These graphics accompanied a great article about water shortages in episode of The Economist which arrived last week. The article was well written and comprehensive, handily summing up the way water resources are related to the growth of urban centers, climate change, the rising affluence of the world’s poorest people (and their conversion from vegetarianism to omnivorousness) and the question of whether or not fresh water is a global or a local problem. I highly recommend reading it. Unfortunately, I think you would do almost as well reading it without the accompanying graphics as with them.
The first one is so confusing I still don’t know what I am seeing here. Table data usually has the attribute that the longer you look at it, the more you get, with an occasionally painfully long initialization period in which you can’t make out any pattern whatsoever. I spent a good bit of time on this one and I still don’t know how to make sense of it. The article rightly points out that fresh water is unevenly distributed across the globe–some places have a lot, some places hardly have any. No big surprise. Also not surprising: some continents use more fresh water than others based on overall population size and agricultural production practices. So when I looked at this graphic, I was kind of hoping to get a sense of both how efficient each continent was with their resources and how dire their straits were. The graphic sort of does that. Sort of. We’ve got a measure of total renewable water resources but it doesn’t take into account total land area. It does take into account population, sort of, and maybe population is more relevant than total land area in this case.
The second graphic does not stand well on it’s own. I can see here that it appears that these selected countries seem to have been becoming more efficient with their water use. Since 1995, all of these countries have lowered the number of cubic metres of water used per dollar (or dollar equivalent) of GDP. This graphic does nothing on its own to help me understand why that might be true. Have these countries moved out of water intensive agricultural production? Have they made their agricultural production more efficient? If so, is it technological change leading to increased efficiency or did they just shift to more efficient crops? Or maybe the change is in the GDP variable, not the water variable. The graphic really just doesn’t clear any of these things up.
I like the third graphic. It’s clear and adds to the text in the article. This isn’t the first time I have read about water shortages and one of the biggest and possibly easiest changes we could make to prevent the water shortage from becoming any more of a problem than it already is, would be to introduce drip irrigation in places that do not already have it. Yes, it costs some money. But it is far more cost effective than many of the other strategies introduced to combat climate change. Drip irrigation technology is not overly complex nor does it require extensive training or equipment to install. Tubing perforated along its length with small holes, buried under the surface of the earth, delivers water directly to plant roots. Much less water is lost to evaporation or seepage into non-crop areas. Control over water resources is better – during rains cisterns collect and store water for later distribution through the drip tubing during dry periods.
The Economist. (2009, 8 April) Water shortages go global: Sin aqua non. Istanbul.