This Thirsty World

The world's water supply is under siege by global warming and pollution. We need reliable data and robust supply chain and distribution systems.

Posted on Jul 16, 2007

Water is a strategic commodity that is in ever shorter supply globally. More than 3 million children die each year for lack of potable water. The global warming trend and world terrorism will surely exacerbate this condition. A solution lies in the development of a world production system and supply chain for water. There is plenty of water, but it is too often in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in the wrong form. The average per capita water use in the United States is 402 quarts, while in a typical developing country, it is 21 to 31 quarts — if people can find and pay for it. While we spend tons of money looking for water on Mars and other extraterrestrial places, with little prospect of any immediate use, nine children on earth die from the lack of potable water every minute. Their water sources are too often fouled by untreated sewage. Ninety percent of cities worldwide dump their sewage into some part of their water system. The countries in high strife are: Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Of all available water, 97% is seawater with a high saline content. Two percent is contained in ice caps (90% in Antarctica and Greenland). Only 1% of the earth's fresh water is available for drinking. The 6.2 billion people on earth each need more than two quarts of water each day. But 12% of the world's population uses 86% of the fresh water, leaving 88% with only 14%, of which more and more is not potable. The root of the water problem is the negative interaction of population growth, agricultural and industrial water use combined with rising pollution, the depletion of natural sources, and accelerating environmental degradation. The aquifers (below-ground water sources) are drying up, and all indications are that they will go even more quickly with the advance of global warming. The great Ogallala Aquifer underlying the Midwest trough to Texas is being depleted rapidly; the recharge of this aquifer is only 10% of the amount extracted. What we need are a reliable supply chain and production systems — as in desalinization, massive bottling, and piping. Developing a good supply chain starts with accurate and comprehensive data turned into intelligent information. A responsible, and preferably non-political, agency or group should be tasked with gathering this data worldwide. The work must be done quickly to be relevant, and it must be thorough and consistent — using the same samplings, metrics, statistical analysis, and algorithms. Based on the analyzed data, a world supply chain planning, execution, and maintenance solution could be initiated. Some of the priorities are meeting high-level emergency needs with given resources; correcting flagrant pollution violations; rebuilding the natural aquifers worldwide on a most-dire-to-least-dire basis; creating a sustainable and funded supply chain that provides potable water to those in need; and developing sustainable supervision and maintenance of this supply chain. Some ideas: Increase desalination, bottling and distribution, and recycling — for example, using NASA vehicles and nuclear sub technology. We could jumpstart programs that, for example, use empty shipping containers returning, say, to China for water delivery. Maybe we should ask the experts: Supply chain and production experts are uniquely qualified to help us on achieve these goals.

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