Water of Life in Peril
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Vol. 8 No. 10 P. 54
The problems aren’t going to dry up on their own. Solving the world’s H2O crisis of safety and supply is going to take a global effort focusing on conservation and sanitation.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink”
— From “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It’s a thirsty planet. For its 6.6 billion inhabitants—a number that continues to swell—the faucet is beginning to run dry. As the world’s population tripled in the 20th century, the demand for water resources multiplied sixfold. And as our population continues to grow, becoming more urbanized and industrialized, so does its greed for water.
But the supply is dwindling due to pollution and contamination. Billions of people lack basic water services, and millions die each year from water-related diseases. In 1999, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported that 200 scientists in 50 countries had identified water shortage as one of the two most troublesome problems for the new millennium, the other being global warming.
Even though water covers roughly two thirds of the Earth’s surface, most of it is not suitable for human use. Only 0.08% of the world’s total water supply is available for consumption because a mere 2.5% of it is not salty, and two thirds of that amount is tucked away in icecaps and glaciers. Of the remaining supply, much is in remote areas and comes in monsoons and floods, which is difficult to capture. To make matters worse, pollution is making more of the Earth’s available water unfit for use. Just look to Central Asia’s Aral Sea environmental crisis as an illustration of how pollution can poison water runoff to rivers and soil.
“Pollution of water due to industrial urbanization performed in an unplanned way, making clean freshwater less accessible, is the most pressing water global issue right now,” reported Shaikh Halim, executive director of the Village Education Resource Center in Bangladesh, at this year’s World Water Week.
When there’s not enough water coming from rainwater and surface water, governments turn to subterranean supplies of groundwater. In turn, rivers, wetlands, and lakes that depend on groundwater can dry out and be replaced with saline seawater. According to the UNEP, water tables are falling by roughly 3 meters per year across much of the developing world. Some of the world’s biggest cities, such as Bangkok, Cairo, Kolkata, London, Mexico City, and Jakarta, are dependent on groundwater. While the impact of using up rivers and lakes is obvious, the overuse of groundwater is virtually invisible to the public.
Adding to the problem is the fact that people in some parts of the world literally fight over water. More than 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries, and without strong agreements, transboundary tensions arise over water use. For example, the dispute over water resources has been a feature of the Arab-Israeli conflict since its beginning. Experts call for more international attention to develop groundwater agreements among the nations of such regions.
And lastly, it’s not just humans who suffer from a water shortage. The reduction of available water can have repercussions on aquatic ecosystems and countless species that are dependent on them.
Draining the Water Supply
According to the World Water Vision Report published in 2000 by the World Water Council, “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.”
You may think that the sheer volume of humans drinking, cooking, and washing with water is what’s putting a drain on the supply, but this utilization of water is just a drop in the bucket compared with how water is used in other endeavors. The biggest abuser of water by far is irrigation, which wastes an enormous amount in inefficiency and evaporation. An estimated 60% of the total water pumped for irrigation is wasted before it even reaches the crop. Water withdrawals for irrigation comprise 66% of the total withdrawals, with up to 90% in arid areas. In Asia, it makes up 86% of total annual water used compared with 49% in North and Central America and 38% in Europe.
Agriculture is a thirsty business. It takes approximately 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram (kg) of wheat; 1,400 liters to produce 1 kg of rice; and 13,000 liters to produce 1 kg of beef. By 2020, a projected 17% more water will be needed to feed the world than is currently available. Even “eco-friendly” biofuel is a water-gulping industry. Last year in Nebraska, the nation’s third-leading ethanol producer, it took 2 billion gallons of water at 15 ethanol plants to create 676 million gallons of the alternative fuel.
“Rivers and lakes are virtually emptied for part of the year as a result of heavy withdrawals for irrigation. Groundwater tables are significantly lowered as a result of this development. While we drink a few liters of water per day, we literally eat one or a few tons of water each day. Water provision to agriculture for food, biofuels, and commercial products are therefore a water problem at another order of magnitude,” says Professor Jan Lundqvist, a food and nutrition expert at Stockholm International Water Institute. Domestic households, industry, and evaporation from reservoirs contribute to the water supply drain in a smaller way.
