In the Middle East, water shortages are a widely accepted reality which many countries are trying to fight head on. Worldwide, however, the issue is not so pressing with environmental issues such as energy and emissions taking centre stage. Despite this, new research from McGill University in Montreal and Utrecht University in the Netherlands indicates that the world is increasingly dependent on an unsustainable supply of groundwater. They estimate that the world’s ‘water footprint’, which is defined as the area above ground required to sustain groundwater use, is about 3.5 times the actual area of the available aquifers. And this has huge implications not only on water supplies but for food and political security too.
Combining data from around the world, the research team has been able to measure the amount of water available and the water usage. The result which Tom Gleeson from McGill called ‘sobering’ indicate global overexploitation of groundwater in a number of regions across Asia and North America. The study suggests that around 1.7 billion people – mostly in Asia – are living in areas where underground water reserves are under threat. That means that we humans as well as the vast ecosystems that water supports, are blindly walking into crisis.
The areas that the research showed were under most stress include Saudi Arabia, Iran, northern India and parts of northern China. In the US, the areas included western Mexico, the High Plains and California’s Central Valley. The overexploitation of groundwater supplies in countries such as China, the US and India is linked to their global scale production of food.
“The relatively few aquifers that are being heavily exploited are unfortunately critical to agriculture in a number of different countries,” Tom Gleeson told Reuters. “So even though the number is relatively small, these are critical resources that need better management.”
The study found that Saudi Arabia had substantially depleted its own aquifers (as has Iran), which is why the country is buying up land in Africa to help ensure food security. However, it is not all bad news. According to the data gathered, groundwater depletion isn’t a worldwide problem and 80 percent of aquifers around the world aren’t being depleted. For example, some of the largest reserves of groundwater are under North African countries like Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan and these haven’t been over-exploited yet.
The biggest scheme to get to this water was Libya’s $25 billion Great Manmade River project, built by the dictator Muammar Gaddafi to supply cities including Tripoli, Benghazi and Sirte with an estimated 6.5 million cubic meters of water a day. The problem is that once this water is taken out of these aquifers, it is not replenished and so the need to control our consumption of water is still a pressing issue.
Authors of the study suggest that limits on water extraction, more efficient irrigation and the promotion of diets with less meat (or no meat at all) could make water resources more sustainable. More