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By Fen MontaignePhotographs by Peter Essick

How can such a wet planet be so short on clean fresh water? The latest installment in the "Challenges for Humanity" series plumbs the problem.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

To see what unbridled water consumption has wrought, both good and bad, you need go no farther than the Indian state of Gujarat. Like neighboring Rajasthan, Gujarat is a dry place that has experienced a surge of irrigated agriculture. In the northern part of the state, on a hot spring day, I came across a brick pump house amid flat green fields of wheat, mustard, cumin, and anise. Inside was the electrical system for a 62-horsepower motor that, ten hours a day, pumped a steady column of water from deep underground into a concrete tank through which the water was channeled to nearby fields. One of the pump's owners—70-year-old Nemchandbhai U. Patel—rested on a rope bed in the cool, dusky interior, lulled by the sound of water rushing up from underground aquifers and gurgling into the tank.

Patel stirred as I approached. He explained that the pump was used to irrigate his fields, as well as those of his partners and 50 other farmers who purchase the water. Without it they would have to rely solely on rain, which in an area that receives about 25 inches (64 centimeters) of precipitation a year—most of it in short summer cloudbursts—is a highly risky proposition. "Thanks to this well," said Patel, "we are able to sustain our lives."

The electric pump that sent water streaming onto Patel's land is the machine that has powered India's green revolution. That agricultural achievement, which has enabled the country to grow enough food for its one billion people, was accomplished because of a huge increase in groundwater pumping. In the mid-fifties fewer than 100,000 motorized pumps were extracting groundwater for Indian agriculture. Today about 20 million are in operation, with the number growing by half a million each year.

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Twenty years ago one man revived an ancient method of collecting rainwater in India and helped water-starved villages rebound. What can local communities do to solve their water problems? What long-discarded methods might work today? Share your thoughts.
More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
If we want to protect our water supply and ensure that we have enough clean water for the future, we must aggressively act to conserve this most precious of resources. We must learn not to turn to conservation just in times of drought or emergency water shortages but, rather, incorporate it into our lives every day. Here are some practical steps we can take around the house to accomplish that:


  1. Repair dripping faucets and leaking pipes. A loss of one drop of water per second wastes 2,400 gallons (9,000 liters) of water a year.
  2. Install low-flow showerheads, low-flow toilets, and faucet aerators. Aerators can reduce faucet water use by up to 60 percent.
  3. Store drinking water in the refrigerator instead of letting a faucet run while waiting for the water to get cold.
  4. Turn the faucet off while brushing your teeth.
  5. Fill the sink with water to rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher rather than passing them under running water.
  6. Operate the dishwasher and washing machine only when fully loaded.


  1. Unused or slightly used water is often suitable for other purposes. As you wait for the shower water to heat up, place a bucket in the shower to catch water for watering plants. Leftover drinking and cooking water can also be used in the garden.
  2. Use a broom, not water, to clean driveways and sidewalks.
  3. Wash your car with a pail of water or turn the hose off between rinses.
  4. Where appropriate, plant drought-tolerant plants or use native species.
  5. Cluster together plants with similar water needs.
  6. Water the lawn and plants early in the morning or late at night.

    —Abby Tipton
Did You Know?

Related Links
The World's Water
This site offers a wealth of up-to-date water data, as well as an extensive list of Web links to organizations, institutions, and individuals working on global freshwater problems and solutions.

The Water Page
Visit this site to learn about sustainable water use and management in Africa and other developing regions.

Water Scarcity
Learn which countries experienced water scarcity in 1955 and 1990 as well as those projected to face a scarcity in 2025.

Log on to this site and find UNESCO's lengthy list of water-related websites from around the world.

U.S. Water Use
Get more information on United States water use estimates and water use trends from U.S. Geological Survey's 1995 report. (The 2000 report is due out shortly.)


De Villiers, Marq. Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

Gleick, Peter H. "Making Every Drop Count," Scientific American (February 2001), 40-45.

Gleick, Peter H. The World's Water: 2000-2001. Island Press, 2000.

Postel, Sandra. Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Postel, Sandra. Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.

Vickers, Amy. Handbook of Water Use and Conservation. Waterplow Press, 2001.

World Resources 2000-2001: People and Ecosystems: The Fraying Web of Life. World Resources Institute, 2000.


NGS Resources
Kerley, Barbara. A Cool Drink of Water. National Geographic Books, 2002.

Weiss, Rick. "War on Disease," National Geographic (February 2002), 4-31.

Arthur, Zich. "China's Three Gorges: Before the Flood," National Geographic (September 1997), 2-33.

Parfit, Michael. "Sharing the Wealth of Water," National Geographic (November 1993), 20-37.

Parfit, Michael. "When Humans Harness Nature's Forces," National Geographic (November 1993), 56-65.

Vesilind, Priit J. "Water—The Middle East's Critical Resource," National Geographic (May 1993), 38-71.

Zwingle, Erla. "Ogallala Aquifer: Wellspring of the High Plains," National Geographic (March 1993), 80-109.

Carrier, Jim. "Colorado: A River Drained Dry," National Geographic (June 1991), 2-35.

van Duivendijk, Hans. "They Stopped the Sea," National Geographic (July 1987), 92-101.

Canby, Thomas. "Water, Our Most Precious Resource," National Geographic (August 1980), 144-179.

Colton, F. Barrows. "Water for the World's Growing Needs: Ever Seeking More, Man Makes Better Use of Earth's Liquid Assets, Fights River Pollution, Even Desalts the Sea," National Geographic (August 1952), 269-286.


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