Those are the words of “the Ancient Mariner,” in a 19th century poem written by Samuel Coleridge. They seem eerily, and creepily, relevant today. While we aren’t floating on a sea of undrinkable salt water, we are facing the threat of not having water to drink.
Flint, Michigan became the canary in the coalmine regarding the crisis in clean drinking water in this country when the nation learned that the drinking water there was full of lead. Looking to cut water costs, the governor had hired an outside firm that came up with the idea of getting Flint’s drinking water from the Flint River, known to be heavily polluted, instead of the Detroit River system. Contamination from the Flint River interacted with the aging lead pipes in Flint’s water delivery system causing dangerous levels of lead contamination for people without water filters.
But the issue of water standards is not just taking place in cities like Flint. It’s also occurring in rural places like Kentucky, Texas, Kansas and elsewhere. And then there’s the very real problem of water shortages occurring in many corners of the world due to climate change and other factors.
Many water problems in this country come from mining, waste from burning coal, and large-scale agriculture, along with aging pipes. In Marin County, Kentucky, for example, people often get their water from wells sunk into flooded, abandoned mines with water loaded with heavy metals. Other communities from West Virginia to North Carolina trace their water problems to waste produced from burning coal stored in liquid ponds that can leak or spill, according to a recent article in the New Republic. Further, in large-scale rural farming areas, nitrogen-based fertilizer slides off farmlands and makes its way into freshwater systems.
In 2016, Reuters released a report about America’s drinking water. It concluded that nearly 3,000 locations in the U.S. have drinking water where the lead contamination is at least double of that found in Flint’s drinking water. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 2.5 percent of children in this country have elevated levels of lead in their blood, the effects of which may not show up until adolescence.
According to a Michigan State University report referenced on www.desmogblog.com, the U.S. could see large portions of the population unable to afford water in the near future. This is due to “a variety of pressures ranging from climate change, to sanitation and water quality, to infrastructure upgrades, placing increasing strain on water prices.” It would take an estimated $1 trillion dollars to replace aging water infrastructure in the U.S. alone in the next 25 years. That could triple the cost of water bills to households.
The water crisis is global. Cape Town, South Africa has been in the news recently because it could be the first major city in the world to run out of water. June 4th is designated as Day Zero. That’s when the city’s taps will be turned off, causing residents to have to line up at collection points to get 25 litres of water per day, per person. Climate change-induced drought and a growing population are said to have caused the current crisis.
So far, most of the people facing water shortages live in so-called “developing countries.” In many places women and girls walk miles to find water, sometimes several times a day. But even China regularly sees moderate to severe water shortages, and every year the vast country uses more water than rain replaces. An estimated 25 – 33 percent of Chinese people lack access to safe drinking water.
There is something even more frightening to contemplate about the world’s future, and that is the real possibility of water wars. Conflicts over water could easily break out in the Middle East, especially in Israel, Jordan and Syria. But water conflicts are also possible here. Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California all share water from the Colorado River. Those states have already begun negotiating how to manage the river’s limited water supply.
Statistics about water are telling. According to www.seametrics.com, by 2025 an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagues by water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions. 780 million people in the world now live without clean drinking water. Extreme drought is expected to render vast expanses of land useless by 2050 while over the past forty years, as the world’s population has doubled, use of agricultural water has quadrupled.
According to the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment of Global Water Security, by 2030 “humanities ‘annual global water requirements’ will exceed ‘current sustainable water supplies’ by 40 percent. By the year 2040 there will not be enough water in the world to quench the thirst of the world population and keep the current energy and power solutions going if we continue doing what we are doing today.”
The unquenchable thirst described in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is enough to make any mouth dry. The thought that we may experience such thirst in our lifetimes is unfathomable, but it is real.