The average human can survive for only a few days without access to clean drinking water. It is literally a vital resource. The high salt content of the Ancient Mariner’s water would actually accelerate sickness and death of a marooned sailor. The availability of fresh drinking water and water for crop irrigation to sustain a population has been a deciding factor in the location of towns and cities throughout history. Access to water has led to conflict on the battlefield and in the courts.
So much for history, but what about the future for water? The global human population, currently around 7 billion people, is predicted to rise to at least 9 billion by the year 2050, all of whom will need to be ‘watered’ as well as fed. Future supplies are therefore critical. Many of us treat water as a resource of which there is an endless supply, but many of our present day sources are threatened, more so than ever before.
Where does our water come from?
One important source is the water extracted from rocks at depth; much as we extract oil by drilling, we draw water from aquifers. The problem here is that, although rainwater seeping into the ground will eventually replenish the water in an aquifer, this doesn’t happen fast enough. We are, in fact, ‘mining’ that water as we might mine iron or copper – it is essentially a non-renewable resource.
The other major sources of water come from rivers, lakes and reservoirs that depend on rainfall for recharge. Even in Britain, a country renowned for its rain, recent years have seen periods of months when low rainfall has threatened supplies. In many other countries, especially in parts of Africa, droughts have had catastrophic consequences for water supplies and food production. These droughts are certainly part of a picture of changing climate patterns on regional and even global scales. Most scientists, myself included, largely attribute such changes in climate to global warming caused by human activities, but whatever the causes, these changes are a reality.
We hear little or nothing about how future supplies of fresh water are going to be assured in the developed world, let alone in poor countries. Are we drifting towards a crisis that will make energy shortages seem trivial by comparison with water shortages? I suspect we are doing just that, despite the abundance of ocean water on this, the ‘water planet’ of our Solar System. What do other geologists think about this? And if it is as great a problem as I believe, what can we do about it…?
The Environment Network
In the July issue of ‘Geoscientist’, we announced the formation of a new kind of ‘grouping’ within the Geological Society to be called the Environment Network, which will focus on addressing just these kinds of issues. Unlike the existing specialist groups such as those devoted to, for example, engineering geology, hydrogeology, or volcanic studies, the Environment Network extends across and links between such traditional groups; this is appropriate because environmental issues are relevant to nearly all of the interests of the Society.
On 6-7 March 2012, the Environment Network will be co-organisers of a 2-day meeting on ‘Water Futures’. We would love to hear your views and ideas about environmental issues geologists can help address – get in touch via the blog, or whatever medium you prefer…