Posted by: shipbright | August 12, 2009

Global water basics–the 10,000 foot view

My old friend John M. asked for a bit of a primer on basic global water issues so over the course of the next few entries I’m going to do a big picture overview of the issues and some of the terminology.  I don’t want this to be seen as a lecture…it’s a discussion and if there’s an issue I haven’t covered or if you think I might have something incorrect let me know.  Send me an email or post a comment.

 The source of most of this information is from personal and professional experience, research, reading and the 2003 United Nations World Water Development Report: Water for people, water for life”.  Here is a link:

I’ll also offer some suggestions for reading…but I want to keep each of these postings short and sweet and not put anyone to sleep.

 GLOBAL WATER BASICS: [fanfare music please…]:

Finite resource:For the most part, the amount of water in the hydrological cycle is the same as it was thousands of years ago.  There are some who believe that environmental degradation issues such as rainforest deforestation have depleted some amount of water in the hydrological cycle.  But for discussion sake lets call it about the same as it was before the industrial revolution.  What has definately changed is human population.

  • The global population is pushing past 6.2 billion people;
  • Water demand does not grow linearly but exponentially.  In the last 100 years the world’s population has tripled but water usage has grown six fold;
  • Water is needed not just to drink but for agricultural irrigation, energy generation, and industrial manufacturing;
  • A depleted water resource on a large regional scale is not a simple thing to correct.  It is not like waiting for a big rainfall to fill up your cistern.  We’ll talk about the Colorado River and its lost delta as an example in another entry.

Here are some pictures of the dying Aral Sea.  It was once a freshwater sea but its waters were diverted for crop irrigation without thought to downstream consequences.  The remaining vanishing waters are highly toxic with pesticides and the growing desert sands are also toxic.



  fishing vessels that once fed families are now adrift on a growing desert…



Scarcity:  Water is not distributed evenly around the world and not necessarily where the people are. 

world water availability

  • Canada has 10% of the world’s freshwater and 1% of the worlds population;
  • Population centers are becoming more urbanized [high concentration of people in small geographic area].  The need for water grows.  Los Angeles has extended its straws for water hundreds of miles and through mountain ranges to get water [Colorado River for example].

 Water purity and health: Human and industrial waste become more and more of an issue as our population grows.  Treating the waste is paramount and in developed countries we are doing this….but in developing countries this is not always the case.

waterborn disease

  • In developing countries four-fifths of all the illnesses are caused by water-borne diseases, with diarrhea being the leading cause of childhood death.

Read more:

These are some of the overarching issues under which most of the global issues fall: 

  • Our freshwater is essentially a finite resource that is controlled by the natural hydrological cycle.  It is not unlimited but it appears so…the paradox of plenty is paucity of attention;
  • The availability of freshwater, its uneven concentration throughout the world, and the human needs for freshwater are the issues we need to address

 We’ll talk about the geopolitical conflicts already in play and those emerging, human health and sanitation, water mining, desalinization, conservation, education.

I get passionate about this issue because this is a fundamental carrying capacity issue that affects all countries and our shared sense of security.  For years some forward thinkers have been saying the wars of the 21rst century will be about water.  Check out some of these articles:


We can avoid these conflicts if we can be forward thinking and take action early.  If the issue of national security feels too esoteric for you remember what happened at the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina.  There was no potable water and the veneer of humanity that surrounds our souls was stripped off and civilized behavior crumbled.

No water…no civility…no civilization


…Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink…


    Me fascinó el encabezado Global water basics-the 10,000 foot view
    y prácticamente todo el escrito, tan solotengo la sensación de que al final está unun pelín confuso.

  2. The images are just unreal . It is amazing , stunning , the photos of the Aral Sea . I am familiar with irrigation and the results , one reason is that i am a farmer and I use it and I am aware of how much water it takes . I have used overhead irrigation and also drip irrigation . There is a huge difference in the amount of water they use .
    I was just reading the last months National Geographic about water and the glaciers shrinking in Asia . The effects on India and China are not going to be good in the future . These two countries as well many surrounding ones who’s populations are growing by the minute face , “well” a dim future and I am not sure anyone knows what to do about it . I been to Australia and seen the 10 year drought for my self , the water shortages , the effects on their crops , mostly from using water they shouldn’t been using in the first place . As stated by an early pioneer who drew a line across the simi arid region a hundred years ago before development .
    As one of the 6.2 billion population on this earth I am concerned , and very worried . Water will be the new oil in the furure .

    Thank you for letting me coment …

    Tommy Litchfield


  4. hi my friends

  5. hi my amigos

  6. basically yes, –its about population growth and water demand [people, AG, industrial] stressing the natural supply and availability….
    which will lead to a future post on conservation– or as Author, water expert and Forward Thinker Sandra Postel calls it, “The Last Oasis” in her book of the same title.

  7. Thanks, Ship. Those images of the Aral Sea still stun me every time I see them. I look forward to the next installment.

    A quick question: do the water availability amounts noted on your map represent replacement rates for those areas? Put another way, if the availability declines in a given area, should we assume it has been drawn down at a rate greater than the previous chart’s listed annual availability?

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