Earth Week Excerpts: From “The World Water Crisis,” by Megan Elmore

April 20, 2012

Water: It’s the most vital substance in our lives, yet every day we take it for granted. The idea of turning on the tap and not receiving water is unthinkable to most of us – but we rarely stop to consider where the water comes from or where it’s going. According to Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, “… in the United States and the developed world, we’ve spent the last hundred years in a kind of aquatic paradise: our water has been abundant, safe, and cheap” (3). Our attitudes towards water have become too carefree; each person in the United States, on average, uses 100 gallons of water per day (7). Yet at least 1.1 billion people around the world – one out of every six people – lack access to clean drinking water (7). In Ethiopia, women spend up to eight hours a day fetching dozens of gallons of water from contaminated lakes. Aid groups such as WaterAid are working on providing villages with their own water pumps, but water privatization makes it difficult for the very poor to afford their own water (Rosenberg 7). Even in water-rich countries like the United States, droughts have led to water shortages in Tennessee that restrict water use to three hours per household each night (Fishman 11). The city of Albuquerque nearly ran out of water in the mid-80s when it was revealed that its aquifer was being emptied faster than rainwater could fill it (Royte 2). With water shortages becoming increasingly commonplace around the world, it’s time to stop and ask: Is the world running out of water?

The short answer is no. Brian Richter, author of Are We Running Out of Water?, writes, “Every bit of water that falls on land or in the ocean or is used for human endeavors is eventually evaporated back up into the sky as water vapor, replenishing our planet’s never-ending freshwater cycle. No water is actually ‘lost’ in that global cycle” (1). But the problem is that this water “isn’t being evenly distributed around the globe, and our needs for water aren’t the same everywhere” (Richter 1). . . .

Despite countless tales of water shortages and a deficiency of clean drinking water in third world countries, Fishman warns that the term “global water crisis” is actually a misnomer; “all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional” (301). For example, a family that sells its cars and begins biking and walking everywhere has a tiny but distinct impact on the world’s energy system. But water conservation in America won’t help solve water problems in Australia. Thus, “there is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct” (Fishman 301). However, that doesn’t relieve us of being responsible about our water usage; in fact, we must be more responsible about our water behavior because no one else will. We are the only ones that can have an impact on water scarcity in our own areas. We are the problem as well as the solution.

Water conservation must start with preventing water waste. Nineteen percent of water in the UK leaks away through faulty pipes; in Italy, 29% of water is lost. Each day in the United States, 7 billion gallons of water leaks out of water mains; “that’s more fresh water than thirty of the fifty states use each day” (Fishman 303). Stopping these leaks by replacing faulty water systems would make a big difference in the amount of water that is wasted each day. Furthermore, we must learn better farming practices – 67% of freshwater around the world goes to farming. There must be better irrigation systems in place that make better use of rainwater, and there should be incentives for farmers to use less water in food production (303). Recycled rainwater can also be used in the home; plants and lawns don’t need to be watered with pure, filtrated water that could be used for drinking or bathing instead. In Orange County, Florida, residents “use 57 million gallons of drinking water a day, and they use 51 million gallons a day of treated wastewater on their lawns and landscaping,” proving that treated water doesn’t necessarily have to replace our filtrated tap water, but it can serve other purposes (305).

Bottom line: water cannot be taken for granted any longer. But the first problem that we must overcome is water illiteracy, which should be addressed before we can tackle our most pressing water problems. For example, Sudan is actually rich in water, but it is poor in water management, and therefore little of its ground and surface water is used constructively. The water that is used is “often wasted with inefficient irrigation methods and even quite destructive rain fed farming methods, and livestock overgrazing” (Perspective: Sudan 1). By simply teaching farmers better irrigation methods, and setting up systems to catch and treat rainwater, we can solve a lot of water scarcity problems. Water organizations like WaterAid are also crucial for providing water to areas that don’t receive a lot of rainfall and are too impoverished to build their own well. To work towards global water equality, there needs to be a greater education system in place.

Put simply, water conservation starts in our own homes, right at our own taps and toilets. If even two million homes built in the last ten years had “been plumbed to use recycled water in yards and toilets … [they] would be using half the potable water of similar homes built before 2000” (Fishman 306). That would provide one million more homes with fresh drinking water. It may be difficult to change the world we currently live in, but we must begin changing the world we’re building each day. Water management is a crucial problem, but it is a problem that most definitely has a solution.

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