Americans rank highest among the world’s water consumers. According to the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, Calif., America is sixth in the world behind New Zealand, Armenia, Barbados, Cuba, and the United Arab Emirates for per capita water withdrawals. Europeans use significantly less water per person for domestic purposes than Americans due to more efficient systems like low-flush toilets, as well as abundant rainfall throughout the year, which reduces the need to water gardens in the summer.
The World Water Council reports that part of the problem with valuing water as a resource is that it is underpriced. Subsidies for agricultural use are common in developed and developing countries, but by removing such subsidies and allowing water prices to rise, pushes for conservation and more efficient technology can flourish.
Deep Impact of Climate Change
It is widely accepted that climate change will have a major impact on water resources. At World Water Week, distinguished speakers from around the world discussed the link between water and climate, human societies, and ecosystems, emphasizing an immediate need for adaptation measures. The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report 2007 points out that massive human development costs will result from climate change unless we dramatically reduce carbon emissions within the next decade. A shift in attitudes among governments to take climate and water issues more seriously with commitments to decrease carbon emissions is critical.
“Climate risks are wavering heavily on the lives of the poor, and those living in poverty are not able to withstand the shocks,” said Claes Johansson, a report coauthor, at World Water Week.
Future predictions for global climate change recently released by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are estimating that between 250 million and 980 million people, mostly in Africa, could find themselves without fresh water by 2050.
Water for the World’s Poor
Perhaps it’s difficult to grasp the meaning of a water crisis when a simple twist of the faucet handle unleashes an endless gush of clean, safe water. But this isn’t the case in many of the poorest countries in the world. Nearly one third of the world’s population lives in countries that are stressed for water. In Asia, per capita availability declined by 40% to 60% between 1955 and 1990, with projections that most Asian countries will have severe water problems by the year 2025. Most of Africa has always been short of water.
The daily per capita use of water in residential areas is 350 liters in North America and Japan, 200 liters in Europe, and 10 to 20 liters in sub-Saharan Africa. The UN developed the Millennium Development Goals targeted at reducing poverty and ensuring sustainable development, with goal No. 7, target 10 reading, “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe water and basic sanitation.”
Malawi’s story is a vivid example of the chain of water insecurity. Stacia Nordin, RD, and her husband, who is a social worker, began HIV/AIDS prevention work through the U.S. Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, in 1997. Noticing that food and water security were critical in the region, they began working to promote permaculture, a philosophy that observes how nature replenishes its soil, conserves its water resources, and adapts to an area’s specific climate. “Water is a more serious problem than food security in some cases. Unclean water is often the root cause of illness for children suffering from malnutrition. For health, sanitation, and agricultural reasons, water is going to be a crisis if not addressed in an integrated manner,” says Nordin.
The problems in the Malawi water supply stem from people treating the Earth carelessly by failing to manage the water, the Nordins say. In a healthy system, rainwater should be filtered through the earth’s layers, but when people destroy the earth, the rain runs across the surface, collecting manures, bacteria, and harmful chemicals with it, depositing it directly into rivers, wells, and lakes. This causes water to become infected and able to transmit a variety of diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and other diarrheal diseases, as well as causing the water sources to diminish.
In Malawi, rainwater is not captured from rooftops; it is pushed into man-made water drains without being used. Water in rivers and lakes is abused by using synthetic chemicals that cause eutrophication, an explosive growth of plant matter in water that suffocates the animal life; overfishing, which removes the balance in the water source, causing areas of stagnation; and erosion, which deposits top soil and organic and nonorganic materials into water sources. The rivers and lakes must be dredged to remove the materials so the hydroelectric power plant can work properly. Flooding wipes out infrastructure such as homes, roads, and bridges and takes the lives of humans and other animals.
Right to Water, Right to Life
The moral and ethical right to water and sanitation has been planted in cultural and religious traditions around the world. The UN proclaimed that the right to water is “indispensable for leading a life in human dignity” and “a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”
With access to safe water, child mortality between the ages of 0 to 4 could be reduced, far more children could go to school between the ages of 5 and 14, more productivity could occur among people aged 15 and 59, and people could expect to live longer after the age of 60.
The American Dietetic Association’s position on the issue is as follows: “The public has the right to a safe food and water supply. The association supports collaboration among dietetics professionals, academics, representatives of the agricultural and food industries, and appropriate government agencies to ensure the safety of the food and water supply by providing education to the public and industry, promoting technologic innovation and applications and supporting further research.”
