Water and wisdom have rarely mixed. Too bad
As he wrote his famous text in a cabin he built near Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, the American transcendentalist could hardly have guessed that the precious fluid would be in such scarce supply as it is today.
Climate change, desertification, overpopulation and extreme weather events have put the world into a water crisis of extreme proportions. According to Mongabay, 75% of today's human population does not have access to enough fresh water. And now, water security has joined climate change and the food crisis as the greatest challenges facing mankind in the 21st century -- all issues stemming from human overpopulation.
"Drinking water supplies, agriculture, energy production and generation, mining and industry all require large quantities of water," wrote Mike Hightower and Suzanne Pierce, water experts at Sandia National Laboratories, in 2008 in the journal Nature . "In the future, these sectors will be competing for increasingly limited freshwater resources, making water supply availability a major economic driver in the 21st century."
A 2010 University of Arizona study found that for every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (1 C) of warming in the future, the Colorado River flow would decrease between two and eight percent. Seven western states in the U.S. and two states in northwestern Mexico -- including major cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Denver, Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque -- depend on water from the Colorado. Since the report was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the population of Colorado has doubled to 10 million, and as a result, water use has also doubled.
But water problems are not limited to the United States. The water requirement in Kabul, Afghanistan has grown six times since 2010. The Czech Hydrometeorological Institute has reported that some of the country's rivers have dried up completely. Pakistan and India continue a decades-long border war over water rights in the Indus River Basin.
But all this should not be surprising. At a 2010 Future Directions International (FDI) Global Food and Water Research Crisis Programme roundtable, David Molden, the Deputy Director-General for Research at the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI), said that increased demand for water in 2050 would be a result not just from individual use due to population growth in general, but from an increase in the demand for milk, meat and other agricultural goods that require large amounts of water to produce.
At the roundtable, FDI Associate and water expert Dr. Munir A. Hanjra said, "We simply don't know how humans, technology and markets will respond to the kind of challenges that we face around the globe." For the past four decades, that question has remained unanswered. Julian Cribb, author of The Coming Famine, correctly predicted today's annual water shortfall -- some 6,000 cubic kilometres, about the size of six Nile Rivers.
"Worldwatch Institute warned that with nearly seven billion people now in the world, and an increase of up to 40 percent expected by 2050, governments still need to take urgent action," according to a 2011 AFP article. Unfortunately for the majority of people living today, no urgent action was taken.
"Considering the rate of human population growth, individuals, governments and businesses should have changed their behavior long ago," said Dr. Mari Ner of the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute of Hydrologic Studies. "Continued water waste, the destruction of arable land, urbanization and an increasing reliance on water-intensive agriculture have all combined with the effects of climate change to result in the water crisis that we are now experiencing and will continue to experience for the foreseeable future."
Thoreau, like the other American transcendentalists, believed in an ideal spiritual state that favored intuition over physical or empirical concerns. But he wasn't lacking for fresh water. Today, his spiritual explorations in self-reliance might be seen as a bit of a luxury. After all, who can achieve an ideal state without enough water?
"In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival," noted American biologist Rachel Carson, "water...has become the victim of his indifference."
[Part of the series " Reports from 2050 ."]