by Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
As the world’s water needs grow so is concern that we’re rapidly using up supplies. How worried should we be?
Water seems the most renewable of all the Earth’s resources. It falls from the sky as rain, it surrounds us in the oceans that cover nearly three-quarters of the planet’s surface, and in the polar ice caps and mountain glaciers. It is the source of life on Earth and quite possibly beyond – the discovery of traces of water on Mars aroused excitement because it was the first indication that life may have existed there.
Where is the water going?
How do you fit 130 litres of water in a single cup? The answer: fill it with coffee. Growing coffee beans is a thirsty business, as is growing cotton – 10,000 litres of water in a pair of jeans – and 2,500 litres in the average T-shirt. Avocados, almonds – even bottles of water themselves, are all highly water-intensive enterprises. Agriculture uses about 70% of freshwater across the globe.
Regions that export water-intensive crops are effectively exporting their water, in a trade known as “virtual water” or “invisible water”. Agricultural products are the most obvious trades in virtual water, but vast numbers of manufactured goods also require large quantities of water. When countries and regions with water shortages pour their water into exports, on the surface it can look as if they are making a profit, but in the long term their reliance on diminishing water resources will be damaging.
“The concept of virtual water can help countries that lack abundant water resources to meet food needs without using precious water for thirsty agricultural practices,” says Vincent Casey, senior manager at WaterAid. “It doesn’t make sense for Saudi Arabia to use vast quantities of limited water resources for agriculture when food grown elsewhere can be imported.”
The problem is that most of the Earth’s water resources are as inaccessible as if they were on Mars, and those that are accessible are unevenly distributed across the planet. Water is hard to transport over long distances, and our needs are growing, both for food and industry. Everything we do requires water, for drinking, washing, growing food, and for industry, construction and manufacturing. With more than 7.5 billion people on the planet, and the population projected to top 10 billion by 2050, the situation is set to grow more urgent.
Currently, 844 million people – about one in nine of the planet’s population – lack access to clean, affordable water within half an hour of their homes, and every year nearly 300,000 children under five die of diarrhoea, linked to dirty water and poor sanitation. Providing water to those who need it is not only vital to human safety and security, but has huge social and economic benefits too. Children lose out on education and adults on work when they are sick from easily preventable diseases. Girls in developing countries are worst off, as they frequently stop going to school at puberty because of a lack of sanitation, and girls and women travelling miles to fetch water or forced to defecate in the open are vulnerable to violence. Providing affordable water saves lives and reduces the burden on healthcare, as well as freeing up economic resources. Every £1 invested in clean water yields at least £4 in economic returns, according to the charity WaterAid.
(Read more at TheGuardian.com)