Do you think the water you can save is insignificant? And, that trying to do it will make no difference?
Perhaps you think you are a small player against the big guys out there. Mines, factories, farms or power plants consume ginormous amounts of water every day. This is true. But, one person over their lifetime makes a substantial dent and, as part of the human race, our impact is astounding. Racing towards a total of 8 billion people, the tsunami of force that the human species can generate to change the fate of this big blue ball we call home, is awe-inspiring. We can make it, we can break it and, some of it comes down to individual action. Just by the mere act of living, each person changes the planet just a little bit – whether you choose it, are aware of it, or not.
First, back to the water. To understand why we should save it, we should look at how much we have to start with. There must be so much of it here, right? Well… right, and wrong.
How much water is there?
Water is everywhere. There is water in the ground, in the sky, in your body and in plants. Then there is the water that we can clearly see. Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface and almost all of it (96.5%) is salty and in the oceans. Its made up of different salts, but mainly the stuff that we throw on our food (sodium chloride). Though we eat the salt, we cannot drink the salty water. That takes a big chunk of water out of the equation.
We only have the fresh stuff to work with, leaving us with about 3.5% of the earth’s water. Most of this water is trapped in glaciers (68%). A third of the water is underground. The last 2% is in rivers, lakes and streams. A small amount is also in the atmosphere, where it exists as water vapor. We can see it – it’s the clouds.
If you put all the freshwater together (says NASA) it would be a ball of about 1 400 kms wide.
That’s a big ball of water to work with, and this amount has remained fairly constant over time, recycled endlessly up and down the atmosphere, traveling through plants and rivers, animals and people (the water cycle).
However, the big ball of water is distributed very unevenly over the world. Much of the water is in places where there are few people – like in the Amazon basin, Canada, and Alaska. A lot of the water from rain, and that runs down rivers also come at us very quickly – too quick for us to catch, like during the monsoon periods in Asia. Much of this water is not stored for people to use. So yes, there is a lot of water, but only a small part is available to us.
Next, once we do get hold of it, let’s look at where it goes.
Where does all the water go?
Mostly, we use water to feed ourselves. Most reports state that about 70% of freshwater withdrawn for human use on the planet is for agriculture (withdrawals for irrigation). Then, about 20% is used by various industries (such as power generation) while municipalities use about 10%. This last percentage is then the water we use for drinking, washing, watering a lawn, and so forth. This is the water that you most clearly see and interact with every day.
I agree, 10% seems very little; you might even want to call it negligible but, the global figures are tricky to base opinions on.
Water is, of course, used differently in countries and cities or settlements around the world. In South Africa, for example, most of our water is also used to produce food, but after agriculture, municipalities are the second largest user. The third largest is the industrial sector.
Digging down even deeper into the details, the situation also varies across different cities. In Cape Town (South Africa) domestic use accounts for up to 70% of water consumed, for example. It’s for this reason that water restrictions enforced on residents there had such a big impact when Cape Town recently almost ran out of water. People pulled together to help save their city. In Cape Town, the water that every person saved, counted.
The amount of water that a person uses also varies greatly depending on the place that they call home. Access to running water, personal lifestyle choices and the size of properties are some of the vast list of factors that influence this. Except for the influence that you have on how much water you use, how the municipality or authority that manages the water, chooses to do so, makes an enormous difference.
Right. With so little water going to municipalities, and even then, with the powers that be having so big an influence on how the water is used, a fair question to ask is why you, as an individual, should save water.
Well, because the plot thickens. The very place that the water is from has changed, and so have the people that live there.
Every day, more people
First, the amount of people on the planet has exploded – and quickly too. The total number of people currently living on the planet was estimated at 7.7 billion in April 2019. It took over 200 000 years of human existence to reach 1 billion, but in only the last 200 we became a group of 7 billion strong. That’s a lot more people that need to share the same amount of water…
More people in the same places
Second, we are not spreading evenly across the planet. Our cities are bursting at the seams. More than half of us (55%) already choose to live in cities, and by 2050, 68% of us will choose to make our homes in urban areas. Translated into numbers, the amount of people on the move towards cities are staggering. According to the United Nations’ (UN’s) World Urbanization Prospects Report for 2018, the rapid increase in the urban population entails a growth of 751 million people in 1950, to 4.2 billion in 2018. Projections add 2.5 billion people more to the planet’s urban population by 2050. Almost 90% of this growth is taking place in Asia and
Now, remember when I mentioned that the water is not distributed equally across the planet? Very often, its not where all of us are heading to. Yet, we are heading to cities for a better quality of life. This usually means more running water and flushing toilets and the myriad of other things that a better lifestyle allows us to do. This has resulted in another conundrum:
We are using more than we have
In many places, we are getting better at life. Now we need to make more electricity to light-up more houses and streets. Plus, people need to eat, so we need to make more food. Nowadays, a lot of us can afford to eat stuff that takes more resources (like water) to produce. All of these uses compete for that same, big, ball of water. According to the United Nations, water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century.
