World Water Day arrives this Sunday, May 22. And fortunately, this is not just another symbolic observation when officials issue meaningless, commemorative certificates. It’s actually quite a bit deeper and better than that.
This day is the nexus of a worldwide push, led by the United Nations and supported by corporations like Unilever and others, to treat our Number 1 resource with a whole lot more respect than we do.
The UN has put out a boatload of info and graphics, trying to snap people awake on this issue, and below we’ll include some of the most horrifying points.
Various other things will be happening in connection with World Water Day too.
In the United States, Surfrider Foundation is asking people to take a pledge to skip a shower or take other steps, such as stopping the use of bottled water, which turns into plastic waste that pollutes waterways (ironic, no?).
In Europe, the Race for Water Foundation, a non-profit based in Switzerland, is asking people to become “water guardians” by taking stock of their water use and pledging to reduce in multiple specific ways. This week, the foundation launched an expedition of scientists to assess the damage from plastic pollution in the oceans. The crew will be sailing through the five distinct plastic gyres that blight the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. These gyres are massive pools of swirling plastic bits and pieces that churn in the ocean waves but never completely breakdown because plastic “disposables” are so darn durable.
You can follow the Race for Water Odyssey via online blogs as the scientists visit The Azores, Easter Island, Midway Island, Chagos archipelago and more with stopovers in New York City, Valparaiso, Hawaii, Capetown and Rio De Janerio. (Psst, science teachers! This might be a great project to watch from the classroom.)
Plastic ocean pollution jeopardizes marine life and beaches. But it is just one threat to our water. If you live in California, or India, or other naturally arid locales like the Texas Hill Country, you know that another major threat is climate change, which is exacerbating episodic droughts, depleting reservoirs and challenging farmers. Experts said this month that California only has a year of water supplies left in its water reservoirs, which have been severely reduced by four years of drought.
In emerging nations, there are other critical water issues nightmares, like the fact that much of the undeveloped world, about one in 10 people on the planet, lacks access to sanitized drinking water. As a result, every 15 seconds, a child dies from a preventable water borne disease, according to the United Nations.
And while some water is unsafe to drink, more is being degraded every day. Rivers in underdeveloped nations are polluted by human waste. Underground reservoirs in the US test positive for traces of pesticides.
SOME OF THE MOST ALARMING WAYS WATER GETS ABUSED
To help you get enthused about conserving, respecting and appreciating water, here are some of the most alarming (in some cases, disgusting) factoids from the United Nations campaign.
- One in 7 humans on the planet still practice “open defecation,” which is a clinical way of saying, they don’t put their solid waste in a sanitary facility or into a sanitation system, but in the open environment. This is not just something to smirk about in our developed nations; it’s terrible for water quality. It means that people are either pooping into rivers, sewage ditches or out in the open where runoff can carry bacteria from this human waste into waterways. The solutions are to modernize areas of the world with clean water and sanitation systems.
- More that 80 percent of wastewater is dumped – untreated – into rivers, lakes and oceans. Much of this same water is accessed for drinking water; the health implications are clear, or rather muddy. Put another way, 2 million tons of human waste gets dumped into water every day. Sewage treatment might not be a great conversation starter, but it would be a great solution for this problem.
SCARY FACTS ABOUT HOW WE’RE ALL AFFECTED
- As climate change extends or worsens drought conditions in many places, it will drain underground water reservoirs (in California that’s already happening). This won’t just impact agriculture – at least 50 percent of humans on the planet depend on underground reserves for drinking water.
- By 2025, two thirds of the human population could be facing water stress, according to the United Nations. What that means is that access to clean water for personal and agricultural (i.e., food) use will be limited in significant ways. This could spur social and economic conflict within and across countries, to put it mildly.
WATER CONSERVING SOLUTIONS BIG AND SMALL
- People should stop buying water in plastic disposable bottles, all the water conservation groups say this, and their advice is massively ignored. (Perhaps companies should stop making so many disposable water bottles too, like that’s going to happen with people buying them.) Not only does it take 24 gallons of water to produce the plastic for a single plastic bottle used for water, many plastic water bottles are not recycled but end up in landfills, where they can leach chemicals that hurt water supplies. Again with the irony. Alternatively, plastic water bottles also end up in the open environment, where they can migrate into rivers, lakes and oceans, hurting wildlife. Seabirds are known for consuming plastic bottle caps and other plastic debris, which starve them as their gullets fill with trash instead of food.
- Nations should reduce water consumption by moving away from water-intensive electricity production methods, like coal-fired power and onto renewable energy such as solar, wind, waves and geothermal that use much less water, and can recycle the water they do use. The city of Austin, with its use of wind and solar power, is already moving quickly in that direction. The city has taken another step recommended by Surfrider, and that’s banning disposable plastic bags. These too end up creating water issues and also costing cities money when they clog water intake pipes.
- People should eat less meat. Think of it this way, meat=water. It’s almost that simple. Americans use on average 7,500 liters (1,981 gallons) of water every day, per person, most of which can be attributed to food production to provide meals. The water is used for the irrigation of row crops to feed animals for meat and for growing directly consumed grains, fruits and vegetables, according to the United Nations. But by far, livestock production uses the most water because animals double-dip, consuming water directly and via heavily irrigated crops like corn. (Grass-fed cows and pigs are easier on the water though they’re heavier land users.) The bottomline: To produce a kilo of rice requires 3,500 liters (925 gallons) of water while 1 kilo of beef takes 15,000 liters (3,963 gallons) – more than four times as much.
- Industry should continue to develop more ways to produce products with less water, and take responsibility for the water it uses by cleansing it before returning it to the environment. The UN reports that textile companies have made progress in this way by removing dyes from water used to manufacture clothes before expelling the used water into rivers and streams. Similarly, activists groups have called upon the meat industry to find ways to dispose of animal waste without contaminating rivers and lakes.
- Developing nations should focus on improving water access as a path toward economic and educational advancement. In some water-stressed regions, women and girls spend one-quarter of their day seeking and carrying water home for their families, time that could be spend on jobs or education. In this case, the solution would be conserving human energy, while using water, but the idea would be to move to clean, accessible water, and that would likely involve better management of existing ground and surface water.