It’s no coincidence that the World’s major cities developed in close proximity to water, many of them coastal and by river mouths. Urban association with water goes right back to the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization. Hunter gatherers like the Khoi San of the Kalahari can get by carrying their water around, and burying it in strategic locations in ostrich eggs, but proximity to substantial supplies of surface water were essential for the human agricultural revolution and settlement to take place. Water is a renewable resource, but as Clive Ponting points out in his A New Green History of The World, the main challenge (a make or break issue) that faces every human settlement is how to keep waste separate from clean water. That is as true now as it was for our late stone-age settler forefathers.
Agricultural use still makes up the bulk (70%) of human water use according to the United Nations Development Programme statistics (Source), with industrial use coming second (21%,) and domestic use being very much less at just 8%.
Human uses of water have never been so diverse as they are today, nor so geographically widespread, nor so heavy. Water is important for drinking and food provision, sanitation, industrial processes (primary through tertiary), transportation, recreation, power generation, defense and religious ritual, but how much fresh water is available for human use?
Of the mere 3% of the world’s water that is “fresh”, just 10% of that is considered readily accessible, furthermore fresh water is not evenly distributed around the world. While many of us can access clean water by turning on a tap, there are about 900,000,000 people who have no access to safe drinking water and more than 2.7 billion people who lack adequate sanitation. Water use is projected to increase by by 50% in developing nations and and by 18% in developed ones by 2025 according to UNDP figures.
UNDP states that their 2015 Millennium Development Goal for water is “on target to be achieved globally, but with significant regional and national gaps, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The impacts of low access to water and sanitation represent a substantial drag on socioeconomic development in many countries.”
WHO have calculated that 3900 children die every day from water borne diseases (Source). In addition there are a host of preventable, totally revolting, non-lethal but chronically debilitating water-borne diseases and parasitic infections that significantly reduce people’s quality of life. A major drag indeed.
As a species, it was our very success in agriculture and industry that led to our burgeoning global population, expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by the year 2050. There are enough water resources for 9 billion, but they need to be responsibly managed, unlike in the infamous case of over-extraction, primarily for cotton irrigation, that has ruined the Aral Sea (View map of deterioration over time).
“There is a water crisis today. But the crisis is not about having too little water to satisfy our needs. It is a crisis of managing water so badly that billions of people – and the environment – suffer badly.” World Water Vision Report
In the case of The Aral Sea, attempts are being made to restore the northern part with a World Bank funded dam, but unless similar efforts are made for the southern portion then the sea is unlikely to return to its original shore line. International cooperation would be essential.
Improved water and ocean governance is a major focus area for human development. On their website, the World Water Council have a map of the world that is colour-coded to show levels of water stress, the imbalance between water use and available water resources show many parts of the world in maroon, the colour that represents severe water stress.
The Council state that regional and local tension can arise from contended use of scarce water resources and that there are over 260 river basins that are shared by two or more countries. Development undertaken without strong institutions and agreements can lead to trans-boundary tensions and could escalate into conflict.
Water security is going to be an increasingly important as will the application of ingenuity and intelligent capital investment in water services.
Improved management of The Yellow Sea is good example of how multilateral cooperation can be achieved. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) are assisting the governments of China and the Republic of Korea to “set up a program of transboundary measures to protect fisheries and endangered species, improve water quality and sustain local livelihoods” in what is one of the world’s most densely populated marine drainage basins. China and Korea share this shallow Sea named for the fine yellow sand blown off the Gobi desert. For many years it has suffered from agricultural waste run-off, overfishing, and unsustainable marine farming. The initial UNDP/GEF support of $14.3 million has leveraged more than $10 billion in investments and other actions for the area (S0urce).
In case you think that intelligent management of water is a modern phenomenon or was confined to areas in the Roman Empire you might be interested to view the short documentary film Angkor Thom, produced by Andy Luck for BBC Worldwide. This Cambodian city state supported a population of over a million people at its peak, primarily through clever use of irrigation, man-made ponds and aquaculture. Admittedly they had plenty of water to work with, but it was the management of the water that helped them thrive, there are also historical examples of intelligent use in Mexico with the Chinampa systems and in places known for their aridity, like Iran.
In the middle east, the 3000 year-old Persian underground water transport system of Quanats is a testimony to bronze-age hydrological engineering (Source). The author H. E. Wulff wrote in Scientific American, April 1968
“The 22,000 quanats in Iran, with their 170,000 miles of underground conduits all built by manual labor, deliver a total of 19,500 cubic feet of water per second – an amount equivalent to 75 percent of discharge of the Euphrates River into the Mesopotamian plain. This volume of water production would be sufficient to irrigate three million acres of arid land for cultivation if it were used entirely for agriculture. It has made a garden of what would otherwise have (been) an uninhabitable desert. There are indications that in early times the country had a flourishing vegetation that gradually dried up, partly because of deforestation and the loss of fertile soil by erosion. The Persian people responded to potential disaster with an (appropriate?) and farsighted solution that is a classic tribute to human resourcefulness.“
Water saving solutions
If we’re using more water than ever before, its fair to say that the volume of waste has never been higher either, this can be addressed. What can we do? Householders can install water butts for gardening use and use grey water for watering non-food producing vegetation. In hot and dry weather, water used outdoors can amount to 50 per cent of total UK domestic usage according to a UK government website (Source).
Businesses and institutions should seriously consider conducting a water audit if they haven’t done so already. Many of the facilities in use were installed when water cost wasn’t considered important, but with squeezed margins and higher bills, a professional audit with installation of water-saving measures can pay for itself very quickly in savings. I recently made a webpage for Logic, a firm that conducts water auditing in Cumbria and south west Scotland and learned that as well as revealing expensive underground leakage and possible over-charging, an audit will show where investment in relatively inexpensive equipment can save a lot of water, energy and money. Where you save hot water, you also reduce the carbon footprint. Savings can be achieved without loss of amenity value – an aerating shower head or waterless urinal can be as pleasant to use as the wasteful alternative!
You might be interested to know that the average UK household’s (2.65 residents) water use at the moment is thought to be about 150 litres per person per day, about 30% of this is thought to come from flushing the toilet and UK toilets needlessly flush away about 1.2 billion litres of water a day! Some say “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” That is for households to work out for themselves, but many water saving models of cistern are available now, so it’s not necessary to slum it to save water. Adding one or two bottles full of water will displace water volumes in older cisterns and expend less per flush.
A single dripping tap could potentially waste over 1000 litres of water a year. If all adults in England and Wales remembered to turn off the tap while brushing their teeth, we could save 180 million litres of water per day – that would be enough to supply almost 500,000 homes and would fill up 180 Olympic sized swimming pools! For this, and other fun facts about water please see Waterwise website’s Fun Facts page.
For some Water saving tips see the OFWAT website Did you know we had a Minister for Water? We do, click here for Minister Richard Benyon’s speech at a Waterwise conference.
Sensible use of water is an important element of sustainable development and crucial for our species’ long-term survival.
Forest conservation is very important for protecting watersheds. An elderly gentleman on Negros Island, in the Rep. of The Philippines lamented the modern practice of clear cutting when he reminisced to me about his survival on the Bataan Peninsula during WWII. He and his fellow bush fighters sometimes relied upon collecting water that trickled down tree roots.
For some lovely images of water, check out Andy Luck’s image Gallery dedicated to the subject on Wildopeneye.com.