Jan2016_On Tap faucet graphic2By Marc Verhougstraete, PhD

Without doubt, everyone reading this article has heard of the ongoing drought in the southwest US and the flooding in South Carolina. These two starkly different events have little bearing on one another yet both made global news. Water problems that have traditionally been considered a global concern are actually local issues. In many ways, local water issues are, more and more, becoming global issues. This paradigm is shifting, however, due to large water diversion projects, bottled water production and globalization of food systems.

Water diversions
Large water diversion projects serve to transport water from water-rich to water-poor areas. The Roman aqueducts are historically the most famous of this ancient practice, but water diversions in the form of irrigation has been occurring for more than 6,000 years in the Middle East. The difference between ancient and modern diversions resides in the scale of infrastructure and the volume of water moved. Modern engineering has allowed massive and highly efficient diversions that threaten biological health and local survivability.1

In recent decades, the largest and most notable water diversion projects around the world include the Karakum Canal (Turkmenistan), the Central Arizona Project (USA) and the South-North water transfer project (China). The 1,375-kilometer (854-mile) Karakum Canal diverts 13 km3 of water annually from rivers that naturally drain to the Aral Sea. This canal has been a major reason for the Aral Sea disaster, which has left the water body at just 10 percent of its natural size.

The Central Arizona Project—one of the largest diversion projects in the United States—runs 540 kilometers (335 miles) to deliver 1.85 km3 of water annually to south-central Arizona. This diversion, along with many other withdrawals, has resulted in the Colorado River no longer reaching the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

The South-North water transfer is the largest and most expensive diversion project in human history. The $80 billion, 1,152-kilometer (715-mile) infrastructure moves nearly 45 km3 of water annually from China’s humid southern region to its industrialized northern region.2 The environmental implications of diverting such massive quantities of water across a country have yet to be reported.

Bottled water
The facts and figures of bottled water consumption are well documented: $11.8 billion in annual US sales, 116.5 liters (30.8 gallons) per American per year, 50 billion plastic bottles used annually with 38 billion ending up in landfills.3,4 It is estimated that 25 percent of bottled water is consumed outside of the region and thus, outside of the watershed, where bottling occurred.5

Over the last two decades, a large push for the globalization of bottled water has been occurring between large corporations and foreign countries. For instance, Global Water Corporation of Canada exports more than 50 billion liters (13 billion gallons) of glacial water each year to foreign investors via tankers for bottling and distribution.6 A Norwegian company developed a ‘sealable’ bag that can transport 35,641 m3 of fresh water in a single load across oceans for bottling and consumption in thirsty countries.7

Bottled water issues not commonly discussed, however, include environmental consequences to the source-water systems and long-term implications of transporting billions of gallons outside of the watershed. Moving water outside of a region, specifically through groundwater pumping and bottling, can reduce stream flow, lower lake levels, cause subsidence and stress local ecosystems. Few rigorous scientific studies have addressed the effects of bottling water on source water systems, but anecdotal evidence is abundant. For instance, Pakistan has blamed Nestlé Co. for depleting local groundwater tables by 60-91 meters (200-300 feet) following bottled water production.8

Commercialization and food-system globalization
In the spring of 2014, Almarai, the largest dairy company in Saudi Arabia, purchased nearly 40 km2 of agricultural land adjacent to the Colorado River near the arid town of Vicksburg, AZ for $47.5 million.9 This land will support the growth of high-quality alfalfa, a water-intensive crop, which will be transported back to Saudi Arabia to support dairy production. This type of action is not uncommon under the modern globalization systems as food is grown, exported and imported all around the world. What makes this transaction unique is that Saudi Arabia depleted their own water resources over the last two decades to develop large dairy production and now they cannot sustain this industry with local alfalfa production.10

Water policies, if in place, have traditionally focused on local or regional protection of resources and are often ill-equipped to properly address the demand of emerging world markets. This is the case for groundwater in Vicksburg, where no groundwater regulations currently exist and Almarai can pump as much water as needed to irrigate thirsty alfalfa fields.11 Locals near the Almarai farms have already seen water tables fall and they may eventually lose access to water and their livelihoods. Once the sensitive and limited aquifers of a desert are exhausted, thousands of years will be required to recharge them.

