Taking On Water: Easing the Global Water Crisis
This guest post is the first from Wendy Pabich in a series on the global water crisis. Wendy is the author of Taking on Water: How One Water Expert Challenged Her Inner Hypocrite, Reduced Her Water Footprint (Without Sacrificing a Toasty Shower), and Found Nirvana. She holds a Ph.D. in environmental engineering from the Parsons Water Resources Laboratory at MIT. She'll be starting a "water challenge" in the upcoming weeks, which we will host here, to raise awareness of water usage and to help us all lower our personal water usage -- it can be done! Learn more at www.waterdeva.com.
It seems I was destined to become a Water Keeper. As a child, I spent untold hours perched on the granite outcrops of New England’s coastline, absorbing the nuances of the sea: the way the color of the water shifts toward gray with an oncoming storm; how flotsam gathers on eddy seams; the repetition in wave forms from the largest surges to the tiniest of ripples. I imagined myself a mermaid. The sea compelled me: my education was filled with logarithmic equations describing the arc of a beach form and first order kinetics equations explaining microbial transformations of chemicals in water. Fittingly, I was born an Aquarian, and my nature shows all the characteristics—fiercely independent, individualistic, artistically and scientifically oriented. I’ve chosen to follow my passion, working as a scientist, policy expert, educator and writer on all things water.
Many of us know that water is getting scarce. This past year brought extreme drought, low snow packs, and record low stream flows in a number of river systems. We see Las Vegas waging water war with the open ranch lands to the north, Atlanta in protracted battles with downstream states over its primary water supply at Lake Lanier, and water tables beneath the San Joaquin Valley--the source of 40 percent of the nation's fruits and vegetables--dropping. A recent study by the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) suggests that by mid-century, half the counties in the U.S. will be facing water scarcity. And, these problems are not going away anytime soon.
The Indus River in the Indian Himalaya. 215 million people in the basin are directly or indirectly dependent on the river.
Global population has grown to over 7 billion people and demand for water has escalated. Today, we use water not only to satisfy basic needs for food, drinking water and sanitation, but also to produce power and manufacture untold consumer goods. Growing global demand for food and consumer goods is putting tremendous pressure on water resources, lessening the volume, quality, and consistency of available water, and causing a loss of biodiversity and resiliency in ecosystems of all types. Water overuse, river fragmentation, draining of wetlands, and pollution are all diminishing the ability of these systems to provide a range of ecosystem services—flood control, clean drinking water and clean air, habitat, decomposition of wastes, food production, pharmaceuticals, and recreational and spiritual benefits.
It’s easy to marginalize our individual roles in these problems and, instead, find fault with government policies, corporate behavior, and farming practices. Yet, taken together, our aggregate behavior is the source of these problems. An individual home can waste 10,000 gallons of water a year to leaking fixtures; as a nation, we lose one trillion gallons of water to leaks. We buy 450 million pair of blue jeans every year, each of which requires about 2,200 gallons of water to produce, mostly to grow cotton for denim. That's a total of 990 billion gallons of water, or enough to provide copious domestic water supplies to almost 10 billion people. We consume 25 billion pounds of beef annually, requiring 46 trillion gallons of water to produce. And the list goes on.
While this may all seem distressing, it also implies a potent truth. As citizens and consumers, we have the power to change our own behavior. We can become more conscious about how much water we use directly in our homes and we can make choices about what and how much we purchase, influencing the types of products and services sold in the market. All of this can lead to increased water use efficiency and decreased water demand. In my personal life, I’ve been trying hard to do just that. Stay tuned here where I’ll discuss specific water issues in more depth, and share some of the lessons I’ve learned about reducing your own direct and indirect water use.