It seems to be everywhere, ceaseless, benign. But since ancient times, water has also been a coveted resource, one that can lead to famine and spark wars. “Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” Mark Twain wrote. Long before the Bible, Michael Spector reminds us, the cities of ancient Sumeria went to war over control of their rivers water. In fact, the word “rivals” comes from the Latin rivalis, for “one taking from the same stream as another."
Most people drink two or three litres of water a day, with the rest typically used for cooking, bathing, and sanitation. Americans are the biggest water consumers, using between four hundred and six hundred litres of water each day. Most Europeans use less than half that. For millions of other people, however, water is much scarcer. New technologies and global charities have been tackling the problem, sometimes in dramatic ways, with varied degrees of success.
The stakes are huge. Growing cities are putting new pressures on water basins – water use has tripled over the past 50 years, according to the United Nations – and massive cross-border water projects like dams are turning up preexisting tensions. The social and ecological threats have become “dire,” according to a new U.N. study issued this week that synthesizes the findings of 90 scientists who looked at 200 water projects around the world. According to the report, “We face a ‘water bankruptcy’ in many regions of the world with implications for food and energy security, adaptation to climate variability and change, economic growth and human security challenges.”