Water, Water Everywhere, But Nary a Drop to Drink

by | 3.22.2012 at 8:00am | 4 Comments
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Flood irrigation in India. More efficient use of water for agriculture is key to protecting diminshing water supplies. Photo: Jeremy Hinsdale

Flood irrigation in India. More efficient use of water for agriculture is key to protecting and conserving water supplies. Photo: Jeremy Hinsdale

It is a unique challenge of our generation that many in the developing world have cellular phones and TVs, but lack reliable access to water. Odd, perhaps, given that water is marketed as essential for life, a human right, and heart rending pictures of women and children walking miles to fetch water are routinely flashed to tug at everyone’s heart strings.

In many developing countries growing populations and limited investment in infrastructure are leading to declining access to water. Even in the United States, the impact of droughts on urban supply is larger today than ever before, as witnessed in the South in recent years.

At current levels of agricultural productivity and water use efficiency, seeing how 9 billion people could be fed and watered by 2050 seems like an insurmountable challenge. The quantity of water used for agriculture dwarfs all other uses–70 percent of water used globally is used in agriculture. The question facing us today is: Can we improve agricultural water access and productivity and as a byproduct improve sustainable access to drinking water for the rural and urban settings?

The answer, based on our research at the Columbia Water Center, is yes.

The improvements can come from a smarter selection of where to grow which crops considering net income, biophysical suitability, and a local water constraint. Economic signals from governments are necessary to promote conservation at the farm level, and the appropriate crop selection. Similarly, regulation to ensure access to water is essential. Investments in rural and urban water infrastructure lag globally, and need to be promoted with a goal of prioritized and reliable access. In many places, multiple re-use of the same water through collection and treatment, and rethinking flood control as a source rather than a disposal issue will need to evolve. Technical innovation will follow if the right incentive structures emerge.

Today, on World Water Day 2012, we at the Columbia Water Center are optimistic that such a future is within our reach. People across the world have come to understand that we cannot take water for granted any longer, and it is our hope that we can unite behind this cause, not just today, but every day and pledge to make real, lasting change together.

Upmanu Lall is director of the Columbia Water Center.

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4 Responses to “Water, Water Everywhere, But Nary a Drop to Drink”

  1. oteon says:

    rural and urban water infrastructure lag globally, and need to be promoted with a goal of prioritized and reliable access. In many places, multiple re-use of the same water through collection and treatment, and rethinking flood control as a source rather than a disposal issue will need to evolve. Technical innovation will follow if the right incentive structures emerge.

  2. upmanu lall says:

    Agree completely — indeed we are now working exactly in this direction

  3. Patti DiVita says:

    Hello Upmanu,

    My name is Patti DiVita and I was at the UN in September for the wonderful International Water Forum and had the pleasure of hearing you speak there. The following is a quote from this article:

    “Today, on World Water Day 2012, we at the Columbia Water Center are optimistic that such a future is within our reach. People across the world have come to understand that we cannot take water for granted any longer, and it is our hope that we can unite behind this cause, not just today, but every day and pledge to make real, lasting change together.”

    As you probably remember from the forum, almost every speaker mentioned the issue of public awareness. This applies mostly to first world countries. As you say above that people have come to understand…. That most likely applies to other places where drinking water is not easily available. In American they don’t think about it, unless they are informed and most people aren’t.

    It’s a solvable situation, but we need to be open to new and innovative ideas on how to let people know the severity of water issues. A benefit movie that’s fun and entertaining, but with messages about water conservation would help bring awareness to the people who really need to know and who have the resources to help others. We can do it! Thanks for your time.

  4. CityAlice says:

    While the US experienced some drought last year, it’s hard to compare it to the complications in developing countries that need. Cities usually seem to start at places ideal for agriculture but when it gets overcrowded it’s no longer what it was and changes need to happen. With a lot of research about where and how to grow the crops, a lot can be accomplished.

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