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Guest Thinkers

Parched Planet: More Droughts Ahead

The massive droughts in China underscore the fact that we're simply running out of the freshwater needed to sustain the earth's nearly 7 billion people. How can we fix this problem? 

Americans live in a fantasy world of abundant water, but for most of the globe, water is a precious commodity. The massive droughts in China underscore the fact that we’re simply running out of the freshwater needed to sustain the earth’s nearly 7 billion people. 

And this problem is hardly new. Three years ago, Big Think spoke with Maude Barlow, the Senior Advisor on Water to the President of the United Nations, who cautioned that we are creating new deserts at alarming rates. These are not cyclical droughts, she warned:

“We are destroying water retentive landscapes everywhere by our pollution displacement abuse of water, moving it from where it is needed in nature to where we want it and then we destroy it or we dump it in the ocean or whatever or we use it to water deserts or we export it out of our watersheds. And one way and another, we are creating new deserts where we needed water retentive hydrologic cycles.”

During the interview, Barlow prophesied the drought that China currently faces. After Africa, northern China faces the most dire water shortages, she said. “Four hundred of the six hundred cities in northern China are in water crisis.” 

So how do we go about solving this crisis? Peter Brabeck, the chairman of Nestle, says that the first step is to minimize the water that is wasted from an inefficient water supply: “We are losing in the developed countries…more than 30 percent of our water supply because we don’t have sufficient infrastructure because the infrastructure is completely deficient.” In the developing world, that number is closer to 60 or 70 percent. But this will cost an annual investment of $1 trillion, whereas we are spending less than $500 billion each year. 

The second crucial step, he says, is that water can’t be free. “If you do not give a value to the water, those investments are not going to be made because nobody has an interest to invest because you don’t have an economical return. If the value of water is zero, any investment will never yield. If the water has at least a decent price, an investment might yield.”

Controversial as pricing water may be, might it be necessary for solving our global water shortage?