IMPAKTER ESSAY: Water, Water: Everywhere, Nowhere, and Such High Prices

Water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

–Albert Szent-Györgi, 1937 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Water is known to be as plentiful as air and just as free. Most of us learn early in life that approximately 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, mirroring the internal composition of human beings. We are composed mostly of H2O and surrounded by quite a bit of it. And more is on the way, as glaciers the world over melt due to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). With additional moisture in the air due to consistently record-breaking hotter average temperatures engendering significantly elevated evaporation, we are also seeing a great increase in intense storms around the world, while some regions paradoxically suffer through ever more extreme droughts.

Water is an inescapable subject of importance as much as it is essential for our very survival. It is feared, however, that water may also be the conduit of our destruction, as at least coastal cities may be flooded by the end of the century due to sea level rises prompted by glacial melting that is occurring faster than previously thought. In May 2016, the world learned that the Solomon Islands archipelago lost five uninhabited islands to the rising Pacific Ocean and coastal decomposition, and six other islands, all inhabited, face near-term danger due to extreme shoreline erosion, prompting some residents to flee.

As the truly horrific implications of ACD (also referred to as abrupt climate disruption) slowly dawn on and wash over human consciousness—another immediate and insidious water-related threat is emerging. Due to governmental incompetence or misguided budget allocations (to be charitable) related to public water infrastructure in the U.S., increasing corporate hegemony over water sources, limited access to safe water in developing countries, and the ravages of climate change, the availability of free potable water is ever more scarce, prompting what some ominously predict will be the advent of “water wars.” Indeed, in 1995, Ismail Sarageldin, author and founding director of the new Library of Alexandria (Egypt), avowed, “The wars of this century have been on oil, and the wars of the next century will be on water … unless we change the way we manage water.”

Nestlé Nestles near Water Sources, but Communities Battle Bottled Water

Traditionally, the notion of water wars might conjure the image of two nations squabbling over access to rivers or lakes that cross their borders. Indeed, such issues remain bones of contention. Interestingly, the word “rival” is derived from the Latin rivalis, which denotes one that takes from the identical stream as another. A new word might need to be invented, though, to depict what multinational corporations are trying to accomplish in buying up water rights. The words “avarice” and “chutzpah” on steroids might suffice for starters.

Switzerland-based Nestlé is the largest food and beverage products company in the world and also boasts the largest share of the market in bottled water in the U.S. Among its many dubious practices through the years, Nestlé was found in 2015 to have been extracting water for bottling from the national forest near San Bernardino, California under the provisions of a permit that expired in 1988.

Activists are now suing to prevent the U.S. Forest service from renewing the permit for another five years without a scientific environmental analysis, which would presumably indicate the ecological harm to the region of continuing this process particularly under the extreme drought conditions that have now plagued California for five years.

In fact, droughts lead to greater reliance on groundwater in aquifers, levels of which are falling throughout the U.S. according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The billion-dollar Nestlé company is said to be paying just over US $500 per year to extract its Arrowhead Mountain water.


Nestlé is also among the companies that continue to bottle and sell water that it extracts from other areas of California, selling it back for a 1000% profit to residents living with government-mandated water restrictions, as well as others around the country. When the drought began in 2011, the company bottled 591 million gallons in California that year and was bottling 705 million gallons by 2014. Nestlé’s Arrowhead as well as Crystal Geyser labels bottle water extracted from the groundwater in various locations, and Aquafina (a Pepsi brand) and Dasani (a Coca-Cola brand) re-treat tap water, also from drought-stricken California.

Bottled water, which is often repackaged or re-treated tap water that poses unclear health risks due to leaching from its container, requires millions of barrels of oil to produce the plastic for its containers—precious little of which is recycled—thus leading to tons of additional plastic in the waste stream further amplifying its significant environmental toll. It also exacts a heavy price, collectively, on consumers, with those who buy branded water paying anywhere from 300 to 3,000 times more than tap water.

