The new liquid gold : Water
A woman using bottled water to wash her three-week-old son at their home in Michigan, America | Todd McInturf
We are running out of freshwater, and at an alarming rate.
Since the beginning of civilization, large human settlements have typically been near water. Today 90% of the world’s population lives within 10km from a freshwater source. Despite our dependency, this valuable resource continues to be viewed and treated as unlimited. If freshwater consumption does not decrease, the WWF predicts that by mid-century, 7 Billion people “will face water stress or scarcity”.
Although the earth’s surface is 71% covered by water, accessible freshwater accounts for just 0.5% of earth's water supply. The worlds freshwater consumption has quadrupled since the 1900s. In 1995, World Bank Vice president Ismail Serageldin stated; “The wars of the next century will be fought over water". At this rate, he is not wrong. Humans cannot go more than three days without the precious liquid, and any war for control over accessible, clean, freshwater would be ruthless.
Further accentuating this problem is water pollution. The disregard humans have for water quality is concerning. Every year, more people die from unsafe water than all forms of violence, including war. With clean water becoming more scarce, and the population predicted to rise to 9.7 Billion in 2050, the strain on freshwater will keep increasing.
(left) Liquid freshwater use
Most of our water is used in agriculture. 518 litres of water are needed for the yogurt and cup of orange juice you have for breakfast, double your household or “domestic” use of water for the entire day. Proportionally, meat takes the most amount of water to be produced. A simple hamburger requires up to 2331 L of water. Keeping this in mind, one of the easiest ways to reduce our water consumption is simply to waste less of it. This could mean anything from throwing away less food, to finding better solutions for collecting freshwater.
In most places, water is priced as if there will always be enough of it. And so, it is wasted in the most outrageous ways; Globally, 95% of irrigated farmland uses the least effective irrigation method, simply flooding the fields. India and China both grow their most water-intensive crops in some of their driest regions, and even though Mexico city gets more rainfall than London, a notoriously rainy city, most of this water goes wasted as there are no lakes for it to collect in. In addition, nearly half of Mexico City’s drinking water is lost through leaky pipes. Right now, governments simply do not think it is worth the money to repair or invest in new infrastructure for clean freshwater.
In this time of crisis, many are turning to desalination, the process of removing salt from saltwater, as an easy way out. Unfortunately, it is not a viable long-term solution. As Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch put it; “Desalination is a risky water supply option that actually creates more problems than it solves.” Not only is it expensive (it costs two to four times more than traditional methods such as pumping water from a lake), the process of extracting sea water can harm marine life, and desalination plants require copious amounts of fossil fuels, leading to increased CO2 emissions. In 2017 desalinated water made up less than 1% of global water supply.
Perhaps a better solution to ending the water crisis is by appropriately pricing water. At the moment, water is treated as the most basic of commodities. By taxing water, governments and people would be less inclined to waste it. This solution is not perfect, as taxing water would punish low-income households much more than higher-income ones. This could possibly be fixed by providing the minimum amount of 60L of water per day to everyone, free of charge, and above that, implement a fee.
People collect drinking water from pipes fed by an underground spring, in St. James, about 25km from the city centre in Cape Town | Rodger Bosch.
The fact that water is vital for human survival makes the prospect of it running out terrifying, but it can also act as a trigger, motivating people to be more cautious. Cape Town, South Africa, became the first major city to demonstrate what happens when a city's water supplies are threatened. The city had been consuming well over the sustainable amount of water, and in 2018, Cape Town announced plans of indefinitely shutting off its water supply. Taps would run dry, and water would be rationed. But, once talk of “day zero” (the day Cape Town would run out of water) hit the news, people started conserving it. Day Zero was pushed back one month, then three, and finally the countdown was paused indefinitely.
We are not powerless against this crisis. One of the most important things you can do is to start spreading awareness. We also need to be more conscious of how fast we consume and throw things away. Cape town proved that we have the power to turn things around, but we need to act quickly before it's too late.