Welcome again to our series of articles about water. In this we consider the future of fresh water on our planet.
There will be three email parts to this larger subject, arriving in your mail box every 3rd day for just over a week.
The news is rather grim but with a real will a huge amount can be done to conserve and heal the water that we, as humanity, are using.
What we do know is that this substance, water, is unique in its life supporting capacities and is absolutely central to all living things and human culture on our planet.
We hear a lot about air pollution and global warming but water over-use and degradation is equally concerning. It is now a matter of being concerned about Global Thirst as well as Global Warming.
The key headings for the future of freshwater as I understand them are listed below. We can see this is a huge topic so we can only really get an overview in these introductory emails:
The Increasing Human Use of Fresh Water.
Uses and Abuses of Fresh Water.
Climate Change and Water Distribution.
Ownership of Water.
Water as a New Scientific Frontier.
Let us just take a glimpse at each area, bearing in mind that by ‘fresh water’ we mean non-salty water, water not in seas and oceans.
The Increasing Human Use of Fresh Water.
Clearly, with surface fresh water only 0.1% of all water on the planet and underground water 0.7%, we must view it as a limited global resource, even for those fortunate enough to have it.
We tend to think that most fresh water comes from falling rain, rivers and lakes. But freshwater reservoirs deep underground total seven times the earth’s surface drinkable water.
Water must be viewed as an element that can run out, because humanity is using up the underground water far faster than it is being replaced. When it is gone our huge populations will not be possible.
Where will this underground water go? Most will eventually run off into the salt seas. Normal rainfall is not refilling all these underground reservoirs at the same speed we are using them up.
Let’s do the numbers.
On, in and around our Earth there are about ten thousand trillion liters (correct!) of FRESH water. (ie not salty) This is about 10 billion cubic kilometres, of which only 1/8th is visible above ground.
To put it into perspective, if all the world’s water were in a 4-liter jug, (about a gallon), accessible fresh water would be half a teaspoon of it. And surface fresh water would be 1/16th of that whole teaspoon!
Nevertheless, these billions of liters of water are such a vast amount we could easily relax (if we presently do have fresh water on tap) and ask, with so much water how can it ever run out?
Of course fresh water from rain will never run out, but groundwater can. And ice can melt away into the sea and be lost to nature as fresh potable water, except later on when it evaporates again into the clouds and the fresh water cycle.
Today over one billion people have no easy daily access to fresh clean water. And more than 2.4 billion people have no proper sanitation. Hence, over 1/3rd of humanity already is totally convinced that fresh water is very precious and scarce.
As well as these natural and organisational scarcities, fresh water is under more demand from everyone because of population growth, increasing standards of living amongst the developing countries that want more products, and wasteful needs and use in richer countries where water has been abundant.
Humanity worldwide is presently tapping into 58% of all the accessible freshwater contained in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers.
If per capita use of water rises at its current rate, humanity will be accessing 90% of all available freshwater sources by as early as 2030, leaving only 10% for wild creatures! That is a phenomenal increase, worldwide.
However only 8% of this fresh water is drawn for people’s personal use. A global average of 70% is taken by agriculture while industry uses 22%.
Global fresh water use is increasing very rapidly, mostly drawn from underground aquifers.
While we are aware of the ‘peak oil’ concept, we also need to consider a similar ‘peak water’ concept.
We need to make the phrase ‘Global Thirst’ as commonly used as ‘Global Warming’! It is actually a more urgent problem. Remember weather changes over time, but if you dont have water, people die in 4 to 5 days.
To better understand this, remember the fact that most fresh water is actually underground. To get at it we drill, as we do for oil. And many of the deep aquifers were filled deep underground eons ago and are not being regenerated anymore.
For instance, 95% of the USA’s fresh water is actually underground in vast aquifers, and this is presently being used for irrigation and industry so fast it will be sucked dry in the next 60 years unless changes are made. No water supply spells the end for any country.
Much of the water used in Australian cities is from aquifers, and these are quite simply not going to last for ever. And as the climate dries up, they are not being replenished.
It is vital that fresh water use is controlled far more intelligently and conservatively, especially by factories and farmers who take over 90% of the water diverted for human requirements.
Logically we should only be using what can be replaced by nature, and what we do use, should not just be physically cleaned but also rejuvenated.
But with 2/3rds of our vast population believing in the illusion of limitless water supplies, we have many hard facts to face and solve.
There must be a way through.
The next email concerning ‘methods of water use’ and ‘effects of climate change on water’ will arrive in your mailbox in 3 days.
Thank you for your interest. Learning about water is the first step in helping it.
Iain Trousdell Co-Founder and Keynote Speaker Foundation for Water www.foundationforwater.org
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