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In the photo: A recycling bin overflows with bottled water. Photo credit: Flickr/Mr.TinDC CC2.0

Ironically, tap water is generally better regulated than bottled water in the U.S., but marketing and events such as the catastrophic contamination of water in Flint, Michigan contribute to continually robust sales for bottled water. Notably, Starbucks has responded to the ongoing drought by moving its sourcing and production of Ethos Water out of California, suffering under what is thought to be the worst drought in that region in a millennium.

The wars of this century have been on oil, and the wars of the next century will be on water … unless we change the way we manage water.

-Ismail Sarageldin, author and founding director of the new Library of Alexandria

The silver lining among the clouds cast by the bottled water industry is that there is a precedent for small towns successfully resisting bottled water manufacturers. Among the winners, we have Concord, Massachusetts banning the sale of water bottles in 2013, and McCloud, CA successfully fending off Nestlé in 2009. Five years ago, Stockton, CA managed to wrest control of its municipal water supply from a multinational conglomerate. Currently, the small town of Kunkletown, near the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, is waging a war against Nestlé, which is proposing to pump 200,000 gallons of water daily from the aquifer there and transport it by truck to a bottling facility 20 miles away, requiring 60 truck trips each day. Their request is for a 10-year permit with an option for an additional 15 years. Regional opposition has landed this request in the hands of a local zoning board that has yet to render a decision. Better news emerged from Hood River County, Oregon in May 2016 when voters approved a ban on commercial bottled water, preventing a lengthy effort by Nestlé to build a bottling plant near the Columbia River Gorge in order to sell more than 100 million gallons of water under their Arrowhead and Pure Life brands.

Outside of the US, there are other examples of winners, among them Cochabamba, the third largest city in Bolivia; it famously succeeded in voiding the 40-year lease on the city’s water supply that the San Francisco-based engineering company Bechtel had arranged with the Bolivian federal government, which was pressured by the World Bank to accept the deal. Perhaps more encouraging, given its much larger population and world profile, the city of Toronto banned bottled water sales and distribution on city premises in 2008, and also committed to making tap accessible in all city facilities.

While such supply side issues are imperative to note, the welfare of the planet would benefit if we could cut demand for bottled water. However, some circumstances undermine this crucial cause. Flint is a case in point (see box).

Box: Flint, Fatal Cost-cutting Measures Poison the Most Vital Resource

Once a potent force in the automobile manufacturing industry, Flint, Michigan, suffered hard times when General Motors (GM) closed its factories there in the 1980s. With economic and cultural effects lingering for decades, its leadership in 2011 was replaced by a state-appointed emergency manager.
In April 2014, the unelected official appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, the Republican head of the state of Michigan, decided, in an apparent cost-cutting move, to change the source of Flint’s drinking water from Lake Huron, which it had been receiving through Detroit for fifty years. Unfortunately, the new source was the polluted Flint River, long contaminated from industrial run-off and sewage.
Residents of this predominantly poor, black community vociferously complained about fetid and discolored water, though the objections went unheeded for a year and a half. Bacteria and carcinogenic trihalomethanes were later found in the water; an outbreak of the bacteria-caused Legionnaire’s disease spread through the city, leaving 10 people dead.
The Flint River was also found to have high levels of chloride, which corroded old underground pipes, and contributed to lead poisoning, which is known to permanently impair cognitive and neurological function, particularly in children. Notably, GM received permission from the emergency manager of Flint to switch its water source from the corrosive Flint River back to the Detroit system in October 2014, one year before an emergency was declared, suggesting awareness of the dangers of the Flint River.

Over 7 billion people now inhabit the Earth, with a population of over 9 billion forecast by 2050. Currently, the United Nations estimates that approximately 1.2 billion people live in regions experiencing water scarcity, and another 500 million people live in areas transitioning to such circumstances. Economic water shortages are thought to plague an additional 1.6 billion people. As population expands, pollution worsens, drought metastasizes, and the climate careens into uncharted territory, humans increasingly consume finite resources, with demand for water rising twice as fast as the population.What Is Meant by Water Scarcity?

It is believed that we are only a few years away from seeing the demand for fresh water surpass the supply. Such phenomena, largely driven by ACD, may lead to massive human migration and contribute to conflicts over water access.

