There is an old saying that every society is just four square meals away from a revolution; I wonder whether it could also be said that our planet is only one cup of clean drinking water from catastrophe.
We have seen the problems that can arise from a lack of drinking water in other parts of the world; Cape Town in South Africa, a city of 4 million people, avoided running out of water for its residents this past year only by instituting the most draconian possible water restrictions and stringently enforcing them. Closer to home the city of Flint, Michigan was able to provide water—but it was tainted with toxic levels of lead. Many other towns and regions across the United States have dealt with water emergencies caused by contamination from agricultural run-off, industrial pollution, and fracking used for oil extraction. These are problem that appear briefly in the news and are often quickly forgotten, but those residents and their children are left to deal with lifetimes of fear and health problems thereafter.
Although we all prefer to believe a lack of access to safe water is a problem that occurs somewhere far away from us, it has been estimated that 20% of Americans have been exposed to contaminated drinking water at one time or another during the past decade alone. Given that no human can long survive without clean water to drink, these problems should cause more concern than they seem to right now.
It is rather pointless to debate whether the spate of droughts affecting many parts of our nation are due to cyclical climate processes or global warming—whatever the reason, the changes are upon us. As we continue to draw down our supplies of surface water and drain our precious aquifers to sate our vast array of needs for more and more water, we need to consider whether we must better utilize this life-giving liquid before it is too late. We waste immense amounts of water, and much of our waste is either thoughtless or invisible. We pamper our lush lawns, ignore our leaky municipal water systems, and pay no attention at all whenever we run a load of laundry or flush a toilet.
Moreover, few pay any attention to the unending flow of water that makes our daily lives possible, and most would be surprised at the amounts of water used for activities that we take for granted. For example, three liters of water are needed to produce a plastic bottle that holds only one liter of liquid. We expend between 3-7 gallons of water to produce a single gallon of biofuel. A coal-fired power plants uses 20 to 50 gallons of water to generate each kilowatt-hour of electricity. A family of four will use (depending on their shower head) from 400-700 gallons of water per month just to keep their bodies clean. Over 1800 gallons of water are needed to produce a single pound of beef. To grow but one pound of almonds, over 1900 gallons of water are required.
Agriculture is, by a wide margin, the majority of our water use—and, thank goodness, the rain occasionally does fall. However, modern agricultural practices often rely on extensive irrigation systems that draw enormous amounts of surface and ground water to grow the foods that sustain us. Industrial uses of water to produce that which makes modern life possible—electrical power, plastics, metals, electronics, fabrics, rubber, finished wood, paper, and so much more—are too numerous to even consider listing. Even the mildest and briefest interruptions in our ready supply of water would cause unimaginable disruptions in every facet of our daily lives.
If water disappears altogether, we already know what happens from looking at the historical record: Civilization collapses. We need only to glance back through the millennia to find many examples—the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt, the Mayan Empire in Mexico, and the Ming Dynasty in China being but a few—of highly developed nations and cultures erased from the earth by protracted droughts that ended their existences. Within our recent history the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s destroyed a generation of American farmers. Today’s horrendous civil war in Syria and the resulting refugee crisis in Europe can trace their beginnings to a devastating period of regional drought that began in 1998, which caused large scale crop failures, economic distress, and widespread hunger. The misery that results when the rains do not fall is a tale as old as humanity itself.
Drought and despair will, sad to say, always be with us—but we are now able to reduce their effects due to our globalized systems of production and transportation that allow for the shipment of foods and goods from areas that are unaffected to help those who are stricken. Moreover, although we cannot create water, we can renew what we have through the desalination of seawater and the treatment of waste in order to extend our supplies while we continue to look for more ways to conserve.
However, we can be certain that the continued growth of our planet’s population—and the relentless demands for safe supplies of water that will inevitably follow—will lead to societal, economic, and political stresses and crises that we cannot easily foresee. Those steps we take now to plan for the global challenges that most assuredly lie ahead will be the difference between problems that are manageable and those that bring death and destruction. We risk much if we fail to prepare today for our troubled tomorrows, and we all need to think more carefully about what we can do to reduce the use and waste of water in our own daily lives in order to make our personal contributions to helping others—and protecting our own futures.