Not a drop to drink

Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink
Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It may be the most misquoted phrase in all of poetry, but those two lines pretty much sum up the state of the global water supply.

Sure, there’s water everywhere. The planet’s covered with the stuff. But how much of it is fit for drinking?

And how much of that is getting to the people who need it?

Asit Biswas, winner of the Stockholm Water Prize. CP Photo

Asit Biswas should know. Biswas, an Indian-born Canadian, is the president of the Third World Centre for Water Management and winner of the 2006 Stockholm Water Prize. Biswas gave a speech at last month’s Nobel Conference that included the provocative statement, “there is no water crisis.”

Really? How can that possibly be?

The influential blog BoingBoing’s interview with Biswas ought to be required reading on the subject. Biswas contends that while everyone’s wringing their hands over water scarcity, the real issues are infrastructure and management.

Bad infrastructure means inefficient distribution: even in modern First World cities, it’s common for 25% of water to be lost between its source and the places where it’s consumed. And then 99% of what’s used goes down the drain as waste – that’s bad management.

When bad infrastructure and bad management combine with other factors – corruption, lack of funding, political turmoil, or whatever the case may be – the result isn’t just wasted water; it’s unsanitary water, which is a killer. The bout of “Montezuma’s revenge” that tropical travelers consider an inconvenience is a daily fact of life for many people around the world, and it’s no joke. Diarrhea is the leading cause of death among children in the developing world. Imagine the difference clean water would make!

Biswas’ ideas are exciting, because they suggest working on real solutions (like fixing pipelines and capturing waste water) rather than panicking about imaginary problems. Still, it seems crazy to suggest that there’s no water scarcity.

Aral Sea dries up over 20 years
The Aral Sea gone dry. Image: Earth Observatory

The Aral Sea in the former USSR is one example of water scarcity played out on a terrifying scale. Lake Mead and the Colorado River in the western U.S. are another. True, both situations are the result of bad management, but let’s not waste time on semantics: the scarcity is real. In Ontario, Georgian Bay‘s water levels plummeted for years before a slight rebound last summer, and remain far below historic norms.

Biswas is right to suggest we get practical with water management and infrastructure. It will make a huge difference at the user end of the tap. But let’s hope that also means dealing with the very real issues of water scarcity. By the time our water gets to the oceans, there’s not a drop to drink.

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