Water, the essential we take for granted

Published Tuesday, March 15, 2016 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

We humans are notoriously good at taking things for granted – whether power, gas or food.  But there’s perhaps nothing we undervalue more than water – plentiful here, but globally under great pressure.  

Scarce water

Of all the water on Earth, 97.5 per cent is saline; 1.72 per cent is frozen in glaciers and ice caps; 0.75 per cent is ground water; and only 0.03 per cent is surface water, the portion most humans rely upon.

Perhaps those numbers are better understood this way: if a typical trash dolly full of water represented all water on the planet, surface water would amount to six tablespoons.  Groundwater, upon which we’ve become increasingly reliant, would equate to about 10 cups.

Yet, as small a proportion as it is, that fresh water is the basis of human civilization, success and enterprise.  

Thirsty world

Globally, nearly three-quarters of the water we consume is used in agriculture.  Irrigation is one of the key reasons we’ve been successful – more or less – in feeding seven billion souls.

But a still-growing population means ever more water is needed.  Humans today use three times the water we used fifty years ago, and our appetite is increasing by a staggering 60 cubic kilometres annually – equal to twice the yearly output of the St. John River.  

To meet that need, we’ve increasingly tapped into deep groundwater.  But such aquifers don’t replenish quickly, so water levels drop each year.  The situation is severe in the western US, northwestern India and China, and critical in the Middle East, where some cities are scraping near the bottom of their water supplies.  

Worldwide, one in ten people still lack access to safe water.  Women and children spend 125 million hours collecting water each day.

Concurrently, global rainfall patterns are changing, with huge implications for security.  Just last week, a study concluded that the longstanding drought that has compounded Syria’s civil strife has been worsened by climate change. 

Different footprints

Water consumption varies greatly by geography.  All uses factored in, the average Canadian consumes more than twice as much water as the average Chinese or Indian.

Much of our consumption is embedded into the food we eat.  According to the Water Footprint Network, one kilogram of beef requires over 15,000 litres of water to produce (most of it to grow animal feed).  A kilo of bread or pasta requires about one tenth that amount.  Fruits and vegetables generally require much less water than animal products.

And a significant portion of our water consumption happens in the home – much of it through toilets, showers and clothes washers.

The bottom line

Even though water is abundant in our part of the world, it is under serious stress in many places.  So we’d be wise not to take our precious resource for granted.  Here’s how you can reduce your personal water footprint:

  • Install a low flow shower head.  Less water, same satisfying shower 
  • Install a low flow (six litre) or dual flush toilet for big water savings
  • Consider a front-loading clothes washer for 50 per cent water savings; do only full loads
  • Fix dripping faucets because they can waste 80 litres a day
  • Detect toilet tank leaks by putting a little food coloring in the tank and checking if any color seeps into the bowl; most repairs are easy do-it-yourself jobs with inexpensive parts available at hardware stores
  • A no-brainer: turn off the tap while brushing teeth
  • Avoid watering lawns or washing driveways
  • Visit www.waterfootprint.org to check out the water footprint of various foods, and strive to make wise choices.
  • Keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge so you don’t have to run the tap to get cool water

March 22 is World Water Day – so raise a glass and appreciate it for the vital, underappreciated essential it is.