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Why is it important to save water?

You may have heard it before. We need to save water. But why? Water is everywhere, right? There are vast oceans of billions and billions of gallons of water. Nothing to worry about.

Well, not quite. There is a global water crisis, and many people are simply unaware of it.

The vast swathes of water we see in our oceans is saltwater. Saltwater, as one could probably infer from its name, has a high concentration of salt;  3.5% of the weight of saltwater comes from dissolved salts. This makes it unsuitable for human consumption. It can lead to severe dehydration and it’s best to avoid drinking a small amount even if you’re stranded on an island.

And speaking of a small amount, this brings us to freshwater. Perhaps miniscule is a better term. Freshwater has a very low concentration of salt, making it suitable for human consumption, but it makes up only 2.5% of the world’s total water. And to top it off, not all of that freshwater is accessible. Only 1% of freshwater on Earth is easily accessible, meaning out of all the water on Earth, only 0.007 percent of the Earth’s water is available to us. Miniscule indeed.

As the population grows, that will mean less water per individual. More than 3 billion people live in areas with high levels of water shortages and scarcity, threatening food security for billions of people.

Himba people of northern Namibia
Himba people of northern Namibia

There is a growing concern that wars will soon be fought over access to water, the conflict of which isn’t new. The Water Conflict Map by the Pacific Institute outlines over 1,200 conflict throughout history because of water access; from the Lagash-Umma border dispute of 2,500 BC to Russian troops destroying a Ukranian dam in 2022. There are undoubtedly thousands more conflicts not shown on the map that have occurred on a smaller scale or just haven’t been documented. Given the importance of water, it’s understandable why it’s increasingly being referenced as ‘blue gold’. The United Nations has estimated 5 billion people could face water shortages by 2050, meaning we’re at risk of this becoming a larger international issue.

Having safe, clean access to water can dramatically impact one’s life trajectory. In some towns and villages where water is scarce, people’s only option is to get water from the closest source, which could be miles away. The water may be contaminated with harmful bacteria that causes water-borne diseases. Many children miss out on school and may never be able to complete their education. Girls, to whom household chores may fall upon depending on how patriarchal society is, sometimes don’t even have a chance to get an education because time is spent walking for hours on end to simply collect water. As the United Nations says, water is at the very core of sustainable development, and is why there is a specific goal to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all as part of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Some countries have taken extreme measures to solve their water scarcity problems. The United Arab Emirates is seeking to tow icebergs from Antarctica to its coasts as sources of freshwater. In China, a lot of water comes from underground aquifers, and as supplies get exhausted, land has started sinking in some cities because of emptying aquifers. Water is also unevenly distributed, with North China having much less water supply per person than South China. The solution? The government’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project aims to divert 44.8 billion cubic metres of water annually of water from the Yangtze River in South China to the Yellow River in the north.

Icebergs in Antarctica
Icebergs in Antarctica. A UAE project plans to tow icebergs from Antarctica to solve water shortage issues.

There is often an assumption that countries such as the UK, which is perceived as wet and rainy, wouldn’t be affected by water shortages. However in 2012 the UK experienced a drought due to low rainfall. The weather had been so dry that when it eventually started pouring down outside, many people stopped what they were doing to observe the downpour. As it happens, the drought was followed by the wettest summer in 250 years.

There are several drivers that encourage people to save water. Saving water can help you save money; water consumption generates carbon emissions via the distribution and heating of water. It’s estimated that if each household in the UK reduced their shower times by 1 minute, it could save on aggregate £215 million in energy bills per year. The carbon emissions produced from heating water in households is equivalent to driving over 1,700 miles in an average family car.

The sheer volume of water used for everyday activities is also an eye-opener, particularly when considering virtual or embedded water. Certain products require large amounts of water produce. That water consumption is ‘hidden’ when presenting the final product to a consumer. For example, 500g of cheese requires 2,500 litres of water to produce.

There have been some creative water sustainability campaigns to spread the water-saving message. The Water Wally Shower Dance, a Public Utilities Board-sponsored initiative encouraging people to “keep it to 5” in the shower, supposedly saved 88,000 litres of water per week in Singapore. Denver Water creatively amended objects in public spaces to promote their Use Only What You Need campaign.

Denver Water's 'Use Only What You Need' campaign
Denver Water’s ‘Use Only What You Need’ campaign

In the US the cost for 1,000 gallons of water is only $1.50. For those who have to walk miles to get water from a polluted source, it would be mind-boggling to hear what $1.50 can get you. But for those of us who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a developed country, water access is taken for granted. Just turn on the tap and water comes out. One only has to go on Twitter for a few minutes to see how people lose their **** when there’s a temporary interruption to their water supply.

But as water becomes more scarce, things are slowly changing. The price of water in the US, though still very cheap, is slowly rising. Water bills have increased by more than 30% in less than 10 years. The infrastructure, a lot of which was laid in the early-to-mid 1900s, is crumbling as well. The American Society of Civil Engineers rated the USA’s drinking water infrastructure a C- as part of its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card.

We’ll likely see greater commercialization of this situation as water becomes more scarce. We already see it with bottled water, which is priced is astronomically higher than tap water. Just as with air, whereby you can get charged for driving in a ‘clean air zone’, we may see more charges for clean water the more scarce it becomes. Another example is the now-closed Water Bar DC, an upscale bar where they served… water. Prices ranged from $4 mineral spring water to $25 Andes Mountain Water imported from Chile!

Water bottle
Bottled water is much more expensive than tap water

The world’s water shortage crisis really highlights why action needs to be taken on anthropogenic climate change. Climate change impacts water resources by affecting rainfall patterns, and drought and flooding frequency. The emissions of greenhouse gases in one country can affect many other countries. If certain countries are affected by low rainfall or drought, it could be a trigger for mass migration or violent conflict. The world is interdependent. Average per capita consumption of oil and production of greenhouse gases in the developed world is 32 times higher than in the developing world. This inequality of resource consumption and waste production means those in high income countries will be jeopardizing, by virtue of impacting water resources, lives in low income countries. To add to this, many developing countries that are experiencing economic growth will start demanding that their standard of living matches the consumption patterns they see in developed countries. The problem is that if both developed countries and developing countries both start consuming and wasting at very high levels, Earth doesn’t stand a chance. However, the good news is that a reduction in consumption patterns doesn’t have to mean a reduced standard of living. Cutting out excess and reducing waste means a high standard of living can be maintained without detrimentally impacting ourselves and countries thousands of miles away.

And there’s continuous research being done to help alleviate the water crisis. Some projects are experimenting with saltwater agriculture. Also seawater can be converted to freshwater through a process called desalination, which at the moment is very energy-intensive. Household infrastructure is also being revisited. Rainwater harvesting can help us collect rainwater to flush toilets and wash cars.

Ultimately, Megha Kumar’s entry for the 2013 International Year of Water Cooperation slogan contest is good advice:

Water water everywhere, only if we share.

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Ralf Blake
8 months ago

This article delivers a crucial message about water conservation! Water is a precious resource, and the insightful tips shared here remind us of our responsibility to preserve it. Let’s take action, adopt water-saving habits, and spread awareness to safeguard our planet’s future. Together, we can make a significant impact in ensuring sustainable water management for generations to come. 💧