Celebrating International Water Day

Posted by: Doug Morrow, Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer

A recent article in the New York Times made me think about the importance of water, not just to our day to day lives, but to the fates of nations and industries. The article described a huge swath of the central United States, from South Dakota to Texas, underneath which is one of the world’s largest aquifers, the Ogalalla. Prior to the 1930s, this region was known as the Great American Desert, and farmers who attempted to ply their trade there were frequently brought to ruin – particularly in the famous “Dust Bowl” of the early 1930s, when huge clouds of topsoil, loosened by plows, swept across parts of the United States in terrifying mile-high dust clouds.

The Seljalandsfoss Waterfall in Iceland, by Amnon Eichelberg. (Photos of National Georgraphic)

In the 1930s, a massive campaign began to tap the Ogalalla for irrigation, and the region became one of the most stable and productive agricultural success stories in the world. This part of the United States now produces a large portion of our livestock, corn, soybeans, and especially wheat. But the bounty won’t last. This desert requires huge volumes of water to maintain its productivity. In total, farmers are draining the Ogalalla aquifer by 23cm per year, but the natural recharge rate of the aquifer (how much the aquifer is replenished by rainwater each year) varies from only 0.61mm to 150mm per year, depending on the region. As a result, some experts estimate that within 20 years, the entire aquifer will be gone!

Agricultural advocates would argue that if we do not use the water resources available, that essentially they will just sit there, and provide no benefits to anyone. Environmentalists would argue that any human activity should be sustainable over the long term, so as to avoid disruptions both to ecosystems and human societies. Regardless of which point of view we agree with, it is clear that within our lifetime, we will see a radical change in agriculture in this region of the United States, and farmers will need to be prepared to embrace different kinds of farming, or to move to new areas altogether.

As the global climate continues to change, scientists expect wetter areas to get wetter, and drier areas to get drier. This is likely to intensify conflict between already water-stressed regions. Bangladesh and Pakistan, for example, both heavily depend on water from rivers whose source is located in the Indian Himalayas. Over the past 40 years, India has successfully dammed these rivers to provide irrigation and energy. These dams give them an enormous amount of control over the volume of water which flows into Bangladesh and Pakistan. To date, India has managed to share these waters with its neighbors remarkably well, but if rising temperatures reduce the total amount of glacial meltwater available, while populations in all three countries grows rapidly, conflict may be inevitable.

Heart-shaped Sheosar Lake, 4,142 meters, Deosai Plain, Pakistan, by Atif Saeed. (Photos of National Georgraphic)

Central Asia is another region likely to see political conflicts over water resources. The borders of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan all meet in a confusing tangle, which divides up rivers and water sources in a very uneven way. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have already had diplomatic conflicts over a new dam in Tajikistan, which Uzbekistan worries will reduce the flow of water into their country. On the other hand, places like Hawaii, Bangladesh, Burma, the Philippines, Guinea, and Indonesia currently receive so much rainfall that their largest concern is how to avoid devastating season floods, and to drain as much water as possible.

On this International Water Day, here in Ukraine, let’s be thankful that we get just the right amount of rain!

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