The balancing act
A shorter shower in Michigan would not help a Californian maintain a green lawn. Preventing pollution from entering a river in West Virginia would not alter drinking water in Ghana. Multiple diversion canals in the southwest US, however, prevent the Colorado River from reaching the sea. Unrestricted bottled-water plant development has potentially depleted groundwater supplies in Pakistan. If policies are not updated soon, a well-fed heard of cattle in Saudi Arabia could cause groundwater depletion in the southwest US.

As the world becomes a truly globalized system, water must no longer be thought of as a local concern. Local policies must be proactively updated to prepare for large-scale development required to meet the demands of a growing world. These policies must address additional water withdrawals for outside consumption and plan to diversify water sources in the event of scarcity (e.g., drought or acute pollution), storage/diversion in the event of overabundance (e.g., floods) and management of water uses to prevent unintended contamination and overuse (e.g., large diversions). Communities that develop comprehensive water policies that successfully balance water quality, quantity and security, and also generate economic growth while sustaining ecological integrity, will be better situated to deal with global growth and increase the likelihood that all citizens and the environment will continue to receive adequate and safe water.


  1. Chen, A. and Chen, C. 2004. “Ecological and political costs of river diversion.” Nature 429, 501. doi:10.1038/429501b.
  2. Fessenden, M. 2014. “China Just Opened the World’s Largest Water Diversion Project.” Smithsonian.com. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/china-just-sent-first-flows-through-largest-water-diversion-project-world-180953607/.
  3. Hogan, C. 2013. U.S. consumption of bottled water shows continued growth, increasing 6.2 percent in 2012; sales up 6.7 percent. International Bottled Water Association. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.bottledwater.org/us-consumption-bottled-water-shows-continued-growth-increasing-62-percent-2012-sales-67-percent.
  4. Fishman, Charles. “Message in a Bottle.” Fast Company Magazine, July 2007: 110.
  5. Hu, Z.; Morton, L.W. and Mahler, R.L. 2011. “Bottled water: United States consumers and their perceptions of water quality.” Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 8, 565-78. doi:10.3390/ijerph80205657.
  6. Global Water Corporation. 2000. Press release: CANADA: Global Water Corporation Signs Deal to Export Nordic Glacier Water. just-drinks.com. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.just-drinks.com/news/global-water-corporation-signs-deal-to-export-nordic-glacier-water_id74299.aspx
  7. Doyle, A. 2001. “Firm sees profit in water bags.” The Moscow Times. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/firm-sees-profit-in-water-bags/249992.html.
  8. Rosemann, N. 2005. Drinking Water Crisis in Pakistan and the Issue of Bottled Water: The Case of Nestlé’s ‘Pure Life.’ Swiss Coalition of Development Organizations. Accessed on 12/2/2015. http://pds20.egloos.com/pds/201008/26/80/nestle-pakistan.pdf.
  9. Almarai Corporation. 2014. Press release: Almarai Company announces the purchase of farm land in Arizona, USA, SAR 178.1 million. Accessed 12/2/2015. https://www.almarai.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Press_Release_Purchase-Lands-Arizona_2014_EN.pdf.
  10. Mcevers, K. 2009. “The cost of making milk in the desert.” NPR Arizona Public Media. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105381728.
  11. National Public Radio. 2015. “Saudi hay farm in Arizona tests state’s supply of groundwater.” NPR Arizona Public Media. Accessed on 12/2/2015. www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/11/02/453885642/saudi-hay-farm-in-arizona-tests-states-supply-of-groundwater.

About the author
Dr. Marc Verhougstraete is an assistant professor at The University of Arizona College of Public Health. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in environmental biology and zoology and a doctorate in water quality sciences, both from Michigan State University. Verhougstraete’s research has primarily focused on understanding the sources, occurrence and transport of waterborne pathogens using fecal indicator organisms and molecular source tracking. He strives to integrate microbial research with environmental conditions, hydrological catchment dynamics and landscape patterns to improve and protect water quality, human health and ecosystem use by informing water-quality managers and policy makers.


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