Applied Sciences

Section 5.4 Water and Global Politics

Meeting the challenge of water demand is made all the more difficult because water is a “transboundary” resource that moves across national borders and boundaries. This fact, com- bined with rising populations and the threat of water shortages, has made water resources a potential source of conflict between nations. This issue, and the idea of adequate water as a fundamental human right, will be the focus of the next section.

5.4 Water and Global Politics

In 2010 the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution that explicitly recognized “safe and clean drinking water and sanitation” (UN, n.d.c, p. 1) as fundamental human rights. The resolution recognizes that drinking water supplies should be sufficient, safe, physically accessible, and affordable (UNDESA, n.d.a). While the UN resolution does not specify what countries have to do to meet this human right, it does call attention to the seriousness of the problem and estab- lish a clear baseline of human water requirements at 50 to 100 liters (13 to 26 gallons) per day. The UN cites research by WHO estimating that 24,000 children die every day from diar- rhea and other preventable diseases caused by polluted water. This research also estimates that millions of women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers (almost 4 miles) every day to collect water for their families. This daily chore takes a physical toll and prevents young girls from completing schooling that might improve their lives.

The UN resolution comes at a time when two global challenges could be exacerbating issues of water availability and sanitation. As described in Chapter 3, global population is approach- ing 8 billion and is projected to hit 10 billion later this century. Increased population means increased water demand for direct and indirect (virtual water) uses, such as for agriculture. In addition, global climate change (discussed in more detail in Chapter 8) is complicating

University of Maryland Global Land Cover Facility and NASA, Earth Observatory The Aral Sea has lost over 90% of the water it once contained and has split into several smaller seas. Before water diversion projects began in the 1960s, the Aral Sea was the fourth-largest lake in the world. By 1989 (left), the northern and southern part had begun to split. Between 2000 (middle) and 2009 (right), the southern part dried up almost completely. Water levels have remained essentially the same since 2009.

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Section 5.4 Water and Global Politics

the water supply picture. Climate change is lead- ing to changing weather and precipitation patterns, including more intense rains (and runoff) in short periods and prolonged droughts in others. Cli- mate change is shifting where and when precipita- tion falls as well, making it difficult to predict and manage water supplies for a growing population. Finally, climate change and warming are leading to increased evaporation from surface water sup- plies and faster melting and retreat of major gla- ciers around the world. At least 200 million people depend almost exclusively on melting water from glaciers for their water supply, and in some of these places the glaciers are melting so fast that they are at risk of disappearing.

This combination of population growth and global climate change has led some experts to predict that major wars of the 21st century are more likely to be fought over water than any other resource, includ- ing energy. While the link between water and con- flict has a long history, current conditions appear to be increasing the likelihood of future “water wars.” There are 261 major river systems around the world that cross national borders. When upstream populations dam, divert, pollute, or somehow interfere with the quantity or quality of water flowing downstream, there is the potential for conflict.

Currently, some of the most contentious regions where a water war is likely to break out include the Nile River basin in Africa, the Euphrates–Tigris basin in the Middle East, and the Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia. The Nile River flows through parts of 11 countries. Dam construction in upstream countries like Ethiopia could result in tension and conflict with downstream nations like Sudan and Egypt. In the Euphrates–Tigris basin, major water diversion projects for irrigation in Turkey have affected river flow to Syria and Iraq. In the Mekong River basin, upstream dam construction, particularly in China, has altered down- stream water flows and ecosystems. China has used its political influence and power to ignore complaints from other affected countries.

Even in the United States, there are numerous examples of legal conflict between states over water rights and access. The most well known of these disputes involve management of and access to Colorado River water in the arid Southwest. But even in the relatively wetter region of the American Southeast, a 30-year conflict over water is playing out. The “tri-state water wars” pit Alabama and Florida against Georgia over management of water from the Alabama- Coosa-Tallapoosa (ACT) and Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) river basins. Upstream Atlanta depends heavily on these river basins for meeting its municipal water needs, and as the city’s population has grown, so has its use of these waters. In 1990 Alabama sued to prevent Atlanta from taking additional water from lakes fed by the ACT and ACF river basins. Eventually, Florida joined in the conflict, and in 2018 portions of the tri-state dispute reached as high as the U.S. Supreme Court before being remanded to the lower courts.

lubilub/iStock/Thinkstock The UN has deemed drinking water a fundamental right. In many parts of the world, women and girls must walk miles each day to collect water for basic needs.

