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Gil Grosvenor: The Freshwater Crisis

During Geography Awareness Week 2010, which focuses on “Freshwater” as its theme, National Geographic Chairman of the Board Gil Grosvenor shares his view that access to clean freshwater for drinking, cooking, and hygiene is the paramount challenge facing humanity today. By Ford Cochran

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Gilbert M. Grosvenor, past editor of National Geographic magazine and president and chief executive of National Geographic, now chairs the Society’s Board of Trustees. During the 1980s, he helped to launch the National Geographic Education Foundation and a grass-roots nationwide geography education program that continues to work toward the goal of geographic literacy for American students. For his lifetime of service, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I spoke with Grosvenor in his office at our Washington, D.C. headquarters about the importance of freshwater. Even something as big as the oceans is not limitless, and even a resource that we may take for granted as much as freshwater is in fact scarce and precious in many places around the world, and becoming more so. How is the Geographic working to make people appreciate that these things we could maybe take for granted aren’t limitless?

I think that’s one of the strengths of this institution: We identify issues that are crucial. In my opinion, freshwater-sanitation is the biggest problem facing planet Earth today. You may say, well, what about energy? You know, I can ride a bicycle if my gas tank is empty, but I can’t go more than a day or so without water. Homo sapiens cannot live without water.

What we’re seeing is a finite amount of water on planet Earth. There’s no more water here today than there was during the days of the dinosaurs. But the population is expanding so rapidly, and we all require water, that water is becoming a very precious commodity. Indeed, water may well be the leading indicator of stability in countries to come. And that’s going to change over time.

Take a country like China: China is dependent on an awful lot of water–I won’t say the majority of its water supply, but a very large percentage–from the glacial melt of the Himalayas.

If you look at a photograph of the Himalayas taken in the 1930s versus one today, you’ll instantly see that a tremendous amount of the glaciers have disappeared from the Himalayas, which means you’re not going to have glacial melt. It’s not coming down into the great rivers, and it’s not going from the great rivers into the cities. They’re going to have to change their living habits. And that’s not very far away,

Interestingly enough, as you’re seeing global warming, you’re seeing the glaciers melting at a faster pace, so you’re getting more flooding in Asia. But the flooding is just preceding the drought, because when the glaciers melt, there’s going to be no flooding, there’s going to be no flow of water, or it’s going to be very restricted. That’s going to be a huge issue.

Then you take places like Africa where you have a very high birthrate and water is extraordinarily scarce. Fortunately, Africa has extensive underground but deep water aquifers that they con draw upon. But right now, that’s out of the question for most African villages. They don’t have the money to invest in deep water wells. That’s going to become an issue.

It drives many cultures in Africa today. Traditionally, women gather water. They’ll spend four or five hours a day just going to find a gallon jug-full of fairly putrid water. The girls are doing this. The girls are not going to school. If you had water in those villages, indeed if you had water in a school compound, you’d find the whole educational system would change. It’s all driven, basically, by water. Learn more about the freshwater crisis from National Geographic. Find resources for teaching and learning geography on the National Geographic Education site and the My Wonderful World Blog.

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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More posts by Ford Cochran

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