More people in India have access to cellphones than to basic sanitation. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 villages in the northwestern part of the country suffer drinking water shortages as the water table in this breadbasket region continues to drop. And the same story can be told all over the world, according to participants of a water conference at Columbia University on March 28.
This may be the “Blue Marble” with 70 percent of the planet’s surface covered in watery oceans, but the abundance is primarily made up of saltwater. Freshwater that’s clean enough for people to drink and plentiful enough to grow crops and other vital human activities is in increasingly short supply.
In the U.S., agriculture, industry and people combine to use more water than flows in the nation’s rivers. The difference is pulled up from beneath surface of the earth. “We depend on ground water, it’s going away,” noted economist Jeff Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, which convened the State of the Planet: Water conference. “This is a new geologic era where humanity has taken over key [planetary] drivers: the water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle.”
The obvious solution, at least to economists, is: if water has become a scarce good then it needs an appropriate price to properly allocate it. Water engineer John Briscoe of Harvard University noted that Australian farmers survived the recent crippling drought—which resulted in a 70 percent reduction in water flow in the Murray-Darling river basin—because of a water trading system that shifted water use from low-value, high-water use crops like rice to cities that needed the H2O more. “This is Econ 101 at work,” he said.