"We have to start taking water very seriously," said Maude Barlow, the founder of water rights advocacy group Blue Planet Project, during a lecture at the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum on Thursday, Nov. 4.
This may seem like an odd injunction for the residents of a valley who are already hyper-aware of water rights conflicts and minimum streamflow requirements, not to mention health of the various waterways in the region.
But Barlow's lecture focused on the global implications of a growing water crisis, which she said is looming in the very near future.
"We have grown up with this myth of abundance," Barlow said, referring to the hydrological cycle, in which the same water is recycled through surface water, groundwater and the atmosphere.
Though there is an unvaried amount of water on the earth, Barlow said, the hydrological cycle does not guarantee that the global population will always have enough clean, drinkable water. Barlow said she believes we are "abusing" our water system and carrying out "assaults" on the world's water supply, resulting in global water scarcity.
"What we're talking about is not just drought. It's reaching the end of the water table," she said. "We have desert growing in over 100 countries in the world."
The countries, she said, are known as "hot states," areas where so much water has been removed from the aquifers that the water table is in danger of disappearing. She said the Middle East, China and much of Africa, as well as parts of the United States, are considered hot states. Parts of Florida have pumped so much water out of the ground that the soil is no longer stable, causing sinkholes to open up, she said.
Part of the reason for that is due to the "myth of abundance" and the high amount of pollution. However, a significant portion of the problem has to do with what Barlow called "virtual water"—water that is used in the production of goods, such as food or clothing, which are then exported.
For example, she said, one cotton T-shirt requires 713 gallons of water to produce, mostly to grow the cotton required. If an area's aquifer is stressed via irrigation for those cotton plants and then the cotton is exported, the hydrological cycle in that area is broken and the water table can be drained.
A more striking example is that of a lake in Kenya that Barlow said she visited several years ago. The lake was one of the filming locations for the film "Out of Africa," but now Barlow said the once-beautiful lake is dying.
Why? Because the lake is also a site for growing rose bushes for export to Great Britain, an operation that is draining the aquifer and shipping valuable "virtual" water from the area.
Barlow contended that all of this scarcity makes the lack of clean, drinkable water the greatest human rights issue in the world today.
Barlow and her organization fought to have the United Nations pass a resolution making the right to water and sanitation a basic human right. The resolution was passed in July 2010, but she said that the resolution isn't enough.
"The human crisis is growing," she said, adding that more children worldwide die from illnesses linked to dirty water than of AIDS, malaria and accidents combined.
Because of the scarcity and the growing global demand for water, Barlow said, she has no problem believing that future global conflicts will be waged over water rather than oil.
As steps toward a solution, Barlow suggested groundwater mapping and budgeting, along with anticipation of future water needs. She also called for the designation of water as a public trust rather than a commodity, which, she said, would guarantee the human right to water. She said that in a world where "everything is for sale," that would "carve out what should be owned by us all collectively."
"I really feel that we're in a race against time," she said. "We're going to have to do something radical."
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com
Water in the strangest places
How much virtual water is in the products you use every day? Here's a breakdown of how much water it takes to produce a few popular items—information courtesy of the Columbia News Service, The Water Footprint Network and Treehugger.com:
- A to-go latte: 53 gallons.
- A hamburger: 634 gallons.
- A cotton T-shirt: 713 gallons.
- A sheet of paper: 2.6 gallons.
- A pair of blue jeans: 1,800 gallons.
- A mid-sized car: 40,000 gallons.
- A bottle of spring water: 2 gallons (to manufacture the plastic bottle).