For nearly four years, the Flint water crisis has made the nation acutely aware of the risks that come with misusing water resources. We saw bad decisions can lead to undrinkable and dangerous water, and we learned how political negligence can lead to a misuse of one of our greatest resources.
Perhaps, to thoroughly show the gravity of the situation, we should start thinking about what we would do with no water at all.
A BBC report released Jan. 12 outlined the dire situation surrounding water usage in Cape Town, South Africa. Increasing consumption and population combined with three years of low rainfall put the city at risk of literally running out of water.
The city is so low on reservoir reserves that the city’s engineers are able to peg April 22 as the day that the city will run out of drinking water. According to Time, the city will not literally be devoid of water at that point, but will have to ration 25 liters or 6.6 gallons of water to each citizen per day. For context, the average Canadian citizen uses about 87 gallons per day. Even a regular shower head uses between two and five gallons per minute, depending on its efficiency.
For the citizens of Cape Town, living without easy access to clean water means living in filth and generally unhealthy conditions just so they can eat and be hydrated.
Even worse, Cape Town and Flint are not exactly outliers.
Citizens of Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Iran are facing outright conflict and mass migration that stem, in part, from the mismanagement of water resources. The World Resources Institute went as far as to say that 33 countries will be facing extremely high stress in less than 25 years. Crippling droughts across the Middle East have shrunk some lakes by as much as 90 percent.
This is not a future that can sustain society as we know it. How far is the U.S. from a similar catastrophe?
The answer is an inconvenient truth, to say the least.
Despite recent respite from widespread drought, the increasing volatility of weather and precipitation patterns has left a mark on the United States.
Less than a year ago, California was in the middle of a five-year drought that can serve as a good projection for what could come. By 2014, more than half of the state was categorized as exceptionally dry by the U.S. Drought Monitor. The affected areas experience “exceptional and widespread crop/pasture losses” and “shortages of water in reservoirs, streams, and wells creating water emergencies.” A 2015 CNBC article reported that crop losses amounted to at least $1.8 billion and 8,550 jobs were lost because of more than half a million acres of farmland was rendered infertile.
Those drastic numbers are slowly becoming more normal.
Moscow has seen about 50 percent of its average precipitation for this time of year. We usually receive about 6.61 inches of precipitation during November and December, but 2017 brought less than a single inch over the same period.
Ski resorts across the Rockies are going into panic because of dangerously low snowfalls, which lead to economically broken resort towns that get around 70 percent of their yearly revenue from ski season.
Reservoirs across the west have grown less and less consistent in their holdings. The Ogallala aquifer that spans most of the great Midwest cornfields reduced in size by as much as 8.3 million acre-feet per year from 2000 to 2008. Losing that much water is equivalent to the Colorado River, which feeds Arizona and Southern California, going dry for half the year.
So, what can we do? Is there even anything that can be done to prevent a future reminiscent of “Mad Max”?
Unlike the drought in South Africa, we have time. The aquifers across the U.S. are experiencing monumental stress, but their depth and breadth are significant enough that our course can be changed in time. The best fix would be to adopt policies of more efficient water use in agriculture, but there are plenty of simple domestic measures that can be taken as well.
In order to preserve what we have left, it is best to research and install low-flow faucets and shower heads while leaving the sink off as much as possible. High-efficiency washing machines and dishwashers help preserve water and drive down usage bills. Just about every appliance, from fire sprinklers to toilets, can be replaced with some newer model that conserves what little water we have left. The EPA and USGS have plenty of additional suggestions for those interested on their websites.
We can no longer just hope that rain and snow will come regularly. One of the biggest side effects of climate change is increased frequency and impact of droughts around the world. With unpredictable rain and snowfall, even our own insulated region may suffer intense damages from water shortages in the near future. Sensible consumption and active preservation are vital if we are going to avert disaster both at home and abroad.
Jonah Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jonahpbaker