Magazine article Newsweek

Troubled Waters; Drought, Pollution, Mismanagement and Politics Have Made Water a Precious Commodity in Much of the World

Magazine article Newsweek

Troubled Waters; Drought, Pollution, Mismanagement and Politics Have Made Water a Precious Commodity in Much of the World

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Carmichael (With Sarah Schafer in Beijing and Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi)

Daily life in the developed world has depended so much, for so long, on clean water that it is sometimes easy to forget how precious a commodity water is. The average American citizen doesn't have to work for his water; he has only to turn on the tap. But in much of the rest of the world, it isn't that simple. More than a billion people worldwide lack clean water, most of them in developing countries. The least fortunate may devote whole days to finding some.

When they fail--and they fail more and more often now that rivers in Africa and Asia are slowly drying up after decades of mismanagement and climate change--they may turn to violence, fighting over the small amount that is left. Water has long been called the ultimate renewable resource. But as Fred Pearce writes in his book "When the Rivers Run Dry," if the world doesn't change, that saying may no longer apply.

Like the famines of the '80s, the global water crisis is far more than a straightforward issue of scarcity. Accidents of geography, forces of industry and the machinations of politics may all play a role in who gets water--just as warlords, as well as droughts, were responsible for starvation in Ethiopia. In many ways, the famines contributed to today's man-made droughts: the crops grown in the worldwide "green revolution" of the past three decades sated hunger but sapped water in the process. "As the globe gets more crowded," says Susan Cozzens, a policy professor at Georgia Tech who is working on water problems, "the old arrangements just don't work anymore."

There is still time for nonprofits and governments to fix things. "Chlorination, gravity-fed distribution systems, taps at every household, all these could make a difference," says John Kayser of Water for People, a nonprofit working in the developing world. Ecoconscious start-ups in the United States and Europe are increasingly offering new ways of purifying water, from high-tech (but inexpensive) ultraviolet filters to simple tactics such as filling clear bottles and letting the hot sun kill the bacteria inside.

But thus far, there has been no worldwide "blue revolution." More likely, says Pearce, we'll "only really start to worry about the water when it isn't there." Here are some flashpoints, regions where the future of water is most worrisome.

CHINA

Population: 1.3 billion

Crisis: Pollution

Unfit for drinking: Contaminated water flows through a river in Shenqiu County. Factoriesroutinely dump waste directly into the waterway.

China's Poisoned Water. To look at the mighty Yangtze River, you might think China could not have a water crisis. The third longest river in the world, it funnels 8 million gallons into the East China Sea every second. The river drives the world's largest hydroelectric dam, the Three Gorges, and it is one of the backbones of the country's economy.

When you look more deeply into China's water supply, however, you'll see plenty to worry about. The government has long known that the Yangtze is polluted. In 2002, Beijing announced a $5 billion cleanup effort, but last year admitted that the river was still so burdened with agricultural and industrial waste that by 2011 it may be unable to sustain marine life, much less human life. An April report by the World Wildlife Fund and two Chinese agencies found that damage to the river's ecosystem is largely irreversible.

Travel farther north, especially near the country's other major water system, the Yellow River, and the picture is even bleaker. Since the 1980s, drought and overuse have diminished the river to a relative trickle. Most of the year, little to none of its water reaches the sea, says Pearce. What does still flow in the Yellow is often unsuitable for drinking, fishing, swimming or any other form of human use. Every day, the river absorbs 1 million tons of untreated sewage from the city of Xian alone. …

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