The Last Water

The documentary film Blue Gold: World Water Wars (Distributor: Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) 2008) examines the implications of the planet’s dwindling fresh water supply.

Malcolm McDowell narrates the film by starting with a story about Pablo Valencia, who traveled on foot from Mexico to California in 1906, seeking gold. He survived seven days without water, enduring long enough to document his living hell.

Pablo’s story

His saliva thickened, and a permanent lump formed in his throat. His tongue swelled so large that it squeezed out past his jaws, and his swollen throat made it difficult to breath, creating a sense of drowning. Because of shrinking skin, his face felt full. His eyelids cracked. His eyeballs wept blood.

When he was found, Pablo’s skin was a purplish/grey leather, scratched but with no traces of blood. His lips were gone, as if amputated. His nose withered away. His eyes trapped in a haunting wink-less stare. No water for 7 days.

Ninety-seven percent (97%) of Earth’s water is salt water; three percent (3%) is fresh water of which seventy-five percent (75%) is locked up in ice. The balance is available for human survival but an indeterminate amount is polluted.

Water Brings Life, Shortages Bring Trouble

Already, water has turned nasty, pretty much throughout the world.  In some places it is disappearing altogether. In fact, massive water stress within highly populated areas is likely to become the world’s greatest-ever migraine. Water wars are certain to follow.

São Paulo, a city of 20 million, where residential water taps are shut off daily at 1:00 P.M., could run dry within several months, nobody knows when for sure, but who knows where twenty million people will go.

Across the globe, millions of people wait patiently, sometimes not so patiently, in long lines to fill a plastic jug, or two, from water trucks. Often times the water is brackish, brownish, fouled.

In Karachi, Pakistan, the 3rd largest city in the world, parched protesters hit the streets because of the invariable unreliability of water trucks, often times delivering foul, brownish water. People become distraught. They protest.

Similar to Karachi, Mexico City (pop. 22 million) has water trucks deliver to neighborhoods where people line up with empty plastic jugs. Mexico City’s water problem is severe, according to Juan Jose Santibanez, environmental scientists: “There is a very high probability that, by 2020, there will be a mini-revolution, at least in Mexico City.”   ((Gwen Ifill, “Mexico City Faces Growing Water Crisis”, NPR, November 10, 2014.))

Over time, depleted aquifers in Mexico City cause the ground to sink, buildings tilt.

Not only that, in the United States, because of aquifer depletion, the ground is sinking in San Joaquin Valley, California, “the food basket of the world.”

Istanbul’s (pop. 14 million) water reservoirs are at 22% of capacity.

One-half of China’s water resources are horribly polluted. In Beijing (pop. 12 million) water consumption is double the amount of local water availability.

India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, one of the most significant agricultural states, has seen irrigated land crop production fall by 50% because of depletion of groundwater aquifers.

NASA data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) provided a sobering report at the December 16th, 2014 American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco: “It will take about 11 trillion gallons of water – around 1.5 times the maximum volume of the largest U.S. reservoir – to recover from California’s continuing drought….”

The American Southwest is running dry. Las Vegas has been forced to build a pipeline connecting to the bottom of Lake Mead as water levels threaten to drop below Hoover Dam intakes.

“Even more troubling, scientists have learned by studying tree rings that the 20th century was one of the two wettest 100-year periods in the past 1,200 years. There have been many extended droughts in the Southwest over the past two millennia, some lasting for three decades or more. The water shortages occurring today might not be an aberration but a return to an historical norm.” ((Kalee Thompson, “Last Straw: How the Fortunes of Las Vegas Will Rise or Fall With Lake Mead”, Popular Science, June 11, 2014.))

The Last Water

“Worldwide, 97 percent of the planet’s liquid freshwater is stored in aquifers.” ((Groundwater Shock: The Polluting of the World’s Major Freshwater Stores, Worldwatch Institute.)) Whenever surface water becomes inadequate, aquifers serve as humankind’s final reservoir, “the last water.”

“On almost every continent, major aquifers are being drained faster than their natural rate of recharge. Groundwater depletion is most severe in parts of India, China, the United States, North Africa, and the Middle East… the average recycling time for groundwater is 1,400 years.” ((Ibid. 1))

Moreover, the pollution of aquifers is one the greatest hidden secrets in modern history. It takes years, sometimes decades, for pollutants to slowly seep deep underground, finally coming to rest in fresh water aquifers. As this article is read, toxic chemicals from a decade ago are likely settling into fresh water aquifers all across the world.

As for one example: The Story of Weldon Spring, Missouri.  In 1940 the U.S. Army built the world’s largest TNT-producing facility in Weldon Spring, Missouri. TNT needs to be processed by washing off unwanted chemical compounds, which the Army treated in wastewater plants; however, some chemicals soaked into the ground because of leaky treatment facilities. In 1945 the Army burned down the contaminated buildings of the compound.

Fast forward to 1980, thirty-five years later, Congress authorized the “Superfund” to clean up toxic waste. Weldon Spring qualified for remediation. The Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the cleanup duties, but what they found baffled the engineers. As expected, the soil and vegetation was laced with nitroaromatic chemicals where the original pollution had been localized. But, the shocker came when they found the same unique chemicals in people’s water wells in towns several miles away.

Geologists analyzed the problem. In time they determined that the “localized toxic chemicals of Weldon Spring” flowed through fissures in the limestone rock to surrounding aquifers. The toxic chemicals traveled miles over the course of decades.

