03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Recognizing Water for What It's Worth

Steve Solomon's new book "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" is an exhaustively researched and well written contribution to the world's increasing awareness of water issues. It traces the overriding importance of water in the world's economic and political history, accurately identifying water as the world's most precious resource. It provides strong support for the statement that "Water is fundamental to life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite to the realization of all other human rights." (UN, 2002).

Is water in short supply? The reality is that the earth is a water-rich planet on which less than one percent of its water inventory is used for human purposes. What is in short supply is inexpensive fresh water that people can afford to buy.

How much water is there in the world and how is it used? The best current estimate is that the earth has 329 million cubic miles of water, with each cubic mile containing more than one trillion gallons. But the vast majority, 99.7 percent, is found in the oceans with an average salt content of 35,000 parts per million. This level of salinity (fresh water is usually 500 parts per million or less) means that humankind cannot use this water without doing something to it, such as desalination, which is not easy or cheap.

The majority of global freshwater (75 percent) is used for agriculture, 39 percent in the U.S. and Europe, and more than 80 percent in parts of Africa and Asia. World water demand more than tripled over the past half century, and today more than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water and more than two billion to water for proper sanitation.

Solomon's book lays out this reality in considerable detail as well as the implications. These include health effects (80 percent of infections in the developing world are due to water-borne diseases), the inability to adequately feed a growing world population, and the potential for conflict as water supplies are contested by neighboring peoples. Another implication derives from the inseparability of water and energy issues. Both water and energy are essential to the reduction of poverty, and the linkage between them has not always been recognized. This has begun to change in recent years, with growing sensitivity to the fact that energy is needed to provide water services (pumping water from underground aquifers, moving water to where it is used, treating impaired water for reuse, and desalinating brackish and sea water) and that many forms of energy production depend on the availability of water (hydropower, cooling of thermal power plants, fossil fuel production and processing, biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration, hydrogen economy). As a result a new term has appeared in the water lexicon, the water-energy nexus.

This is not to say that some people haven't spoken out on water issues in the past. A number of voices have sought to sound the alarm for several decades, including the United Nations which declared an International Decade of Water in the 1980s and a new one in 2005. The UN Millenium Summit in 2000 identified fresh water availability as a major global crisis, as did the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. World Water Forums have also been held every three years since 1997.

What is complicating the world's ability to address water security issues is the linkage between water and global climate change. In its 2008 Technical Paper on Climate Change and Water the International Panel on Climate Change stated that "Observational records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change...." Climate change will disrupt the hydrological cycle and impact global water resources long before other impacts are felt. Precipitation patterns can change, leading to a greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (flooding, drought, hurricanes), and by altering the timing of winter snows, snowmelt, and spring rains, climate change could overload reservoirs early in the season, forcing releases of water and leaving areas like California high and dry in late summer. Coastal areas and island nations also face a serious threat. Rising water levels, before they destroy property and flood low-lying areas, will cause saltwater intrusion of freshwater supplies, putting the drinking water of millions of people at risk.

As Solomon's book effectively documents, "Just as oil conflicts were central to twentieth-century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order and the destiny of civilization." This is not hyperbole but fact. Just as the struggle to control water resources has shaped human political and economic history to this point, so will the struggle in future years be central to the world we will live in and leave to our children and grandchildren. This book helps us immeasurably to understand this reality.