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The Water Bubble: A 21st Century Built on Dwindling Water Resources

A new global study published last week in Nature has found that “almost one-quarter of the world’s population lives in regions where groundwater is being used up faster than it can be replenished.” Essentially, thousands of years of accumulated water could soon be gone. So while much of the media focused on budget deficits, a large part of the world is facing a water deficit. This will have serious implications for drinking water, energy and food, which in turn could place major stress on regional and international security. As stated in the recent Intelligence Community Assessment on water security released by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence,“during the next 10 years the depletion of groundwater supplies in some agricultural areas—owing to poor management—will pose a risk to both national and global food markets.”

This problem exists in context of a number of other environmental and human security stresses. Population growth is set to reach 9 billion by 2050, the world’s largest food producers are facing a series of punishing droughts, food prices are set to rise in the near term, and both observed and projected climatic changes are expected to impact rainfall variability. And as less rain falls, nations will be more and more compelled to extract finite caches of groundwater.

Unfortunately, groundwater is often ignored because it is, well, underground – out of sight and out of mind. It is also very difficult to measure and manage, which presents problems for sustainable use.

But we ignore the issue at our peril. The places that are building a 21st century economy, and a global food market, are increasingly relying on dwindling water resources. To put it in economic terms, it’s a water bubble, and we can’t afford to let it burst.

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