COLUMN: Water much less plentiful as drought continues

David Suzuki
By David Suzuki
April 24th, 2024

The dry facts about increasing water scarcity

People can only survive a few days without water. After all, we’re mostly water — basically just liquid blobs with enough organic thickener to keep us from dribbling away. We’re part of nature’s hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation that cartwheels water around the planet.

Given water’s importance to our health and survival, you’d think we’d take better care of streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, glaciers and the one, interconnected ocean. Earth’s surface is 70 per cent water, but only three per cent of that is freshwater and most is inaccessible or polluted.

Because our current global economic system values money above everything we need to survive, we’ve been polluting, destroying and depleting water sources at alarming rates, in part so the wealthy corporate class can profit. With accelerating climate change causing increasing droughts, we’re putting water and ourselves at even greater risk.

In some cases, the devastation is in the name of development: wetlands destroyed for urban sprawl, waterways polluted for mineral and oil extraction, rivers dammed for hydro and irrigation and everything from streams to the ocean polluted because it’s cheaper to dump waste into them than to find better ways to deal with it.

Increasingly, water is itself becoming a commodity, especially as drought, pollution and melting glaciers make clean water scarcer and more valuable.

As a Guardian article says, “Across the US west, private investors have been scouring rural communities in search of high-priority water rights.” Large multinationals such as Nestlé and PepsiCo are paying a pittance to drain clean water from public sources to bottle and sell back to the public at exorbitant profit. And fracking for liquefied “natural” gas uses enormous volumes of water (and chemicals) to blast open rock formations to release the fossil fuels — often in drought-prone areas.

Many Indigenous communities in Canada and elsewhere lack clean drinking water, with some on boil-water advisories for years.

In the Tyee, Andrew Nikiforuk writes that researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who spent three years collecting and analyzing data on some 1,700 aquifers around the world found “groundwater is dropping in 71 per cent of the studied aquifers” and, “levels have dropped by one metre in central Alberta and Saskatchewan too.”

Nikiforuk cites another study showing that “human activity has massively altered the world’s flow of surface water and imperilled water cycles critical for life as varied as fish and forests.” Finnish researchers found that “over a 145-year industrial period, the technosphere and its growing population have dramatically shifted streamflow and soil moisture compared with a pre-industrial baseline.”

Altering what was once a relatively stable water flow system is affecting water and food security and increasing “the severity, frequency and duration of floods and droughts.”

The Finnish scientists argue that “Committing to ambitious climate action, halting deforestation and respecting environmental flows in water use and management is thus imperative to safeguard the life-supporting functions of freshwater.”

As humans continue to exploit and burn fossil fuels and destroy carbon sinks such as forests, the world keeps heating, putting more stress on water supplies. Meanwhile, our reckless pursuit of profit, energy and technology to supply a growing human population is accelerating pollution of the remaining clean water.

It’s not that we didn’t know what was coming in time to do something. Many experts, including my late friend David Schindler, one of the world’s leading water ecologists, predicted for decades that areas such as southern Alberta would experience prolonged water scarcity unless something was done to address the climate crisis and rein in industry, agriculture, population growth and urban development. But governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan keep going in the opposite direction.

We can’t continue to ignore those who study issues ranging from climate change to water supply. The consequences are becoming clearer by the day. We may be experiencing water shortages, but we have no shortage of solutions. Most, if employed with foresight and awareness, will lead to more prosperous and equitable societies. Destroying and wastefully exploiting everything that life depends on is leading to disaster and death.

The choice is clear. We must take back power from those who would greedily destroy the planet’s life-support systems for short-term financial gain. There’s a better path. We must take it now, before it’s too late.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Categories: GeneralOp/Ed

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