Water Around the World
Water is one of the necessary components for life. Water covers most of the Earth’s surface, and makes up most of the human body. People tend to congregate where there’s water, 70% of the world population lives near a body of water. But our water is in danger. Climate change, pollution, and overconsumption are stretching our resources thin. We need to act now, before it’s too late. Keep reading to learn about the world water crisis, and what we can do to stop it.
Where’s our Water Going?
The world population is skyrocketing towards 8 billion people, putting a strain on the world’s resources. Water is no exception. Rivers and lakes are drying up, and groundwater is being drawn out of the ground faster than it can be replenished. So, where exactly is our water going?
Agriculture is the largest consumer of water worldwide, with a whopping 70% of our water use dedicated to growing crops, and as the population grows, demand for food will force commercial farming operations to expand, consuming even more water. Unsurprisingly, much of this water is wasted, only 65% of the water used in irrigation is actually taken up by crops. Water which isn’t absorbed becomes runoff, carrying with it chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which end up in nearby waterways, killing off aquatic wildlife and polluting the local drinking water supply. Though irrigation is taking a serious toll on the environment, most farmers don’t have a choice, without it they won’t achieve the yields they need to make a living. Studies show a significant gap in yields between irrigated and rainfed agriculture, with corn showing a 270% higher yield when irrigated. In Africa, where most farms are left to the mercy of the seasonal rains, irrigating farmlands can boost agriculture yields by up to 50%, a blessing for one of the most poverty stricken regions of the world.
Heavy industry is the next major consumer of freshwater, especially in developed countries like the US, which is the largest consumer of industrial water in the world, even beating out massive countries like China. Industries like paper and chemical manufacturers are notorious for their huge water consumption, which also comes with a heavy dose of pollution. Power plants are major consumers of water, with coal plants being a major offender. Like other industries, coal plants use water to cool down the machinery and wash the product, but they also need water for steam to generate electricity. Then there’s coal mining, which uses a minimum 70 million gallons of water daily in the US, much of which ends up as heavily contaminated runoff.
Agricultural and industrial water use bring with them massive amounts of pollution. Nitrates from excess fertilizers cause toxic algal blooms, leading to massive die-offs of aquatic wildlife. When these algae blooms happen in the ocean, they cause phenomena like the infamous red-tide, poisoning the area’s seafood and causing fatal illnesses among local beachgoers. Large factories also discharge harmful chemicals like lead, mercury, and asbestos into waterways, poisoning the drinking water supply. In the past few years, coal plants have gotten an even bigger greenlight to pollute America’s waterways, as regulations which govern the adoption of new wastewater treatment technologies have been relaxed. Power plants and factories also discharge water used for cooling down their machinery, causing heat pollution, as warm, or even hot water, is discharged into cooler bodies of water, changing the dynamics of the aquatic ecosystem.
Climate change is making our water problems worse. Rain patterns are changing, making some regions drier and others wetter. A portion of our water supply comes from the ground, and in places like the Middle East and American West, where water is already scarce, the decrease in precipitation means that those underground aquifers are unable to recharge. In the US, California has been dealing with a water crisis for over a century, as competition for water plays out between the urban megalopolis of Los Angeles and the agricultural industries in the Central Valley. The great irony of climate change is that it will cause greater inequalities in where our water goes. We will see droughts in some regions, then floods in another. The Australian wildfires in 2019 are a good example of this, where the same weather system that caused heavy rains and flooding in southern Africa, also caused droughts and dry weather in Australia, leading to the massive wildfires. As temperatures rise, extreme weather events and disasters will become more commonplace.
Climate change is also costing us our biggest source of untapped freshwater; snow and ice. Though there aren’t any plans to harness the poles for fresh drinking water, the world’s ice sheets will be making an unsolicited appearance on our coastlines. As glaciers and icecaps rapidly melt into the ocean, the rising sea levels are threatening to flood cities like New York, Miami, and New Orleans. If the Antarctic Ice Sheet were to completely melt, the world ocean would rise by 200 feet, permanently changing the silhouette of our landmasses. The addition of cold, icy water into warmer oceans will also change global weather patterns. Higher temperatures are also leading to decreases in snowfall, which is essential for replenishing rivers and lakes in high altitude regions of the world.
