It’s almost summer, and in many places it’s already hot.
A trip to the beach and a dip in the ocean is lovely, unless you run into restrictions like sharks, beach erosion, or other water hazards. In one of the most popular beach spots in New York, Rockaway, be prepared to run into federal contractors erecting barriers to protect the shoreline from coastal flooding.
If you are going to Utah, know that the Great Salt Lake has shrunk by two-thirds due to climate change.
Massachusetts is a great summer destination, but it’s officially in a drought. Spring was one of the driest seasons in many years and a new report by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Boston warns of more heat waves, rising seas, and intensifying storms.
Everywhere it seems, water is a problem. It is the source of life, as well as a basic building block. Seventy percent of Earth’s surface is water. Water is everything — from hydrating ourselves to feeding the planet.
But look around: From climate-change-fueled droughts to overflowing rivers causing massive flooding, we are in serious water trouble in America and around the world.
California’s drought seems to make the most news. Governor Gavin Newsom has pleaded with residents and companies to reduce water usage by 15 percent. But new data show that far from heeding the warnings, residents, and businesses there are increasing water usage to levels not seen in seven years. The federal government caused national outrage a few months ago when it said it would not allocate more water for California’s farmers.
California is not alone. State by state, country by country, water is a nightmare. Minnesota, for example, has plenty of water, but has been plagued by drought and historic flooding. Water shortages and wildfires are a dangerous combination as we have seen with California, Arizona, and New Mexico, with scientists predicting rising temperatures and potential drought in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. According to the London-based think tank Chatham House, one-quarter of humanity faces a looming water crisis including completely running out of water. Up to 80 percent of available surface and groundwater is used annually with researchers predicting a 55 percent increase by 2050.
Why should we care? Consider public health. Water, wastewater, and sewage systems are all affected by floods, droughts, and potability. When water management shifts, our ability to measure things like COVID levels in the United States shifts.
From Maine to Minnesota, North Carolina to Nevada, public health officials are monitoring what we flush to determine levels of disease in our communities. Absent accurate COVID-19 testing, all countries may need to rely on wastewater for warning signs of viral surges.
Without good water management data, we also will not know if lead is making children sick. A bill in the Missouri Legislature would remove current lead from water and inventory school drinking fountains found with lead. Meanwhile, development agencies around the world are trying to address unsanitary water conditions. Also, six months after a chemical spill, thousands of people could be drinking polluted water in New Hampshire.
Farmers depend on water for crops. And we depend on farmers to feed a growing population whose food demands outstrip production, and decisions about water affect our supply of fruits and vegetables. Coupled with inflation and supply chain bottlenecks, America and other nations could face continued food insecurity.
Water is also a key determinant and byproduct of conflict. Human migration is often driven by food insecurity, fears of unsanitary water, and conflicts over resources.
What can be done to address the growing water crisis? Clearly, there needs to be better public messaging about water, starting with a serious water campaign in local, state, and national venues. It’s called good water diplomacy.
Second, there need to be better tools for measuring our water crisis. That would include reporting on the clear linkage between climate change and water problems. Unpredictable weather patterns are creating more extreme conditions leading to the spread of wildfires and the impact of storms and hurricanes. We cannot afford to see these events in isolation.
Third, there needs to be funding for scientists and technologists to focus on more efficient uses of water in agriculture. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a portable desalination unit, weighing less than 10 kilograms, that can remove particles and salts to generate drinking water. That could be a game-changer for countries like India with huge populations and a need to provide clean water.
Lastly, farming needs to be a national priority. Although it is not a popular proposal, there should be consolidation in terms of both agricultural retailers merging and small farms merging with larger ones. The trend lines suggest that older farmers are aging out, and younger people are choosing other professions, creating a gap in farming. There need to be new ways to make farming more attractive by bringing new technologies and more resources to address rising prices, growing demand, and falling income for farmers.
People need incentives to work on this water crisis, and states and countries should be awarded for conserving water and for avoiding food waste.
And there are lessons from other countries. Israel, a country that is half desert, for example, is producing 20 percent more water than the country needs because it invested in technology and innovation. Its water transportation network pumps water from the northern, freshwater Sea of Galilee and transfers it to central and southern Israel, and it uses drip irrigation technologies to avoid over-watering plants.
The bottom line is that water is not everywhere for everyone. As with any critical resources, it must be managed and shared. This must be the year of water — a time where new ideas flow and actions are taken to bring the water issue to life. Heed the call.
Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of practice in public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.