As we approach World Water Day (March 22) I thought it would be interesting and relevant to take a look at one of the most commonly used resources of our world. Covering approximately 70% of the earth, it’s hard for anyone to think that water is something that we could ever run out of. Something that is considered a renewable resource, we always expect the water cycle to do its job of refilling what has been extracted. I recently read an article in National Geographic that provided me with something I wasn’t aware of. While for the most part water is replenished by rain, it is only true for surface water. A lot of the water people use is extracted from beneath the ground and is not always refilled, and now there are many who are finding their water sources running low.
People use water for a number of different things. Aside from the obvious drinking, cooking and washing, water is also used for producing goods such as food, paper, clothing, etc. Recently many countries have also externalized their water footprint, importing water-intensive goods from elsewhere. This has put more pressure on water-exporting regions, where governance and conservation is generally lacking. As mentioned, as we continue to use up water from rivers and lakes we begin to become dependent on subterranean water which is stored underground and in rocks. No one truly knows the amount of water in the ground, but what we do know is that it is being emptied at rapid rates as this crisis becomes a growing global issue. Eventually wells will need to be dug deeper, pumps will be even bigger and we will soon be tapping into the water supply of future generations.
National Geographic attributes much of this problem to unsustainable agriculture. Farming accounts for two-thirds of the water taken from nature. However, in some of the driest regions it accounts for about 90 percent of their water. The U.S. has seen from experience how aquifers such as the Ogallala, which was once extremely successful increasing crop yields, is now being sucked dry as the outputs of the wells have been halved. Other places are seeing similar problems; water tables are falling dramatically by the years and pumping is getting harder. The fear is that water-security will soon be as big of an issue as energy.
As the world’s water supply runs short countries will find it difficult to feed its people. Importing crops from other water-rich countries will only prove viable for so long. Soon enough the number of countries with available water will also begin to run low. Before that, however, the wells will begin to produce salty and toxic water which could affect the health of people consuming it. They may suffer from physical and mental disabilities, muscle degeneration, organ failure or cancer.
Solutions to this problem involve several plans of action not only by governments, but also by consumers and communities; everyone must play a larger role in trying to achieve better management of water resources. To begin, we must address agriculture. Research regarding water-efficient farming must continue. We need to start looking for innovative ways to grow more crops using less water for irrigation, for example drip-irrigation. Furthermore, we need to stop depleting water sources in countries that are clearly running low. Monitoring and placing limits on pumping should be implemented in order to conserve water. Besides refocusing agricultural investments, we can take some action at home in our own water-use practices. I think a lot of us take water for granted and are often wasteful with its use. Let us all be more aware of our water usage. Do you let the water run when you brush your teeth or do the dishes? If we are more practical and prudent with how we consume water at home then we may find our demand decrease. With this, we will no longer need to extract at the current scale, nor will we need to outsource water from other countries. We should consider future generations when consuming water. It is vital that we use our resources sparingly and with caution.