Water Variability and the World’s Continuing Water Emergencies

by Curt Burnett on April 8, 2011


Last I looked, Seattle was having the fifth-wettest March on record. Seametrics is located near the Green River, which flows from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains into Puget Sound, an extension of the Pacific. Late last week I did a double take while crossing a nearby bridge over the river. It was wide, muddy, and not all that far below its banks.

And then there’s South Florida. From the website of the South Florida Water Management District:

Regional Water Shortage Declared

Residential Irrigation, Agriculture and Other Uses Must be Reduced

With regional ground and surface water levels low thanks to a record-breaking dry season, and long-term forecasts calling for continued drier-than-normal conditions, a number of water shortage orders are now in effect. The orders limit landscape irrigation to two days per week and require mandatory reductions in agricultural and other large water uses. Landscape irrigation using reclaimed water is not restricted.

Or this, from the Philippines and the Manila Standard:

MALOLOS CITY—Metro Manila may be headed for a water shortage as cloud-seeding operations by the Bureau of Soils and Water Management that lasted for 50 hours between January 20 to March 3 over the watershed area of Angat Dam failed to lift the water elevation at the dam’s reservoir.

The water level is now just 18 meters above the critical level of 180 meters. Metro Manila gets about 97 percent of its water supply from Angat.

When I talk about water shortages and what Seametrics does, sometimes someone feels the need to point out that ultimately the world’s water gets more or less fully recycled, that there’s always plenty of water in the ocean, and that floods may follow droughts (see Queensland, Australia). All true, but tell that to the folks in South Florida or Manila.

The point is that the world’s continuing water emergencies are really about a widespread lack of water of sufficient quality in certain places at certain times. In the developed world the usual result is forced change rather than mortality: it’s no longer feasible to grow certain crops, build new houses, or put in landscaping the same way as in the past.

Since I started to pay attention to water issues, droughts have come and gone, water wars have seesawed back and forth, and always there are places that need more than they have. And as high-quality groundwater gets more or less permanently mined in many parts of the world, the number of water-short places is likely to grow.

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