By Miguel De La Torre
Amid apparent abundance, millions of people on Earth do not have access to clean water. More than 1 billon lack basic sanitation allowing them to take a shower, turn on a tap or flush a toilet.
Each year 2.5 million people, mostly children, die from water-borne diseases. If present trends continue, half of the world’s population will live in water-stressed basins by 2025.
Consequences will arise from squandering this resource. The scarcity created by our mismanagement could cause future bloodshed, as desperate people do whatever is required to obtain this precious and life-sustaining resource.
Just as nations in the past century fought wars over oil, this century may see wars fought over water rights. Wars over water and the quest to obtain it will trigger a massive migration of global populations.
Although much could be written on how we fritter away this resource, here are just two examples that illustrate the damage we are causing to our planet.
The first example deals with our carnivorous lifestyle. In the United States, more than 9 billion livestock are maintained to supply the animal protein consumed each year.
Rather than witnessing a reduction in meat demand, an increasing global desire for a Western-based diet is leading experts to envision a doubling of meat production during the first half of the present century. That’s an increase from 229 million metric tons at the start of the 21st century to about 465 million metric tons by 2050. This drastic increase in livestock creates greater competition for water.
Livestock production is responsible for most water pollution, due mainly to animal waste runoffs, chemical contaminations from tanneries, pesticides and fertilizer runoff from feed crops and the emergence of antibiotic resistance.
Besides contaminating water, livestock production is also a main user. To produce a kilogram of grain-fed beef, 100,000 liters of water are required, mainly due to feed crop. By contrast, a kilogram of soybean production uses 2,000 liters of water. Rice requires 1,912 liters of water, wheat 900 and potatoes just 500 liters of water.
A second example of water mismanagement came to my attention through one of my students, Sarah Parker, in her master’s thesis.
A water source the size of Lake Ontario lies underground, stretching from the southern edge of South Dakota into the Texas Panhandle. Known as the Ogallala Aquifer, it flows under 174,000 square miles of prairie, irrigating 16 million acres.
Our current level of consumption practically guarantees that the Ogallala will run dry by the 2030s. In some areas, like New Mexico, farmers withdraw about five feet of water per year, while nature replenishes the supply at the rate of about a quarter-inch per year.
The Ogallala has become both the largest and fastest-receding aquifer in the world. Once the Ogallala dries up, so will once-productive farmlands, and an economic crisis will ensue.
The privilege of turning on a faucet and obtaining clean water may become a memory for future generations. It need not be. If we are called to be stewards of creation, we must seriously consider changing our lifestyle to ensure this life-giving resource to our progeny.
This is not only a political responsibility we have to future generations. It is a spiritual responsibility for those who call themselves Christians.