Even NASA Says We’re Running out of Water

The Golden State's recent trouble accentuates the preciousness of something many Americans take for granted: Water. Now even NASA has something to say about it.

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California is in the midst of one of the most severe droughts on record.

It’s so bad that Governor Jerry Brown declared it a state of emergency. The Golden State’s recent trouble accentuates the preciousness of something many Americans take for granted: Water.

We waste an inordinate amount of water maintaining enormous lawns. We shower too long. We keep the water running while we get ready in the morning. If recent predictions are correct, we will no longer be able to blindly ignore these practices. According to NASA, we (and the rest of the world) have cause for concern.

We’re running out of water.

A satellite program conducted by NASA called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) has given researchers Jay Famiglietti and Matthew Rodell one of the most accurate pictures of the world’s freshwater reserves to date.

Famiglietti is the director of the UC Center for Hydrologic Modeling at the University of California Irvine and Rodell is chief of the Hydrological Sciences Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The two authored a paper based on GRACE, which used two satellites recording the earth’s gravitational data to measure aquifer levels worldwide.

It’s not exactly full of good news. Famiglietti characterized the situation as “quite critical.”

From 2003 to 2013, the research shows that 21 of the world’s 37 major aquifers have become unsustainable. In short, the water reserves are being depleted faster than they’re being replenished. Thirteen of those 21 aquifers are have been affected at alarming rates.

The most stressed aquifers (those with little to no sign of recharging) are the Arabian Aquifer in Saudi Arabia, the Indus Basin in northern India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in Libya and Niger. To put the situation into perspective, 60 million people rely on the Arabian Aquifer as a source of water.

That’s not to say America is faring much better.

The Central Valley Aquifer in California and the Atlantic and Gulf Plains Aquifer in the Southeastern portion of the country are both being depleted, as well. The Central Valley Aquifer was rated as “highly stressed,” and the recent drought hasn’t exactly helped matters. Conversely, aquifers located in the Great Plains and the Midwest seem to be doing alright.

The pattern in America mirrors what’s happening in the rest of the world. Essentially, areas in middle latitudes close to equator, especially arid and semiarid regions, are drying up. Furthermore, the tropics and regions farther north and south of equator in more extreme latitudes are experiencing more intense rainfall.

It’s a catch 22.

As those areas become drier and drier, the populations in said areas rely more and more on disappearing aquifers for survival. The water from the aquifers evaporates and then is recirculated to the areas experiencing heavier rains.

If no action is taken, it’s a very real possibility that groundwater in certain areas of the world will be depleted completely. The findings also tacitly touch on a subject that, until now, was strictly the domain of post apocalyptic fiction for most Americans: Conflict over water.

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute has noted that water is often a source of “cooperation rather than conflict.” Still, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of the latter. In fact, the Pacific Institute has put together a detailed timeline of water conflict throughout history, from 600 BC all the way to 2014.

The timeline illustrates the fact that there has always been conflict and unrest involving water sources, but that it’s increased in recent years. So what happens when the world’s demand for water outstrips reliable sources?

According to the U.S. Intelligence Community assessment of Global Water Security, the coming water shortage has the potential to lead to social disruptions and political instability. The assessment states that: “Social disruptions eventually leading to state failure are plausible when the population believes water shortages are the result of poor governance, hoarding, or control of water by elites and other destabilizing factors are present.”

Despite that grim warning, the intelligence community feels violent, state-on-state conflict will be unlikely in the coming years. There are other ramifications, though.

When it comes to shared water basins, the report notes that it is likely that a number of countries will exert leverage against their neighbors to protect water reserves. Additionally, “upstream states,” countries home to a water origin source, might be tempted to cut off water to “downstream states” for political gain. Existing problems such as poverty, poor leadership and environmental degradation are likely to be exacerbated under those circumstances.  

Considering the information available to us, we must start to take this issue seriously. There needs to be a concerted effort toward effective water management.

This means several things, including:  adoption of pricing policies to encourage efficient water use, investment in water infrastructure, effective use of existing technology (especially in regard to agriculture) to aid conservation and efficiency, support of emerging water technology and more advanced hydrological modeling to support new water sharing agreements. It also means adjusting our personal, water-wasting habits.

This sort of research has presented us with more than evidence of a growing problem. It has presented us with an opportunity to change.

Let’s capitalize on it.

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