Drop of water Photo © Anton Maltsev \ Fotolia.com

Last December, the world was abuzz with the news: 500,000 cubic kilometres of freshwater had been located under the ocean floor. It’s an amount 100 times greater than all the freshwater used since the beginning of the 20th century. Excited reports were coming from all corners of the globe.

And then silence.

Nearly a year later, the water sits right where it was before, with no immediate prospects of moving it. It turns out that even a massive under-ocean reservoir is subject to the same forces of economic inertia and political apathy that have plagued freshwater distribution for decades.

Earth contains 326,000,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water – mostly in the oceans. Two per cent of that is freshwater.

That still leaves plenty of water for drinking, but it’s not exactly distributed evenly. Most of the world’s freshwater is stored in the polar icecaps and glaciers. Of the rest, quite a bit belongs to Canada and other northern countries, where water concerns are mostly not about too little water, but the opposite problem: too much water, in the form of floods.

The water crisis has never been about the quantity of freshwater in the world, though. It’s about who has that water.

In East Africa, for example, the intense droughts of 2011 caused an estimated 260,000 deaths. The immensity of Lake Huron was no help at all.

But drought fatality stats don’t tell the real story of how many people lack regular access to freshwater. The UN estimates that 1.6 billion people face an economic water shortage, where their country does not have the necessary infrastructure to distribute the water from rivers and aquifers.

Let’s return, for a moment, to the details of our massive, under-ocean reservoir. The water likely became trapped millennia ago, with layers of clay protecting it from the rising sea levels of the past 20,000 years. It is now 400km under the ocean floor, embedded in minerals called ringwoodite and wadsleyite.

Drilling for the water would be an undertaking of epic proportions, with the constant risk of saltwater intrusion ruining the whole project.

For a country – and there are many – where surface-water distribution remains a significant logistical challenge, that water might as well be on the moon.

Canadians, meanwhile, use an average of 483 litres daily, according to Environment Canada. That’s an enormous quantity of water, compared to the global average. North Americans need 2,055 gallons per day, per capita, just to grow food. If all the freshwater in the world were divided equally, only 890 gallons would be available.

Of course, the water is not divided equally.

Meanwhile, global freshwater consumption for social and economic demands is expected to grow 24 per cent by 2050.

The only way that under-ocean reservoir gets tapped is if a country like the US becomes desperate. And even if they could extract every last drop, it wouldn’t be the eternal elixir suggested by the headlines. Given projected global water use over the next half century, that bottomless well of water – 100 times more than all the freshwater consumed in the last 114 years – would last just 91 years. A nice reprieve, but hardly forever.

We’re going to have to learn to share and conserve what we’ve got, because either way, it’s not enough.

Sorry for all the cold water.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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