Exactly what happens if we run out of water?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hi, and welcome to the podcast. It's Josh and Chuck here, Josh Clark and Charles Bryant, just a couple of staff writers at HowStuffWorks.com.

Chuck Bryant: That's all we are.

Josh Clark: That is it, Chuck. Chuck, I imagine you're familiar with Darfur, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I am. I keep up with the news.

Josh Clark: Have you heard about, basically, the peace agreement falling apart lately?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I think you should tell people, though.

Josh Clark: Okay. Well basically, in 2006, the Sudanese government had a peace accord established with this lone rebel faction. And there's a multitude of rebel factions fighting each other and the Sudanese government right now in Sudan. And basically, one rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Movement, stepped forward and said you know what, we'll come up with a cease fire. Let's come up with an accord, a power sharing agreement, that kind of thing. And everything was going pretty well, until, apparently, the Sudanese Army bombed some villages that are under SLM control.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: This happened yesterday, basically. So now, all of a sudden, the SLM leaders are accusing the President of Sudan of even further war crimes. The President, Al-Bashir, I think is his last name. He is basically about to be indicted by The Hague. And he's in big trouble, crimes against humanity, war crimes, the whole shebang. So it sounds like things are falling apart, as if they couldn't get any worse.

Chuck Bryant: Right. It's pretty heavy stuff.

Josh Clark: But did you know that one of the reasons why the conflict in Sudan has taken like 200,000 lives so far, started in 2003, it was in large part, started over access to drinking water.

Chuck Bryant: Right, and that's not unusual. Clean drinking water in third world countries and around the world is getting more obsolete and it's kind of a problem.

Josh Clark: It definitely is, as I understand it, 1.2 billion people don't have access to clean drinking water.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: That's like 20 percent of the world population.

Chuck Bryant: I know. And sadly, I think 6,000 children, every year, die because they don't have access to safe drinking water. And that's a very startling statistic.

Josh Clark: Yeah and there's plenty of them. I mean we could sit here and rattle them off. Basically all of what they add up to is that we're running out of water and we're beginning to see the effects of that. Africa seems to be kind of at the cutting edge of all things horrible, for some reason. And right now, it looks like what we're seeing in Africa, as far as water goes, is what the developing world is going to see in 20 or 50 or 100 years, largely because we don't value water. It's cheap.

Chuck Bryant: Right, it's cheap and people use it like it's free.

Josh Clark: Yeah. I think it takes like 12 gallons to sustain a human being every day, 12 gallons of water, and that includes everything.

Chuck Bryant: Right, bathing and drinking water and cooking.

Josh Clark: Toilet, cooking, the whole shebang.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So you've got 12 gallons that you need to stay alive, right? Americans use, I think, 158 gallons a day, on average, every single one of us on average uses that much.

Chuck Bryant: In true American spirit, we don't treat it with much respect right now.

Josh Clark: No. So what will happen if we start to run out of water there, Chuck? What happens when we, in the developing world, I should say, run out of water?

Chuck Bryant: Well, there could, potentially, be wars fought over water. I know that the World Bank vice president said at one point said that the next wars in the next century will be fought over water.

Josh Clark: Yeah, he said that in 1995, and we only had to wait eight years, three years into the 21st Century when Darfur breaks out.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: It was the first war fought over water in 4500 years. The last one was among Mesopotamians, I think. And what happened to them?

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: That's a cautionary tale if I've ever heard one.

Chuck Bryant: Right. I think part of the problem is that water is - a lot of times, countries and even states share borders with bodies of water, so it's not the kind of thing you can really claim ownership of. So here in Georgia, we had a situation, recently, where we had - well, we're still in a drought. But we had a situation with Alabama and Florida and I think Tennessee, even, where we're all kind of battling for the same water.

Josh Clark: Well we drew Tennessee into it by suing to have the Georgia border go into the middle of the Tennessee River.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: All of a sudden, rather than at the banks.

Chuck Bryant: Based on an old survey they said was incorrect from the 1800s. No one really cared much until now and now we kind of need that water. But it's not a problem when there's neighboring states and everyone is good friends. We're trying to work it out diplomatically.

Josh Clark: Yeah, there's no war crimes going on yet.

Chuck Bryant: No, but it can be a problem in developing nations where they're not exactly the best of friends.

Josh Clark: Right, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: It's a little more dire of a circumstance, so you can have wars break out over water.

