Two-Thirds of the World Faces Severe Water Shortages

Feb 12, 2016

Photo credit: Mesfin M. Mekonnen and Arjen Y. Hoekstra

By Nicholas St. Fleur

About four billion people, or two-thirds of the world’s population, face severe water shortages during at least one month every year, far more than was previously thought, according to Arjen Y. Hoekstra, a professor of water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands.

In a paper published Friday in the journal Science Advances, Dr. Hoekstra and his colleague Mesfin M. Mekonnen designed a computer model to create what they say is a more accurate picture of water scarcity around the world. Severe water scarcity can lead to crop failure and low crop yields, which could cause food price increases as well as famine and widespread starvation.

An area experiences severe water scarcity when its farms, industries and households consume double the amount of water available in that area.

“That means that groundwater levels are falling, lakes are drying up, less water is flowing in rivers, and water supplies for industry and farmers are threatened,” Dr. Hoekstra said in an email.


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17 comments on “Two-Thirds of the World Faces Severe Water Shortages

  • @OP link – Half of the four billion people who experience conditions of severe water scarcity at least one month of the year live in either China or India, Dr. Hoeskstra said. Of the remaining two billion, the majority live mostly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mexico and the western and southern parts of the United States, such as California, Texas and Florida.

    While as the desert climate belts move towards the poles, and tropical areas will dry more in dry seasons, this does not mean the Earth’s global rainfall will decrease. It will increase – particularly in temperate climates, and it will also be redistributed, regionally and seasonally!

    . . . So parts of India, China, Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc. will also experience floods – either at other times of year, or in other regions!



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  • There is a huge amount that can be done to eke out water usage, that remains undone.

    Permaculture is a learnable skill. Its potential is vast but it is subtle and requires the kind of education needed to build culture (sic).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1rKDXuZ8C0

    An area where I am working brought me into contact with this design of greenhouse for coastal desert use. It works and is elegant.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seawater_greenhouse

    Freshwater is mostly an energy cost, so deserts may be well placed to solve part of their water shortage problem. Graphene promises much cheaper desalination.

    My own plan is to work with lines of InGaN heterojunction PV (maybe 60% efficient) at the focus of rocking heliostats and temperature stabilised to 110 Celsius (their peak efficiency point) using pumped seawater. The steam produced delivers more usable power via stirling engines (if deemed cost effective, and possibly used for pumping) and pure water is the by-product of sellable electricity. (Concentrated brine is returned to the sea.)

    I have also seen some truly science fiction ideas to form the sand of desert dunes into stable sheltering structures using injected bacteria to bind the stuff together into rock hard structures of a defined form. These are revealed by the action of the wind and provide shelter for the lower parts of trees to collect atmospheric moisture and kick start permaculture strips. Whacky but rather wonderful…



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  • As Alan points out atmospheric water gets redistributed not lost. With increasing local flooding in the last few years my low rainfall orangey bit of the UK is set to go green in future. The River Lee outside of my kitchen window and its flood scale which I had been nervously watching disappear progressively under the torrent was finally swept away not long ago. The backup one has gone too.

    Note, with warming comes a wetter atmosphere.



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  • Meanwhile – in drier areas: –

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35566151

    US scientists have modelled how a 1930s-like “dustbowl” drought might impact American agriculture today, and found it to be just as damaging.

    But the research shows the effects to be very sensitive to temperature, meaning the potential losses would be far worse later this century if Earth’s climate heats up as expected.

    A repeat of 1930s weather today would lead to a 40% loss in maize production.

    In a 2-degree warmer world, it becomes a 65% reduction, the team projects.



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  • Overpopulation is our main problem. As long as the population of human beings on this planet continues to grow in an uncontrolled manner, sooner or later we will run out of; space, water, food and every resource; nature will be destroyed and everyone will become poor, sick and ignorant. We can never build enough; schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure. We will starve to death on a destroyed planet. Only if we can stop our population growth and start to reduce it can we have any hope of tackling the problems that are facing us. Overpopulation is our main problem.



