Humanity’s challenge of the century: Conserving Earth’s freshwater systems

The challenge from here on is to avoid water wars while preemptively, cooperatively and aggressively addressing a growing global population’s water security. It can be done, but we must do it now.

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  • Many dryland cities like Los Angeles, Cairo and Tehran have already outstripped natural water recharge, but are expected to continue growing, resulting in a deepening arid urban water crisis.
  • According to NASA’s GRACE mission, 19 key freshwater basins, including several in the U.S., are being unsustainably depleted, with some near collapse; much of the water is used indiscriminately by industrial agribusiness.
  • Many desert cities, including Tripoli, Phoenix and Los Angeles, are sustained by water brought from other basins by hydro megaprojects that are aging and susceptible to collapse, while the desalination plants that water Persian Gulf cities come at a high economic cost with serious salt pollution.
  • Experts say that thinking about the problem as one of supply disguises the real issue, given that what’s really missing to heading off a global freshwater crisis is the organization, capital, governance and political will to address the problems that come with regulating use of a renewable, but finite, resource.

On April 11, 2020, a band of fighters stormed and seized a water control station in the Libyan Sahara. Taking employees prisoner, they occupied a key nexus that helps move 1.2 million cubic meters (317 million gallons) of water per day — 480 Olympic-sized swimming pools — from freshwater aquifers beneath the desert down to the coast.

The raiders flipped a switch and at a stroke, 400 kilometers (250 miles) away, in the capital Tripoli, 2 million people’s taps went dry.

One of many such attacks, this battle in the intensifying global water wars has dire portent for Libya and the world.

The country’s water system had once been a crown jewel of 20th century hydraulic engineering, part of a global constellation of megaprojects that allowed cities in water-starved regions to grow into the millions.

In the 1980s, with Libya’s coastal cities outpacing the region’s sparse rainfall, and its aquifers depleted by overuse, tainted by pollution, and salted by rising seas, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi completed an enormous network of pipes — the so-called Great Manmade River — linking desert aquifers and urban coasts; it now supplies 70% of Libya’s water.

Digging a trench for Libya’s Great Manmade River in the 1980s. The Great Manmade River is formed by a network of pipelines that now supplies 70% of Libya's water — an aging infrastructure network at risk of failing.
Digging a trench for Libya’s Great Manmade River in the 1980s. The Great Manmade River is formed by a network of pipelines that now supplies 70% of Libya’s water — an aging infrastructure network at risk of failing. Image by Jaap Berk via Wikimedia Commons.

That Manmade River today demonstrates just how fast a world-ranked freshwater supply system can fall apart.

Two decades of sanctions, conflict, and economic depression shifted Libya from being a state rich in water, to one vulnerable to going dry. Shutdowns by militants aside, the Manmade River’s current flow is just two-thirds its Gadhafi-era peak. And if that flow dips low enough, or is shut down for too long, the U.N. warned, the entire national water grid could fail causing an instant, exponential exacerbation in an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

But that shutdown would only hurry disaster. In fact, even Libya’s presently tapped Sahara aquifers are now running dry. Keeping the coast watered will demand new desert wells and more pipelines, which in turn demands more capital and enhanced security.

Libya’s coastal cities, where the vast majority of the country’s 6 million citizens live, thus face a fundamental existential crisis: they could wither and die, with oceans of distant underground water monetarily out of reach.

And Libya is not alone.

Two ranchers walk across parched rangelands among weeds, baked soil, and dead grass in Culberson County, Texas.
Two ranchers walk across parched rangelands among weeds, baked soil, and dead grass in Culberson County, Texas. Image by USDA via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Phoenix: Sipping from long, long drinking straws

The Libyan case study is an advanced example of the world’s gathering water crisis — a crisis that could threaten 21st-century civilization itself as we approach a freshwater over-consumption planetary boundary.

The situations in arid and semi-arid cities like Phoenix, Arizona; Bamako, Mali; or Dubai, UAE, differ in their particulars, but rhyme in their impending disastrous trajectory. These, and other arid-region cities, are approaching the edge of an ecological cliff: dependent on sustaining growth, which itself requires a growth in water supplied by faraway and finite sources, and delivered by aging infrastructure.

But water in dryland regions is getting scarcer and supplies more unpredictable. Cities are competing with the agribusiness that feeds them, but which wastes water at astounding rates.

