Water is the most precious natural resource on Earth. Without water, there would be no life on this planet. The Earth is literally called “The Blue Planet” because of how much water it has, but that doesn’t mean freshwater sources are divided equally around the globe.
It’s no secret that certain areas of the world are underdeveloped and their populations usually don’t have access to the things that developed countries consider ‘normal’. However, when those things are water, food, or education – then they’re missing out on basic human rights. Water and food security are the difference between life and death, and can help appease conflicts over resources. That isn’t something that should be determined by where we’re born or if a factory is polluting our freshwater sources. We’ll talk a bit more about education in a later section – it too will be necessary to ensure food and water security for future generations.
It’s hard to relate to water scarcity in other parts of the world when you can just turn on the tap and have clean freshwater flowing out. It’s a bit easier to imagine when these issues happen in developed countries, though they’re rare and temporary. Looking back to all the commotion in Michigan when Flint’s water supply was contaminated – we saw the dangers of freshwater scarcity. The whole world knew in a flash. With more media coverage and scientific experts chipping in during events like these, it has become clear that good water management systems are complicated but essential.
Careless use of our water, along with the pollution of our freshwater sources – creates considerable amounts of freshwater waste that could instead alleviate thirst worldwide.
When we talk about Earth being the Blue Planet, we tend to think about the oceans and seas which cover 71% of the Earth’s surface. But that’s not the water we know. The water we know has no salt – that’s 3% of all water on Earth. The water we know also isn’t frozen or buried too deep out of reach – that’s 1.2% of all water on Earth [it’d be 0.3% for surface freshwater].
That percentage of water needs to support more than just human lives. Apart from marine species [that live in saltwater], all living things on Earth depend on a steady freshwater supply. That’s not a lot of water for a whole bunch of species.
The good news is that freshwater is supposed to be a renewable resource, thanks to the water cycle. The bad news is that the way we’re using it – freshwater definitely isn’t renewable. That’s mostly due to the fact that we’re over-exploiting many of the world’s freshwater reserves faster than they can recharge. In fact, 21 of the world’s 37 largest freshwater reserves were depleting from 2003-2013.
That’s a pretty big problem. Especially since lots of the freshwater we’ve been aggressively pumping from aquifers, rivers, and lakes for the past century has ended up polluting other freshwater sources and oceans.
Largest Freshwater Consumers
Most developed countries seem to have wonderful water management systems. We can turn the tap on with a flick of the wrist and have potable water flowing out for as long as we can afford. On average, the US population consumes over 300 liters per person per day – whereas the World Health Organization recommends 50-100 L/p/d to ensure basic needs are met. That’s 3-6 times less than what the average US consumer uses. Clearly, water isn’t valued as highly as it should be in developed countries. In the interest of preserving the renewable aspect of our freshwater sources, no one should be able to afford 300 liters per day.
Although it seems like water is an infinite resource in our homes, we know that’s not the case. Recently, developed countries have been hit by increasingly worrying freshwater shortages, particularly in dry regions [e.g. Australia, Mexico, South Africa]. In 2013, 40 of 52 US states predicted they would see water shortages in the following decade [at either the local/regional/state scale]. We know Michigan was right. Other countries are also struggling to secure water supply, creating tension in high-risk conflict zones. Worldwide, water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050 [other estimates are pretty close].
Water is a good reminder that we depend on the natural world for everything. Our household appliances, industries, and waste disposal systems all require water at some point. While those examples aren’t as necessary for our survival as food and water security, they’re certainly required for our societies to function. To keep those aspects of our everyday lives, we need freshwater.
Water is like a pizza – everybody wants a slice. Also, some people clearly like pizza more than others.
We’ll take a look at how these 3 sectors are consuming freshwater a bit later in this section – after a few important notes.
This pie chart gives us the wrong impression that everybody fits on the graph. We know that’s not the case. More than 2 billion people live in countries affected by water stress. It also gives us the impression that all the water here is used. That’s false as well, since a considerable amount of water is wasted once it reaches its destination – or even beforehand. Lastly, this chart doesn’t show that once used, freshwater can end up polluting other sources of freshwater. This is outlined by the fact that worldwide, 80% of the total industrial/municipal wastewater released into the environment is not treated beforehand.
As our global population increases, freshwater management will solidify itself as one of the greatest issues in the world. It’s imperative that all scales act responsibly with regard to our water consumption now. This will help lower waste in developed countries and spread this resource more equally to underdeveloped countries, to more and more people.
Remember that not only is the world population set to increase by almost 2 billion people by 2064, but the middle classes of developing countries are also getting larger and wealthier. Both factors will significantly increase water demand around the globe.
Desalination – The Way of the Future?
