As Global Water Shortages Go Underground, The Rich And Powerful Snatch Up The Land Above

on August 15, 2012 4:47 PM EDT

Clean drinking water from rainwater harvesting tank
Water shortages create a demand some companies are using to make money. (Photo: Flickr.com/Barefoot photograph)

A new study published in the journal Nature analyzed global water supplies, and mapped out exactly where the world is coming up short.  The bad news is that virtually every region of the world is putting unprecedented strain on freshwater aquifers; the underground reservoirs that provide freshwater to billions. Unlike surface water such as rivers and streams, these water reserves exist because of thousands of years of trickle-down water seepage. So, while river levels rise and fall with each passing storm, the water level of an underground aquifer generally takes years to rise or fall. Experts are examining which factors contribute the most to aquifer depletion, with irrigation for agriculture being the likeliest culprit.  

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The removal of water from point A in an aquifer to point B in the crops and fields has served as a reliable system for decades. But as agriculture gets bigger and bigger, the aquifers get lower and lower. And local governments are scrambling to find solutions.  California governor Jerry Brown is considering a controversial proposal to build underground water tunnels to move water from the Sacramento area south to Fresno County and the San Joaquin Valley.  The motive for the move is money. Farmers in the Sacramento region grow about $700 million in crops annually. A large number, but it pales in comparison to the nearly $6 billion generated by Fresno County alone.  Almonds, in particular, are a burgeoning cash crop for Fresno due to growing international demand for the nut. It is, however, a rather thirsty plant. It takes more than 80 gallons of water to make a one-ounce serving of almonds.

California represents a microcosm of the larger looming water crisis. Approximately 27 percent of all U.S. agriculture gets its water from the Ogallala aquifer, which is dropping at a rate of two-feet per year in some areas. The really bad news? Once it gets drained, the Ogallala takes about 6,000 years to refill. The Nature study found that aquifers like Ogallala are being ravaged worldwide. The Upper Ganges, responsible for watering what is known as "the bread basket of India" is also being overdrawn, according to the study.

Dried up aquifers also deplete surface water. So, once an aquifer goes dry the waters running in creeks and streams and rivers seeps back into the ground. There is no telling what kind of impact this could have on wildlife, or municipal water supplies.

Water shortages could turn the resource into a valuable commodity, akin to oil or gold. The potential value of water in an arid future is what some critics say motivated the Bush family to buy a New York City-sized chunk of Paraguay. The 100,000 acre spread just happens to sit atop the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest reservoirs in the world.  It's not just the Bush family, but companies and investors the world over have begun snatching up water rights. T. Boone Pickens, the oil tycoon famous for owning Drake on Twitter, owns more water than any other person in the U.S., according to Nation of Change. Most of Boone's water holdings are in Texas, where he sells about 65 billion gallons annually to cities like Dallas.

The difference between water and other commodities, like oil, are that people need water to survive. It is not a luxury, and the lack of it means people face life or death decisions. The U.S. government recognized the potential for conflict involving water and released a report in May titled "Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security." Not surprisingly, the news was not good.

"The water crisis is a health crisis, it's a farming crisis, it's an economic crisis, it's a climate crisis, and increasingly, it is a political crisis," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement. "And therefore, we must have an equally comprehensive response."

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