Currently, the world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, as civilians flee Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other war-torn regions where, particularly in the case of Syria, drought has been implicated in initial internal migration thought to have been a contributing factor to the pressures fueling civil discord. Food price increases prompted by drought are also thought to spur such issues.


In the photo: A woman scoops water in a dry riverbed near Kataboi village in remote Turkana in northern Kenya. Photo credit: Flickr/UK Department for International Development CC2.0 

Further, the World Bank predicts that by 2050, increasing demand—particularly in agriculture—for water and dwindling supply will engender shortages in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia where water is now abundant, provoking migration, competition, and clashes. Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, is thought by some to be at grave risk for complete depletion of its groundwater supplies by 2025. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and Quetta, Pakistan are considered to be comparably vulnerable. Michel Specter reported in 2015 that in Pakistan, the water allotment for each person is one third of 1950 levels, decimated by population growth, climate change, and rising demand for meat, which requires more water for livestock feed.

One billion people in Asia are expected to be at high risk for severe water stress or deprivation by 2050, according to a March 2016 study performed by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

More people in the world have mobile phones than access to sanitary water.

Water scarcity refers to limited access to clean water, along with proper sewage and sanitation. Absolute water scarcity, according to Schewe et al. writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is characterized by less than 500 cubic meters (132,000 gallons) of water available to each person annually, and such a calamitous phenomenon is expected by the authors to rise 40 percent above current levels by the end of this century.

As reported by Peries early in 2016, according to new research by Hoekstra and Mekonnen, year-round freshwater scarcity is endured by close to half a billion people throughout the year, with upwards of 4 billion people experiencing at least one month of freshwater scarcity.

One stark example of our planet at risk is the fact that more people in the world have mobile phones than access to sanitary water. Life-threatening illnesses result from water scarcity, rendering it a leading cause of death worldwide.

It may seem odd to discuss water scarcity in light of the prediction of more floods emerging due to ACD; most predictions include the forecast for more droughts as well. But the broader outlook calls for higher average rainfall, due to elevated moisture in the atmosphere, and wider extremes in weather, with worsening droughts in areas already affected due to deep disruptions in traditional global weather patterns.

Water scarcity is an alarming concern for obvious reasons in drought-stricken regions but also, paradoxically, in areas with increasing rainfall. Water quality may likely decline in such regions with expanding economic growth or substantial industrialization due to increasing contamination further disseminated and integrated into rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater after deluges.

… there will not be sufficient water in the world to sustain the worldwide reliance on a Western-style meat-based diet by 2050.

Agriculture, and its use of irrigation, is responsible for 70 percent of the water used around the world, with significant subsidies in the developed world eliminating any incentive for industry to stem the flow. According to Barlow and Clarke, authors of Blue Gold: The Fight to Stop the Corporate Theft of the World’s Water, the pumping of groundwater for industry is occurring at a pace that exceeds abilities for replenishment, particularly in the case of the Ogallala aquifer, the largest in North America.

For a full mindmap behind this article with articles, videos, and documents see #water

Water scarcity is and will increasingly be exacerbated by population growth, changes in rainfall and evaporation patterns incurred by ACD, dwindling resources, and increased competition for those resources, thus also compounding food insecurity. Increasingly devastating megastorms also contribute to food insecurity by wiping out crops and livestock.

But food or, namely, the world’s diet is also an integral factor, as a meat-centric diet requires considerably more water to nurture livestock than does a plant-based diet. To yield a single hamburger, for example, hundreds of gallons of water are necessary, according to Specter. As reported in 2012 by Vidal in The Guardian, Falkenmark and colleagues estimated in the report Food Security: Overcoming Water Scarcity Realities, which coincided with World Water Week in Stockholm at the end of August that year, there will not be sufficient water in the world to sustain the worldwide reliance on a Western-style meat-based diet by 2050.

The suggested solution is a diet that is mainly vegetarian.

water fracking

In the photo: In areas where shale-drilling/hydraulic fracturing is heavy, a dense web of roads, pipelines and well pads turn continuous forests and grasslands into fragmented islands. Photo credit: Flickr/Simon Frasier University CC2.0 

Fracking the Future 

The broad deleterious impact on the environment of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) of oil and gas wells extends beyond the scope of this article. But it is important to note that the practice—linked to multiple small earthquakes—is associated with poisoning nearby groundwater and, in several locations in the U.S., continues in areas experiencing water stress.

