Drought in California: A Much Bigger Problem Than You Think

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It’s easy to take a natural resource for granted until it becomes a scarcity. It’s also easy to believe that technological advances in the past decades have made established societies immune from shortage — the idea of constant creation makes us naively believe that there’s a solution and another source for everything. But the drought in California and most of the western half of the United States is making more Americans aware that, just like any other country, we are not impervious to shortfalls of natural supplies, even the ones that we rely on for life’s necessities.

Though Americans are too often guilty of having tunnel vision about its problems compared to the rest of the world, the ongoing drought and the struggle for many to get the water they believe they need (either for farming, keeping their flowers alive, or simply for drinking) opens up the conversation about how countries much drier than the United States handle water rights. In some countries, like Saudi Arabia, all water distribution is controlled completely by the government. In many areas, a farmer’s water supply depends on whether or not people in another country upstream have left enough for him to use.

As surface-level streams and lakes dry up, and unseen aquifers under the ground are drained as well, the tensions about water rights continue to grow. In fact, many people have begun to compare the struggles for water rights to the conflicts that used to happen over oil. “Oil was probably the fluid of last century where there was a lot of turmoil, and I think water is the fluid of this century,” Michael Walsh, a major general with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told NPR.

Though it might feel as if the United States is on their own with this daunting water crisis, people in other countries have been mired in water shortages for a far longer time period. Water politics is so divisive, and adequate water policies often depend on a set of factors unique to each country or region. Researchers from Yale and Ohio State University have found that water markets (where you pay for as much as you’re able to afford) can be better than water quotas, where everyone is allotted a certain amount. But depending on the cycles of water usage, either system can fall apart.

The reality is that water scarcity is becoming a larger issue not only for the United States, but countries all across the world. Across the globe, National Geographic reports that we are pumping out 250 km³ more than nature is able to refill — the equivalent of a 66 trillion-gallon deficit. Devising policies to deal with our shortages is becoming more paramount, because historical examples from other countries show that water supply, at least in shortages, often comes down to who has the most power and money. If we want to secure easy access to water for all people, we need to come up with equitable policies now to allocate the remaining water we have. Otherwise, we might start to face the same issues as the five following countries, who face problems much more dire than a faltering almond crop.

Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images
Hassan Ammar/AFP/Getty Images

1. Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia might be rich in oil, but the nonexistence of rain in the country means that water has always been a scarce and valuable resource. “Saudi Arabia is a desert country with no permanent rivers or lakes and very little rainfall,” the country’s embassy in the United States explains. “Water is scarce and extremely valuable, and with the country’s rapid growth, the demand for water is increasing.”

According to a Reuters article, the country’s water issues have been ongoing for several years. Even in 2011, the country’s water usage was almost double the per capita global average, a rate that was continuing to increase even then from additional development. As it stood in 2011 when the last survey was done, total water withdraw per capita was 913.3 m³/inhabitant/year, or 214,111 gallons. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations compiles water survey data from across the world, and reports that Saudi Arabia only has 2.4 km³/year in renewable water resources. (A cubic kilometer of water is equal to about 264 billion gallons of water.) More than 500 billon gallons of water might sound like a lot, but the desert country is using 943% of its water resources each year, meaning it’s quickly drawing down the water reserves.

Saudi Arabia’s aquifers contain “fossil water,” meaning the water in them fell hundreds of years ago and once they are depleted, there’s no replacing them. The country had for years attempted to grow its own wheat crops, but abandoned the plan in 2008 when it became clear the water demand was too much for the country to sustain. Instead, the country aims to import all of its wheat products by 2016, at a net loss to the country. “The decision to import is to preserve water,” Saudi Deputy Minister of Agriculture for Research and Development Abdullah al-Obaid told Reuters. “It’s not a matter of cost. The government buys wheat at prices higher than in the local market.”

