Parched Earth Policy: Are We Running Out of Water?

Parched Earth Policy: Are We Running Out of Water?
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As Americans gather around their Thanksgiving tables for an abundance of food, it will be a sharp contrast to what some experts are calling a severe crisis — the scarcity of fresh water.

The scarcity, these analysts say, can no longer be avoided as the effects of a world water shortage will have life-threatening and global economic consequences.

"We're already in a water crisis here in the U.S.," said Mark LeChavallier, director of innovation and environmental stewardship for American Water, a water and wastewater utility company.

"It's big in areas on the West Coast and only getting bigger in areas like the East Coast. It's almost taken for granted that we will have water, but we can't do that anymore," he said.

It's not just the U.S. that's facing a severe water shortage. India, China, Russia and parts of Africa and elsewhere in Asia are just a few of the regions facing increasing water scarcity, according to a report by Deloitte.

A major reason for the water shortage is drought. Some 56 percent of the United States is experiencing drought conditions — the most extensive area of drought in the U.S. in 12 years of tracking. Other areas of the world, like the Korean peninsula, have endured the worst drought conditions in more than a century.

Adding to the water scarcity is an ever increasing world population — along with increased urbanization — and economic growth, all of which demand and consume larger and larger amounts of water. The United Nations has said that two thirds of the world will live in water-stressed countries by 2025.

The problem going forward is how to get more from less, say analysts.

"Water does cover 70 percent of the earth but only 2.5 percent of it is fresh water, and if you break it down further, there's only about 0.006 percent fresh water available in the world," said Jose Lopez, assistant professor of physics at Seton Hall University.

"The population is competing for a scarcer resource, which is what water is becoming, because of the global demand," said Lopez.

One of the biggest competitors for water is agriculture. Some 70 percent of global water use is tied to the industry. For example, 1 pound of wheat requires 175 gallons of water, a pound of rice, 400 gallons and 1 pound of beef, 600 gallons.

But other sectors, like power, clothing, automotive and technology, also require large amounts of water. A survey by the research group EIRIS fund that that under current business conditions, water demand will outstrip supply by 2030 — and will potentially put $63 trillion of global gross domestic product at risk by 2050.

At least one big-name company recognizes the limits of water usage. Ford announced last year that by 2015, it would reduce 30 percent of the amount it used to make its 2009 vehicles. And pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk said it reduced its water consumption by 20 percent in 2009.

Coca Cola was accused in 2003 of creating severe water shortages in India by extracting large quantities of water for its factories —but has since said it "would replace the water it took out."

"Businesses are paying much closer attention to water. Demand for water has effectively made it a business operation to seek out better water management strategies," Lopez said.

But some businesses might not be doing enough to keep fresh water flowing, said Nancy Gottovi, executive director of Central Park N.C., a nonprofit group that promotes the sustainable use of natural resources. The group is in a battle of sorts withAlcoa over dams the company controls on the Yadkin River in North Carolina.

"We have nothing against Aloca, but they built four dams on the Yadkin for their smelting plant nd the plant is gone now," Gottovi said. "They sell the energy from the dams and want a new license to do so. We don't think that's the best use of the water. We think we should judge what's best." (Read More: Obama Pressed on Keystone.)

For its part, Alcoa says it's "working closely with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to ensure that North Carolina's water interests are well represented and strongly supported in the relicensing agreement."

But there are other concerns besides Alcoa, including water used for drilling oil by fracking, said Gottovi, who is going to the White House next week for a talk with Obama administration officials about water policy. "Water can't be treated like a commodity."

It's a lack of any kind of water policy that is a major problem, said Cindy Wallis-Lage, president of the water division of Black & Veatch, a consulting and construction firm that focuses on infrastructure development.

"We need major education about the use of water, something that starts at the grade school level," Wallis-Lage said. "People need to realize how much water they use and the value of it. We're losing 7 billion gallons a day in the U.S. from leaking pipes. We have technology to create the water we need, we just need to capitalize on it."

White House policy on water currently consists of water safety and some stops and starts over the issue of fracking. But nothing on water supplies.

As for controlling the conditions creating droughts, one analyst says we had better get used to an uncertain forecast.

"Our climate — whether you want to call it global warming or climate change — is different than it was 50 years ago," said William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at Tufts University. (Read More: California to Fight Climate Change.)

"To have a hurricane like Sandy in October just shows you how the oceans are warming. The weather patterns are only going to change even more and get worse as time goes on." said Moomaw.

Fixing the problem of water scarcity will take time and effort, said Kevin Petrovsky, associate professor of environmental science and associate academic dean at Northwood University.

"We need to continue to develop desalination technologies that are not so energy intensive or polluting. We need to accelerate our wastewater recycling programs to allow for more reuse of water," said Petrovksy. "And we need to decide as a society whether green lawns and landscaping, golf courses, swimming pools and unnecessary agriculture (like tobacco and coffee) are worth the use of water."

In the end, said Mark LeChavallier, it's realizing the scarcity is real.

"People have to learn that water is critical to the quality of their lives and economic development," LeChavallier said. "It's important to start the dialogue on how to solve this problem."