Drilling for water in San Ramón, California. Intense consumption by commercial agribusiness in U.S. states like Arizona and California is steadily using up fossil water.
Drilling for water in San Ramón, California. Intense consumption by commercial agribusiness in U.S. states like Arizona and California is steadily using up fossil water. Image by Alan Harper via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Phoenix exemplifies the paradox of a modern desert city — betting on an expanding population and booming economy while the land around it dries up. The city, Mayor Kate Gallego has said, “was born to grow,” and its population is expected to double to 3.4 million by 2040. Which makes it like many semi-arid and arid U.S. cities, including Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles — all expected to boom as water supplies shrink.

This paradox is often framed as a problem of supply: as in, when will Phoenix run out of water? But as water policy expert Asit Biswas has said, “Water isn’t scarce — management is.”

Humanity’s historical use of water is, well, liquid: demand expands to wasteful levels when there’s oversupply, and shrinks in scarcity. This boom-or-bust mentality is ancient, observable in the ruins of the oldest Mesopotamian cities, or Southwestern U.S. abandoned pueblos, which rose and fell on their water supply.

Ironically, the political consensus in water-strapped High Plains, Texas, and Southern California has been to treat the commodity as effectively infinite. The regions’ cities grow by hydraulic deficit spending, whose bill will eventually come due.

In arid U.S. West municipal pricing schemes, consumers don’t pay for water, but rather the space to hold it, the land it lies under, or the energy to move it. Precious, irreplaceable, and essential though it may be, water is treated by the economic system as free and limitless.

That is in part because, the U.S., like Europe and the Middle East, spent the 20th century building water mega-projects — reservoirs, dams, canals, aqueducts, pipelines — to make it artificially plentiful.

The Salt River Project-Navajo Generating Station. The Salt River Project and Great Society-era Central Arizona Project draw water from the Salt and Colorado rivers, which in turn are sourced from the northern Arizona snowpack.
The Salt River Project-Navajo Generating Station. The Salt River Project and Great Society-era Central Arizona Project draw water from the Salt and Colorado rivers, which in turn are sourced from the northern Arizona snowpack. Image by Krzysztof Belczyński via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Far-flung desert aqueducts let Phoenix grow; the Salt River Project and Central Arizona Project siphon water from the snowpack down to the cities below. Since Arizona’s Colorado River water allotment goes to California if not used (a disincentive for thrift), the city has spent $330 million thus far to refill underground “water banks,” storing  3.6 million acre-feet of water (4.44 billion m3, or nearly 1.8 million Olympic-size swimming pools, and a year of Arizona’s Colorado River allotments) against future drought.

But the Colorado River’s flow, and therefore Phoenix’s current water supply, relies on snowpack — which is growing susceptible to climate change. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), snowfall in the Southwest region has been decreasing for 50 years, along with yearly streamflows. Meanwhile, snowmelt is happening ever earlier, as is the pulse of maximum streamflow. In 2015, California saw its smallest April snowpack in 65 years — just 5% of the area once usually covered.

Add that to the fact that the Colorado River is the most over-allocated river in the country. It goes dry miles shy of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, creating an international water conundrum, not unlike that occurring in Jordan around the Dead Sea.

A view of a portion of the Colorado River Basin, Arizona. During the 2004-2013 drought, 50 cubic kilometers of groundwater (the equivalent of a column of water a mile across and twice the height of Mount Everest) vanished from the basin.
A view of a portion of the Colorado River Basin, Arizona. During the 2004-2013 drought, 50 cubic kilometers of groundwater (equivalent to a column of water a mile across and twice the height of Mount Everest) vanished from the basin. Image by wongaboo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

No saving GRACE

During the U.S. West’s 2004-2013 drought, 50 cubic kilometers of groundwater (12 cubic miles, the equivalent of a column of water a mile across and twice the height of Mount Everest) vanished from the Colorado River Basin. Such immense hidden losses of groundwater, rather than declines in the great reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (especially threatened this year), accounted for 80% of the region’s water loss.

Those numbers came from NASA’s GRACE satellite mission, which records changes in Earth’s gravitational field to estimate changes to its water supplies. Another GRACE study found that overuse is rapidly depleting 19 key aquifers, including the Ogallala Aquifer under the U.S. High Plains, as well as some California aquifers. Study co-author James Famiglietti wrote that several are “already past sustainability tipping points,” in danger of collapse into toxicity and brackishness. He estimates that the southern Ogallala Aquifer, supplying the Texas Panhandle, is within 25 years of collapse. Water shortages, NASA scientists concluded, will be the main environmental challenge of the century — an opinion shared by the U.S. Department of Defense.

