With oil prices steaming towards $130 a barrel, CO2 emissions climbing relentlessly, food shortages and major commodity price hikes hitting the world’s poor, “the last thing anyone needs is another crisis”, according to the current issue of Business Week.
But that’s exactly what we’ve got – in spades. The crisis in question is dwindling supplies of safe fresh water. Right now, 2.8 billion people – 44% of the world’s population – live in areas of high water stress, according to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development [OECD].
This will hit almost four billion by 2030, the OECD warns, unless radical new water-use policies are implemented. Countries such as India, China, and other parts of the developing world will be hit hardest in the short term, but water stress will also increase in almost all parts of the world.
The American mid-west, the world’s largest grain-growing region, is particularly vulnerable to water shortages and drought. The region is heavily dependent on severely tapped aquifers.
The phrase ‘Peak Water’ has begun to surface recently to describe the apparent arrival of an era where human enterprise, including such critical functions as food production, begins to encounter severe natural limits. There are fewer more unforgiving than a shortage of potable water.
As parts of Australia are now experiencing at first hand, without water, nothing is possible. A commodity supplied by nature in such vast abundance, for so long, we have treated water not as a precious resource, but rather as an open sewer for our wastes
and a bottomless well from which we have been relentlessly drawing to force more and more productivity from the land.
The adverse effects of such extreme efforts – salinisation of soils, eutrophication of lakes and coastal areas, erosion and desertification, and of course egregious carelessness in the form of pollution, is now coming home to roost.
By the end of 2008, there will be another 85 million hungry – and thirsty – mouths to feed and water on our long-suffering planet. And a similar number the year after that…
The folks at Business Week, The Economist and all the other trade publications for the globalised economy need to snap out of their collective trance of viewing the world as some giant field waiting to be cut down, harvested and turned into corporate profits, no matter what the cost.
The resources we have are strictly finite, the biosphere in which we operate is equally finite, and fragile. Destroy it, through greed, ignorance, stupidity or a combination of these, and we destroy ourselves.
Even the super-rich, who may be initially sheltered from the storm by their privilege (and most of whom act as if it truly has nothing to do with them) will suffer the same fate as the rest of us if we collectively fail to act. For those who care too little to be bothered ‘saving the world’, it’s worth contemplating that what happens to the world as a whole, happens to us.
Our sheer numbers, our complex societies, our technologies and our systems ultimately make us more, rather than less, vulnerable. It’s a hard lesson to take on board, but we have to continue to believe it’s not yet too late to learn.