Desalination is the process of removing salt from saltwater to convert it to freshwater. If we could master desalination, it would solve all our freshwater problems – since we basically have an unlimited amount of saltwater on Earth.
Alas, this is a polluting, energy intensive, and costly solution. First, the desalination process pollutes the surrounding environment by releasing toxic/eutrophying waste. Each day, global desalination is responsible for releasing an estimated 142 million m3 of polluting ‘brine’ into the environment for just 95 million m3 of freshwater recovered.
Next, desalination’s high energy requirements have to come from somewhere. And as we’ve seen in earlier sections, that somewhere always damages our environment. So although desalination can provide us with freshwater, the process would inevitably increase the water’s costs and environmental impacts. While higher costs can help reduce waste, they can also threaten water shortages on individuals that are already struggling to pay water bills. We’ll talk about water’s value later in this section.
Currently, some high-income countries can afford to pay and pollute to desalinate their water. Of course, it’s great that their populations can benefit from the freshwater produced. However, even if desalination eventually became more widely adopted across the globe, we’d still have to reduce our water consumption – if we remain intent on reducing our impacts while avoiding rising costs for basic necessities.
Desalination just isn’t a reasonable solution to the global freshwater crisis, especially when simpler alternatives such as reducing waste and increasing sharing exist.
Agriculture – 70% of Global Freshwater Withdrawals
Agriculture accounts for roughly 70% of freshwater withdrawals worldwide. As such, slight efficiencies in irrigation processes can go a long way – but the challenge will be implementing these efficient solutions across all scales. It’s estimated that around 60% of agriculture’s water consumption is wasted through leaks, inefficient application, and of course foreign crops. Limiting such an insane amount of waste has to become a priority as we try to improve food and water security worldwide.
Foreign crops are crops that don’t originate from the region of the world they’re currently farmed in. They’re the opposite of native/local crops. While some foreign crops may strive in the new ecosystem they’re farmed in, most require human intervention. For instance, when foreign crops are placed in drier environments than they’re usually grown in, they need irrigation.
Foreign crops are not the only reason that extensive irrigation systems are in place [as opposed to receiving water only from natural sources]. Intensive agriculture, which aims to produce as much food as possible on the smallest amount of land [without relying on natural cycles], has significantly increased crop density and damaged soils. As a result, the amount of water naturally available [e.g. from precipitation, water infiltration/retention in soil] per crop has dropped. Consequently, even local foods may now require supplemental irrigation.
On top of consuming monstrous quantities of freshwater every year, agriculture also finds the time to pollute freshwater sources – thanks to its pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer runoffs [causing eutrophication and toxic pollution].
With agricultural production scheduled to increase by 48% from 2013-2050, we’ll be needing more freshwater and land if we continue with our current food systems. A tough reality considering they’re both already in limited supply and over-exploited – so we might have to transition to more sustainable freshwater/food systems soon [e.g. more localized crop production, reducing meat consumption].
Although agriculture represents 70% of freshwater consumption worldwide, this doesn’t tell us anything about its water scarcity usage, or how much water is returned to the environment after use.
Agriculture’s share of water-scarcity-weighted-use is estimated to be around 90-95%, meaning that agriculture is also a predominant water consumer in areas of low availability [makes sense – we’d rather use water to grow food than for non-essential uses].
One significant problem with agriculture, with respect to improving inefficiencies, is that it takes place all around the world in many different ways. Between the corn farmers in the US and the rice farmers in Vietnam, everything is different. So as we’ve mentioned before with food production, there isn’t a specific one-size-fits-all solution [although general solutions exist, like switching to sustainable farming]. There’s also no way we can improve specific farming processes worldwide, because we have much less data/control over local farms in underdeveloped countries for example. That’s why we must focus our efforts on large-scale farms to lower our impacts quickly, by producing a variety of local foods [just one example – see the Agriculture section for more]. Government policies and subsidies will have to help with that.
Industrial – 19% of Global Freshwater Withdrawals
A lot of industries require loads of water, and it really shows. All we’ll say here is that once again, developed and developing countries are the highest industrial water withdrawers. We’ll go into more detail on industry impacts in a later section.
Municipal – 11% of Global Freshwater Withdrawals
At just 11% of withdrawals, it’s hard to place the blame on individuals for the world’s excessive freshwater withdrawals. And even if there is an argument to be made that individuals rely on agricultural/industrial freshwater withdrawals through their purchases – it should be clear that companies and governments are the ones that need to implement large-scale solutions to achieve meaningful change. Nonetheless, water consumption per capita will have to lower in developed countries if we’re going to minimize our impacts on the environment.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much water individuals use on a daily basis, but this quick analysis should be a good start. Keep in mind for the graph below that countries have very different population sizes, so it’s not a very fair comparison. Still, developed countries remain some of the largest water withdrawers despite having relatively low population sizes and good wastewater treatment systems – indicating that water consumption per capita is extremely high in those countries [e.g. India is over 4 times as populated as the US but withdraws less municipal water].
