The internet is a smorgasbord of fearmongering. Climate change, Ebola, gluten intolerance, skipping leg day… what should we really be afraid of? And to what extent? This edition of FEAR looks at how real the thirst is going to get.
As children we learn some important facts about water:
Fact 1: Water is essential to human existence.
This isn’t really up for debate. Life on Earth evolved in an aqueous environment. Since then some organisms have developed an extremely hands off relationship with water, but humans are not one of them so we have to carry water around inside us all the time and occasionally top ourselves up with Fanta. Why this is the case is not really the focus of this article, but suffice to say that water is an incredibly unique molecule and everyone should be a lot more fascinated by it.
Earth’s blueness has given humanity a sense of aqueous hubris, making us feel like our water supply and (by Fact 1) our survival is secure. Unfortunately, our interpretation of Fact 2 is highly spurious, it tells us the quantity (a hell of a lot), but not the quality of the water available.
Of the abundance of water that confronts us, 97.4% is saline, making it as good as useless for most requirements such as human consumption, agriculture (it’ll kill the crops and other animals won’t drink it either) and many industrial uses (salt accelerates the corrosion of metals).
The remaining water is freshwater but, more than two-thirds of it is trapped in ice caps, glaciers and permanent snow (for now) and another 30% is groundwater, which is not always accessible. This leaves us with a miniscule percentage of the total we started with, but still what seems like a lot of water until you realise that humanity is capable of this…
That’s right, people already use an incredible amount of water. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), in the past century freshwater use has increased at more than double the rate of population growth to about 3.8 trillion m3 per annum. The Aral Sea (above) was the fourth largest lake in the world, but began shrinking in the 1960s after the Soviet Union diverted rivers for an irrigation project. Unfortunately, a large percentage of diverted water was wasted, which is a common theme in humanity’s use of water.
If you look past the fact that they went back in time and used Windows 95 to calculate just how much of a drain I am on the Earth’s resources, you’ll notice that I use roughly 3 m3 or the weight of around 40 men in water per day. Although it isn’t an exact science the numbers seem pretty damning, especially the amount of water required to produce my food.
In fact, 70% of the water used by humans is consumed by agriculture, so any issues with water supply will likely lead to food insecurity too. The massive loss of water via evaporation due to prevalent farming techniques such as spray and open-ditch irrigation only serves to exacerbate this problem.
The UN predicts that the global population will swell from 7.3 billion in 2015 to 9.7 billion by 2050, which means there will be 2.4 billion more mouths to feed. A dietary shift from starch to meat and dairy, which occurs as people become wealthier, will further amplify the demand for water, as shown in the graph below. Indeed, the IME predicts that the food production may require 10–13 trillion m3 of water annually by 2050.
As always with food, what goes in, must come out and this is the origin of another demand on the water supply, sanitation (seamless). Despite the United Nations recognising the human right to water and sanitation, over 700 million drink water that is inadequately protected from contamination by their own faeces and a third of the world’s population does not have access to sanitation that hygienically removes their excreta.
The number of people living in urban areas without these basic facilities grew by 20% between 2000 and 2008. Given that the population increase over the next 35 years is expected to be focused on cities in less developed regions, where urban planning is less rigorous, the growth of slums will pose a major challenge to attempts to supply urban populations with clean water and adequate sanitation. Fast growing urban areas are known to struggle with implementing sufficient waste-water infrastructure. A good example is Varanasi, a city on the Ganges, where untreated sewage, industrial pollutants and large numbers of human corpses are dumped into the river daily. Implementation of action plans, such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) have received mixed reviews at the very best.
Even in developed nations, the water supply is used poorly. The UK has massive losses in its water piping systems. This wasteful attitude towards water (epitomised excellently by Tom Selleck, who stole water during a drought to grow avocados… which he hates) has led to an increased use of aquifers (essentially ancient groundwater stores) which may take thousands of years to replenish. Seriously, have we learnt nothing from the whole fossil fuel thing?! This is why we end up with mega-rich companies, who don’t believe in water as a human right, trying to sell the equivalent of my daily water footprint to L.A. for $960!
Going back to the estimate of how much water I personally consume, second to food production is industry, which accounts for roughly one-third. This data isn’t broken down into different industries, but the demand has a variety of origins from clothes manufacturing to the cooling of nuclear reactors. The energy industry is a particularly interesting example, one of the major complaints about the controversial process of fracking (excellent impartial video here) is that as well as using a vast amount water, the fracking fluid, containing various organic compounds, is pumped back into the ground potentially contaminating the water supply of nearby towns and cities.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s this thing called climate change, which will (can’t emphasise that enough) cause significant variations in rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater. Rising sea levels are also predicted to cause salinization of river deltas and groundwater, upon which populations are dependent. According to the UN, water supplies are already under stress in developing countries and while there is enough water for all, its uneven distribution means water scarcity is already a real concern affecting billions across large regions.
Even “greener” forms of energy place a large burden on water supplies. Biofuels, which are tipped for increasing use in the transport industry, still require the use of a vast amount of water for their production. If 5% of road transport is powered by biofuels by 2030, there could be a 20% increase in water demand in agriculture as well as an increase in water pollution from fertilisers and agricultural chemicals.
Hydroelectric power generation may not poison the air, but it also has its downsides. Damming rivers prevents migrations of fish to breeding grounds and the flow of sediment downstream, essentially putting food security and ecosystem services at risk. An extreme example is the Three Gorges Dam in China, undoubtedly an amazing feat of engineering, but one that displaced over a million people and has a major effect on life downstream.
Regardless of the application, our desperate need for water also makes it a potential source of conflict between nations because inanimate molecules don’t respect political boundaries. We’ve already seen how oil’s blasé attitude to invisible lines contributed to the First Gulf War (an example of how prequels can be better) and even before that water was a major issue in the run up to the Six-Day War. Given the geopolitical importance water will take on in a post-fossil fuel world perhaps we should worry a little more that 90% of the world’s population live in countries that share river and lake basins and if living in the UK makes you less concerned just remember our enthusiasm for foreign wars and the potential for Scottish independence.
In order to avoid a future where our water security is threatened, unilaterally pissing in the shower every day to avoid flushing the toilet is not going to cut it and neither is the realisation that bottled water is bullshit. What’s required, as always with these things, is innovation, implementation and sustained political cooperation. The innovation, though difficult, is something humans generally succeed at; newer more efficient irrigation methods and waterless dyeing of fabrics are just the beginning.
The tough bit will be maintaining the political will to cooperate in a world dealing with the impact of climate change and the uncertainty that it brings, when on a national scale the UN believes water resource management plans are “unsatisfactory and well behind targets”.
FEAR RATING 8/10 – We’re a long way from a victory sip on this one.