A window into the why and what of water shortages

Ellie Cooper and Avanti Puri | Staff Columnists

You may have heard people say, “Water is the new oil,” and in some very important ways this analogy is well drawn: Potable water is plentiful in some areas of the world and scarce in others. Additionally, water plays an integral role in our day-to-day lives, creates conflict, and is not a renewable resource (at least not with our current consumption and pollution patterns). This last statement is maybe the most controversial but also the most important to realize; across the globe we are depleting our freshwater sources more quickly than the water cycle can replenish them while polluting the aquifers we rely on.

Every time water is extracted, the pore space in between the aquifer rocks shrinks, causing the aquifer to compact and lose its ability to absorb water. As the ground becomes denser, the earth’s surface sinks. This is the explanation behind the sinking (and flooding) of New Orleans and Venice. Water from other parts of the aquifer flows into the area from which water was extracted, causing polluted drinking and bathing water and also lowering the water table in other parts of the aquifer. From the sinking of New Orleans and Venice to water-borne illnesses to water shortages in areas that used to have sufficient water supplies, the geological effects of over-extraction cause severe social ramifications.

These effects aren’t isolated; unsustainable water practices in one area make it difficult to extract clean water in surrounding areas. Aquifers don’t adhere to political or social boundaries, creating conflict between countries or groups within a country. For example, water rights to the Nile River give Egypt two-thirds of the river’s total output, leaving others with an insufficient amount of water to meet agricultural, power, industrial and household needs. The water of the Jordan River is also highly contested for the same reasons: There is not enough water to meet growing demand in developing or developed areas given current use patterns.

Sometimes it is accurate to say that a whole country is experiencing a potable water shortage. But due to existing power paradigms, there is often internal bias towards industrial, large-scale agricultural power and wealthy household use, as opposed to small-scale agriculture and the needs of rural households. This affects the health of those people experiencing localized water shortages and often leads to unsustainable water use from all groups.

Climate change is only aggravating existing water shortages. Climate change increases the strain placed on groundwater sources that are already overdrawn by the needs of growing populations and industries. As demonstrated in Texas and California, political institutions aren’t acting quickly enough to alleviate the increasing pressure on the world’s aquifers. As more and more energy and money are required to extract and purify water all around the world, the development of sustainable water distribution models becomes more and more urgent.

Ellie is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at ercooper@wustl.edu.
Avanti is a sophomore in Arts & Sciences. She can be reached via e-mail at ap.scarlette@gmail.com.