For people suffering from flooding, it is hard to imagine that we are facing a global fresh water shortage. During the monsoonal season in 2011, India, China and many parts of South East Asia suffered from severe flooding in what appeared to be an unusually long wet period. Bangkok declared an emergency in what was said to be the worst flooding in 50 years.
Yet it is water shortage that will prove to be one of the biggest challenges for man this century.
Fresh water is already scarce for many. Close to a quarter of the world’s population does not have immediate access to clean drinking water. In parts of Africa, Asia and South America, the trek with a plastic water container is a daily event, often the labor falling on women and children. Even after walking to the water source, there is no guarantee that it will not have dried up. Many of the wells being dug deep into the ground around the world to extract water from underground aquifers are drying up. In the Indian Sub-continent, not only are these wells being bled dry. The water at certain levels may even contain dangerous levels of arsenic.
Pollution worsens the water crisis
Even when there is water in the rivers, chances are it is seriously polluted by agricultural fertilizers or pesticides or industry. The water in some rivers in China, India and Canada is unusable due to the high levels of pollution. Lack of regulations or poorly enforced regulations often mean that companies can dump toxic materials into rivers. Little is done to deal with these problems because of the overriding paradigm – economic growth and industrial production is paramount.
The “Third Pole” in melting
When New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing reached the summit of Mount Everest in 1953, they could look out over a sea of snow and ice covered Himalayan peaks that stretched off to the blue horizon. But today that icy vista is changing.
The Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau have been dubbed the “Third Pole,” a reference to the greatest amount of snow and ice outside of the Arctic and Antarctic. But five decades after the first ascent of Everest, there are signs that this vast frozen reserve is melting at an alarmingly fast rate.
Climate change studies in the Himalayas indicate that the glaciers are disappearing. The quickly growing Imja Lake near Everest is just one example of the rapidly melting ice.
India and China face catastrophe
The world’s two most populous nations are facing a serious challenge. India and China rely heavily on the rivers that flow down from the “Third Pole,” in addition to other countries in the region, including those of South East Asia. The Indus, Ganges, Bramaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween and Mekong rivers are all under threat.
Scientists studying the ice cover and precipitation on the Roof of the World are warning that with the rise in global temperatures and the changing weather patterns, the coming decades could see that gradual drying up of river flow in the region. Such a development could prove catastrophic. Hundreds of millions of people, mostly farmers, rely on these rivers for watering their crops and for drinking water.
The problem of politics and short-term governments
Tackling this challenge will prove tough. Options will be extremely limited. But one of the biggest problems is the nature of governance. Long-terms solutions need to be developed today. Governments, though, typically think short-term, concerned only about their four or five year term in office with little sense of planning for the future.
Efforts need to be made to examine ways to conserve and clean water supplies, as well as look for ways to use water more efficiently. But it is inevitable that some areas will become largely uninhabitable at a time when population pressures will be increasing.
The Death of a River: The Colorado River Delta
In August, Alexandra Cousteau’s Expedition Blue Planet crossed over the Arizona/Mexican border to follow the Colorado’s dry riverbed to its historic mouth in the Upper Gulf of California where its nutrient-rich waters no longer reach the sea. This short film tracks the ghost of a mighty river that used to run free over this land half a century ago.
Urban Watersheds – From Runoff to Renewal
In “Urban Watersheds: Runoff to Renewal” Alexandra Cousteau’s Expedition Blue Planet explores the hidden world of water under Toronto, Canada’s largest city. In this short film, Alexandra Cousteau examines the role of rivers in our urban ecosystems and interviews Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson and Lost Rivers Founder Helen Mills – among others – to learn of their vision of a healthy urban hydrosphere.
Check out an NGO working to protect the rivers and oceans – Alexandra Cousteau’s website and Blue Legacy
Sources: World Water Council, Blue Planet Network, activists