There is no obvious replacement once that supply is gone. And the booming cities of Central Texas, including Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin, don’t even have aquifers. They make do with surface water flow, stored in massive reservoirs. But, warned a team of Texas A&M scientists, the remainder of the 21st century is likely to hold “megadroughts,” decades-long dry spells harsher than anything Texas has seen in 1,000 years. Dry spells faced by a state currently adding 1,000 people per day to its population.

A dry spring in Texas after failed winter rains. Scientists forecast that the remainder of the 21st century will face harsh decades-long dry spells.
A dry spring in Texas after failed winter rains. Scientists forecast that the remainder of the 21st century will face harsh decades-long drought. Image by Gary Nored via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Middle East salty solutions

The water crisis looming for the U.S. West has already arrived in today’s Middle East. Key aquifers, like that beneath the Arabian Peninsula, are in decline; war and infrastructure destruction have brought heightened scarcity to places like Iraq and Lebanon. The Nile and Euphrates rivers, 80% of which go to agriculture, now go dry far from the sea, like the Colorado. The Tigris River will soon join them.

The arid region’s difficulties are compounded by the fact that almost 82% of its wastewater is allowed to run into the sea. A rare bright spot is Oman, on the Persian Gulf, which draws 86% of its water from desalination, but then holds on to it as long as it can, treating and reusing 80% of its wastewater — twice that of the Gulf states in general. Bring regional conservation numbers up to the Omani level, experts say, and supplies could receive a boost with no new inputs at all.

The RO plant, run by the Oman Water Treatment Company, produces freshwater via desalination; it also treats all its wastewater, reusing nearly 80% of it.
The RO plant, run by the Oman Water Treatment Company, produces freshwater via desalination; it also treats all its wastewater, reusing nearly 80% of it. Image courtesy of OWATCO.

But with surface flows dwindling, and aquifers tainted or depleted, Middle Eastern water still has to come from somewhere — which for the wealthy Gulf states means the ocean. Half the world’s desalination capacity rings the shores of the Persian Gulf, watering cities like Dubai, UAE, and Muscat, Oman, with artificially generated freshwater produced via reverse osmosis or by thermal distillation of saltwater.

As a result, in today’s Oman, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar  — nations that get just a couple of inches of rain yearly — people see water as plentiful. But generating a cubic meter (264 gallons) of freshwater by reverse osmosis requires 3-10 kilowatt-hours of electricity, which, in this case, comes from natural gas. This in turn drives the very climate change that is making Middle Eastern drylands drier, and maybe uninhabitable by 2050.

Cities like Dubai, Sharjah and Muscat, which get just a couple of inches of rain per year, are seen as places with plenty of water due to their desalinization capacity, but that freshwater comes at a high price and with severe salt pollution.
Cities like Dubai, Sharjah and Muscat, which get just a couple of inches of rain per year, are seen as places with plenty of water due to their desalinization capacity, but that freshwater comes at a high price and with salt pollution. Image by Clark via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Then there is the salt slurry pulled from seawater to render it fresh. Runoff from the Gulf’s more than 850 desalination plants, several studies have found, has already raised salt levels in the Persian Gulf, poisoning coastal ecosystems, and will likely double salt levels yet again in some areas by 2050.

The entire desalination process is “sustained unsustainability,” said a professor of public policy at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. There’s also the Middle East wild card: conflict. ISIS, the failed proto-state, for example, deliberately destroyed irrigation systems and dams, while water supplies are almost certain to be targets for destruction or conquest in future wars.

Modern Water's containerized desalination plant in Oman. Half the global desalination capacity is on the shores of the Persian Gulf, watering cities like Dubai, Sharjah and Muscat.
Modern Water’s containerized desalination plant in Oman. Half the global desalination capacity is on the shores of the Persian Gulf, watering cities like Dubai, Sharjah and Muscat. Image by Starsend via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Sahel solutions: Hope in a thirsty world

Few regions braid together water stress and conflict as tightly as the African Sahel. Its cities face the same broad trajectory as the Middle East and U.S. West: a long-term intersection of rising drought and booming urban populations. A wobbling Gulf Stream, possibly caused by the melting Greenland ice sheet, threatens to disrupt rainfall levels that the Sahel’s farmers and pastoralists depend on, and sometimes fight over. At flashpoints like Lake Chad, water access is already linked to violence.

