I’ve always had this question in the back of my mind - HOW can we be running out of water? Our planet is mostly water - surely this means it is basically an infinite resource? Yet I’ve been seeing headlines everywhere about the fact that England may run out of water in as little as 25 years time. So let’s have a look at how this happens.
While it is true that our planet is 71% water, we can only actually use a small amount of this. Over 97% of the water on earth is salt water, making it unsafe to drink and very often unusable in production. Of the freshwater remaining, approximately two thirds is locked away in ice caps and glaciers. The rest is mostly found in soil or underground aquifers. This means there is really only a tiny fraction available to us. In fact, the water expected to sustain all humans on this planet comes from less than 1% of the planets total water supply. The average person in the UK uses approximately 3,400 litres of water every day. One dark chocolate bar comes to approximately 25 litres of water, one pound of plastic takes approximately 100 litres, a cup of coffee can use approximately 132 litres, and a single cotton t-shirt can amount to as high as 3,000 litres. With numbers like these, it’s easy to see how consumption can add up quickly. Yet, even with our limited access and high levels of consumption it is still hard to understand exactly how we are running out of this resource
So what are the issues?
While it is true that the natural cycles of the earth allow freshwater to constantly be made available on the earth's surface, a NASA led study reported that freshwater sources are now being drained faster than they can replenish. Our population is growing at an unsustainable rate and this places an immense strain on our water supply.
Rising temperatures place a further strain on this water supply by increasing evaporation rates from the land and sea into the atmosphere. As the air gets warmer, it can hold more water vapor which, combined with this increased evaporation, can go two ways. One possible problem is that water from the soil will evaporate for longer before rain comes, increasing the risk of drought. The second possible problem is that when the rain comes, it is more likely to be an intense rainstorm. These rainstorms increase the risk of flooding, meaning our freshwater runs off into rivers and streams and does not efficiently dampen our soil, again increasing the risk of drought.
A number of contaminants are now found in our freshwater, ranging from birth control pills and sunscreen, to pesticides and petroleum. Our freshwater is also often the end point for biological waste, such as human sewage and animal excrement. In fact, every day, the UN estimates that the amount of wastewater produced annually is about six times more water than exists in all the rivers of the world. While many of us have good systems for treating and purifying water, this is not the case everywhere. As a result of this, roughly 1.8 million people are thought to drink from a water supply containing human and animal fecal matter.
What happens if we don’t do anything about this crisis?
So what does our future look like if we don’t do something about this water crisis?
The effects can already be seen around the world. Mexico City, which was built on lake beds, has now sunk approximately 9m. And it’s not the only case of this. Santa Clara, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Venice, London, Shanghai, and Bangkok are all sinking as a result of groundwater extraction. This can eventually cause entire cities to sink and damage buildings and structures, as well as increasing the risk of flooding in coastal areas.
Drought and famine
California has recently suffered its worst drought in 1,200 years. Droughts have also been occuring in Cape Town, Brazil, China, Australia, and across Europe. These droughts can lead to agricultural collapse and therefore reduced food resources. In the UK, 40% of our food is imported. Much of this comes from areas of high water stress, meaning that even if we think we will remain untouched, the water crisis will impact us. This food being harder to grow or having lower yield can lead to increased food prices or famine.
If we don’t have clean water to sustain ourselves, we become far more susceptible to a range of diseases such as typhoid. Millions of people die each year from preventable diseases caused by unsafe drinking water.
Some even hypothesise that the water crisis around the world could lead to civil wars. In order to look at this idea in a bit more depth, we can start by using the recent Syrian civil war as a study. Of course, this war developed as a result of a multitude of economic and political factors, namely, a regime change. However, climate change has also been cited as a driving force in this civil war. In the years leading up to this war Syria experienced extreme drought, lasting from 2006 to 2010. This led to agricultural failures, population displacement, and a huge hit to the economy. Combined with political pressures, analysts have pointed to this drought as a key factor behind social unrest and violence. Now, this theory is certainly not proven without a doubt, in fact it is highly contested and I would urge anyone reading this to learn more about both the political and climate factors that may have contributed to this civil war. But the idea that extreme drought could lead to economic collapse for civilisations dependent on agriculture or other water reliant practices is not a far out theory. And economic collapse leading to social unrest is definitely not a new idea. Not to mention, when water becomes scarce countries will need to compete for this essential and now limited resource. Therefore, is it such a far stretch to see our water crisis exacerbating, if not directly causing, war?
There are things we can do to push for increased regulations surrounding industrial water use and to tackle our own personal overconsumption. So here’s a brief overview of what we can do now that we have the necessary knowledge to start addressing the situation.
A lot of pressure these days is put on individual action. But the reality is, when it comes to our water crisis individual action isn’t going to be enough. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some things we can do as individuals to vastly reduce our water footprint and to lower our demand including: reducing our meat and dairy intake, eating locally, purchasing fewer disposable or low quality products, reducing our individual water use, and - of course - working on tackling the main causes of climate change in order to slow our global warming. And of course if you advocate for these actions and help to push widespread change then as a whole community, we can make big strides towards tackling this water crisis. A 2014 study even found that the most effective method of water conservation during the California drought were water restrictions - but these were much more effective when made mandatory by the government than when left up to voluntary action. So, the biggest difference here is going to come from using our voice and understanding that we can impact our government and businesses to make widespread change.
Our biggest strength in tackling any climate issue, including our current water crisis, comes from educating ourselves and others in order to empower us to use our voice and stand up for what we believe in. Information about the water crisis is not easy to come by and certainly not highly publicised.