07/22/2013 01:57 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2013

Water, Water Everywhere


We live in a water world, dependent on rainfall, groundwater circulating over land and though streams and rivers, and the aquifer beneath our feet. As I have mentioned many times before on my weekly radio broadcast, water is the most precious commodity on earth in that its supply is finite and limited in distribution, and it is required to survive in the same amount by every one of us every day, rich or poor, wherever we may be. Some would argue that water is a basic human right and we should establish policy and practice for its universal guarantee.

Thus, we rely on water as an essential component of health and well-being, a resource under constant threat by over-consumption, toxins and pollutants, and waste from industrial and agricultural production, sewage treatment, fracking, fertilizer run-off, emissions, chemical and other manufacturing, and the many other technologies that we have invented to support a developing world populated by some 7 billion humans worldwide, a number that is projected to grow by another 2 billion by 2030 -- a date that is just not that far away.

We will only be able to feed this new world (not to mention the millions today who already go hungry) if we can increase agricultural yields significantly and sustainably. Globally, rain-fed agriculture is practiced on 80 percent of cultivated land and supplies more than 60 percent of the world's food. According to Aquastat, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's comprehensive website documenting water demand and use by country, "With so much of the Earth's water being used for agriculture, it is clear that an improvement of water management becomes key..."

Add climate change to this situation -- increasing incidence and intensity of drought, extreme weather, depleted local water sources, corrupted water systems, and other factors contributing to soil infertility and erosion -- and reliance on more efficient irrigation and more sophisticated water management becomes more than imperative.

cites a stunning example of the consequences of irresponsible irrigation practice in the Aral Sea, an environmental tragedy, when water from the Sea was withdrawn to irrigate cotton, reducing the annual flow by almost 85 percent. As a result, to paraphrase the FAO Report, sea level fell by 16 meters between 1981 and 1990; 24 species of fish disappeared; local catch that once totaled over 44,000 tons per year and supported 60,000 jobs literally vanished; and toxic dust salt from the sea bed made the remaining water hazardous to drink; thousands left the area as environmental refugees while those who remained lost their livelihood. The Aral Sea is just one dramatic example of how water management transcends local practice and demands regional, national, and international planning and management of this declining resource if it is to be conserved for use by one, or a few, or all. If there is a single issue for the international community to agree on as an incontrovertible requirement for world peace, it may be this one: equitable and sustainable water practice and distribution regardless of other necessities and needs. Given the already extant examples of water conflict, both inside and outside many nations and regions, such agreement may be long in coming, if at all.

As with so many things these days, the solution may not come from such a grand design, but rather from small, incremental, local actions that will collectively make a difference. For example, farmers that switch from surface flooding to localized irrigation can cut their water use by 30 to 60 percent and increase yields of most crops by 100 to 400 percent. I once watched a Chinese farmer transfer a precise number of buckets from a rainwater catchment area onto a field laid out slightly downhill and furrowed with barriers to distribute the water along efficient pathways to individual plants so that when the last bucket was poured at the top the last plant was fully watered below. It was effective, efficient, elegant, and wise.

In the end, we will turn to the ocean for desalinized water, when the population has grown beyond the projections, even the most enlightened methods of water conservation and use. But there is a critical time now, in between, and we must make the most of it for all the right reasons. We must not be wrong in this lest we find ourselves, too soon, faced with the quandary of water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.