The University of Iowa

Human right, liquid asset

March 22nd, 2011

Commentary by Bob Libra for the Press-Citizen

How can there be a world water crisis on a planet that is two-thirds covered with water? The other third, with an uneven distribution of fresh water supplies, is covered as well — with 7 billion water-users.

Water to drink is a basic need, but fresh water has many other uses. Water means food. Water means energy. Water means sanitation. Water means ecosystems that work. Water means security. And water means profit.

Our water crisis comes from shortages of both water and money. Much of the world doesn’t have dependable river flows or groundwater supplies to meet ever-growing multiple demands. Clean, safe drinking water is a fundamental human need and should be our foremost water priority.

Many countries, however, can’t afford the infrastructure for water treatment and handling of human waste. Forty percent of the world’s population lacks basic sanitation services, and more than a billion people drink inadequately treated water.

This results more from a scarcity of money than water, and recent trends toward privatization of water facilities adds to the problem. International lending organizations increasingly require for-profit investments in water facilities before approving loans to poorer nations. This provides capital but often raises costs beyond the reach of those most in need.

The world needs water, and it needs energy. Energy production requires huge quantities of water for petroleum extraction and refining, power plant cooling, hydroelectric plants, biofuels production and more. But far and away the greatest demand for water is to provide another basic human need — food.

Over half of the world’s water goes to agriculture, much for irrigation in areas where local rainfall is insufficient for crop production. Forty percent of the world’s food supply comes from irrigated land. As food crops become the source of biofuels, food, water and energy resources are competing in converging ways. Economics and profit tend to dictate water distribution, and on that basis, safe drinking water can’t compete; it can only prevail when viewed as a human right.

Looking closer to home, Iowa has its own water concerns. We tend to think of Iowa as a well-watered place, but our supplies and demand are not equally distributed. Our streams and shallow groundwater supplies are vulnerable to drought, and the records tell us we are overdue. Our deep aquifers are not affected by drought, but some of the groundwater they store fell as rain thousands to tens of thousands of years ago.

If overused, that “fossil water” is depleted and not quickly replaced. We are beginning to approach that point locally. What restrictions should we put on today’s use to assure water for the future?

Mention Iowa to people around the world, and they see a farm field. Iowa’s rich productive soils produce abundant crops, but annually receive fertilizers, chemicals and manure from millions of livestock. These tilled and treated soils become sources of pollution from sediment, nutrients, chemicals and bacteria when hard rains fall and water runs off the land or percolates into the ground. Wastewater discharges from cities and industries also pour into our streams, but with almost two-thirds of our land devoted to corn and soybeans — for both food and fuel — agriculture is the largest source of Iowa’s water quality problems.

How do we protect water quality when the largest impact comes from agriculture, the foundation of the state’s economy, history and culture?

The future of the world’s water is a story starring a growing population, competing demands and, clearly, a changing climate. How should we respond? Is water a human right or a liquid asset? To learn more, join us at 5 p.m. Friday in Room 2780 of the University Capitol Center for the next production of WorldCanvass — “Starving for Water: The Global Water Crisis and its Impact on Food and Health.”