Almost decade ago, an alarming event occurred while I was stationed in the Middle East. Qatar depleted its underground fresh water after decades of over-pumping. With ancient aquifers gone, the water supply for its 3 million inhabitants now comes from desalination.
Qatar’s infrastructure provides for just one day of water at full production. In short, fresh water is used almost as fast as it can be produced. This is a strategic disaster waiting to happen. And while Qatar seems like an outlier, the United States, Mexico and many other developed nations are trending the same way.
At this moment, a quarter of humanity — nearly 2 billion people — live in water scarcity, according to the United Nations. Scarcity means supply is insufficient to meet needs for drinking, cooking, hygiene, sanitation and commerce. In the next decade, scarcity is expected to envelop half of humanity.
Next to air, water is what you need most. A human cannot live beyond three days without water. As a scientist and national security professional, I’ve called attention to many things that required your attention as citizens. From security threats and humanitarian disasters to human rights abuses and a new “great power” competition, we have a lot competing for our consideration.
But when was the last time you spent a day’s wages on water? And when was the last time our water infrastructure was so fragile that it became a target for terrorists? Much of the world lives on the edge of catastrophe. But we are not consigned to the same fate. We can change course.
Kofi Annan, the late secretary-general of the United Nations, wisely advised, “Problems without passports require solutions without passports.” As drought and overuse make water scarcity permanent across the western and central United States, the pressure on fresh water supplies is sweeping toward Florida. Notwithstanding current water issues such as Red Tide and litigation over upstream water rights, Florida can prepare now to have protect and preserve the water resources it needs.
Now through Sept. 1 is World Water Week, a good time to focus on fresh water. It can no longer be taken for granted, as I’ve seen firsthand. I’m a co-founder of a water technology start-up called Genesis Systems, and we have a system called WaterCube that literally pulls water out of the air. Each week we receive calls from around the globe asking for help. Last week it was resorts in in the West Indies running out of water for hotels; the week before it was an East African community weeks from turning water off to all customers. We are astonished by the speed of scarcity.
According to George Washington University’s Erick Cline, a prominent archeologist and anthropologist, a lack of water is the most common thread in the eventual demise of all great societies. Think of it as water bankruptcy. Florida cannot allow water scarcity to get a foothold. As a Florida business leader, I’m proud that our congressional, state, county and city governments are paying attention. I’ve seen few communities in the world more proactive in ensuring the health of local water supplies.
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But these leaders need our help. All citizens have a reason to pay attention to water conservation. We must be conscientious about our water, what we put in it and how much we use. We should treat fresh water as the precious resource that it is.
We should also let our voices be heard in government. If our representatives know we care about water stewardship, they’ll continue prioritizing innovative strategies. Humanity has a small window of opportunity to get its water supply back in balance. We will not get a second chance. Water bankruptcy stalks water scarcity.
David Stuckenberg is co-founder and COO of Tampa Bay headquartered Genesis Systems, maker of the WaterCube. As scientist and strategist, he has almost three decades of experience advising the private sector, the White House, the State Department, Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He earned his doctorate at King’s College London; a master’s at George Washington University, and is a decorated Air Force combat pilot.