Unfortunately my home country, South Africa, is a prime example. Already, all our user groups (agriculture, industry and domestic) are likely consuming more water than our available water resources allow for. Yet all three are set to demand for more going forward. Forecasts by the Institute for Security Studies on long-term water supply and demand in South Africa predict that the gap between supply and demand is set to grow. Though current water supplies are already almost fully allocated to different users, South Africans will still demand 17% more water than is available by 2030.
Furthermore, this gap between supply and demand will not close, even if we are able to implement all plans for more water (like desalination and tapping into groundwater), and should we be able to use less water at the same time.
South Africa is not alone. By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions as a result of use, growth, and climate change. The number of urban dwellers living with seasonable water shortages is expected to grow from close to 500 million people in 2000 to 1.9 billion in 2050.
However, there’s more. Not only are our numbers increasing, and we are using more water but, we are also taking water out of the system.
We are shrinking the ball
A fourth reason then, is that we are running out of water that is both easily available, and clean enough to use. Water pollution in many parts of the world is rampant, leading to even less suitable water available to use. Agriculture, runoff from irrigation, industrial effluent and discharges from mining and the places where people live all contribute to our water quality problems. This is aggravated by crumbling infrastructure, lack of skills to fix it, lack of maintenance and failures of local municipal service delivery. Results include partially or untreated sewage flowing directly into the water that people depend on for their livelihoods, and countries’ economic development.
This does not even speak to the damage that’s being done to the natural environment. Except for the (in places) irreplaceable loss of magnificent water-dependent systems and biodiversity, we are poisoning the very systems that we depend on for life, reducing their capacity to sustain us.
The climate is changing
Forecasts of the future climate that we live in paint a picture of worsening droughts, more severe floods and extreme temperatures. This new climate reality is already taking its toll on many places, in some, where its being acutely felt as a lack of sufficient water for people to enjoy life.
The picture is looking grim, but the purpose is to drive a point home.
You have to save water because there is less and less available for each person to use. In these circumstances, the choices of every person does make a difference. Hurtling along the current road of water consumption that we currently are, will not only result in a very uncomfortable place for our children, but it has already created a very difficult to place to live for many of us, now. Then, we are losing big parts of what makes this planet such an incredible place to live. Our natural systems are taking the punch for our increasing thirst for water.
Yet, there is hope. We can change the way we live. First, we have to change the ways we think.
Water is not an infinite resource anymore
We have to stop believing that water will always be there whenever we open the tap. Already, the water that you enjoy could be a thinly veiled cover of a system that is not coping anymore, in the background. We have to become more aware of where the water in our taps come from.
Think beyond the tap
Water is in our food, and the products that we use made by industries that use water. To save water, we also have to be aware of what we eat, and how we use electricity, for example. The water we see is really only the tip of the iceberg. To start living within the limits of the planet, we also have to look at the water we cannot see. What we choose to eat, how we travel, and what we spend our money on can all make a difference.
This includes thinking about the impact of our choices on the water system. That cigarette butt that you flicked out the window? It will probably go down the stormwater drain to make its way to the river or a sea – polluting it along the way; or, it could help block the drain to help lead to a flood. The same could perhaps be said of single-use plastic, or disposable coffee cups. Those veggies that you were too lazy to cook this week, and now have to throw away? What is the real cost of producing these, and the impact of it on the system once we’re done with it?
Very often, it’s spent water, and effort, and energy in the dustbin. By simply not being aware, we’ve let one of our planet’s most precious resources go to waste. It cannot continue like this.
New future, new thinking
To not just survive in an uncertain future, but to thrive in it, we have to do things differently. We have to change the way we think about our place on the planet.
I am not innocent. I can list many, many ways in which my lifestyle inadvertently wastes water, and many other things too. The list of things to try save are endless, but water is a good place to start.
So then. Why do we have to save water? Because we cannot afford anymore not to.
Ready? Good. Let’s go. This blog is all about tips to save water, and lessons learned along the way from those that are trying. There’s other stuff too: Photos and notes from along the rivers that we get some of our water from, and in-depth features on the intricacies of life on a planet with water. For me, the more I learn, the better I understand how to tackle life a little better. I think its better done as part of a team, with people like you. Get in touch to tell me about your journey, or to share a tip to save water (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Some starting points:
- A step-by-step guide on how to save water at home
- The ultimate two diet tips to save yourself and the planet
- Ten top tips to save water in the garden
- How to use your dirty water, safely
- Tip, tips and more tips!
- 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects produced by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA)
- Freshwater crises – National Geographic
- NASA Science Space Place
- Parched prospects II A revised long-term water supply and demand forecast for South Africa by Steve Hedden, published by the Institute for Security Studies
- Water Outlook Report 2018 (Revision 25 – updated 20 May 2018), Produced by Department of Water and Sanitation, City of Cape Town
- Where does all the water go? Analyzing water use for clever ways to save – Jacob Hatch, Hydration Anywhere
- World Water Vision – Making Water Everybody’s Business, by William J. Cosgrove and Frank R. Rijsberman for the World Water Council