It’s seemingly abundant, yet surprisingly scarce; rarely prioritized in public policy, yet as essential as oil for supporting our lifestyles. And if water ‘runs out,’ it could signal the ultimate disaster.
We grow up, having survived middle school science classes, believing that water is an absolutely abundant element on Earth. After all, the oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and if there’s one fact I’ve retained from all those long-ago lessons in Mr. Moynihan’s 7th grade science course, it’s that Mt. Everest could easily fit into the Mariana Trench, and still be thousands of feet underwater.
The Pacific Ocean is one seriously large body of water, occupying more than 40% of the Earth’s surface.
Heck, the human body is about two-thirds water, and if you live in the Pacific Northwest, the air itself is pretty much two-thirds water.
But in reality, the amount of water available for human use is startlingly small, particularly the amount of fresh water available for farming. As the author and researcher Steven Solomon, details in his book, “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” only about 2.5% of all the water on Earth is fresh water, and two-thirds of that total is locked away in polar ice caps and mountaintop glaciers.
Plus, of the already miniscule amount of planetary fresh water not locked away as ice, nearly all of the rest exists in underground aquifers, most of which are either inaccessible or difficult to tap. To be specific, less than three-tenths of one percent — 0.03% — of the planet’s fresh water exists in liquid form on the Earth’s surface and even a significant percentage of that water is contained in permafrost, soil moisture and atmospheric water vapor.
(A typical fluffy white cumulus cloud floating across the sky on a sunny day weighs between 600 and 800 tons).
A crisis to come
Thus, the amount of fresh water available in liquid form in rivers and lakes is but a tiny fraction of all the H2O we consider to be so incredibly abundant on Earth — and if that’s not daunting enough, consider that more than 2.5 billion people alive today live in semiarid climates that receive less than 8% of the total precipitation that falls to the ground annually.
As a result, water — not oil — is the world’s most precious resource, and in the decades to come the geo-political struggles to obtain it, control it and utilize it efficiently will become ever more contentious.
In fact, the most significant socio-economic transformation in human history — even bigger than the introduction of the iPhone X — was the harnessing of that approximately 0.01% of the world’s available freshwater to support the cultivation of cereal crops.
Ironically, that transformative event took place thousands of years ago in a region now characterized as a sun-baked, sand-infested hellhole: Mesopotamia, aka, the Middle East.
The development several millennia ago of agricultural practices using irrigation was able to produce perennial surpluses of grain that could be stored as a hedge against years of drought or one of those pesky plagues of locusts. Such food security — humanity’s first — supplanted the hunter-gather societies and gave rise to culture and the emergence of the arts, beginning with spoken language and the written word.
Of course, the initial application of written words was to create laws, the first of which was the imposition of taxes.
As a lifelong journalist who’s made his living using the written word … you’re welcome.
The point of these statistics is that the food security we take for granted is not universally shared by most countries. As world population increases, and climate disruptions exacerbates both debilitating droughts and devastating floods, water scarcity will become as contentious as the sectarian violence that currently plagues so much of the world.
That makes agricultural productivity in North America, one of the few places on Earth where relatively abundant water for irrigation is available, among the most critical factors for policymakers. If farm productivity is compromised here, the world would suffer unimaginable hunger, famine and starvation.
Yet ask average Americans what they consider to be essential national policies, and support for animal agriculture and food production doesn’t even make the top ten.
To generate traction for prioritizing the livestock and crop production that feeds so much of the world and to convince government at all levels to protect land use and preserve water resources, it falls to the people actually involved in those industries to raise agriculture’s profile on the national agenda.
And unfortunately, the percentage of the population involved in food production is even smaller than those calculations of how much the world’s water farmers and producers get to use.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.