Water Scarcity: Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink?

Posted on May 27, 2014

Fifty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Colorado River’s flow is now reduced by 95% due to overuse and flow-restricting dams. Photo: Peter McBride“Will there be a time when this water won’t be available?”

Fifty miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Colorado River’s flow is now reduced by 95% due to overuse and flow-restricting dams. Photo: Peter McBride, from website

 In first world countries, we have a bad habit of taking things for granted.  One of the most basic, fundamental, and absolutely essential things

we take for granted every day is water. We look around, and we’re surrounded by water. Water flowing in pretty fountains and water features, huge public swimming pools, car washes, industrial processes. Even in our own homes, we take for granted that we will turn on the tap and water will pour forth.  We don’t stop to ask ourselves, “Will there be a time when this water won’t be available?”.  We don’t question how MUCH water is actually available and usable for us as human beings, or how much will be there for future generations.  Oftentimes, the only people concerned about a lack of water are those who have to deal with that lack firsthand.  The rest of us float along in our bubble.

The average person in North America uses about 190 liters (50 gallons) of water per day in showering, bathing, flushing the toilet, doing the laundry, and drinking. This water is highly processed and treated to make it safe for human consumption (or potable). Much of the water that’s used every day is NOT used for these purposes. Look around.  Every single thing that you can see, that you’re wearing, or that you’re using, requires water in the manufacturing process, or to grow the resources used to make it, and that means less is available for everything else. For example:

  • To process one barrel of everyone’s favorite bar beverage, beer, it takes 5,680 liters (or 1,500 gallons) of water.
  • To produce a single egg, 450 liters (120 gallons) of water is required.
  • To produce a day’s food for a family of four, about 25,700 liters (6800 gallons) of water is needed.
  • If you look outside at the family car, understand that 148,000 liters (39,000 gallons) of water went into its manufacture.

Potable water is being used in massive quantities, and not necessarily for what you think. But why should this concern us? There’s more water where that came from, isn’t there?

Let’s look at some basic facts about water. Around 80% of Earth’s water is surface water. The other 20% is either in groundwater (aquifers), or is in the sky as atmospheric water vapor. Less than 1% of the Earth’s supply of water can be used as drinking water. If you consider that more than 90% of Earth’s freshwater is trapped in ice in Antarctica, you can start to see how the percentages of  water that is actually available for us to use is dropping… but our demand is rising.

Much of this demand is on groundwater supplies. Groundwater, trapped below the Earth’s surface in aquifers, serves about 80% of the world’s population. If we consider that up to 4% of groundwater is already polluted and unusable, the amount available for us to use is shrinking.

There are more than 70,000 different water contaminants that have been identified and documented. Many of these contaminants are expensive or difficult (sometimes even impossible) to remove. The amount of available, usable water is decreasing even further as these contaminants infiltrate aquifers and watersheds the world over, leaving those supplies unusable for human consumption. With massive amounts of water being withdrawn every day for agriculture and industry, aquifers are feeling the strain, and indeed, many are at or below crisis levels.

It may seem like a drop in the bucket, but we can make a difference in the way we use water. In North America, we use more water per person than anywhere else in the world. Taking a few simple steps, such as having a bath instead of showering, flushing the toilet less, or installing high-efficiency toilets and dishwashers, or even something as simple as fixing a leaky tap in your home can help to contribute to the solution. Consider using rainwater to water your garden, cutting back on watering the lawn, or using less water when you wash the car. -Support companies and businesses that have sustainable water usage and management practices.

The issue may seem overwhelming, and it might feel like the little we, as individuals, can do won’t make a difference. I choose to believe that every raging flood starts as a tiny drop, and that by creating awareness of the issues, we become vehicles for change. YOU can make a difference, with relatively little impact on your life, one drop at a time. -You can spread the message to your friends and family, at work, and online.  You CAN, indeed, make a difference.