Josh Clark: Even beyond wars, there's a pretty - I imagine a predictable model of what will begin to happen when you start to run out of water. The first thing that would go would be crops, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: We need food in much less supply than we need water. But water is the basic, essential ingredient of everything. We ca n go two days without water, but like eight weeks without food, right?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, about 60 days you can live without food as long as you have water, but three to five days without water and it's dehydration and death.

Josh Clark: Right. Ironically though, we need water to raise that food. So even if we have drinking water, we're still going to need food, eventually. So you run out of water, you run out of food. If you run out of food, all of a sudden, the farmers who were once raising these crops and livestock still need money to survive. They still need money to get by and be able to purchase whatever food's available, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So they start moving to the cities.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: And then the city experiences this big population boom that strains the infrastructure.

Chuck Bryant: Right, the sewer system.

Josh Clark: Which eventually is broken and becomes polluted, which takes out even more of the water supply.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So it really is a trickle down effect and excuse the pun there, but it affects everything, all the way on down and it's wide reaching.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So basically, this is kind of the nightmare scenario that we're facing. And one of the things that I question, when I was looking into this for this article, exactly what happens if we run out of water, was okay, we've got climate change going on, right? Clearly there's some climate skeptics, also, an article on HowStuffWorks.com. But for the most part, people can see quite clearly that some 18,000 year old glaciers around the world that have sustained humans for as long as humans have lived near them are suddenly losing 60 percent of their mass in the last 20 years, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: So why don't we just drink all that?

Chuck Bryant: It sounds like a good idea to me.

Josh Clark: It is. The problem is that we rely on these glaciers, which support billions of people in Asia, South America, Central America. They rely on them for their drinking supply to kind of melt at a predictable rate each year and then be replenished by snow.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Well if it's too warm to support a snow peak or a glacier any longer, it's not being replenished. It becomes part of the rain cycle and eventually becomes salinated water.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And we have water, water everywhere, right?

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: So most of the earth's water is either ocean or locked in ice right now for the time being. And it will eventually be mostly ocean, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right, which we can't drink.

Josh Clark: We can't, or can we?

Chuck Bryant: Well I know that if you drink plain salt water, it will dehydrate you even more. But I think you might be talking about removing the salt from the water.

Josh Clark: Yeah, desalination.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: and that's actually in progress right now. There's some desalination plants around the world that are providing fresh water from salt water. But it's super, super expensive technology right now.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, that's one of the problems. I know another one of the cool ideas that they're working on, bioengineers are trying to produce crops that need less water or that can live through artificial irrigation, which I know a lot of people against this think it's kind of creepy to eat this bioengineered food. But it might be a good solution.

Josh Clark: If it will save us water, I think everybody will just kind of you know.

Chuck Bryant: Get on board.

Josh Clark: (Inaudible) their tongue, exactly, right. And you know agriculture, as it stands, is basically one of the biggest users, actually the biggest user of water. I think it uses 70 percent of the global water consumption goes to agriculture.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: The problem is our irrigation technology is just so terrible we lose like 42 percent of that water.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, it's not a very efficient system. That's a big problem.

Josh Clark: That would definitely help, as well, in addition to creating those hybridized crops, that kind of thing.

Chuck Bryant: I know drip irrigation is, I think, 90 percent effective.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Or efficient.

Josh Clark: It's the wave of the future, in my opinion.

Chuck Bryant: I think you're right.

Josh Clark: So Chuck, do you know anything about carrying capacities?

Chuck Bryant: I know a little bit, but I think you might be the man in this.

Josh Clark: Well I did study anthropology at dear old University of Georgia. And that's where I first learned about it. Carrying capacity is basically the total number of people that anything can sustain, especially with food, water, that kind of thing, before we overtax the planet to the limit. We used to run around as hunter, gatherers, right?

Chuck Bryant: Some of us still do.

Josh Clark: Right, that's true. But one time, all of us did. And that can sustain like 20 million people. Then all of a sudden, we come up with agriculture, ten, 12,000 years ago. And all of a sudden, we can sustain 12 billion people with that, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: That switch from hunti ng and gathering to agriculture gives some people hope that technology is going to be able to stay ahead of this curve and that we will never, actually, reach the carrying capacity. We'll have moved on to something else and the day will be saved and we will create statues for scientists.

Chuck Bryant: Right. That's what I'm hoping for.

Josh Clark: Yeah, me too, Chuck, because the alternative is kind of scary.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, and thirsty.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Well I'm going to drink my out of date Fresca and really enjoy it for once.

Chuck Bryant: You should.

Josh Clark: Thanks Chuck. If you want to learn more about water and exactly what will happen if we run out of it, type in exactly what happens if we run out of water on HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.