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  • 6
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    Of the remaining two billion, the majority live mostly in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mexico and the western and southern parts of the United States, such as California, Texas and Florida.

    Yes, it is sad when one must spend $10,000 per month to keep one’s California estate properly watered so as to provide a suitable background for the paparazzi.

    I see some very large and ominous looking red areas in regions such as the Sahara Desert, Arabia, and the Australian Outback. A shocking revelation indeed.

    I nearly fell out of my chair when I read of Florida on the list. Florida is saturated with fresh water. It has an annual precipitation over 1.3 meters average over its surface area. No other state has more thunderstorms than Florida.

    It’s unfortunate that the use of such hyperbole accompanies reports of the very real problems of crop failures for small farmers and poor sanitation due to lack of clean water supplies. The permaculture link above was very interesting; It is a great step forward to grow any kind of food in such parched and salty conditions.

    Lack of clean water is indeed a problem for many millions of people. I think a more effective and convincing report would concentrate on areas that have a real problem, not a state like California that has the most extensive and massive water distribution system I know of anywhere on Earth, leading the nation in crop production.
    http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/ag-and-food-statistics-charting-the-essentials/agricultural-production-and-prices.aspx

    Here is another deeply troubling map showing areas in the US where local water consumption is more than 150% of local precipitation, most prominently in that parched wasteland known as the California Central Valley.
    http://nac.unl.edu/atlas/Map_Html/Water_Use/National/Annual_precip_vs_consump/Annual_precip_vs_consump.htm
    The shocking thing is that right next to that frightening blue area on the map is a huge region of extremely low consumption.

    This mystery has recently been found to be caused by a new hydrological discovery scientists now call a “river”. It seems this amazing natural structure is capable of actually transporting vast volumes of water from the rocky heights of uninhabited mountains all the way through the valley where humans use it to grow crops that feed millions.

    Now, I know some of my friends will cry foul that the Colorado river doesn’t even flow to the sea any more! Indeed, it is a terrible shame that we have turned the deserts of Western Arizona and Southeastern California into vast fields of year round production of every imaginable high value crop to feed millions of human beings at the deplorable expense of depriving the Pacific Ocean of that desperately needed river outflow.



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  • Stardusty Psyche
    Feb 13, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I nearly fell out of my chair when I read of Florida on the list. Florida is saturated with fresh water. It has an annual precipitation over 1.3 meters average over its surface area. No other state has more thunderstorms than Florida.

    Florida’s problems over the next 100 or 200 years would seem to be an excess of salt water!

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/02/climate-change-economics/florida-coast-map



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  • Stardusty Psyche
    Feb 13, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I think a more effective and convincing report would concentrate on areas that have a real problem, not a state like California that has the most extensive and massive water distribution system I know of anywhere on Earth, leading the nation in crop production.

    A water distribution system is useless unless there is a water supply to feed into it!

    California’s problem is not just the current drought, but a history of depleting groundwater aquifers by over pumping.

    http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/drought-impact.html

    Annual run-off, which is calculated from this streamflow data, supplies many of our needs for water, Recent run-off estimates for California show measurements on par with 1930’s and late 1970’s droughts.

    Unlike the effects of a drought on streamflows, Groundwater levels in wells may not reflect a shortage of rainfall for a year or more after a drought begins. Despite reduced availability, reliance upon groundwater increases during drought often resulting in increased groundwater pumping to meet water demands. If a well is pumped at a faster rate than an aquifer is recharged by precipitation or other underground flow, water levels in the well can drop, resulting in decreased water availability and deterioration of groundwater quality.

    Excessive groundwater pumping and aquifer depletion can cause land to sink, which can cause permanent loss of groundwater storage in the aquifer system and infrastructure damage. Overpumping in California’s San Joaquin Valley aquifer system has caused renewed land-surface elevation drop that could result in serious operational and structural issues for the Delta-Mendota Canal (DMC).

