A thirsty world

December 06, 1993

Two decades ago, Americans learned a painful lesson about their dependence on oil. But the gas lines that spurred new ways of thinking about natural resources will soon seem a mild prelude to other kinds of scarcities. Around the world, a number of countries are rapidly outgrowing their supplies of fresh water.

A new report highlights the political, environmental and humanitarian threats posed by increasing competition for a finite supply of renewable water. It comes from Population Action International, a non-profit group concerned about population growth. The fact that the organization chose to focus on an environmental issue illustrates the role over-population plays in environmental devastation.

There is enough water on Earth to cover the United States to a depth of 93 miles. But that illusion of abundance dissolves when one considers that renewable water resources would cover the U.S. to a depth of only 15 feet. In 1955, that supply of fresh water had to support only 2.8 billion people. In 1990, it sustained 5.3 billion, and the strains were beginning to show. That year, 28 countries, home to some 335 million people, were experiencing stress on their water supplies and, in some cases, outright scarcity. Some of those countries were in the arid Middle East, where water scarcity might be expected. But countries like Poland and South Africa were also having trouble providing enough fresh water to sustain human health and bolster economic development.

By the year 2025, there will be billions more people competing for water. The severity of the problem will depend largely on how rapidly population grows. Even with the United Nation's lowest projections, some 2.8 billion people will be facing either stress on their water supplies or outright scarcity. The countries in trouble could include Nigeria, with a projected population of 275 million, and Iran, which by then will probably be home to 137 million people.

Scarcity aside, even adequate water supplies can threaten human life in the absence of infrastructures that assure purification and proper distribution. Already, nearly half the world's population suffers from diseases linked to unsanitary water; young children are the most frequent victims. From oil to water, the world is slowly learning the meaning of limits -- and the essential lesson that wise stewardship of resources is not a luxury, but a matter of survival.

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