It’s something that people throughout the United States and Canada take for granted. Go into a kitchen, washroom, or even laundry room. turn on the tap, and cool, fresh water flows forth. Water is so cheap that in many places it is unmetered. The demand for fresh water is universal, no matter whether it is in the midst of New York’s Lake country or in a city in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
Throughout much of the rest of the world, however, the availability of fresh water isn’t guaranteed. In fact, for many nations, fresh water is a scarce resource and while not yet worth going to war over, there may come a day when it will go that far.
Even in the United States, many municipalities are involved in protracted legal disputes over access to groundwater or river water resources. It doesn’t take much imagination to see these disputes go just one step further, and see towns, counties or states taking up arms against one another, as desperate farmers and ranchers see their crops wither and their livestock go mad from thirst.
In the American northeast, however, there is abundant water, and there will very likely come increasing pressure to start exporting water from areas of the continent with abundant reserves to the semi-arid and arid southwest. This pressure could even go international, as parched areas of the United State look north to the plentiful lakes and rivers of Canada. Canada has the third largest reserves of renewable fresh water reserves, yet it only has one-tenth of the population of the United States.
Water isn’t just for drinking, though that is what most people think about. The primary use for water in North America is food production, followed by energy production. California grows 1/3 of America’s food, mostly on land irrigated by the troubled Colorado River. Oil sands production in Canada’s north uses up to 4.5 barrels of water to produce 1 barrel of oil. Most of this water is not reclaimed, but instead goes into tailings ponds, which today cover about fifty square kilometres of land with toxic sludge.
Water is also used in many other industrial applications, from cooling for nuclear reactors, pulp and paper production, chemical and pharmaceuticals, electronics, and many other industrial processes.
Domestically, it is used to grow and wash food, to prepare food, wash our bodies and our clothes, clean our cars, and to flush our waste. It is indispensable. However, to go back to our first paragraph, practically everyone takes it for granted.
Unfortunately though, the people who live in America’s arid and semi-arid regions are going to have to start taking water seriously. Their water supplies are running out, and the time for change is fast approaching. A failure to do so may well be catastrophic.