Individual Water Consumption
It’s important to know which daily activities consume a lot of water. Not only so that individuals can reduce their personal freshwater usage if they choose to do so, but also to understand which government policies have to be implemented.
There are numerous individualized solutions that we can adopt to reduce water consumption in our everyday lives. Unsurprisingly, most of them focus on reducing waste.
In North America, toilets are the highest indoor consumers at around 24–30% of indoor water usage, on average. To be clear, we don’t suggest that anyone take their shits in the compost bin – let’s just keep this stat in mind and opt for more efficient toilets in the future. Old toilets can use over 4 times more water than newer efficient models, although even for these ones a single flush is still around 5 liters. More efficient toilets can lead to lower water consumption, fast.
The average American family wastes over 35,500 liters of water per year through household leaks. Checking for leaks regularly is extremely important to minimize the bleeding as fast as possible.
Other easy ways to avoid waste include only running the dishwasher or laundry machines when full, and turning faucets off while shaving, washing, brushing, or cleaning. As extra motivation, remember from earlier sections that wasting water also wastes energy – especially for hot water.
And that’s only for indoor water consumption. Outdoor, it can get much worse. In the US, outdoor water use can represent 30-60% of a home’s water consumption. Watering lawns is extremely wasteful, time-consuming, and repetitively futile. People who live in different climates shouldn’t be growing the same grass and expect similar results. Instead of watering our lawns every day, we can try letting nature take its course to see what’s actually supposed to grow there. Note that watering an average sized yard in the US for 2.5 hours is estimated to consume more freshwater than a 4-day long shower [or 800 average showers].
Of course, these types of individualized solutions won’t help much on their own. Large-scale solutions will be essential to reduce freshwater withdrawals swiftly.
Oceans to the Rescue
Oceans absorb around 25% of the CO2 we emit. What’s even more extraordinary is the fact that oceans have absorbed 91% of the heat gained by the planet in the past 50 years. They’re the primary reason that we’ve had so much time to see atmospheric warming coming – without feeling too much of the impacts just yet.
Unfortunately, warmer oceans can have devastating effects of their own. The temperature changes in certain areas of the marine world have transformed ocean currents and continue to do so, which can alter our climates. For example, currents are one of the main reasons Southern France and Eastern Canada have such different climates even though they share the same latitude.
Warmer oceans and atmospheres can mean different precipitation patterns as well, since water may evaporate faster and condense slower once in cloud form. In addition, warmer oceans are increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, as warm waters provide more energy – which can fuel dangerous cyclone events. The increased energy combined with rising sea levels can cause significant shoreline erosion and flooding as well. And as we’ve seen in a previous section, this can endanger unique ecosystems that are extremely valuable to locals and individuals around the world – from both ‘ecosystem preservation’ and economic perspectives.
Oceans might be the MVPs of the past century in terms of protecting the Earth from global warming, but it’s taken its toll. Increased CO2 and heat aren’t the only changes the ocean has seen during that time. Ocean acidity has increased by roughly 29% since the start of the Industrial Revolution, as CO2 absorption continues to decrease the ocean’s pH levels.
Eutrophication also increases CO2 absorption and ocean acidification. Somehow, it seems that our carelessness with regard to the disposal of our polluting wastewater was not without consequences.
Water in High-Risk Conflict Zones
As one of the deadliest shortages on Earth, freshwater scarcity is often a precursor of conflict. It’s happened many times in the past, and wars will continue to break over freshwater supply if we don’t find better solutions to spread the resource around the globe.
Freshwater is undoubtedly the most precious resource on Earth. Unfortunately, we only seem to realize that when hit by shortages, after which we go back to our wasteful ways.
While freshwater should be a renewable resource, we’re extracting it far too quickly for that to be true. However, that can change if we learn to properly value it [e.g. make it more expensive for those that waste it and less expensive for those who can’t afford it]. This would help reduce freshwater withdrawals, waste, and pollution – all the while increasing water security in low-income households and countries.
Unfortunately, coming up with a good way to value such an important resource isn’t an easy task – since we need to consider freshwater’s role in many different sectors [e.g. residential, cultural, industrial, agricultural, environmental, etc…] and in many different parts of the world. What makes it even more complex is weighing freshwater’s numerous roles against each other to establish priorities, without completely omitting any of the roles.
Nonetheless, we simply don’t have a choice but to introduce a good valuation method in our water management systems, since it has the potential to redefine how individuals and larger scales interact with water, for the better. Or as the UN put it so concisely: “Those who control how water is valued control how it is used.”