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

Meeting the world’s demand for adequate water supplies needs to involve considerations of supply, management, and the necessity of that demand. Further complicating the picture are the issues of global climate change, discussed in Chapter 8, and water pollution, the focus of the next section. One approach to better meeting regional water demand is through privatiza- tion of water systems (see the Learn More feature box).

Learn More: Water Privatization

A somewhat controversial approach to managing municipal water systems is known as water privatization. Typically, city and municipal water systems around the world have been managed by government agencies or public utilities, whose primary goal was to deliver adequate water to residents at the lowest cost possible. However, in some cities these agencies and utilities were poorly managed and experienced high rates of water leaks and wastage. As a result, water privatization was proposed as a solution. Privatization involves selling water systems to private companies to manage on a for-profit basis.

Supporters of privatization argue that private sector companies are more efficient, are better able to manage large-scale water supply systems, and have the financial capital to invest in upgrades and other improvements to these systems. Critics argue that privatization is a violation of the principle of water as a human right, since it makes water a commodity that can be denied to individuals who lack the financial resources to pay for it. The reality probably lies somewhere in between, with a lot depending on how privatization is handled and what restrictions and requirements are placed on the company taking over a water system.

To learn more about water privatization and arguments for and against this approach, visit:

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tization.pdf •


5.5 Water Quality

Up until this point most of our discussion has focused on issues of water supply and availabil- ity, or water quantity. This section will take a closer look at the threats to water quality from various forms of pollution and what’s being done to address it.

For as long as humans have lived in groups, they have diluted biological wastes by discarding them in nearby streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. As human populations grew, and as economic activity became increasingly industrialized and concentrated, the volume and character of that waste also changed. However, the solution to pollution remained dilution, and as a result, our waterways became more and more polluted over time.

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

In the United States this approach began to result in some dramatic and frightening examples of water pollution by the 1950s and 1960s. For example, pollution of Lake Erie was so bad by the 1960s that the lake was declared virtually dead and lifeless. In June 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire due to buildup of oil and debris on the river’s surface.

News stories and headlines featuring these and other water pollution disasters helped result in water-quality regulations that addressed some of the most glaring problems. However, threats to water quality and new forms of water pollution continue to be a challenge. The EPA (2016) recently completed a national assessment of rivers and streams. It reported that over half of river and stream miles in the United States are severely polluted, impaired, or in poor condition, meaning that those waterways did not meet federal water-quality standards.

Classifying Pollutants The most basic breakdown of water pollution is between what are known as point sources and nonpoint sources of pollutants (see Figure 5.7). Point sources are fixed and stationary sources of water pollutants, such as a drainage pipe from a factory or discharge from a sew- age treatment plant. Nonpoint sources are diffuse sources of pollution that are difficult to pinpoint. For example, cow manure running off of a farm field, lawn chemicals washed off of suburban lawns, and sediment washed into nearby streams and rivers from a construction site are all cases of nonpoint source pollution.

Figure 5.7: Nonpoint vs. point sources of pollutants

Nonpoint sources of pollutants are diffuse and more difficult to manage, whereas point sources are fixed and stationary.

Nonpoint sources Point sources

Car oil, trash, animal waste, chemicals used on farms

and lawns can end up in storm drains and

into bodies of water.

Factories, sewage treatment plants, large-scale animal

feeding operations, and others dispose of waste directly into

bodies of water.

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

Regardless of whether pollutants are from a point source or nonpoint source, they can be further classified into different types. The most common are listed in Table 5.2. All of these pollutants impair water quality in some fashion.

