We’re Made of Wet Stuff

The world is running out of water.

Not literally – the amount of water present on Earth is actually extremely stable, at around 1.4 billion cubic kilometers, but access to clean, drinkable, freshwater is already limited in many parts of the world, and looks set to become even more so in the future.

The reasons should be obvious – there are billions more of us than there used to be and we need increasing amounts of clean water not only to drink, wash and provide sanitation, but also to irrigate our food, water our livestock and supply our factories.

And while freshwater continues to fall as rain, we are increasingly using it faster than it’s being replenished, the result being shrinking lakes, drying rivers and depleted underground aquifers, with the residual water remaining being too saline, too polluted, too expensive to clean and therefore unsuitable for domestic, agricultural, or industrial use.

Analysts have coined the phrase Peak Water - relating to the point at which the supply of clean freshwater actually begins to decline. Unfortunately most analysts are convinced peak water was passed some time ago. Not only is demand continuing to rise, but supply has begun to decrease.

The consequences are stark – inadequate access to safe drinking water for nearly 900 million people, inadequate access to sufficient water to provide sanitation for around 2.5 billion, increasing cost and energy footprint of producing clean water, reducing agricultural yields due to insufficient irrigation, erosion and desertification resulting from dryer soils, insufficient water flow in rivers to support natural ecosystems and increased risk of tension and conflict over access to water.

This global Water Crisis is considered by the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and others to represent one of the most urgent threats we face, and potentially one of the hardest to resolve.

An amazing 80% of the world’s population are considered to live in areas where there is potential threat to water security – and those of us living in the rich world shouldn’t be complacent – the UK’s Environment Agency have categorised London and the South East of England as being an area of serious water stress, many cities in the South Western US are using water at unsustainable rates, Malta has nearly depleted its available groundwater and China is facing a significant water crisis in its northern cities, as are large parts of India.

Clearly not good news, but there is a solution. . . . we will all have to use less water.

We can all do more to reduce our water footprint – from reducing toilet flushing to xeriscaping. Many organisations, including most water companies produce useful advice on how to reduce our water usage.

Unfortunately things like taking shorter showers and not leaving the tap running while brushing your teeth are only a ‘drop in the ocean’ (pun intended). It’s going to take a little more than that !

The vast majority of our water usage isn’t used by us at all, but used on our behalf by others . . . in making things for us, and often this water is used in places and countries where water is in much shorter supply than our own.

The production of 1kg of wheat takes 1,300 litres of water, a disposable nappy 810 litres, a pair of denim jeans 10,850 litres and 1kg of beef 15,500 litres.

If we want more freshwater available across the world for people to drink and for farmers to grow food, without draining every drop from the natural environment, it seems the solution, once again, will involve consuming less ‘stuff’. Or at least less stuff with a significant water footprint.

“ Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

- W H Auden


Photo by from GroverFW

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  1. Sounds like a plan Lorna.

    If you need an excuse note for the tatty clothes just let me know and I’ll write one for you :0)

    • It is very important that polpee start thinking about the amount of water it takes to produce things and I appreciate the entry. The concept of your water footprint is key to that understanding.I do think knowing how much water it takes to produce a pound of beef versus a pound of vegetable protein is important to the argument. That in itself may not change one’s behavior, but you can begin to see the difference made by skipping meat in one meal and add that over time.What’s not included in the water footprint (since its not necessarily a “use”) is the impact of beef and other animal feedlot operations (Combined Animal Feeding Operations CAFOs) to surface waters (local streams and the Chesapeake Bay) and groundwater from nutrients, sediment and pesticides. I guess that’s another discussion altogether.

  2. While reading this post I was starting to feel quite powerless and worried, and then when I realised that we can change things by thinking about consumption of ‘stuff’ and food I felt that this something that each of us can take responsibility for. Yet another reason for making good decisions, it really helps me to have even more reasons to do the right thing. I wonder how tatty my clothes can get before I can use this water argument as a reason for not buying replacements?

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