Most apocalyptic warnings focus on oil, but there's an even more frightening and immediate problem looming on the horizon: a water crisis. Scientists, politicians and business leaders worldwide are faced with drought and a severe shortage of fresh drinking water, as well as water that's essential for industry, transportation and agriculture. Here's a brief discussion of the catastrophe that's already engulfed much of the world:
How real is this so-called "water crisis"?
There's plenty of evidence to support the alarmists. An estimated one billion people -- that's one out of every seven people -- don't have daily access to safe drinking water, according to One Drop
, an international water-rights advocacy group. An additional 2.5 billion people lack basic sanitation, and increased industrialization in developing countries like China, India, Brazil and in sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in severe pollution of once-viable sources of fresh drinking water.
How widespread is this water crisis?
It's causing serious problems on every inhabited continent, in rural areas and major cities alike. China has been forced to develop a plan that call for diverting six trillion
gallons of water each year to stem the southerly march of the Gobi desert, according to Edward Wong of The New York Times
. The nations of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon -- the area once known as the "Fertile Cresent" -- are reeling under the forced migration of hundred of thousands of water refugees
. Bolivia, which once produced nearly all of its own food, now has to import much of its food supply
because of a combination of drought, floods and government policies.
But could the water crisis affect developed nations like the United States?
It already has. An unprecedented combination of high temperatures and scarce rainfall has scientists predicting an extension of the severe drought
that's now crippling the western half of America. Texas, which is withering under its worst drought since record-keeping began over 100 years ago, is expected to see no relief in the foreseeable future. The idea that desert cities like Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix may become uninhabitable
is no longer a far-fetched vision from a science-fiction novel. Even places like England that are normally cool and rainy are suffering under a drought that's affecting their crop yields
, says Neena Rai in the Wall Street Journal
What could the effects be on the world’s food supply?
Devastating, if some predictions are realized. A 2011 report from Oxfam
estimates that the average cost of food staples will rise as much as 180% by the year 2030, due in large part to water shortages. The potential for an international food crisis has caused the G20 nations
to examine measures that will prevent famine, food riots and other catastrophes.
Is a water shortage the main problem?
No: There's also the problem of water quality, and the difficulty and expense of purifying water that's been contaminated with pollutants ranging from heavy metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and bacteria. Roughly two million people die
each year from diseases caused by water pollution, and that number is likely to increase as more industrialization dumps more pollution into the water supplies of more crowded cities.
Can't we desalinize sea water and make it safe to drink?
We can, but desalinization is a very expensive, time-consuming process that takes a tremendous amount of energy -- and the energy industry is as affected by this problem almost as much as agriculture. Nuclear reactors in France, for example, are running out of water for their cooling towers, says John Daly in OilPrice.com
. And oil-rich Texas is experiencing a slowdown in oil and natural-gas drilling
because there's not enough of the water needed for hydraulic fracturing ("fracking
") and other drilling techniques, according to Joe Carroll in Bloomberg News
Is the water crisis related to global warming?
Probably. Though no one can say with absolute certainty that the current spate of droughts and floods are the direct result of climate change
, there’s ample evidence that it is. Increased average temperatures are already evident around the world, and those higher temperatures result in more evaporation of existing water supplies. "This is a quiet crisis of rising temperatures, persistent droughts
, and rising food prices in the face of rapid population increases," states Brian Fagan in the Huffington Post
. And as the global population continues to soar past seven billion people
, according to the Business Insider
, scarcity of water and food will exacerbate the shortages that exist today.
What can anyone do about the water crisis?
Ordinary citizens have a lot more power than most of us realize. Besides putting pressure on all your elected officials to take action against climate change, living a greener, more sustainable life -- a.k.a. "leading by example" -- is a great first step. Leading by example means using less water when showering and bathing, installing low-flow toilets
, faucets and showerheads, adopting low-maintenance lawn care
and xeriscape landscaping
, and "living la vida local" -- buying food and other products that are made locally with less-intensive industrial and agricultural processing
. Though these and other actions make a definite difference, this is an international crisis that requires a decisive, global response. Here's a great way to get started -- by getting in touch with your state and federal representatives