defy human ability to solve. Or perhaps human will, not human ability, is the issue. Even in the face of undeniable scientific reality, the pain of grappling with these questions sometimes seems too high. We may well suck out every last drop of oil and, by burning it, degrade the climate in disastrous ways, all so we can keep the habits of the last forty years alive for another fifteen years. We may well suck out practically all the water from beneath some of our most fertile lands, simply because no one dares interfere with a system that, for the moment, is more or less managing to feed the earth. The future may depend on our ability to comprehend the invisible accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere, and the invisible depletion of subterranean water. The two crises, moreover, are deeply interconnected, since global warming promises to evaporate large quantities of surface water. Despair may seem reasonable.

On the other hand, there are windmills sprouting across Europe, and water tanks under construction across India. A response involving entire continents has at least begun. Which is appropriate, because these are problems that may threaten human civilization itself.

  1. 1

    For a more detailed, if slightly older, analysis of world irrigation patterns, the standard reference is Sandra Postel’s Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? (Norton, 1999).

  2. 2

    Those seeking an in-depth account of the evolution of western water policy should read Donald J. Pisani’s Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902–35 (University of Chicago Press, 2002). It is a disturbing portrait of just how easily politics overruled every other concern in the settlement of our arid regions.

  3. 3

    Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke, Canadian campaigners against globalization, make a vigorous attack on spreading water privatization in their book Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water (New Press, 2002). They offer an especially vivid portrait of the way international agencies can be lured into cooperation with dubious corporate plans.

  4. 4

    Anchor, 1989.