Table 5.2: Common types and sources of water pollutants

Type of pollutant Common sources

Pathogens Animal waste

Nutrients Fertilizers, CAFOs, sewage treatment plants

Sediment and soil Farms, construction sites

Oil Parking lots, tanker and pipeline spills

Plastics Litter, landfills

Heavy metals Industry

Toxic substances Pesticides, industry

Heat (thermal pollution) Power plants

Another type of water pollutant that is causing increased concern is chemical compounds in items that we consume or use in our homes every day. For example, triclosan is an antibacte- rial and antifungal agent used in soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, and lotions. This chemical is washed down the drain and eventually enters rivers and streams, where it can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Likewise, ecologists have measured detectable levels of birth control hormones, antibiotics, caffeine, and other substances in hundreds of streams and rivers in the United States. Because these chemicals are not removed from wastewater in most waste- water treatment plants, they are excreted from our bodies and washed down drains before entering rivers, streams, and other waterways. Once there they can have serious detrimental impacts on fish and other forms of aquatic wildlife.

Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution Managing nonpoint sources of water pollution is much more challenging than addressing point source pollution because nonpoint pollution of a waterway can originate from hun- dreds or even thousands of locations. After the high-profile water pollution disasters of the 1950s and 1960s, federal legislation was passed that targeted major point source polluters like factories and sewage treatment plants. But water pollution from nonpoint sources like agriculture (soil erosion, fertilizer runoff, manure runoff) and urban or suburban develop- ment (lawn chemicals, parking lots and streets, sediment from construction projects) has continued to worsen since then. In the example of New York City at the start of this chapter, nonpoint sources were causing problems with the city’s drinking water supply.

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

One of the most serious types of nonpoint pollution from agriculture is runoff of animal wastes and fertilizers, which can cause algal blooms, eutrophication, and aquatic dead zones. To prevent runoff, water-quality experts encourage farmers to practice some of the sustain- able agricultural techniques described in Chapter 4, including contour farming and low-till or no-till agriculture. It also helps if farmers leave space for riparian buffers. A riparian buffer is a vegetated strip of land alongside a stream or river. The trees, shrubs, grasses, and other plants in a riparian buffer help trap soil, sediment, and other pollutants before they can enter a waterway. In New York City part of the funding provided to upstate farmers was to help establish and maintain riparian buffers in agricultural areas.

In urban and suburban areas, runoff of fertilizer from lawns, golf courses, and parks can also contribute to eutrophication and dead zones. Large amounts of water and melting snow run- ning off of roofs, streets, parking lots, and driveways can cause both water-quantity problems, such as flooding, and water-quality problems as runoff picks up potential pollutants like road salt and oil spilled from cars and trucks. Here too, establishing riparian buffers around urban areas can help cut down on pollution entering waterways and slow the rate at which runoff enters streams and rivers, reducing flood risks downstream. Protecting existing wetlands and even establishing “constructed wetlands” that contain plants that can slow urban/suburban runoff and absorb excess nutrients can also help minimize nonpoint source pollution. Other approaches are outlined in Table 5.3. All of these approaches fall under the umbrella of water- shed management, and they play an important part in the approach used to protect New York City’s water supply. They also have in common the idea that it is better to try to prevent pollu- tion from entering waterways in the first place than try to clean it up after it’s already there.

Table 5.3: Approaches for minimizing urban and suburban runoff

Approach Description

Riparian buffers Vegetated strips of land alongside streams and rivers

Green roofs A roof that is covered in plants and can absorb rainwater

Rain gardens A garden in a depressed area that collects rainwater

Permeable pavement A porous urban surface that allows rainwater to seep into the ground instead of running off

Wetlands Swamps and marshes that contain plants that absorb nutrients and improve water quality

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

One of the most challenging forms of water pollution involves contamination of groundwa- ter supplies. Unlike surface water pollution, groundwater pollution is hidden from view and potentially “out of sight and out of mind.” Groundwater pollution is also much more difficult to clean up than surface water pollution. Whereas streams and rivers naturally flush them- selves clear through running water, contaminants that enter groundwater get trapped there and can take years or decades to break down or dissipate. Major sources of groundwater pollution include leaks from industrial storage tanks, septic systems, and underground gaso- line tanks, as well as seepage of agricultural chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers. In addi- tion, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of oil and gas wells is increasingly being implicated in the contamination of municipal and residential groundwater supplies in some regions of the United States (see Learn More: Fracking and Water Quality).

