Special Briefing: Why the Global Water Crisis Is Everyone’s Fault

Indian residents fetch drinking water from a well in the outskirts of Chennai on May 29, 2019. - Water levels in the four main reservoirs in Chennai have fallen to one of its lowest levels in 70 years, according to Indian media reports.

Source ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because water is life.

This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What’s happening? Talk around the United Nations Climate Summit, which convenes this month, will focus heavily on temperature gauges, megastorms and rising seas. But there’s an escalating crisis happening beneath our feet: The world’s water supply — humanity’s most valuable resource — is under serious threat. Whether it’s poorly managed or simply running out, shortages of clean water are hitting everywhere from eastern India to Newark, New Jersey.

Gettyimages 1151353799

Indian residents collect water from a community well in Chennai after reservoirs for the city ran dry. – The drought is the worst in living memory for the bustling capital of Tamil Nadu state, India’s sixth largest city, that is getting less than two thirds of the 830 million litres of water it normally uses each day.

Source ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty

Why does it matter? As these crises build, they appear increasingly man-made. In Chennai, India, two skimpy monsoon seasons in a row kicked off a shortage this summer that was exacerbated by bad governance. Across the globe in Newark, city officials are facing similar accusations after lead was found to have floated around the city’s water supply for years. That’s why fighting this problem is a complex effort requiring both grass-roots and government-level action.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

Natural disasters … Water shortages are often sparked by natural circumstances (though amplified by humans via climate change). For example, poor rainfall over the past two years left all four major reservoirs in Chennai, a coastal city of 7 million, virtually empty as of June. That compelled officials to begin importing water by the trainload on a daily basis. Cape Town, South Africa, had a similar crisis last year, when a three-year drought left the country’s second-largest city almost completely parched. And this year, Zimbabwe has received 25 percent less rainfall than the annual average, leaving two of Harare’s reservoirs empty and further burdening a country already stricken by economic crisis. Today, 17 countries that contain a quarter of the world’s population — including India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel — are running out of water.

… made far worse. But as those situations unfold, mismanagement often makes matters even more dire. For example, experts say rapidly urbanizing India has done a poor job of drought-proofing its cities and promoting more efficient farming. In Zimbabwe, which was driven into social and economic turmoil, critical infrastructure like boreholes languish in disrepair while politicians promise to build new dams but trade blame for inaction. Even developed countries fail to do much better. In Newark, for example, authorities at all levels reportedly ignored warnings as the city’s pipe system wasted away and spewed lead into the water supply. A PBS Frontline investigation this week, meanwhile, found dozens more deaths that could be tied to the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan. With 68 percent of the global population projected to live in cities by 2050, proper municipal management is more important than ever.

Gettyimages 942768096

Workers wait to hand out water to Flint, Mich., residents from a Community Point of Distibution site at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in Flint’s north side on August 5, 2016.

Source Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press/Tribune News Service via Getty

So what’s to be done? Besides boosting official accountability, ordinary citizens can also play their part. Cape Town, which avoided its so-called Day Zero (the day when it would use up all its water), serves as a good example. In addition to running a robust public information campaign, officials there also levied water tariffs on businesses. That sparked peoples’ concern over the issue and incentivized other players to further promote it. In the U.S., meanwhile, authorities appear to be moving in the other direction. Just this week, the Trump administration rolled back Obama-era federal water regulations because they hampered landowners and developers. That hits on a theme experts say is often the trickiest when it comes to water: managing “a political and a social process between competing interest groups.”

WHAT TO READ 

Chennai’s ‘Man-Made’ Water Crisis, by Nick Aspinwall in The Diplomat

“People living outside of Chennai have blocked tankers from entering the city, fearing their own water supply would be sacrificed to supply the city center.”

The Trouble With America’s Water, by Olga Khazan in The Atlantic

“The problem starts with the roughly 50,000 fragmented community public-water systems … many of which don’t have the resources or expertise to comply with public-health standards.”

WHAT TO WATCH

Are We Heading Toward a Water Crisis?

“We need to fundamentally rethink agriculture by growing crops that use less water, by cutting down on livestock farming and by using techniques like drip irrigation to maximize efficiency.”

Watch on BBC on YouTube:

Amid Newark’s Water Crisis, Questions About Why It’s Taking So Long to Resolve

“The long-term consequences for kids — both developmentally, neurologically — are really staggering, and irreversible.”

Watch on PBS NewsHour on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Same, but different. Too much water is also a problem: Widespread flooding in the American Midwest and South has affected around 14 million people this year. “I would describe it as biblical,” an official from Nebraska’s Emergency Management Agency told The New York Times. Worse still? Experts say it’s a slower-developing problem whose dire consequences are only felt over time.

OZYNeed to Know

Quick briefings and smart previews you can't live without, making sure you not only survive but can thrive at the water cooler.