Globally, we are facing a critical strategic resource challenge. Experts expect global shortfalls of water equivalent to 10 Nile River systems or 110 Colorado River drainages by 2025.

Globally, the statistics are daunting:

  • One in five of our planet's human family - some 1.1 billion people - lack adequate water for their daily needs. “Adequate” is defined in this context as a mere 5 gallons per day.
  • An estimated 2.6 billion humans lack access to improved sanitation.
  • By the mid-1990s, 80 nations - comprising 40 percent of the world's population - suffered water shortages.
  • Within 25 years, experts predict that two-thirds of the world's population will live in water-stressed regions.

While governments invest $90 billion each year in global water supply development, seven million people still die from water-borne disease. More sadly, 2.2 million of these are children. In Africa, 50 percent of the population suffers from some form of water-borne disease.

“The bottom line here is that billions of lives across the planet will be affected by how well we manage the strategic challenge of water,” says Peter Davies, director of the Geoscience and Environment Center at Sandia National Laboratories.

Teaming with Erik Peterson, director of the Global Strategy Institute of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (GSIS), Davies is trying to stimulate a discussion of policy approaches the United States might take to these global issues.

Conflict or Cooperation

“You can see the water as the source of conflict or as a platform for cooperation,” says Davies. “Increasing scarcity implies the possibility of future instability and conflict, but it also represents the opportunity for countries to develop joint approaches. Water can be a powerful currency for peace.”

To understand the scarcity, Peterson suggests, imagine we could compress the entire volume of water on Earth, including its oceans, into one gallon. Half a pint from the gallon would represent all Earth's fresh water. And, because much of the fresh water is below surface or tied up in glaciers and snowfields, the amount available to humanity would be represented by a mere two drops.

While most conference-goers in the Unites States probably don't think twice about the pitchers of clean ice water at their tables, many other people in the world think a great deal about their water supplies, where the water comes from, how much it costs, and how clean it is, Peterson notes.

Even in the western United States, we already are seeing interstate conflicts, sustainability issues and competition for water between agricultural and power-generation sectors.

For many, water is very precious.

Sharper Focus

Evidence is amassing to bring the overall picture into sharper focus. Experts expect global shortfalls of water equivalent to 10 Nile River systems or 110 Colorado River drainages by 2025. Landsat images of the Aral Sea in Central Asia show its area reduced by 40 percent by drawdowns, while salinity has tripled. The Dead Sea - one of the world's historic and ecological treasures - is dying, the water dropping more than 80 feet in the past 50 years, largely because stresses on the Jordan River have increased, from agricultural and drinking water withdrawals. In the next 20 years, the sea will fall at least 60 more feet, and experts say nothing will stop it. Like the Jordan, some of the world's other great rivers - the Indus, Ganges, Yellow, Rio Grande and Colorado - at times, no longer flow to the sea.

Water pollution needs to be curbed.

Water Quality Assault

The world's water quality is under assault from pesticides, fertilizers and human wastes. An estimated 200 million tons of human waste is released into the world's rivers each day. Modernization and industrialization are contributing to these problems. In India, water-borne diseases cost 70 million lost working days per year. While global statistics on the impact of degrading water quality aren't available, the toll is predictably enormous. Senator Bill Frist, recently speaking on the Senate floor, noted, “The statistics are staggering and should alarm any person with a conscience.”

Says Senator Pete Domenici: “It is inappropriate and unacceptable to allow these conditions globally to continue. It is our task to try to unwind, to untangle, this massive tangle right now, and to move things forward.”

Looking to the future, there is a need for a mix between community-level and larger projects, high- and low-technology approaches, emergency and longer-term research responses. A mix of expertise and knowledge from the many government, commercial and other non-governmental agencies involved is a critical component to success.