Clean Water Access
About 1.1 billion people around the world lack access to clean drinking water. This figure is closely tied to larger humanitarian crises caused by poverty, war, disaster, and authoritarian regimes, and although we usually imagine the lack of clean drinking water to affect only poorer countries, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan reminds us that even developed nations like the US have trouble supplying clean drinking water. Lack of clean water access doesn’t mean that there isn’t freshwater available, as oftentimes there’s plenty of water, but it’s unsafe to drink. Central Africa is abound with flowing water, with large rivers, lakes, and lots of rain, but it’s location in the tropics and a lack of proper sanitation and treatment services means that water sources are contaminated with chemicals, sewage, diseases, and parasites.
The water crisis has no easy fix, but we can’t slow our water consumption without slowing down consumption overall. Water is required in just about every major process that keeps the system afloat. In other words, the only solution is to build a sustainable system that supports equally sustainable lifestyles.
Changing the way we grow food is step number one. The global food system will become more stressed as the population grows, requiring more water. The way we irrigate our crops needs to change. Micro irrigation and drip irrigation are more efficient options, giving crops exactly the amount of water they need by percolating water directly to root systems, maximizing absorption and minimizing evaporation and runoff, instead of blindly watering the fields and wasting precious gallons of water in the process. Sustainable farm practices like crop rotation and no-till farming help preserve the soil and allow it to hold more water, so farmers can water the crops with less frequency. No-till farming is an alternative to the common practice of tillage, where the first few inches of soil are overturned to kill weeds and loosen the earth, causing soil erosion. No-till farming aims to preserve the soil by planting seeds in untilled land, resulting in better water retention and soil structure. Small scale farming operations like urban farms and vegetable gardens allow farmers to better control water consumption, and are more sustainable in general.
Historically, farmers have relied on nearby rivers and lakes to irrigate their farms, but in the past 50 years, the explosive growth in irrigated fields has rivers and lakes running dry. Collecting rainwater is a great alternative to using ground or surface water. Though this might not be feasible in drier regions of the world, in places with higher precipitation, harvesting rainwater can provide much needed relief to surface and groundwater supplies. Rainwater can be collected for domestic use as well, as long as it’s filtered properly. Rainwater harvesting systems can be DIY, or built by professionals, and is often done by capturing the rain that falls on your roof, then filtering and storing it, though many farmers use man-made ponds and reservoirs to capture rain as well.
We need to conserve water, but we’ve also got to keep it clean. Using natural fertilizers like compost and green manure instead of synthetic fertilizers can keep nitrates out of the water supply, making toxic algae blooms a thing of the past. Eden Ingredients, a Greenfunder partner, helps keep runoff water clean by finding uses for waste leftover from fruit juice processing, which would otherwise pollute nearby water supplies. Chemical pesticides also find their way into the water supply, and must be replaced with organic substitutes, like natural oils and spices. Integrated Pest Management, or IPM for short, is a form of natural pest control that relies on ecology, instead of pesticides. Pests are identified and studied, then a plan of action is created. Techniques include releasing natural pest predators onto the farmland, which help drive down pest populations. Another technique, called the “push/pull method”, involves planting decoy and repellant plants to distract pests from the main crop.
Heavy industry needs to be curbed as well. Moving to renewable energy will keep coal and oil refineries from polluting our waterways. Solar PV and wind power use significantly less water compared to coal plants to produce the same amount of energy, requiring less than 15% of the water used by a coal plant per MWh, as aside from the occasional cleaning, they don’t need water to generate electricity. Finding sustainable manufacturing techniques is another key to keeping water clean. Recycling is crucial, especially considering the pollution and water consumption associated with paper and plastic manufacturers. Paper mills that use recycled paper can reduce water consumption by 47%, and paper mills that recycle water also see comparable reductions in water consumption, with this paper mill in Australia reducing water use by 46% over 15 years.
Resources need to be allocated towards equalizing the global inequalities that lead to poverty. Poorer nations tend to be big polluters out of necessity, and poverty is the major barrier to clean water access. Developing regions desperately need proper sanitation and sewer treatment systems to help stop diseases from spreading and keep drinking water clean. In India, where an estimated 70% of surface water is unfit for human consumption, 400,000 die yearly from causes stemming from contaminated drinking water. Investment in education and sustainable infrastructure is also a necessity, helping to provide jobs that pay well, as the limited options available in developing regions tend to be environmentally destructive. UNESCO calls for education on sustainable water use to school children and the community at large, and the employment and training of water scientists, engineers, and technicians, to help drive economic growth and sustainability in developing countries.