Water: Waste Not, Want Not
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”
- Jacques Cousteau
As I was recently rinsing “dirty” dishes to put into my dishwasher, it suddenly hit me: The clean water effortlessly flowing from my faucet would be considered liquid gold by many people, especially in developing countries. The average faucet flow is 2 gallons per minute. Add that to the 4-6 gallons used in the dishwasher, and the total is more clean water than the average African uses daily – compared to the 176 gallons that the average American does!
You may have heard the latest statistic that 1 in every 6 people in the world does not have clean water for drinking, cooking and washing. That means a billion people globally are suffering. Australia is in the midst of a 30-year drought, and human populations in areas of Africa and Asia are growing exponentially while their fresh water supplies are severely limited. In the U.S., where most people take clean water for granted, 36 states are predicted to have a water shortage by 2013, and the southwest in particular is struggling to have enough clean water. A quick glance at a world map shows areas that are most at risk for water scarcity.
Factors affecting fresh water supplies include population growth, massive water usage for agriculture (70% worldwide), growing use of water for industry (currently 22%), and decreases in precipitation due to global warming in areas prone to drought. Since 97% of the earth’s 9.25 million trillion gallons of water is salty, and 2% is locked up in snow and ice, we are left with only 1% to provide for all our needs. In the future, it will be essential that we efficiently use the water we have, and that we use innovations to clean and reuse water as well.
Fast facts about water usage:
- It takes 13 gallons of water just to make one gallon of gas, and, ironically, two gallons of water to make a plastic water bottle.
- Meat, dairy and coffee are some of the most water-intensive products that we consume.
- Vegetarians should feel good about this: over 300 gallons of water are used to put one serving of beef on your plate and 90 gallons of water for one serving of poultry!
- Resale shoppers can feel virtuous about buying a recycled T-shirt, as it takes 100 gallons of water to grow one pound of cotton.
Ways we have started to address these growing problems:
Many innovations are happening around the world regarding issues of scarcity, water distribution and retention methods, water conservation and water reuse. As always, there is a yin-yang effect of solutions. While providing clean water is the ultimate goal, solutions often have a negative impact somewhere else in the chain of production.
- The best place to start is with conservation. Innovations in agriculture will obviously be the place where we can achieve the biggest gains. Efforts to preserve and better manage groundwater and catchments systems and using technology to provide better application and delivery technologies will be key. Regarding residential and commercial conservation, some states and cities provide incentives for installing water-efficient appliances and plumbing devices, while also providing crucial water conservation education and resources.
- There are over 12,000 desalination plants in 120 countries thatprovide fresh water; however, they are high energy consumers of fossil fuels or nuclear energy. Increasingly renewable energy is being used in countries where access to other sources of fuel or electricity is expensive or scarce, such as in the arid regions of the Middle East. While desalination plants are less invasive and destructive than dams, they increase the salinity of oceans by pushing brine back into the sea, which in turn seriously affects marine life.
- Water reclamation plants, such as San Diego’s water purification project that treats 30 million gallons of wastewater per day, are on the rise. San Diego has to import 90% of its water supply, and therefore has had to come up with innovative strategies for water management. Reclaimed water is being used for irrigation for golf courses, in landscaping and to cool power plants after going through a series of purifying processes. This recycling process saves both water and energy, as opposed to water that is just treated and dumped back into a water stream.
- The CWSRF and DWSRF are two funds that provide low-cost loans for projects to provide clean drinking water and water quality projects. Projects include improvements in infrastructure like replacing old, leaky pipes and sewage systems and watershed management. Check out some of their successes and innovations here.
Questions to consider:
Are we willing to change our habits to start conserving water now before we reach the tipping point? Which of our water uses are necessities, and which are negotiable? Can we give up our morning java? Settle for a digital picture of the Grand Canyon rather than buying the souvenir T-shirt? Play golf on a sand-only golf course? Wash our cars once a month rather than once a week? Plant more drought-resistant plants? Eat less meat and more plant-based food? Obviously all these solutions create their own fallout in terms of farmers that rely on their coffee or cotton crops, or cattle and poultry farms for their livelihood. Ultimately, the question is whether we all are willing to better conserve the water we have in order to continue to have a stable and progressive society
What can you do to help?
Calculate your eye-opening water footprint to see how you can conserve water at home and work, or in your community. Learn about global efforts for water conservation and education with National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, or read about The Nature Conservancy’s efforts to protect rivers and lakes across the world.
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