Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink – the future for water?

Image of ship in becalmed sea, from 'The Ancient Mariner'The problem Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner faced, becalmed in the middle of the ocean, was that despite ‘water, water, everywhere’, none of it was suitable for drinking.

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.

Dust bowl in Dallas, South Dakota, caused by severe droughtThe 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…

4 thoughts on “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink – the future for water?

  1. Hello David and thanks for kicking off the Environment Network’s blog. And what a hot topic to start with: Water!

    I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about what geoscientists do to address the planet’s water problems when we all attend “Water Futures” – hint: register please!

    But is it enough? And is it even relevant? Sure, there is a lot of activity in “mining” water, as David says despite the implications, and in geoengineering storage and supply of surface freshwater. But to me, the obvious source is, well, the salty stuff that covers 70% of our planet! Are we doing enough to make desalination possible? This is a multidisciplinary problem, needing lots of disciplines, from chemists to engineers to work together, to create a financially viable technology. I know very little about the complexities of such an endevour but I wonder if any geoscientists out there are involved in it and what they think?

    On a planet full of water, whouldnt it be sad to be dying of thirst?

  2. Fresh water availability is the problem faced soon by human beings for three reasons :
    the water pollution; the game played by large companies selling the drinkable water; the lack of money devoted to deep boreholes and aquifers.
    In France, most of the water wells and boreholes are exploiting the shallow first aquifer (5-40 m deep) which of course can be contaminated by pollutants from the surface.
    Huge quantities of fresh water exist at depths ranging from 150 m to 800 m (for example, the Albian sands in the Parisian region form a large aquifer at a 700 m depth which is considered as a strategic aquifer (in case of large pollution of the water taken to-day from the Seine alluvial aquifer).

    Large companies selling the water to the populations are advertising about the scarcity and pollution of water, just to frighten the common people. When populations are afraid, they are ready to pay a high price for their water. Extracting water from deeper aquifers would solve the water problem in most of the France regions.

    It is also easy to use the climate change as a scapegoat for the lack of water in desertic countries. The impact is at the moment very weak.
    I worked for 30 years in Africa, the Middle East, Australia and Pacific or Indian islands and geophysical + hydrogeological investigations have found a lot of water in places thought as sterile
    In northern Mali, for example, fresh water was supposed to exist (in 1975) only along major fractures (lineaments or strikes created by eruptive intrusions or dykes). Water was then available for 4 villages out of 10.
    In 1985, most of the found water was extracted from aquifers located along lithological contacts (quartzites/schists; sandstones/shales; weathered sandstones/ quartzites). 8 villages out of ten got fresh water.

    The water problem has to be solved by geologists not politicians or merchants.
    Politicians have just to agree with a reasonable budget to allow enough investigation and drilling surveys.

  3. “……………….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……………….”

    The answer is HYDROGEOLOGY !! and Hydrogeologists !! There are many thousands of hydrogeologists all around the world busy working on exactly this problem, and many hundreds and more drilling reports, publications, maps, investigations and analyses going on… in Asia, Africa, Latin America & of course the rest of the planet. I invite you to visit for a preliminary taster of what these ‘ologists have to offer to humanity, and to a sound & sustainable future… Having said that, let me now turn to say, that water in aquifers being ‘out of sight and thus out of mind’ has not been the prime topic of daily concern for (most) policy makers – to attend to the repeated alerts, warnings and news reports that we hydrogeologists loudly try to proclaim!! Nevertheless if I may say so, the IAH & Geol Soc’s own Hyrdrogeology Group, together with many organsations, UNESCO, UNEP, World bank, FAO to name a few are determined to get the attention of Mr Policy Maker… and it is working !! The UN General Assemly in 2009 actually adopted a Resolution of the Use of Transboundary Aquifers – consisting of 18 Articles – not yet a binding Convention but likely to be one in the coming years – as a result “aquifers”, “groundwater. resources” and similar terminology is now in common usage in many environmental – water related global and national agendas .. There is a rich literature out there on “groundwater” and I warmly invite all readers to peruse it!!

    Shammy Puri
    Secretary General of the International Association of Hydrogeologists & Fellow of the Geol Soc

  4. I join the discussion over a year late, but I’ve only just found out about this blog via the latest Geoscientist. I make a couple of points …

    It can be misleading to present the 97% of water across the Earth in the oceans as inaccessible and unusable. It is in fact a massive reservoir that supplies much of our freshwater via evaporation and precipitation working as an enormous perpetual and natural desalination system. At every moment, evaporated seawater is replenishing the water cycle somewhere on Earth.

    David, in his writing about groundwater, a little misleadingly (and I assume unintentionally) gives the impression that all groundwater is in effect ‘mined’. Most aquifers across the world are exploited sustainably, though of course, some are not. There are some also truly mined as unreplenishable reservoirs. On the whole, most groundwaters in the UK are managed sustainably thanks to the rigorous work of the Environment Agency.

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