The Dehydrated Elephant in the Room

Featured in the September issue of our magazine.


We drink it. We bathe in it. We secure it in tiny rubber sacks and wage aquatic war on backyard battlefields. We grow our food with it. Aside from the air we breathe, water is the single most important resource for the survival of every species. Life literally depends on it.

Why, then, do so many seem to take water for granted? Do they see vast oceans and ceaseless waterfalls and presume they are limitless? Does water have a ubiquitous presence that people don’t wonder how much is left? Or do people understand how precious water is but are so dependent on it that a change in behavior would impact their standard of living?

Regardless of the origin of this subconscious apathy toward the future of water, the time may have long passed to confront the issue, change perceptions and modify behaviors in how we use this resource—particularly in agriculture, which accounts for 69 percent of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, according to United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization.

First, we must understand the extent of the issue. The world’s supply of fresh water, despite its apparent infiniteness, is smaller than most people think. While it’s true 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, only 2.5 percent is fresh. And only one percent of that 2.5 percent is accessible for human use. Imagine all the Earth’s water contained in 100, one-gallon jugs, filled to the top. Less than a half cup would represent the fresh, usable water.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 783 million people do not have access to clean, safe water. Water limitations perpetuate cycles of poverty in these areas, as poor health andthe inability to grow food beget poorer health and even less food. In fact, these cycles prompted the UN to declare 2018 to 2028 the Water Action Decade, which includes accelerated efforts towards meeting water-related challenges like limited access to safe water and sanitation, increasing pressure on water resources, and a heightened risk of droughts and floods.

As the world population continues its rise, the situation will become dire. WHO estimates 9.7 billion people will inhabit the
earth by 2050; a 27 percent increase over today. By that same year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres predicts, “At least one in
four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water will be chronic or recurrent.”


Then there’s climate change, the trigger phrase that’s gone from standard meteorological terminology to partisan politics
headliner. Whether or not climate change is caused by human influence is irrelevant for this conversation. It remains an
irrefutable fact supported by empirical scientific data that the climate is changing. And these changes affect the water supply.

“Climate change is drastically changing global patterns of freshwater availability,” says Jay Famiglietti, director of the Global
Institute for Water Security and former senior water scientist at NASA. “In the United States, we see a very clear, west-east
dividing line, above which the northern states are getting wetter and southern states are getting drier. Classes of water ‘haves’ and
‘have-nots’ are becoming far more apparent.”

Famiglietti and other climate change observers point to extreme global fluctuations between flooding and drought that could
affect the ability to harness the resource.

“Changing extremes pose an incredible challenge for water managers, since capturing more intense bursts of runoff and
streamflow is quite difficult. It is not something that our present infrastructure in much of the United States was designed to
accommodate,” says Famiglietti. Of course, no one has a more acute awareness of this impact than farmers. Gregg Halverson, CEO of North Dakota-based Black Gold Farms, says, “We have seen the production areas for more water-sensitive crops shifting, moving from water-sensitive areas to more water-plentiful regions.”

Factors such as pollution and contamination also threaten the future of available water. In some densely populated regions of Asia
and areas with less developed environmental regulations, foreign pollutants and toxins render waterways completely unusable and
rife with disease.


Given these circumstances and a somewhat bleak outlook, the most immediate concern is whether or not there is hope of
sustaining freshwater for our children’s children’s children. Famiglietti believes there is, and agriculture has a key role to play.

“We can effect change, a little bit at a time, if we work together. It takes increased awareness, ownership of the problem at the grassroots
level, and accountability from elected officials and in particular, the food industry, the biggest global user of water,” he says.

As with most issues facing a hyper-digital world, answers may lie in technology. Halverson notes technology is changing irrigation
practices. “Channel and flood irrigation is giving way to center pivot irrigation to use less water,” he says. “Plus, the new irrigation
systems allow for variable irrigation and only put water on the areas of the field where it is needed.”

Illinois farmers already are implementing best management practices to protect the downstream water supply. On many acres, cover crops prevent runoff and help soil improve its nutrient and water-storing abilities. No-till and reduced tillage practices improve soil health for better water usage. Bioreactors, buffer strips and water control structures are joining the scene.

All of these practices depend on even more widespread adoption to have a meaningful impact. Some require new machinery or additional costs which may not be feasible in down markets. But agriculture has an opportunity to be at the forefront of positive change, setting an example for other industries that changing one or two habits can have a tangible effect on water’s future.

Of course, the freshwater crisis extends much further than agriculture. Think about golf courses, construction sites and homes with lush, green lawns. Consumers may be the key as they gain awareness of water issues and become more curious about where and how their food is produced. “Our customers, be they the chip companies or the French fry companies, are wanting more information about how their potatoes are grown, how much water we use per crop acre and making sure it’s at a sustainable, efficient level,” Halverson says. For Famiglietti, the future depends on collaboration across government, industry and individuals.

“I believe we need new, regional institutions that bring governments, non-profits, industry, philanthropy and academics together,” he says. “I see these new institutions as an important step towards moving the needle on global water security.”

The unfortunate reality is there is no undiscovered reservoir. No one is going to stumble upon magical new sources of water. Although personal experience may dilute our thinking, freshwater is finite, and we’re slurping through it at an alarming rate.

What the world does next will determine how long it lasts. Experts like Famiglietti and Halverson agree 2050 doesn’t have to be an unmitigated disaster. With agriculture leading the way through technology and recommitment, society can rewrite water’s future.