The country is trying to move forward with desalination techniques because of the nation’s proximity to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. But often that process is energy intensive, and ends up requiring the government to burn copious amounts of fossil fuels to do so.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

2. Afghanistan

Though also a desert country, Afghanistan has slightly more renewable water resources than Saudi Arabia. The FAO reports the country has 47.15 km³ of fresh water available each year, and only withdraws about 31% of its supply each year. However, the withdraw per capita is also high, at 913 cubic meters per person.

The largest issue in Afghanistan is mitigating the conflicts between people who live at certain areas of the main waterways. Often in practice, people downstream have no legal rights to the water, meaning that farmers and others are left struggling to find an adequate water supply. This isn’t an issue when rainfall is adequate, but in times of drought political tensions surrounding water can be fierce. Afghanistan’s water supply is mostly used for agricultural purposes, as the United Nations reports that 98.6% of withdrawn water is used in that way.

Water rights are completely subjected to whoever is in power at the time, an article published by the Global Water Forum has found. In cases where a water director upstream could receive a promotion for his work, he was more likely to make sure that those downstream received the water they needed. Because this is so prevalent in the culture, few policies at national or local levels are actually effective, because compliance totally depends on the personal motivations of those in charge of water distribution.

Tony Morrison/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Tony Morrison/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3. Peru/Ecuador

The example of water availability in the highlands of Peru and Ecuador highlight that poor water policies can threaten people in countries that otherwise have a decent supply of fresh water. “With today’s increasing pressure on water resources, ‘water insecurity’ is felt hardest by socio-economically and politically less powerful societal groups,” argue the authors of a paper hosted on the Global Water Forum. In this specific case, water in the highlands isn’t as plentiful in the rest of the country, and peasant and indigenous communities are adversely affected. “The waters they need for agriculture and livestock are increasingly being claimed by more wealthy and powerful actors, who are often supported by public policies and investments that favor re-allocations to supposedly more productive or efficient uses,” the authors write.

In Ecuador specifically, this means that small communities have had to cooperate together, with the assistance of nonprofit organizations, to be able to afford the legal process of securing state-sanctioned water allocations. In many cases, this is the only way small communities are able to draw any water at all. “Our research in Ecuador and Peru shows that even well-intended and carefully planned policies are not sufficient to secure these groups’ access to and control over their water resources,” they wrote.

According to the FAO, Ecuador has 457 cubic kilometer of water per year available, and Peru has 1,894 cubic kilometers available.

Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images
Jenny Vaughan/AFP/Getty Images

4. Ethiopia

Though located right next to the Nile River, the country of Ethiopia faces severe water shortages as well. Part of this is because Egypt, who uses much of the Nile’s water supply, exerts its power over the poorer country and ensures Ethiopia doesn’t hinder the downstream flow of water.

The largest conflict regarding land and water use in recent history happened when the government announced it would begin to lease up to 3 million hectares of land to other countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, and India. Indigenous farmers objected to being kicked off ancestral lands, though companies like Saudi Star claimed they would bring schools and other resources to the natives in return for using the land for their own agricultural purposes. Some of the leases, or “investments,” are reportedly used for rice farming, one of the most water-intensive crops there is.

Ethiopia already uses 93.6% of its available freshwater for agriculture, but doesn’t have a lot of it to go around. The country as a whole has 122 cubic kilometers of fresh water per year, the UN reports.

Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images
Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

5. India

Despite having many people living in poverty and hunger, India now produces enough food to feed all of its inhabitants, as National Geographic reports. This is largely because the country has drilled into underwater aquifers with abandon, with some residents even making a living off of “mining” the natural resource. About a quarter of the food grown in the country is irrigated with “fossil water” — the supplies that aren’t really renewable, even though we’ve learned water is a renewable resource since third grade.

According to the publication, India uses 70 cubic kilometers of water more than what is restored in nature each year. (That’s about 18.5 trillion gallons too many, per year.) For now, India does have considerable reserves of water. The UN reports that it has 1,911 cubic kilometers of freshwater available. About 90% of that is used for agriculture.

As National Geographic explains, factories used to use water from reservoirs. But when farmers and industries upstream drain most of those resources, companies turn to local farmers and buy up their underground reserves.

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