In the Sahel, a lack of hydraulic development makes the situation more extreme than other arid areas, but also suggests compelling possibilities. The region has not seen the water-intensive terraforming and infrastructure that mark the U.S. or Middle East, as it has lacked access to capital that could have paid for pumps, pipelines and desalination plants.

That means, hydrologist Jude Cobbing argues in Hydroeology Journal, that it is both inaccurate and destructive to talk about a water “shortage” in the Sahel. Inaccurate, because the Sahel has plenty of water: the region possesses huge reserves of fossil groundwater. Beneath the Sahara, for example, the aquifers that Libya’s Great Manmade River draws upon hold an estimated 160,000 km3 (38,400 mi3), 40 times the estimated volume of the diminished Ogallala Aquifer.

What’s needed, Cobbing argues, is the means to access that water, and the governance to use it efficiently and peacefully. But focusing on “shortage” over solutions encourages resentments that can break down the kind of cooperative regional management and regulatory regimes that help guarantee water for all.

In sub-Saharan Africa, unlike the U.S. or Middle East, 70% of the population lives from agriculture — specifically, rainfall-fed agriculture. More pumps and wells to access the plentiful water below could mean fewer water refugees crowding already water-stressed cities like Bamako or Addis Ababa.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Water-stressed cities like Bamako in Mali, or Addis Ababa will see more immigration from rural areas due to lack of pumps and wells and insufficient rural development.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Water-stressed cities like Bamako in Mali, or Addis Ababa will see more immigration from rural areas due to lack of pumps and wells and insufficient rural development. Image by Ian Swithinbank via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Another ambitious solution is the Great Green Wall, a planned network of greenways and forests spread along the Sahara’s southern rim. So far it is only 4% planted (it’s website says 14% is underway), but the ambitious initiative just received a $14 billion infusion of capital. It is also part of a broader expansion in agroforestry across Africa that could aid the water supply.

In February 2021, a group of African scientists argued that the Great Green Wall, combined with untapped desert aquifers, offer the chance to forge a “Sahel New Deal,” in which the region takes a different path from the fraught one followed by other arid urban areas. Researchers think that the Sahel’s lack of development leaves it with strong, intact natural wealth — and opportunities. The Sahel’s extraction of renewable freshwater, they write, “is less than one percent of its potential,” and beneath the ground is not only rechargeable groundwater, but trillions of cubic meters of fossil groundwater.

Thus, the Sahel’s apparent underdevelopment could be transformed, judo-like, into a strength. Not saddled with decaying 20th-century dams and pipelines, and not sapped by the insatiable thirst of large-scale commercial agribusiness, North Africa could weather the world’s intensifying droughts, providing a model for the transformation of other arid regions.

The Sahel New Dealers offer hope in a thirsty world: a nature-based freshwater and climate solution based on planting forest and tapping replenishable aquifers sustainably.

Salt Flakes in Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana. Intensifying drought in sub-Saharan Africa is pushing the population off rural lands into swelling cities.
Salt Flakes in Makgadikgadi Pans, Botswana. Intensifying drought in sub-Saharan Africa is pushing the population off rural lands into swelling cities. Image by WMO via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A problem we can’t ignore

As difficult as things may seem now, we are still in the good years. Forecasts for global drought are dire. For all the depletion, destruction and drought seen so far, the world’s fossil groundwater stocks still stand as great cisterns against periods of catastrophe. Solutions can be found to keep our arid urban centers from returning to the dust.

But water issues rarely register in politics — that is, until a country or region is in grave crisis. Today, populous nations, including the U.S., China, and India, all depend on fossil groundwater to feed and water their populations. They are draining these stores at an alarming rate without attending to solutions.

A serious international reappraisal, endowing water with its true value, is long overdue. That reappraisal will require a political and technological reckoning with commercial agriculture. But, as with oil and coal companies in their dogged rearguard resistance to wind and solar power, it is easy to imagine the planet’s giant commercial growers making a last-ditch play to suck up the world’s remaining but still-plentiful aquifers.

The challenge from here on is to avoid water wars — in a world of ever-greater water stress that threatens systemic breakdown leading to collapse — while preemptively, cooperatively and aggressively addressing a growing global population’s water security. It can be done, but we must do it now.

Suzanne Ouedrago, a farmer from Fanka, Burkina Faso, shows the greens she was left with to feed her family due to long-term drought, failed crops and rising food prices.
Suzanne Ouedrago, a farmer from Fanka, Burkina Faso, shows the greens she was left with to feed her family due to long-term drought, failed crops and rising food prices. Image by Oxfam International via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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