Dying for A Drink

Our watery world is drying up fast. There are ways to save what we've got, but we must act--and act fast

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Ian Shive / Aurora / Getty

Dried lake bed at Lake Mead, Nevada

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The crisis is more than just Australia's problem. The collapse of the country's harvest contributed to a doubling of the price of rice this past spring, which in turn led to food riots in countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Egypt. And that's the real impact of water scarcity--food scarcity. It takes 150 gal. of water to grow a pound of wheat, up to 650 gal. for a pound of rice and 3,000 gal. to raise the equivalent of a quarter-pound of beef.

With even the most aggressive plans to reverse global warming likely to take years to produce effects and population growth not likely to slow appreciably soon, the only answer is vastly improved water efficiency. That's where dry Australia is leading the way. In northern Victoria state, the government has launched a five-year, $1.3 billion project that will overhaul the region's century-old irrigation system, using computer-controlled channels that should significantly cut down on water waste, which today can reach 30%. "It's extracting the most benefit we can from the water we have," says Murray Smith, who heads the Northern Victoria Infrastructure Renewal Project. (See pictures of Australia, the driest inhabited continent.)

Still, for all Australia's water worries, citizens there don't yet need to fear that when they turn on the tap nothing will come out. That's not the case in India, even in the capital of New Delhi, which supplies about 200 million gal. a day less than its population requires. Water is a worry, not just for poor Indians but also for middle-class ones, like R.K. Sachdev, a retired civil servant who lives with his wife in an upscale development in the city's southwest. "Every morning when I get up, my main worry is water," his wife Kusum says. Near the entrance to their flat, they keep a 265-gal. storage tank--locked to prevent theft. The couple are awake by 6:30 a.m. to ensure that the municipal supply is running, and they use an ultraviolet filter to purify water intended for drinking or cooking because contamination is constant.

In New Delhi's bursting slums, residents are often left to fight for buckets of water delivered via trucks, a process that is time consuming and expensive. The Sachdevs pay less than 2ยข per 26 gal. of water; the poor might pay that for a single quart from a private truck or even more for bottled water. "The rich end up paying just a fraction of the price to water their lawn than the poor do just to stay alive," says William Fellows, the regional water, sanitation and health adviser for UNICEF/South Asia. Worse, waste of the little water that is available is rampant. New Delhi loses as much as 50% of its water through leakage and other forms of inefficiency. It is a pattern repeated throughout the ill-planned urban areas of the developing world. "These cities are leaking buckets," says Junaid Ahmad of the World Bank. (See pictures of the politics of water in Central Asia.)

The probable increase in yearly monsoons related to global warming should provide at least some new water, though out-of-control flooding will pose its own dangers. But the only other alternative comes from underground--and here India may be digging its own grave. There are now 23 million wells across India, up from 2 million 30 years ago, and those wells are draining the country's deep groundwater, or aquifer. Wells that once hit water at 20 ft. now need to go 80 ft. or deeper. New Delhi groundwater levels have declined 15% to 20% over the past several years. With almost no connection between the amount of water used and its cost, there is little incentive for rural farmers to stop drilling wells or for urban residents to conserve. "The price of water is a very important mechanism," says Ahmad.

In parched Las Vegas, Mulroy knows price is one of the best tools at her disposal to control the city's growing thirst. In the spring, officials approved a staggered rate hike that increased prices for low-volume users 17% and for the highest-volume users more than 30%. The city has also unleashed its water cops--officials like Dennis Walker who ride around sprawling new housing developments looking for violations of outdoor-water-use laws. Sprinklers are illegal during the daylight hours, and homeowners have to use a misting system rather than simply hose down the grass. Through ignorance or obtuseness, however, not everyone has gotten the message. At one house, Walker catches a sprinkler spraying a rock garden, the water leaking onto the boiling hot asphalt street. "That's pretty egregious," he notes laconically. He films the incident, with the time and date, and checks the address online to see if there are any prior violations. Fines can exceed $1,000 for multiple infractions.

All these policies are having an effect. From being one of the most wasteful cities in the U.S.--in the 1980s, Las Vegas used almost twice as much water per capita as did far wetter New York--Vegas may now get more economic bang for its water than any other place on earth. Though the city has grown by 300,000 people since 2002, it uses less water today than it did six years ago, and leakage is below 5%. "Failure is not an option," says Mulroy.

The same is true for the rest of us. In the past century, we treated water as if it were inexhaustible. But that illusion has dried up. The only way to thrive in a warmer, thirstier world will be to learn to get more out of less. "We have the time to change," says Scripps' marine geophysicist Barnett. "Do we have the will to change? I don't know."

Watch CNN's award-winning series Planet in Peril: Battle Lines, Dec. 11 at 9 p.m. EST, on CNN, and visit CNN.com/planetinperil

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