Safe Water and Sanitation for the Masses
It’s not just a matter of sufficient water; it’s a matter of safe water for many countries in the world. Safe drinking water and sanitation is critical to preserve human health, especially in children. Water-related diseases are the most common cause of illness and death in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 million children die each year because of unsafe water, poor sanitation, and a lack of hygiene. But the efforts to combat preventable diseases, create better hygiene conditions, and provide more access to safe water continue to face challenges. For instance, the use of fresh water supplies can be extended by reusing water for agriculture, but there are risks that the soil and products from the field may be contaminated.
With the upcoming International Year of Sanitation in 2008, global attention will focus on the need for improved health and hygiene. Helmut Lehn, PhD, of the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis in Germany, said at World Water Week that the most pressing water global issue now is “sustainable sanitation for all. We need to ensure better governance and make advanced technology options available to more people.”
The UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation identified key recommendations to end the global water and sanitation crisis (available here), which emphasize that governments must commit to moving the sanitation crisis to the top of their agendas with an increase in investments for sustainable water and sanitation.
A Watery Solution
How do we tackle the vast problem of preserving our precious water resources? The UN calls for governments to take immediate action to reverse the decline of water resources. Across the globe, more can be done for water conservation through better planning, management, and technology. “We have to be smart. We have to use conservation ... recycling, reduction of demand, and land management. If we do that, we should be alright for the next 50 years,” said Peter Rogers, PhD, of Harvard University at World Water Week.
Some countries are putting these challenges into action. Singapore has been placed on a pedestal for being a model of water efficiency. PUB Singapore, the creator of NEWater, was awarded the 2007 Stockholm Industry Award for transforming the urban nation into a vision of sustainable water management practice by focusing on sound policy, technology investment, close partnerships with business and community, and cost-effective policy implementation. PUB provided 100% of Singapore’s water using four national taps: imported, desalinized, rain-captured, and recycled water.
Changes in the public’s behavior are also key to preserving water. The World Water Institute encourages people to consider lifestyle choices in water consumption, such as food selections. After all, it takes 130 times more water to produce a kilogram of beef than it does to produce a kilogram of potatoes.
“Given the fact that water for our daily bread is the most significant part of society’s water budget, it is important to look at our food habits,” says Lundqvist, who notes that a recent study for the Swedish Environmental Advisory Council included information on how much water was used to produce food, illustrating the “water footprint” in the food supply, available here.
Lundqvist also points out that wastage and losses in the food chain are substantial, from the field where food is produced to actual food intake. All the food that is lost and wasted consumed water in connection with its production. “It is very important that individuals acquire a better knowledge of these connections. In urban centers, where people are far away from where food is produced and where the main water challenges are, this is a huge educational issue,” says Lundqvist.
In the end, human ingenuity may be our greatest asset when it comes to plugging the leak. Better irrigation systems that drip water directly onto plants, as well as a shift to less water-intensive crops, can make a difference. Improved capture and storage of flood runoff can increase water supply. Though desalination is energy intensive and produces large quantities of waste products, it may pose answers in the future. Uganda’s Water Minister Maria Mutagamba emphasizes the benefits of rainwater harvesting through local, low-cost rainwater harvesting tanks. More investments need to occur in water technology projects to stimulate innovative thinking. Getting beyond the basic levels of corporate social responsibility is one of the main goals of the World Council for Sustainable Development. For instance, water supplies destined for mining operations may be tapped along the way to give communities water.
Nordin suggests that food and nutrition professionals educate themselves on solutions to the water challenge, adding, “They should support programs that work toward sustainable water management and implement personal practices that save water.”
Björn Guterstam of Global Water Partnership in Sweden said at World Water Week, “Change is necessary for individual survival and global survival. If we do not change our lifestyle, nothing will happen. We have to internalize it, especially in the Western world.”
— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.
Global Water Resources
Tap into these resources to learn more about the global water crisis.
Co-operative Programme on Water and Climate:
National Wildlife Federation:
Stockholm International Water Institute:
The UN Millennium Development Goals:
United Nations Environment Programme:
World Business Council for Sustainable Development:
World Water Council:
World Water Week: