It has been estimated that around 90% of disasters—hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, etc.—are water-related. Could the world be headed for a major water crisis? Is any part of the earth immune to water supply problems?
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When someone in the Western world is asked his opinion about water scarcity, he might respond with some concern for those starving in Africa, or perhaps India. He will probably assume regional droughts in his own rich country to be temporary inconveniences that can be addressed by rationing and conservation.
Crisis? What crisis?” says the archetypical, self-assured Westerner. “It will never happen here.”
Or can it?
In the West, droughts and floods are largely attributed to weather cycles and global warming. Not much serious consideration is given to the real underlying causes of present “inconveniences.” And, while water problems in the English-speaking countries of the world are intensifying, it is obvious that they have not reached a crisis stage—yet.
However, this is not the case in numerous regions throughout the planet. Many areas are already under stress from lack of water and a growing population. With expanding deserts, deforestation and growing droughts, everyone should be concerned about potential worldwide calamity caused by a diminished water supply.
When viewed from space, Earth is a magnificent blue planetary gem that appears to have a limitless supply of water. Indeed, at least 70% of its surface is covered by water.
But most is salt water, located largely in the oceans and seas. Only 3% of all the water is freshwater, safe for drinking—and most of this is unavailable for human use. Roughly a full three quarters of all freshwater is part of the frozen and largely uninhabited ice caps and glaciers. What remains for our use is about 1% of the total. (North America’s Great Lakes and Russia’s Lake Baikal make up about two-fifths of this volume.)
The hydrological cycle acts as a huge desalination unit as the sun’s energy transports freshwater in the form of vapor from the oceans over land. Rainwater and snow are distributed throughout the earth’s continents, but not equally.
Approximately 75% of annual rain falls in areas inhabited by only one-third of the earth’s population. For example, 20% of all rainfall descends upon the dense jungles of the Amazon River basin in South America each year. Yet this vast region is inhabited by less than 10 million people.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 30% of Africa’s annual rainfall is deposited along the Congo River and its tributaries—an area that is inhabited by only about 10% of the continent’s total population.
Also consider that, although Asia experiences around 31% of the earth’s annual rainfall, the per capita availability is just over 4,700 cubic meters per year, per person. In contrast, per-capita availability in North America stands at over 19,000 cubic meters.
In short, the above unequal distribution can be attributed to extremely complex ocean currents and temperature, latitudes and their relationship to the sun’s distance, atmospheric “jet streams,” and variations in the earth’s atmospheric temperature. These physical conditions have, indeed, been altered by man through his abuse of the earth.
Water—and lots of it—is crucial to any prosperous economy. It is no coincidence that the powerful nations of the world are located in areas with an abundant water supply. Worldwide, agricultural uses account for about 69% of the total, while industry uses around 23%.
Industrialized nations use less percentage of water for agriculture; more is used for industrial purposes. Conversely, the third world must devote a greater share to its agriculture, due to farming inefficiencies, as well as water scarcity and lack of industry.
These differences are huge. The continent of Africa, for example, devotes a full 88% of all water to agriculture, 7% to domestic purposes and only 5% to industry. Asia must soak its crops with a similar 86% of its water, using only 8% for industry and 6% for domestic use. India is at 90% for agricultural use, 7% for industry and 3% for private consumption. Conversely, Europe’s industry uses 54% of all water, with agriculture consuming 33% and domestic use at 13%.
Few would disagree that the planet is running out of sources of vitally important freshwater. And—as the worldwide population continues to rapidly increase, and as droughts continue to plague the planet—most would agree that something needs to be done quickly to alleviate this growing concern. Otherwise, by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population could live in countries with severe water shortages.
With 97% of the planet’s water found in the oceans, one possible solution is desalination. This term refers to any of several processes that remove salt and other fine particulates from ocean water, treated wastewater and brackish water (a mixture of fresh- and saltwater). More than 100 countries desalinize water; Saudi Arabia leads the way, accounting for 24% of the world’s capacity.
Of the many desalination methods that exist, reverse osmosis is the most common, constituting 47.2% of installed desalination capacity worldwide, as of July 2004. Reverse osmosis is accomplished by pumping seawater at high pressure through a permeable material that allows the water to pass through, but not the salt and other minerals. This is often done in multiple stages. The end result of the entire procedure is usable freshwater. Close to 50% of the supplied water is recovered, with the other half rendered unusable due to the high mineral content. Israel is home to the planet’s largest reverse osmosis plant, capable of producing 100 million cubic meters of water per year.
Another popular method of desalination is known as distillation. This process uses evaporation to separate salt and other impurities from saltwater. As the water is heated, it evaporates and leaves behind the unwanted materials. The steam is collected and condensed in a container, while the waste product is ejected. An advantage of distillation is that it uses thermal energy (sunlight) rather than conventional fossil fuels as its source of power, resulting in a more environmentally friendly solution. The drawback is that it yields less freshwater than does reverse osmosis.
No matter the method of desalination used, an extremely concentrated—and potentially harmful—waste product is always produced. (The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified it as industrial waste, thus requiring proper disposal.)
In the case of reverse osmosis, since 50% of the supply water is recovered, it means that the other 50% is now twice as saline as it was originally. If a desalination facility is located along a coastline, it is possible under certain circumstances to return this waste water to the ocean, but only if it does not exceed a safe level of salinity. If the facility is located inland, the challenges of proper waste product disposal increase, as one cannot simply release it into freshwater streams, ponds, lakes, etc.
Similar to many solutions discovered by mankind, desalination produces a useless by-product in the process of creating a useful product. Will it come to be recognized as a viable solution? Time will tell.
Water usage increased six-fold in the 20th century, at twice the rate of population growth. Americans used as little as 7 gallons of water per day 100 years ago. But today, with readily available water in homes and offices across the country, usage has skyrocketed to more than 145 gallons of water per day!
The exponential increases in consumption by the developed world can be largely attributed to more advanced methods of pumping and distribution. While a person—usually women and girls—living in Asia or Africa may literally walk miles (often over three hours) to retrieve available water by hand, those in the West can simply turn a faucet and have all the water they need.
Along with the huge increase in worldwide consumption is waste. In many places of the world, 30 to 40% or more of water goes unaccounted for, caused by water leakages in pipes and canals, and illegal connections. As the third world nations struggle to develop, world per-capita water use is also increasing exponentially, not simply in a linear manner. Much of this increase can be attributed to human migration toward population centers, as it is estimated that half of humanity will be living in towns and cities by 2007.
Consequently, within the next 20 years, the worldwide average availability of water-per-person is expected to decrease by more than one-third—and only if weather patterns remain favorable.
Let’s take a look at civilization’s critical need for water. The basic need to feed the earth’s people requires incredible amounts of water. For example, a one-acre cornfield loses over 4,000 gallons of water per day just in evaporation. A single pound of potatoes requires 1,000 pounds of water for its production. Or, generally, one ton of produce requires around 1,000 tons of water. Astonishing!
Perhaps more astonishing is a breakdown of water totals required for some other common foods:
• Apple: 16 gallons
• Orange: 22 gallons
• Egg: 85 gallons
• Loaf of bread: 150 gallons
• Pound of beef: 3,000 gallons
Agriculture is also the biggest polluter of freshwater resources—accounting for more than 70% of water pollution in the United States. In America alone, agricultural chemicals (including pesticides) have eroded sediment and, combined with animal waste, have seriously degraded 173,000 miles of waterways.
The problem is no less serious in other countries. In India, for example, more than 4 million hectares of agricultural land have been abandoned because of salt deposits and water logging caused by irrigation.
Whether pumped from an aquifer or distributed to crops from surface reservoirs, water eventually makes its way back to the sea as runoff. What returns to rivers and streams after agricultural use contains harmful toxins, salts, sediments and pathogens.
Industrial pollution also contributes to compromised water quality. At least 70,000 different chemicals are used regularly throughout the world, and there are between 200 and 400 toxic chemicals that contaminate the world’s waterways. It is also estimated that at least 1,000 new chemicals are introduced every year! When these industrial wastes are combined with agricultural runoff, the problem of freshwater pollution becomes mountainous.
While it is true that advances in water chemistry as it relates to water treatment have done much to clean up the rivers and lakes in the industrialized world, over 90% of Europe’s rivers have nitrate levels that exceed established health thresholds, and one-half of the continent’s lakes are low in oxygen. The process, called eutrophication, occurs when excess nutrients stimulate the growth of algae in the water, which in turn rob the lake of oxygen necessary for animal life.
Wastewater treatment is big business today, processing millions of gallons of water while sending tons of the refuse taken from the water to landfills. However, in the third world, 90 to 95% of all domestic sewage and 75% of all industrial waste are discharged into surface waters without any treatment at all.
Here are just a few of the more serious developments:
• The fertile Nile Delta region has contracted radically due to water diversion and sediment buildup. About 30 species of fish (out of 47) have become extinct or endangered. Delta fisheries that could once feed a million people have been wiped out.
• The Rhine River in Europe has lost 8 of its 44 species of fish; another 25 of those are rare or endangered.
• Colombia’s Magdalena River has seen fish production drop from 72,000 metric tons in 1977 to only 23,000 metric tons in 1992.
• In the United States, California has lost more than 90% of its wetlands, causing about two-thirds of native fish to become extinct or endangered.
The human body is around 72% water, the human brain is nearly 85% and blood 82%. No wonder one’s survival can extend for weeks without food, but usually only a few days without water.
The recommended daily amount of this marvelous fluid required for drinking is said to be around 3.3 liters of water for women and 4.5 for men.
Add sanitation requirements, and the total increases to about 40 liters per person, per day.
Include water for bathing and cooking, and the total skyrockets to an amazing 200 liters per person, per day!
The following guidelines dramatically illustrate our continuous need for water:
• A 5% loss of body fluids results in thirst, irritability, nausea and weakness.
• A 10% loss results in dizziness, headache, inability to walk and a tingling sensation in the limbs.
• A 15% loss results in dim vision, painful urination, swollen tongue, deafness and a numb feeling in the skin.
• A loss greater than 15% usually results in death.
Water is in contact with cell membranes and protein surfaces, which have a strong attraction to it. Biologists refer to this type of surface as hydrophilic.
Many substances, such as oil, do not mix well with water. Cell membranes use this property to control the exchange of nutrients and chemicals with their external environment. This process is possible in large part because of the unusual cohesive nature of water molecules—a property referred to as surface tension.
Water acts as a solvent, a cleaner, a transport vehicle and a shield, as seen in the human body.
There is a saying among water engineers: “The solution to pollution is dilution.” While this is intended as a sarcastic comment on the problem, it is based on some truth.
But there is only so much water available for this purpose, as a single gallon of gasoline can contaminate 750,000 gallons of water. It is estimated that, if current trends were to continue, the world’s entire river system will be required to transport and dilute pollution by 2050!
In 1995, 31 countries—with combined populations of 458 million people—faced water stress or water scarcity, with most of the stressed areas found in the third world. The next year, 54% of all accessible freshwater from lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers were being consumed.
In Africa, where 43% of the land surface is arid, drought was anticipated as a normal part of a cycle every five to six years. However, severe droughts have occurred much more frequently in recent years, affecting more than 50 million people and killing at least 2 million. This year, a spokesman for the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization warned that 11 million people living in East Africa would die unless a massive relief effort commenced immediately.
Severe drought in northern Kenya, southern Ethiopia and southwest Somalia has caused livestock to become practically worthless. “I have walked for three days to bring these animals here, and now I have to sell them at whatever price I am offered because they will not be strong enough to walk back again,” said Hussein Aden, age 25 (“Africa: Economies Worst Placed to Cope With Knock-On Effects of Drought,” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).
Growing water scarcity in China could threaten economic expansion. The nation became a net food importer in 2004 due to both land and water shortages. While the present situation cannot be referred to as a crisis, increased drought (common in the north) and floods (common in the south) could quickly change the situation.
As all nations attempt to cope with growing populations, changing weather patterns and shrinking water reserves, water will become a point of contention. The UN acknowledges that “hot spots” of conflict between nations will probably result. Here are just a few examples:
• Israel and Jordan have had past disagreements about water ownership and use, though a treaty in 1994 somewhat cooled tensions.
• The tiny Jewish state occupies and controls the headwaters of the Jordan River, much to the dissatisfaction of Syria and Jordan. (One cause of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war was said to be water.)
• The waters of the Blue Nile have long been a source of heated contention between Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt’s very existence is dependent on the Nile, which supplies 98% of its water needs.
• In Turkey, the Southeast Anatolia Project is poised to divert half of the flow of the Euphrates River.
In short, water scarcity can lead to the exchange of strong words, saber-rattling—and even armed conflict. In a world of competing nations where the powerful exploit the weak, water can and will be used as an excuse to wage war. Such has been the legacy of mankind.
While some, through science and organizations such as the United Nations, vainly attempt to solve the world’s water problem, the Bible reveals that dark times are immediately ahead. As prophetic trends, caused by man’s disobedience to his Creator, worsen—as droughts and famines increase and spread—wars among nations will arise. On the heels of such wars will come more droughts and famines, of even greater intensity (Matt. 24:6-7; Rev. 6:4-6).
Will science and engineering be able to solve the growing scarcity of water throughout the earth? Will men somehow put aside their differences, and work together to solve this threatening problem through cooperation and technical advancement? Will the nations of the West, including the United States, be affected?
While catastrophic drought, and the starvation that accompanies it, appears to be restricted to largely the poverty-stricken areas of the world, the number of nations experiencing water shortages will increase. God’s Word proclaims that even the richest nations of the earth—those that possess the birthright blessings (Gen. 22:16-17; 35:11; 48:18-20)—will also soon find themselves in times of scarcity. (Our book America and Britain in Prophecy explains what these blessings are—and why they are being removed).
First, this is to occur in the form of too much rain in one area, and too little: “And also I have withheld the rain from you, when there were yet three months to the harvest: and I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: One piece was rained upon, and the piece whereupon it rained not withered” (Amos 4:7).
These regionally confined and relatively mild droughts will increase in intensity until complete drought, famine and scarcity suddenly engulf the land (Lev. 26:19). God will bring this calamity upon the modern nations descended from ancient Israel as punishment for rejecting Him and His way of life! The great Creator of the universe controls the weather. God uses weather and other means as instruments to chastise His rebellious children, who will not listen and follow Him.
Yes, the nations of the world could prosper in abundance—if only they would turn from their rebellion against the God who made them! Our Creator promises to provide rain in due season, necessary for abundant crops and general economic prosperity (Isa. 35:1).
God does not delight in men’s suffering: “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? Says the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?” (Ezek. 18:23). He calls upon all nations to repent—change—and obey His laws and walk in all His ways.
Sadly, it is in man’s nature to rebel against his Maker—to reject God’s warnings of punishment.
However, individuals can escape! God promises physical blessings and protection now—in this life!—to those who choose to come out of the world (Rev. 18:4) and its ways.
Yet the greatest news is that Jesus Christ will soon return to establish His perfect government on the earth. Peace and widespread prosperity—along with abundant natural resources for all—will result (Isa. 9:6-7; 35:6-7).