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Water is our most precious resource. So, naturally, leaders are doing everything they can to keep the water flowing, right?
Brace yourself for some cold facts: the water on Earth is finite. What we have is what we get! Plus, according to the World Atlas, there are approximately 360,000 births every day, so our water supply requires more care than ever.
As reported by the BBC, freshwater scarcity is a growing concern worldwide. Due to increased demand on water supplies for food and energy production as the world population increases, global water demand is expected to increase by 55% by 2050, according to Global Water Forum. In addition, a NASA-led study concluded that many freshwater sources around the globe are being depleted faster than they’re being replenished.
As reported in Forbes, water futures began trading on the stock market for the first time in December 2020, alongside commodities like oil and gold. So, if drinkable water is a hot commodity, what can we do to support water sustainability?
Water sustainability facts
- Water is hard to come by across the globe. Areas like the southwest portion of the United States are in a constant drought, while countries like India and China are urbanizing so quickly that supplying their booming cities with water is a struggle.
- Commercial activity, industrial runoff, and natural disasters further pollute our freshwater.
- The global water consumption rate is double the population growth rate, according to Reuters.
- According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the demand for drinking water will reach 150% of the actual supply in just five years. That means 1.8 billion people will live in water-scarce conditions.
- NASA reports that humans are depleting one-third of our groundwater aquifers.
Two factors that lead to water scarcity are groundwater depletion and saltwater intrusion. Read on for the highlights and to discover what you can do about it.
What is groundwater depletion?
Groundwater – it’s (probably) what’s in your cup! Drinking water comes from lakes, rivers, and streams, or it comes from groundwater, which is water underneath the Earth tucked away in the soil, sand, and porous rock. A large amount of groundwater in one place is called an aquifer.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 68% of freshwater on the planet is frozen in ice caps, glaciers, and permanent snow. Less than 1% of freshwater flows through lakes and rivers, and the remaining 30% of freshwater in the ground.
Groundwater depletion is pretty straightforward. When people draw water from an aquifer faster than nature can replenish water through rain and other means, the aquifer slowly drains and can eventually run out of groundwater.
Groundwater depletion poses a massive problem for the surrounding area. If your city runs out of water, that’s game over! You would need to pack up and move somewhere with accessible drinking water, or the government would have to pay a pretty penny to ship water from somewhere else.
Why has groundwater use increased?
51% of the U.S. population relies on groundwater, according to the Groundwater Foundation. So why is it slipping away?
As the BBC reported above, the population keeps climbing, and growing cities need water for manufacturing and agriculture. The BBC report also notes that climate change is aggravating water scarcity. Increased frequency and intensity of droughts and floods affect the water supply along with rapid glacial melting that can raise the sea level and lead to saltwater intrusion (what is saltwater intrusion, you ask…we’ll cover it in just a few paragraphs).
Fossil water, a type of paleowater, has been in the ground for millennia and can’t can’t replenish naturally, according to World Atlas. An area may not be able to replace fossil water because the water entered the aquifer under geological conditions that differ from those of the present.
In regions where precipitation is low, aquifers receive little-to-no recharge and are considered a non-renewable resource. We can’t replace fossil water, but municipalities may come to rely on this water to keep up with demand.
Effects of groundwater depletion
Here’s what can happen when we keep slurping up groundwater:
- Ground subsistence – Have you ever watched a terrifying video where the ground seems to collapse in on itself? The culprit might be ground subsistence. Water in an aquifer often acts as structural support. Once it’s gone, the ground can compact. Beyond the obvious danger, ground subsistence means that the aquifer’s ability to hold water is reduced because the soil was compacted, as reported by Clean Technica.
- Lowered water table – Imagine you’re drinking a milkshake. As you drink, the top goes down, yes? When we drain groundwater, the water table, or the top of the aquifer, moves further into the ground. As the USGS notes, lowered water tables can cut off well access. Well owners might need to dig another well entirely to access their water.
- Reduced water quality – The same USGS page above also explains that water quality can deteriorate as water levels in an aquifer drop. Rising levels of salinity can affect lowered aquifers. One of the primary causes of this phenomenon is saltwater intrusion.
What is saltwater intrusion?
Saltwater intrusion is the other heavy hitter in the realm of groundwater depletion.
You don’t need a degree in chemistry to know that you shouldn’t drink saltwater. Unfortunately, as the planet heats up, the sea levels rise, and saltwater is creeping even further in from the coastline, threatening our water supplies.
Here’s a quick breakdown of saltwater intrusion, courtesy of the USGS: when flood water or ocean water reaches the land, it can encroach into aquifers depleted of groundwater. Once the saltwater and freshwater mix, there’s no separating the two. That aquifer is compromised.
According to that USGS page, states that are the most at-risk for saltwater intrusion are coastal states, such as Florida. Freshwater levels have decreased compared to the sea level, which allows a higher gradient of water to flow toward the freshwater.
How does saltwater intrusion occur?
Great question! Under normal conditions, the natural barriers between freshwater and saltwater are pretty reliable. But, as we continue to pump groundwater out of aquifers, saltwater can migrate inward and upward to take up the vacant space, according to a report in Circle of Blue. If you want a brief introduction to the phenomenon of osmosis, check out our guide to reverse osmosis.
Obviously, this can cause a huge headache for coastal communities. According to the Groundwater Association, a cone of depression can form in the water table under a well. This process sucks saltwater into an upright cone below the well, and, if the rate of pumping increases, the saltwater cone can breach the well.
This all sounds pretty bleak. What can we do about it?
Water scarcity solutions
Humanity has a few options to protect freshwater and keep saltwater at bay (or, in this case, in the sea).
We can’t drink saltwater because, well, it’s full of salt. But what if it wasn’t? Desalination plants are large-scale facilities that convert water from the ocean into drinkable freshwater.
That sounds perfect! Case closed, right? Not so fast – there are two significant roadblocks here.
- Desalination is extremely expensive. Scientists are still developing and refining the technology.
- Desalination plants produce more brine than initially expected. A 2019 study published in Science of the Total Environment found that desalination plants create 1.5 times more brine than they do desalinated water. That adds up to 52 billion cubic meters of unusable brine per year around the world!
The harder answer is simple: we need to do a better job of protecting our freshwater supplies. Conserving water, practicing better water resource management, and putting corporate wants secondary to people’s needs will create a world where freshwater isn’t rapidly depleting.
But how are you supposed to help? You can always make small changes to your daily routine that will make a big difference. Things like: take shorter showers, and cover your pool when you’re not using it. Check out our other articles on ways to conserve water indoors, outdoors, and virtually.