Learn More: Fracking and Water Quality

Over the past couple of decades, there has been rapid development and growth in the use of an oil- and gas-drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking allows oil and gas companies to remove these fuels from oil shale rock formations that previously were not considered viable for exploitation (see Section 7.4). In fracking, liquids mixed with sand (collectively known as fracking fluid) are pumped into oil shale deposits under extremely high pressures. This fractures and cracks the shale formations while the sand keeps the cracks open just enough to allow the oil and gas to begin to flow to the surface.

In theory, fracking should not have much of an impact on groundwater, since shale deposits are located far below the surface and well below the water table and aquifers that homes and municipalities draw drinking water from. However, the fracking process creates a number of opportunities for groundwater contamination, and there is growing evidence that this process has been impacting water quality in regions of the country where fracking is widespread (including Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Colorado). For example, leaks of fracking fluid from the drill hole have been documented, as well as leaks of contaminated water that “flows back” (known as flowback water) to the surface. Likewise, poor management and handling of fracking fluid and flowback water at the well site can lead to spills and seepage of these fluids into groundwater deposits.

The oil and gas industry has adamantly denied a link between fracking activities and changes in water quality, while a major 2016 EPA report found that fracking could impact water quality under “certain conditions” if the process is not managed properly. Nevertheless, as fracking has grown in importance throughout the United States, and as well operations have aged, the number of reports of water-quality impact from fracking activities has also grown.

More information on the links between fracking and water quality can be found at these sites:

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_wastewater •

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Section 5.5 Water Quality

There is also growing concern over groundwater contamination by a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS. PFAS are used in a number of products, including firefighting foam and waterproofing materials, and exposure to them has been linked to various forms of cancer, pregnancy complications and low birth weights, liver damage, thyroid disease, asthma, and reduced fertility. PFAS pollution is especially problem- atic on dozens of military bases around the country due to heavy use there in firefighting operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists (2018) reports that of 131 military sites tested for PFAS in their groundwater used for drinking, only 1 was within the safe limit. Forty-three sites had drinking water with PFAS levels that were 1 to 100 times over the safe limit, and 87 sites had PFAS levels more than 100 times greater than the safe limit.

Managing Point Source Pollution Overall, serious water pollution problems from point sources like factories have become much less of a problem in countries like the United States due to laws and regu- lations. The U.S. Clean Water Act (CWA), which was first passed in 1972, makes it ille- gal for a factory or another point source to dump any pollutant in a waterway without a permit. The CWA also sets standards for industrial wastewater management, places restrictions on wetland destruction or con- version, and provides funding mechanisms for upgrading municipal wastewater treat- ment plants. One interesting provision of the CWA allows individual citizens and envi- ronmental groups to monitor and report to the federal government cases in which CWA standards are not being met. This has led to the formation of hundreds of volunteer water-quality monitoring groups across the country that regularly test and report on water- quality conditions in their area. Soon after the CWA was passed, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was enacted in 1974. The SDWA required that the EPA set specific standards for allowable levels of chemicals in water and mandated that local water authorities monitor and report on drinking water quality in their jurisdictions.

While the CWA and the SDWA have both resulted in dramatic improvements in water quality in the United States since the 1970s, there remain significant challenges with water pollu- tion, particularly from nonpoint sources. (If you’re interested in the quality of your own local water supply, check out Close to Home: Assessing Local Drinking Water.) The remainder of this chapter will focus on additional approaches both to conserve water and manage demand, as well as on further ways in which water quality can be protected. This includes a discussion of water conservation and management in Section 5.6 and the role that forests play in protecting water supplies in Section 5.7.

Aaron Bacall/Cartoon Collections

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