In other words, in addition to concerns that the toxic chemicals employed in the process to shatter shale rock in order to extract latent oil and gas will poison adjacent water supplies, the industrial procedure itself is conducted in areas such as Colorado and Texas with water supplies already compromised by drought and heavy use from other industry, agriculture, and municipal life. The billions of gallons of water used in fracking in Colorado and other Western U.S. states including Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota, may also divert needed water for agriculture.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated, according to Kentworthy, that the 35,000 wells used in fracking throughout the country require anywhere from 70 to 140 billion gallons of water annually, approximating the yearly water use of one or two cities each with the population of 2.5 million people.

The governor of New York has banned the use of fracking in that state, but it continues to be permitted in the adjacent state of Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders is opposed to the practice, but leading candidate for the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton is on record as supporting it, now hedging with the proviso “if it can be made safe.”

Fracking itself represents yet another front in the already underway wars for water.

Like Climate Change, the Water Wars Are Here 

Brahma Chellaney, author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis, claims that water has already played at least a contributing role in several post-World War II conflicts, such as diminished fresh water availability triggering food price spikes motivating the Arab Spring in 2011 or wrangling over riparian rights when rivers traverse more than one country. Chellaney contends that control of the sources of the Jordan River lay at the heart of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1960s fighting between India and Pakistan over the Indus River system.

Local municipalities have won some of the early skirmishes against multinational corporations such as Nestlé, but the quest for profit is unrelenting and such companies have established a billion-dollar bonanza in the bottled water business.

With increasing corporate control over water, suspect or deteriorating water infrastructure, and dwindling of groundwater supplies, the prospects are likely for continuing battles over access to clean, safe, and free water as a human right. Indeed, we seem to be caught in an intricate web of “Catch-22s.” That is, despite increasing environmental concern and awareness that the pervasive use of bottled water accelerates an already existential global climate crisis, its use proliferates due to unfounded diffidence or skepticism regarding clean water supplies as well as exigencies based on neglect or failure to secure functional water infrastructure in cities and diminished groundwater in drought-stricken areas.

Fracking, based on human hubris and greed, similarly exacts an untold toll on the environment, amplifying effects and feedback loops associated with climate change. As global population increases, resources wane, and the climate renders the Earth less habitable, it remains to be seen whether arms will be taken up to fight exclusively over the most precious resource. Writers including Brahma Chellaney, Steven Solomon, and particularly Ismail Sarageldin have suggested that just as oil has been the main commodity over which human blood has been spilled during the last several decades, water will be the resource that is targeted in the near future if and when militaries wage war.

With so much of the world covered by water, but less and less water available to drink, is it water that will be our undoing?

The difficult but deeper truth is that each one of the smaller-scale conflicts over water access is vital. Any victories won are not pyrrhic ones, but the fact that they must be waged reflects on the time lost in our overarching battle to stem the flow of the convoluted, and myriad industrial, capital- and avarice-induced mechanisms that further propel and entrench life on Earth into an existential crisis. Access to water is a fundamental human need and right, and governments the world over are morally obligated to maintain a steady flow of this precious and essential resource.

Recommeded reading: “BLUE GOLD: THE COMING WATER WARS” 

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Water Sarcity, Drought, Impakter Essay

About the Author /

Edmund M. Weisberg obtained his Master of Science (M.S.) and Master of Bioethics (M.B.E) degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and has several years of experience in medical writing and editing. He has worked with Greenpeace, the International Clinical Epidemiology Network, the American Association for Cancer Research, and in multiple capacities at the University of Pennsylvania, where he currently serves as a communications writer. In addition, he was the Managing Editor, as well as a contributing author, for the first two editions of the textbook Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice, by Dr. Leslie Baumann, and Managing Editor for Dr. Baumann’s Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic Ingredients, all three of which were published by McGraw-Hill. Mr. Weisberg and Dr. Baumann will work together again on a third edition of Cosmetic Dermatology. Mr. Weisberg is also the author of the forthcoming children’s book While You Are at School.

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