'National Geographic' Water Issue: Emerging Problems Have Many Solutions, But Will We Act Fast Enough?

National Geographic has a special issue out this month, devoted exclusively to our planet's diminishing water supply. As Barbara Kingsolver writes in the opening essay:

Civilization has been slow to give up on our myth of the Earth's infinite generosity … We pumped aquifers and diverted rivers, trusting the twin lucky stars of unrestrained human expansion and endless supply. Now water tables plummet in countries harboring half the world's population. Rather grandly, we have overdrawn our accounts.

The worst consequences of that overdrawing are all around us now being realized.

Some of the anecdotes Nat Geo uses to illustrate this point are familiar: glaciers retreating, freshwater fish dying off, and women in developing countries having to walk really, really far for the kind of water that most of us in the developed world wouldn't deign to wash our laundry in, let alone drink or bathe with.

But other anecdotes are less familiar, and show just how bad things have gotten: in the slums of Delhi people are literally killing each other for want of a few containersfull. And along war-torn borders throughout the world (Israel-Jordan, India-Pakistan, Turkey-Syria), water is poised to reshape geopolitics as much as oil ever did.

Not even the United States is immune. In Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, officials have fallen to squabbling in court over Lake Lanier, the dwindling reservoir shared by all three states. And in California, the state has resorted to recycling sewer water and is planning to suck in and desalinate hundreds of millions of gallons from the Pacific. And that's just to meet current demand.

All of this raises the question: how can we possibly run out of something that's both abundant and renewable? It's true that water is neither created nor destroyed. It evaporates from the oceans' surfaces, passes over the land as mist, then rains down into rivers and streams and earth that we mine and divert and manipulate for our own needs. Eventually, every last molecule passes back into the ocean to repeat the process. As the editors at National Geographic so eloquently point out, we're drinking the same water the dinosaurs did.

Here's the problem, though: water doesn't always go where we want it to, when we want it to. While it covers 70 percent of earth's surface, only 3 percent of it exists in drinkable, freshwater form, and nearly 70 percent of that is locked in ice. The remaining 30 percent is in accessible aquifers, but thanks largely to population growth, we are draining those aquifers much more quickly than Mother Nature can possibly replenish them. Combine population growth (83 million more humans on the planet every year, according to National Geographic) with the effects of global warming and you get a horribly uneven picture - too much water in some places, not enough of it in others. The bottom line is that, believe it or not, one out of every eight people on the planet—some 900 million people in all—have no clean water to drink or bathe in or wash their clothes with.

The good news is that there are countless solutions to this problem: fixing leaky pipes (to which some U.S. cities lose 60 percent of their water supply, according to the U.S. Geological Survey), implementing water-friendly agricultural practices, like drip irrigation, and straightforward conservation in regions predisposed to use too much.

That of course raises a second question: if solutions exist, why is the problem not being solved? Why are things getting worse instead of better? The obvious answer is that there are significant political and economic barriers to action. But as Kingsolver hints at (and as I've written before), it's also a question of values. Kingsolver cites "The Tragedy of the Commons," an ecological treatise from Biology 101, which observes that shared resources create situations where "the rational pursuit of individual self-interest leads to collective ruin." The only hope for effective conservation of those resources is "a change in human values or ideas of morality." Water, Kingsolver writes, is the ultimate common. But because the negative consequences of self-interest are so unevenly distributed, and because the people with the greatest capacity to make a difference have largely evaded those consequences, change has been glacial. As The New York Times recently reported, most Americans scoff at the idea of paying more for their water, even when told the extra money is needed to repair aging water infrastructure and clean up polluted lakes and rivers. And as National Geographic notes, even in cities faced with dire water shortages, golf courses and swimming pools still claim billions of gallons every year.