Reframing the “Water Crisis”

Doom and Gloom

Lately, there seems to be a lot of doom and gloom regarding the looming freshwater water crisis.  Whether it is in blogposts, NYT articles or scholarly magazines like the UK’s Ecologist, it seems as though there is a universal sense of despair regarding freshwater availability.

Though I agree with the assessment that more than a billion people lack regular access to clean freshwater, it is important to remember that progress is being made towards the goal of access to clean water for all.

Water is not the problem

I think all too often it seems as though people think there isn’t enough water to go around.  This may be the case in absolute deserts, but in many places (including the arid Sahel of Africa), it is a problem of holding onto the water when it falls for use when it doesn’t.  Conventionally this might mean “BUILD DAMS!” but that message doesn’t resonate as strongly anymore due to real and imagined problems associated with large reservoirs.

Small-scale rain harvesting, ala small, run of river reservoirs, are farm-scale and community-scale alternatives to their watershed spanning cousins (read: Three Gorges).  These systems can help hold onto water for a longer period of time between rainfall events.

Efficiency and water productivity

A major issue associated with access to water is that it is used in ways that do not maximize productivity of the water being used.  Agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater use, and that figure is even higher in non-industrial areas.

By shifting the focus from the “threat of deserts everywhere”, to the efficient use of existing supply (whether it falls from the sky, flows on the land, or is under foot), a great deal of water could be made available to users.

Efficiency increases often require additional technology, knowledge, and/or capital, but at least thats a starting point.  The whole “world is ending” narrative is at best a distraction, and at worst a method of disengaging people entirely from understanding how to solve these problems.


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