Water, Water Everywhere

(By Smriti Prakash)

Waterwater everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink

~ Samuel T. Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It might sound cliche, but what seemed to me a cute rhyme learnt in the second grade actually describes the situation our world finds itself in today. The full poem actually describes the state of sailors on a cursed, becalmed ship, surrounded by salt water and suffering from extreme thirst. The narrative is poignant enough as a metaphor, but as a foreshadowing of the literal water crisis nearly 25% of the world’s population currently faces, it is devastating. 

Our interaction with water seems like a pretty inconsequential part of our lives. Accessing it is as simple as turning on a tap, flushing a toilet, or jumping into a pool. When we learn about resources in economics, water is often thought to be an example of a public good– I have as much access to the ocean as you, and if I take some water out of it, there’s still a lot left for your use. After all, Earth is called the ‘Blue Planet’- 71% of its surface is covered by water. Drinking water, however, is a common good-if I consume water from a finite supply, you do have less of it. And if I don’t pay my water bill, my access to water can be cut off. This is because around 97% of Earth’s water is saltwater in the ocean and 2% is trapped in ice at the poles. This leaves all  7.5 billion+ of us to rely on 1% of liquid freshwater. Within that too, most drinkable water is deep underground, where extracting it is expensive, energy consuming, and ultimately a short term plan as it takes a millenia for water deposits underground to refill once drained. This is why 95% of the human population can be found within 10km of a surface freshwater source– the flourishing of familiar civilizations such as the Indus Valley civilization and the Aztec Empire owes its success to the rivers and lakes that supported society. 

Squint to find our 1%

This history throwback has a point, I swear. Because in the past, our use of water was limited- we need it for personal use ( drinking, bathing, washing etc.) and agriculture. These needs still exist- the longest record of surviving without water is 18 days in an Austrian prison, and even that is believed to be exaggerated. Our consumption of water is actually dramatically greater than those early civilizations-farming has had to grow exponentially to keep up with population growth. In fact, irrigation requirements of modern agriculture take up 70% of our water consumption. Adding to that, the development of industry has become another heavy burden on our resources. For example, according to the UNESCO IHE Institute for Water Education, creating a single pair of jeans requires about 10849 liters of water.

This alone could satisfy the daily water needs of over 220 people in Cape Town, the world’s first major city to plan on indefinitely shutting off it’s water supply due to  drought (popularized as Day 0). 

The issue however, is that while water use has been growing at twice the rate of the human population, our traditional water sources are drying up. The now familiar villain that is climate change has lead to decreased formation of snow on mountains, leading to lesser water trickling into our rivers. Relying on seasonal rain and snow is no longer a reliable plan either, as, yet again, climate change strikes- droughts have been drier and longer in the past decade compared to any previous point in human history, with rainfall becoming more difficult to predict. This is a product of increasing temperatures leading to greater evaporation of moisture from water bodies and land, with decreased water in soil affecting plant life and hence reducing rainfall. Drier land also absorbs water less when it does rain, leading to floods.To sum it up, environmentally, we’re in the midst of a downward spiral. 

If the idea of a distant future without water sounds too abstract and disregardable, then we need only look at some very present effects of water shortage to take serious note of this crisis.

Pakistan is estimated to reach Day 0 by 2025. There is already serious pressure on various communities.

Due, in part, to the civil war in Yemen which damaged water supplies around the nation, it is forecasted to be the first country to run out of water.  In 2016, this caused the country to face the world’s worst cholera outbreak, which lead to the death of almost 2500 people and affected a million more in just 2 years. Conflict between herders and farmers for freshwater sources is regarded as the root cause for the ongoing war in Darfur, Sudan. From the Kaveri river conflict between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, to the tensions between global superpowers such as India, Pakistan and China regarding the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers, we hear flashes of the already pressing concern water scarcity has brought. Ongoing debates between experts in diplomacy even consider water shortage to be the possible cause of a World War III.

Clearly, the situation is dire. This article would probably much neater if I could now transition into some quick and easy solutions. Certainly, there are attempts being made in all sectors. Scientists are trying to manufacture water by combining hydrogen and oxygen, but the explosive energy needed to make such an experiment work on an economical scale is currently deadly. Governments are debating whether to stop subsidizing commercial and industrial use of water, which allows market prices for goods to be much lower than actual investment and operating costs. For example, cattle consume a third of all the water used for meat production, especially due to their feedstock containing crops such as alfalfa that require over 500l of water/kg. A single average hamburger uses upto 1,650 litres of water. Yet you can get it at McDonalds for $3.50. This goes a long way in explaining our undervaluation of water. Perhaps if companies and farmers had to pay for every litre of water they use, they’d be incentivized to use less of it. However, this would also lead to their costs being shifted to consumers, and the prices of all our goods would skyrocket. Not only that, but increased prices of water for residential use would disproportionately affect the lower income bracket, and with their already low access to clean water, this could be counterproductive. 

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading

~Lao Tzu (stater of the obvious or, more likely, presenter of wisdom)
  • Attempting to change could mean giving up beef, or at the very least, not encouraging the industry anymore than we need to by cutting down consumption slowly, or finding alternatives. This is just one example, and cannot shoulder the blame for water shortage alone.
  • Thirsty cash crops such as wheat, cotton and sugarcane actually consume more water per dollar of economic output, and we might have to reexamine their place in our diet and textiles as well.
  • A single plastic bottle takes one liter of oil and one liter of water to produce, which adds up as yet another reason to reduce plastic consumption.
  • Supporting efforts against the crisis anywhere around the world, from Sub-Saharan Africa to India to global networks spanning continents, and learning more about these organizations would make a direct impact on those currently affected.
  • Apart from consumer signaling, finally listening to our parents by cutting down shower times and reducing food wastage ( in turning wasting water) could extend the time we’ve got till our collective eventual Day 0.

For now, the best we can do is pool our collective skills to engage in constructive conversation, consider economic solutions and innovate means to make current water draining practices more efficient and future practices more sustainable.

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