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Droughts come and go, but growing demand for water remains

Peter Dykstra

By Peter Dykstra
CNN Executive Producer, Environment

August 12, 1999
Web posted at: 1:26 p.m. EDT (1726 GMT)


This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.


In this story:

Build it, and they may be thirsty

Wrangling worldwide over water

Little drops become big oceans


(CNN) -- Supply and demand is a pretty simple concept: You want it, we'll make it. You want more, we'll make more.

And with the world population tripling in the past 75 years, we've been making a lot more of just about everything. Except water.

With a ruinous drought inspiring headlines and headaches in much of the United States, we're reminded that however much our demand for water may grow, barring new success with water-making technology, we've already got about all the water we're ever going to have.

The natural phenomenon of a drought is transitory. Our insatiable thirst for more water may have some more permanent impacts.

Build it, and they may be thirsty

A number of the fastest-growing U.S. cities are in the nation's driest climates, among them San Antonio, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

San Antonio, which soared past the million-population mark a few years ago, is in a protracted battle with Texas ranchers and environmentalists who say the city's impact on underground aquifers threatens farming and endangered species in the surrounding area.

Las Vegas
Water is expected to be in increasingly short supply, especially in rapidly growing cities such as Las Vegas   

The Edwards Aquifer, an underground water source for much of central Texas, including San Antonio, is being emptied faster than rainwater can recharge it, according to University of Texas researchers.

Economic planners for Las Vegas have projected the city will triple in population by the middle of the 21st century, but the region's water office has said it expects the metro area to run out of water as soon as 2020 with current usage habits.

Their options are few. The idea of a dam and reservoir in Utah's Virgin River Canyon would draw fierce opposition from environmentalists. And as with San Antonio in Texas, Nevada ranchers oppose plans to draw on underground water sources in the central part of the state.

Meantime, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the growth of suburbs is threatening a number of major water reservoirs and could force them to be closed for use.

The EPA has identified reservoirs serving New York City, Atlanta, Dallas and Boston -- built decades ago in what was then countryside -- as being among those that could become unusable in as little as 10 years because of runoff and leaking septic tanks from sprawling suburban development.

Wrangling worldwide over water

Water diversion projects have virtually drained some bodies of water, from Russia's sprawling Aral Sea to California's Mono Lake.

Both of those bodies of water have shrunken dramatically in the last half-century -- Mono Lake because of California's drinking water diversion projects, the Aral Sea because of massive Soviet-era engineering schemes to irrigate farmland.

Glen Canyon Dam
The Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River in Arizona   

Owens Lake, source of the first mega-project to bring water to Los Angeles, simply doesn't exist any more. Dust from its lake bed is said by EPA to be the largest single source of airborne "particulate" pollution in the country -- prompting proposals to re-fill the dry lake bed.

The Colorado River is so heavily drained by the farms and growing cities of the Southwest that it fails to reach the Pacific Ocean during most months of the year.

Globally, the impact could become uglier. Some resource experts such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, a University of Toronto researcher, warn that increasing competition for water could be the leading cause of regional warfare in the coming century.

Iraq, Syria and Turkey have in recent years exchanged verbal threats over their use of shared rivers.

And if predictions of climate change prove true, more erratic weather will bring more frequent droughts, with changing weather patterns bringing more rain to some portions of the world while possibly turning others into deserts.

But manmade climate change is still a theory embraced by many scientists and advocates while disputed by others. There's no such controversy over water use. Shortages are already a fact in many areas.

"Within a few years, a water crisis of catastrophic proportions will be upon us," writes former Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois in his recent book, "Tapped Out: The Coming World Crisis in Water and What We Can Do About It."

Little drops become big oceans

Simon's book enumerates a few potential, partial solutions:

  • Desalination can offer limited help for coastal communities, though it isn't cheap at present. It's already in widespread use in the oil nations of the Middle East. But for other parts of the world that are just as arid but less affluent, it's out of the question for the foreseeable future.
Lake Allatoona
Lake Allatoona, a reservoir outside Atlanta, is among those the EPA identifies as threatened   
  • Water conservation techniques can help. Drip irrigation systems are using far less water to grow crops from the Middle East to the Southwestern United States.
  • And simple efficiency helps quite a bit. When New York City embarked on a massive overhaul of its 19th-century water system, it discovered that as much as one-third of its water supply may have been lost to leakage.

Then again, water's value as a commodity has induced at least a few ideas generally considered less likely to succeed.

Two decades ago, Quebec separatists proposed bankrolling the province's independence from Canada by building a transcontinental aqueduct to sell Quebec's abundant fresh water to Los Angeles. And in the mid-1980s, Middle Eastern entrepreneurs explored the idea of towing Antarctic icebergs to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.

But even technological fixes amount to a drop in the bucket. The fundamental amount of fresh water in the world stays about the same.

On the edge of a new millennium, in a constantly more complicated world, one of its simplest and most taken-for-granted substances may be calling quite a few of the shots.


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  • EPA Office of Water

Paul Simon -- Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

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