First published February 2007, last updated September 2012
A few years ago, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned that within two decades, the majority of the earth’s population could face serious water shortages.
More recently, the Interaction Council, a group of elder statesmen including former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Helmut Schmidt and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, again sounded the alarm that the world is confronted with a water crisis with critical implications for peace, political stability and economic development.
The reasons are many – climate change, population growth and poor water management practices among them. For example, I live in Australia – the driest inhabited continent in the world; yet we appear to be one of the leaders in water consumption per capita.
The biggest water consuming industry is agriculture. The FAO states 70 percent of all fresh water drawn globally is for agricultural use – higher in some countries.
The Interaction Council says approximately 3,800 cubic kilometers of fresh water is extracted around the world annually. Given there will be another billion mouths to feed worldwide by 2025, the Council states global agriculture alone will require another 1,000 cubic km of water every year; which is the equivalent of the annual flow of 20 Niles or 100 Colorado Rivers.
This is not going to happen as that amount of fresh water is simply not readily available.
The blame for our water woes can’t be laid at the feet of farmers – we are all in this together and we as consumers fuel demand for water hungry crops such as cotton. It takes around 925 gallons to produce a single pound of cotton and over half that water is lost through evaporation or other poor water management practices.
While there will always be X amount of water in the world, much of it will be useless or require a great deal of processing at the rate we’re going – and that processing requires energy and creates toxic by-products. Rather than us all looking towards processes such as desalination as the cure, as welcome as they are, we should see them as a sign that there’s something very wrong in our approach to water.
As individuals, there are so many things we can do to reduce our water consumption – and save cash in the process too! Here are some brief and simple tips most of us can apply:
- Shorter showers with less pressure
- Install a water saving shower head – under $10
- Ensuring taps, water pipes and hose connections don’t drip
- Checking toilets for leaks. Use a few drops of food coloring in the cistern, wait for a while and check the bowl for signs of color – be sure to flush afterwards prevent staining.
- Buy clothing made with fibers that aren’t so water intensive; such as hemp
- Installing rainwater tanks or even just a small rain barrel
- Using greywater from sinks and washing machines to water the garden
- Using low water car washes
- Installing tap aerators
- Turning off the tap while brushing our teeth
- Turning off the tap while shaving
- Washing veggies in a sink partially filled with water instead of under a running tap
- Setting washing machines at the lowest possible water level for the load
- Watering gardens just after sunrise or just after sunset to reduce evaporation
- Mulching gardens to reduce watering requirements
- Installing drip irrigation systems
- Cutting grass a little longer during summer
- Reducing the temperature of water heaters which lessens the amount of mixing needed to be done in order to achieve a temperature that won’t scald your skin
- Installing dual flush toilets or displacement devices in cisterns
- Fill a dishwasher completely before running it
- Don’t use water to accelerate thawing of food
- Instead of using a sink rubbish disposal unit, establish a compost pile or worm farm
- Use drought tolerant plants in your garden and drought resistant grass for lawn
- Never use a hose to blast leaves or litter off a driveway – sweep it, it’s good exercise too :)
While saving a gallon here and there may not seem like much; bear in mind that every small action when multiplied millions of times can have a huge impact. For example, if every person in the USA reduced consumption by just 100 gallons per year, and it’s not that hard to do – that would represent a saving of over 30 billion gallons of potable water annually, which is enough to provide 5 billion people with sufficient water to meet direct consumption and basic hygiene needs.
We really undervalue water when you consider humans can go for weeks without food, but only days without water. The amazing thing is, we only need a few litres (a gallon or so) a day through our food and directly to sustain ourselves. Added that, to maintain hygiene, we only need about 25 litres (6 gallons) a day in total. In developed countries, we currently use 500-800 litres (125 to 200 gallons) per day per person!