A human thirst: humans now appropriate more than half of all the freshwater in the world. Rising demands from agriculture, industry, and a growing population have left important habitats around the world high and dry.

Author:Hinrichsen, Don

On March 20, 2000, a group of monkeys, driven mad with thirst, clashed with desperate villagers Lover drinking water in a small outpost in northern Kenya near the border with Sudan. The Pan African News Agency reported that eight monkeys were killed and 10 villagers injured in what was described as a "fierce two-hour melee." The fight erupted when relief workers arrived and began dispensing water from a tanker truck. Locals claimed that a prolonged drought had forced animals to roam out of their natural habitats to seek life-giving water in human settlements. The monkeys were later identified as generally harmless vervets.

The world's deepening freshwater crisis--currently affecting 2.3 billion people--has already pitted farmers against city dwellers, industry against agriculture, water-rich state against water-poor state, county against county, neighbor against neighbor. Inter-species rivalry over water, such as the incident in northern Kenya, stands to become more commonplace in the near future.

"The water needs of wildlife are often the first to be sacrificed and last to be considered," says Karin Krchnak, population and environment program manager at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington, D.C. "We ignore the fact that working to ensure healthy freshwater ecosystems for wildlife would mean healthy waters for all." As more and more water is withdrawn from rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers to feed thirsty fields and the voracious needs of industry and escalating urban demands, there is often little left over for aquatic ecosystems and the wealth of plants and animals they support.

The mounting competition for freshwater resources is undermining development prospects in many areas of the world, while at the same time taking an increasing toll on natural systems, according to Krchnak, who co-authored an NWF report on population, wildlife, and water. In effect, humanity is waging an undeclared water war with nature.

"There will be no winners in this war, only losers," warns Krchnak. By undermining the water needs of wildlife we are not just undermining other species, we are threatening the human prospect as well.

Pulling Apart the Pipes

Currently, humans expropriate 54 percent of all available freshwater from rivers, lakes, streams, and shallow aquifers. During the 20th century water use increased at double the rate of population growth: while the global population tripled, water use per capita increased by six times. Projected levels of population growth in the next 25 years alone are expected to increase the human take of available freshwater to 70 percent, according to water expert Sandra Postel, Director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. And if per capita water consumption continues to rise at its current rate, by 2025 that share could significantly exceed 70 percent.

As a global average, most freshwater withdrawals--69 percent-are used for agriculture, while industry accounts for 23 percent and municipal use (drinking water, bathing and cleaning, and watering plants and grass) just 8 percent.

The past century of human development--the spread of large-scale agriculture, the rapid growth of industrial development, the construction of tens of thousands of large dams, and the growing sprawl of cities-has profoundly altered the Earth's hydrological cycle. Countless rivers, streams, floodplains, and wetlands have been dammed, diverted, polluted, and filled. These components of the hydrological cycle, which function as the Earth's plumbing system, are being disconnected and plundered, piece by piece. This fragmentation has been so extensive that freshwater ecosystems are perhaps the most severely endangered today.

Consider the plight of wetlands--swamps, marshes, fens, bogs, estuaries, and tidal fiats. Globally, the world has lost half of its wetlands, with most of the destruction having taken place over the past half century. The loss of these productive ecosystems is doubly harmful to the environment: wetlands not only store water and transport nutrients, but also act as natural filters, soaking up and diluting pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff, heavy metals from...

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