    In coastal communities, the reversal of natural groundwater flows to the ocean as a result of groundwater pumping can cause seawater to enter the aquifer system. Seawater intrusion compromises groundwater quality and can be a costly problem to manage.



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  • Stardusty Psyche
    Feb 13, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    Now, I know some of my friends will cry foul that the Colorado river doesn’t even flow to the sea any more!

    Simplistic approaches to resource management, rarely prosper in the long term on environmental issues.

    If no water is carrying salt and other pollutants to the sea, they are building up in the land somewhere!

    http://people.oregonstate.edu/~muirp/saliniz.htm

    While farmers irrigate extensively here in western Oregon, salinization isn’t really a problem here, as, during winter, we get enough water to flush the salts that were deposited during the summer irrigation.

    Salinization is a worldwide problem, particularly acute in semi-arid areas which use lots of irrigation water, are poorly drained, and never get well flushed. These conditions are found in parts of the Mideast, in China’s North Plain, in Soviet Central Asia, in the San Joaquin Valley of CA, and in the Colorado River Basin; all areas where the soil profile never (or rarely) gets well flushed.

    It is hard to find consistent estimates of how much of the world’s irrigated acreage is affected by salinization — you can find credible sources claiming anywhere between 8 and 32%. Ten to 20% seems to be mid-line for the estimates, globally. Salt concentrations are high enough in much of this irrigated acreage to decrease yields significantly. In extreme cases, land is abandoned because it is too salty to farm profitably.

    The “treatment” for salinization is to flush the soil with lots of water. However, this results in salinization of the river and groundwater where the flush water goes. For example, the Colorado River was too salty for the Mexican farmers to use for irrigation, so the Mexican government forced the US to construct a desalinization plant near the Mexican border so the water would be useable. At times in summer, the Red River in TX and OK is saltier than seawater from its load of leached salts. In addition, the flushing is very hard on the soil structure.



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  • @ Philip > “sooner or later we will run out of water”

    Vying for first place as the catalyst for WW3, water. A sweet, mildly amusing scenario, albeit unrealistic ending.

    @Alan4discussion > salt

    I try to observe, as much as possible, local conditions. All the salt (chemical compounds?) spread during snow and ice has to go somewhere, not good. “out of sight, out of mind“, the bane of Earth’s existence.



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  • @ Philip > “sooner or later we will run out of water

    Vying for first place as the catalyst for WW3, H2O. An uncomfortably amusing scenario, w/ unrealistic ending.

    @ Alan4discussion > “salt

    From my local observations catalogue – all the salt (exact chemical compounds?) scattered during snow and ice, has to go somewhere. Alas, “out of sight, out of mind”, the bane of Earth’s existence.



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  • D’oh, apologies for double post.

    Illinois corn

    Acres and acres, a sight to behold at high summer. In the south part of the state, topography is uneven, as it segues into the Shawnee National Forest. Bone dry or flooded fields, depends on weather / climate change.

    Most of Illinois was covered with hardwoods and prairie flowers – that is, until John Deere arrived on the scene.



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  • 13
    Robert Firth says:

    I agree with Philip above. The problem is not too little water; it is too many people. But that is the elephant on the planet that it is taboo to mention. Until the inevitable Malthusian catastrophe happens.



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  • 14
    Stardusty Psyche says:

    Alan4discussion – A water distribution system is useless unless there is a water supply to feed into it!
    California’s problem is not just the current drought, but a history of depleting groundwater aquifers by over pumping.
    http://ca.water.usgs.gov/data/drought/drought-impact.html

    Oh, it’s not as bad as all of that, although the water situation in California is complex and in constant need of monitoring and adjustment. Fortunately, there is a massive infrastructure and enormous resources available to keep the system working very well, which it is.

    Thanks a lot for the links, which, by the way, has been enjoyable in general for me since I started posting here. Phil posted a really interesting link on Permaculture, so I downloaded a bunch of related videos on this new (for me) subject.