“The Weldon Spring story may sound like an exceptional case of clumsy planning combined with a particularly vulnerable geological structure. But in fact there is nothing exceptional about it at all. Across the United States, as well as in parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America, human activities are sending massive quantities of chemicals and pollutants into groundwater.” ((Ibid. 2))

Toxic Risks

Malaysian water contamination is so severe that the government once proposed the death penalty for polluters.

Synthetic pesticides were first introduced in the 1940s. Today, pesticide contamination is being detected in groundwater in the U.S., Western Europe, Latin American, and South Asia.

Since the 1950s farmers all over the world have applied nitrogen fertilizers to the land. Worldwide studies of groundwater have found pervasive nitrate pollution. In Hungary, were private wells have very high concentrations of nitrates, blue-baby syndrome has taken 1,000-2,000 lives as a result of suffocation as excessive nitrates block oxygen-carrying capacity of a baby’s blood, also a threat to farm animals.

Around the world, as automobiles predominate lifestyle, petroleum leaks from USTs, or underground storage tanks. For example, in Texas, 223 of 254 counties reported leaky USTs, resulting in a silent disaster that, according to the EPA, has affected, or has the potential to affect, virtually every major and minor aquifer in the state.

Saltwater pollutes groundwater if only 2% of saltwater mixes with freshwater. The water becomes unusable for drinking or irrigation. As aquifers are overly drained in coastal cities, like Miami, seawater flows in to reset the balance of water level. This is already happening in parts of Florida and elsewhere in coastal communities worldwide.

In Libya the aquifers are so depleted that the remaining water is brackish as a result of seawater infiltration. Other coastal cities along the entire Mediterranean region share the same problem.

According to WHO, fossil aquifers (aquifers that do not replenish) in the Middle East and North Africa contain unacceptable levels of radiation, but as of 2013, Jordan is pumping 100 million cubic meters per year out of the Disi aquifer to Amman. They need the water. ((Markus Becker, Radioactive Water Threatens Middle East, Spiegel International, November 5, 2012.))

The majority of the Disi aquifer is located under Saudi Arabia, which heavily relies upon the 30,000-year-old fossil aquifer. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia have demanded that the other side use less of the shared aquifer water, a certain prescription for future conflict.

Accordingly, “The Jordanian-Saudi pumping race promises to completely deplete al-Disi within a few decades.” ((Brahma Chellaney, “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis”, Rowman, Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013.))

Nature replenishes water’s quality, if given a chance; however, over 60% of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed. The wetlands are/were one of nature’s biggest and best cleansers of water whereby surface water travels through wetlands, coming out into rivers relatively purified. Nowadays, runoff travels along hardened surfaces to the ocean and rivers, toxics and all.

What to do?

The low-hanging fruit for available clean water is nearly gone. With cities worldwide forced to shut off residential water taps for tedious hours during the day, deliver small rations of water in trucks to clamoring throngs of local residents, and otherwise restrict water usage, the tocsin is ringing loud and clear!

The world of water is likely to devolve into the most severe dividing line between “haves” and “have-nots,” ever experienced. There are no quick and inexpensive solutions. Water wars are more than likely to break out well before enormously expensive workable solutions can be fully implemented.

Not only that, “The direct impact of climate change is not the only reason to be concerned about future fresh water scarcity – a fact highlighted by a recent United Nations Environment Programme report. The increasing global population means more demand for agriculture, greater use of water for irrigation and more water pollution.” ((Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, “How Will Climate Change Impact on Fresh Water Security”, The Guardian, December 21, 2012.))

San Diego (pop. 1.4 million) is scrambling to build a desalination plant at a cost of $1 billion, supplying the city with 7%-to-10% of its water needs by 2020, only 10% water for $1 billion on a project that takes nearly 15 years to complete!

Las Vegas (pop. 2 million) is scrambling to complete the highest-pressure tunnel in the world under Lake Mead at a cost of $817 million. The “city of lost wages” is preparing to take the final droplets of water out of the lake.

Cities are scrambling to survive. The game is on, but there will be many more losers than winners. You can bet on it.

“As sources dry up and competition for water mounts from businesses, farmers, and cities, we will inevitably turn to seawater and other salty sources. It might not be a great solution, but the bottom line is that we are left with fewer and fewer choices in a water-starved world.”  ((David Talbot, “Desalination out of Desperation”, MIT Technology Review, December 16, 2014.))

Meanwhile, according to Chesapeake Energy, a fracked oil well could require up to five million gallons of water for full operation and possible restimulation. America’s residents use 100 gallons of water per day. Thus, a fracked well equates to the daily water needs of 50,000 average householders. North Dakota alone has 8,000 wells. Do the math!

“In 2012, the Bakken oil industry used about 5.5 billion gallons (209 billion liters) of water—more than the amount used by the 110,000 inhabitants of Fargo, the state’s biggest city.” ((Patrick J. Kiger, “North Dakota’s Salty Fracked Wells Drink More Water to Keep Oil Flowing”, National Geographic, November 11, 2013, )) Furthermore: “When the Bakken is fully developed in the next 10 to 20 years, the oil and gas play’s 40,000 to 45,000 wells may need to consume roughly double that amount.” That’s just North Dakota.

The U.S. federal government put oil and gas projects in North Dakota on the “fast track” for federal review processes to charge up America’s energy independence.

It is likely history will look back at American society and question the propriety of its political leadership, maybe labeling the current period of American history “The Era of Insanity,” especially knowing that solar and wind energy were readily available well before America’s Southwest turned bone dry.

Postscript: Brushing teeth with tap running uses 2 gallons of water/minute whereas brushing teeth with the tap off uses 0.25 gallons of water.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.