“Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink,” so goes a verse in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This is especially apt in light of the recent water restrictions in California due to the severest drought in the history of the state. The issue has reignited discussions among academics, environmental officials and politicians about whether California’s condition will be worldwide and universal in a matter of years. In other words, the debate, much like global warming, centers on the question of whether or not the world is running out of the water – and if it is, is there anything we can do about it?
BBC estimates that in about 15 years, about half the world’s population could be living in areas that don’t have enough water. This statistic is especially concerning once we recognize the fact that over two million people die per year due to the lack of safe drinking water. Numerous charities have been set up to deal with the shortage, but for now, the problem is real and growing. Although the Earth contains roughly over a trillion billion litres of water, most of that is salt water contained in the oceans and seas – basically, it’s useless for human consumption. Since 97% of the water on Earth is seawater, we look to the other 3%, which is fresh water, or water humans can use. However, 67% of fresh water is trapped in glaciers and in ice, and therefore inaccessible. The remaining 33% of fresh water is mostly trapped under soil and sediments, leaving the current world’s population with even less water available to them.
How did the Earth get to this precarious state? Part of it is our rapid population growth, thanks to modern medicine and stable governments. Another part is the sheer amount of water we need to live day to day in a developed country. In the UK alone, the BBC estimates 3,400 liters of used water per person, per day. There are the obvious uses such as shower, laundry, food preparation and water consumption. But there’s also hidden usages that add up – water required to grow food for one person to eat, or water needed to create products one person uses. If we spread this out over the world’s population, the Earth would need 4 trillion liters of fresh water to sustain this standard of living for each of its inhabitants – something that it just doesn’t have the capacity for.
So the question isn’t if we’re going to run out of water, but rather when we’re going to run out of water. The consequences will be devastating. Without water, there will famine spread all over the globe. Desperation may make a population more likely to drink from dirty water sources, which could lead to infection and disease – placing a burden on the healthcare system. What’s especially frightening is the fact that countries would need to figure out a way to allocate the world’s water supplies among themselves. As history shows, not every country likes to share, so water shortage could lead to a huge conflict.
Environmental scientists have been working on finding ways to make dirty water clean in efficient, safe ways. One of the most popular technologies they’re developing is called desalination – turning seawater into fresh water. Due to the energy required to reverse osmosis (moving water against its concentration gradient), desalination doesn’t seem like the most energy effective method. However, it’s brought up a parallel global warming solution/stop-gap that can be used in place of cheap energy. Instead of using prohibitively expensive and scarce non-renewable sources, what if the high-energy requirement of desalination was met by using renewable energy sources such as solar energy?
Another issue with desalination is the fact that its waste products, such as salt, need to be dealt with properly. Scientists are looking to simultaneously find cost-efficient ways to remove waste products responsibly with methods such as nanotechnology. Since there are so many components to desalination, which need to be developed, it may be a few years until we can see the results of the research outside the laboratory.
Rather than dwelling on the unsavory aspects of ‘what could happen,’ or waiting for desalination to save us from the pit we’ve dug ourselves into, there are some things we can do on an individual basis. In order to conserve the Earth’s water in the long run, we should be making an effort to conserve water in our everyday lives. Here are 12 easy tips that we can follow:
1. While in the shower, turn off the water while washing your hair. You can save up to 568 liters a month by doing this.
2. Contact your utilities company to ask if you can get rebates or decreased rates for using water-efficient fixtures or equipment. Saving the Earth can also save you some money.
3. Forgo plastic water bottles and invest in a re-usable one instead. This also helps reduce your carbon footprint.
4. Collect water from your roof using drainpipes and gutters. Direct the run-off to shrubs or trees in your yard.
5. Water your plants less frequently but more deeply. This will help encourage deep root growth and increase drought tolerance.
6. Cook food in as little water as possible. This also helps to retain nutrients in your food.
7. Learn to use your water meter to check for leaks.
8. Some refrigerators and ice makers are cooled with water. If you have one of these, upgrade to air-cooled appliances for more savings on your water bill.
9. Use a broom to clean patios, sidewalks and driveways instead of a hose.
10. If your dishwasher is new, cut back on rinsing. New models clean more thoroughly than the older ones.
11. Avoid recreational products that require a steady flow of water to use.
12. Shorten your shower by a minute or two. This, just like tip 1, can save up to 568 liters of water per month!
Published in the Fall 2015 issue of FLURT.