    The map “California Below Normal Groundwater Levels” with all the triangles looks pretty ominous at first, but then I started zooming in and found no major cause for alarm. I noticed a big group of triangles North of LA. Weil, that is the Mojave desert, not all that populated, and I am not surprised desert wells are going down. For some reason Santa Barbara has a problem, yet just down the road Ventura does not. Maybe Santa Barbara is still refusing to hook up to state water. At one point the city was blocking all new development by refusing to issue water connection rights to any new construction. Those folks in Santa Barbara have some odd ideas about water so I am not surprised they are having problems now.

    There are a few scattered low spots, but not many considering how huge the state is in area, population, and agriculture.

    California has long had various groundwater recharging installations but has only recently gotten serious about any comprehensive groundwater usage plan.

    Many people don’t realize only about 10% of water consumption goes to cities and towns. The rest goes to environmental uses and agriculture. Depending who you ask agriculture gets the majority or environmental uses get the majority.

    Also, California only uses about 1/3 to 1/2 of its annual precipitation, so there is still potential for more source development.

    What is troubling is the very real problem of clean water supplies for 3rd world people. That is a real problem and my hat goes off to people who install local water reinstatement and delivery systems for people who really need it.

    There is nothing even remotely resembling a general crisis of water availability in California, although it is true that from time to time there have been cases of egregious pollution, and there is continual haggling over details and how to deal with localized problems as they come up.

    I just wish environmentalists were in general less inclined to issue such alarmist reports, which largely serve to discredit the truly serious problems.



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  • Stardusty Psyche
    Feb 14, 2016 at 8:11 pm

    I just wish environmentalists were in general less inclined to issue such alarmist reports, which largely serve to discredit the truly serious problems.

    I think the problem, is not so much the environmental science, but that the media (as with climate change, evolution etc) are so incompetent at reading scientific reports, that they just feed the public hype, or disingenuously quote hippies instead of scientists.

    One of the global groundwater issues, is over-pumping in coastal areas, resulting in inflow of seawater into aquifers.

    The other one I linked is a build-up of salt in dry irrigated areas, where there is not an adequate drainage from the land to carry the salts back to the rivers and to the sea.

    The areas affected by a shrinkage of the land, with subsidence and a drop in level, have permanent damage. This can be caused by pumping oil as well as water, with delta areas like New Orleans sinking in to the sea more than they do naturally.



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  • As I said in my earlier comment. Rainfall is going to redistributed, not reduced.
    In areas dependent on dry-season melt-water from ice-caps and glaciers, global warming will gradually remove their water supply, as snowfall decreases and the mountain tops remain bare.
    As a substitute they will have wet season floods, followed by dry-season droughts.



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  • Two things. The centre of Australia is bisected by the Tropic of Capricorn which means it’s in the desert belt of planet earth. It’s never had any water and no one much lives there. Almost the entire Australian population live around the narrow coastal strip. The only places that are inhabited out there are mining towns, tourist locations and cattle ranches (we call them stations) the size of small US states. They get their water mostly from underground sources. We call it the outback. Beautiful place.

    There has been a change in the weather bands in Australia. They are moving south as predicted by global warming models. That means the northern Australian monsoon is now reaching further south. The desert bands are also moving south towards my city. We claim that our state is the driest state on the driest continent on earth. My city previously received its rainfall in winter from cold fronts off the southern ocean. They’ve been pushed south also so only occasionally the tip of a front in winter will produce a significant rainfall. But we now get jet stream low pressure troughs coming in from Indonesia over the N.W of Australia that dump tropical source moisture on our place in summer.

    The second thing is this…

    Now, I know some of my friends will cry foul that the Colorado river doesn’t even flow to the sea any more!

    When I did a raft trip down the Colorado below Lake Mead, I asked a guide where the Colorado flowed out to the sea. It doesn’t. It flows out into lowlands and sinks into the sand. I can understand an Australian not knowing this, but I thought it would have been common knowledge for Americans.



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