Water is arguably the most important element necessary for sustaining all life on earth. We get excited about finding the presence of water on other planets because that indicates there is a possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life. So, why don’t we seem too concerned about the quality and availability of fresh water sources for humans and other animals on our planet? Perhaps it is mostly because, in the First world, water is plentiful and inexpensive. However, in developing countries, access to clean water can be limited and difficult to obtain. As is noted by the organization known as The Water Project,
“It’s hard for most of us to imagine that clean, safe water is not something that can be taken for granted. But, in the developing world, finding a reliable source of safe water is often time consuming and expensive. This is known as economic scarcity. Water can be found…it simply requires more resources to do it. In other areas, the lack of water is a more profound problem. There simply isn’t enough. That is known as physical scarcity. The problem of water scarcity is a growing one. As more people put ever increasing demands on limited supplies, the cost and effort to build or even maintain access to water will increase. And water’s importance to political and social stability will only grow with the crisis.”
We have hardly any notion of what these water crises around the the world are like. Even though, over the years, many parts of our country have suffered through droughts and dealt with having waterways polluted with industrial waste, we still have much better access to sufficient sources of water. However, that may someday change, and there are many factors that can contribute to water scarcity here in America. California has been consistently experiencing drought over the last few years, and although the rest of the country may not be faced with such prolonged periods of drought, it is expected that 40 out of the 50 states will experience some kind of water shortage in the next decade. This is due to a multitude of factors, including economic growth, energy production, and climate change, to name a few.
Another issue of concern when it comes to our water supply is the problem we still have with pollution. It can be difficult to determine precisely how contaminated some of bodies of water are, until someone gets sick or dies from being exposed to something extremely hazardous. Such was the case in an incident that occurred almost twenty years ago, when a boy named Forrest Hernandez died after drinking a small amount of water from the Baechtel Creek, just outside a town called Willits in Mendocino County, California. Apparently, the water had been polluted by a nearby industrial site that had been discharging chemicals into the creek for many years. After the death of Forrest, there was an attempt to keep the possibility of chemical poisoning off the table, but due to the persistence of his surviving parents, it was eventually discovered that he was in fact poisoned by the water he drank, which was high in “chromium VI (hexavalent), an industrial heavy metal waste product that is a potent neurotoxin and carcinogen.”
Escalated levels of chromium-6 can “cause allergic dermatitis, and stomach and gastrointestinal cancer in animals and humans,” according to the Earth Institute of Columbia University. In an article published on their website in 2010, they cite an Environmental Working Group study that analyzed 35 U.S. cities and found 31 of them had drinking water contaminated with chromium-6. Although the EPA has established allowable levels of chromium-6, even at low levels this toxic chemical can be hazardous to human health. Many are familiar with the story of Erin Brokovich, and the case of the residents of Hinkley, California who won a settlement with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, which was responsible for contaminating tap water with hexavalent chromium, causing cancer in many of the people who lived there. This situation could probably arise in many other communities across the country, if more communities were to analyze the pollutants found in their water sources. Industrial chemical pollutants like chromium-6 are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to water purity and issues with scarcity.
Wastewater from industrial sites causing water pollution is really just a small problem in comparison to the other sources of water quality deterioration. In our continual pursuit of fossil fuels, the fracking industry has introduced a whole new host of problems related to shale oil extraction and the pollution of groundwater. Problems can also emerge in more urban communities, when government officials make short-sighted decisions without enough forethought. As infrastructure in many cities ages, water that flows through corroded lead pipes can pollute municipal sources of water. This is a large part of a problem that occurred recently in Flint, Michigan when the City of Flint decided to change water sources, and temporarily connected the city’s municipal water system to the Flint River. Apparently, the water from the river has not been treated properly and is causing the leaching of lead into drinking water. Now, for the time being, the 99,000 residents of Flint are without clean tap water, and a full blown water scarcity crisis has suddenly emerged.
Water is not a commodity, it is a right…for every person, every animal and plant on earth needs and deserves clean water to survive. Industry has disrespected this right by polluting our rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater, while our government officials often sit idly by, permitting, condoning, and sometimes even ensuring that corporate interests and profits get preference over the people. We need to stand up to this abuse of power and lackadaisical leadership that too often ignores the problems until the situation necessitates action. We must be proactive and take action ourselves. Let’s work for justice by holding our leaders accountable and demanding better oversight and environmental protection for our water sources. In the meantime, we can also prepare ourselves by arranging for alternative sources of clean water, such as rainwater harvesting and filtration systems that can provide for our water needs, especially in times of water scarcity.