Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day: Water

Today is Blog Action Day! After my lame last-minute post on the occasion last year, I decided that I would better prepare myself for this year's Blog Action Day, even though it is on the same day as my midterm exam, and I have family visiting, a presentation to prepare for, and all the other things keeping me busy that I complained about on Wednesday morning. All that stuff wouldn't distract me from writing a high quality post--no way. But then on Wednesday afternoon, my advisor dumped on me the task of writing a proposal that is due--you guessed it--today, October 15. Seriously, two days to write a proposal?! When I have a midterm to study for?! Well, this post may not be the brilliant post you were hoping for, but maybe it will have a few things you find interesting, and hopefully you'll learn something.

While looking at course offerings in college one semester, the slightly sappy course title "Water for Our World" caught my eye. It was because it had the word "water" in it, and I was interested in oceanography. Once I read the course description, though, I realized it had very little to do with the oceans and was instead about the water resources available to the world's population. I thought that sounded interesting, too--I was majoring in environmental engineering for some reason, after all--so I decided to enroll. While it was definitely the easiest course I took in college (one of those environmental engineering classes meant for non-science types, and furthermore a one-time course taught by a visiting professor), I learned a lot and gained perspective on the water problems facing the world today. So today I figured I'd share a few of the things I learned in the class that stuck with me the most.

Access to safe water supply

Those of us in the developed world take water for granted. Sure, sometimes tap water tastes bad, or you have to shower in hard water, but you know it's not going to make you sick. And you know it's going to be there. You know you're not going to die from dirty water, or lack of water (provided you don't do anything dangerous, like go hiking in the desert without sufficient water supply). But almost a billion people in the world don't have that luxury. 900 million people don't have access to a safe supply of water. Even more surprising is what counts as "access to a safe supply of water". "Access" is within one kilometer. A "supply" is at least 20 liters per person per day. And "safe" implies an "improved drinking water source", which includes boreholes, protected dug wells, protected springs, and rainwater.

So 900 million people don't even have that. Most live in Asia and Africa. Water is tightest for people who have to carry water miles to their home, who may be forced to get by on a mere 5 liters a day per person. Some modern toilets throw out more than that in a single flush. 5 liters is enough to drink, and may be enough to cook with depending on what you're cooking, but it doesn't leave much for cleaning and sanitation. It is usually left to the women to collect the water, so each day a woman may spend three hours walking to the water source, filling a container with up to 40 lbs of water, and carrying it home on her back. Many women in communities where this is done have back pain from an early age. They have less time to do other tasks that might help improve the quality of life for their village and family. And girls who are also given the task of collecting water are forced to miss part of the school day, or wake up so early that they're exhausted by the time the school day begins.

Without safe water supplies and sanitation, people can get sick and die. 1.6 million people die every year due to diarrhoeal diseases attributable to poor sanitation, 90% of whom are children. Yes, we can get sick and have diarrhea occasionally, but in some places in the world it is a life-threatening condition, as diarrhea can lead to dehydration.

In some unfortunate cases, solving one problem with water resources leads to another. The terrible example is the wells in Bangladesh. Diarrheal diseases due to unsanitary drinking water were a huge source of mortality in the region, so in the 1970s UNICEF and World Bank started advocating the usage of wells. 8 million wells were built, but it was later found that this "clean" groundwater was actually high in naturally occurring arsenic. As many as 40% of the wells, providing water for 80 million people, have unsafe levels of arsenic and cannot be used. But it is difficult to convince people not to use their wells, since it was such a sanitary improvement over their previous water source that they don't want to go back, and the arsenic is killing fewer people than unsanitary water used to. But it can take many years for arsenic poisoning to be diagnosed, so we still don't know just how many people have been affected.

Mismanagement of water resources

Even people who have access to safe water supplies are not immune from water troubles. Mismanaging our water today may be setting us up for big problems in the future.

People in the developed world use a lot of water. Especially those in the U.S. and Canada. On average, Americans and Canadians use over 550 liters of water per day, per person. In the summer, half of all treated water used by Canadians goes on their lawns. If you're curious what the domestic water usage breakdown is (leaving out seasonal lawn watering), the typical person uses 35% of the water for bathing and showering, 30% for flushing the toilet, 20% for laundry, 10% for cooking and drinking, and 5% for cleaning. And what you eat can have a huge effect on how much water resources you're sucking up--your "water footprint". To produce 1 kg of beef requires 15,000 liters of water, compared to 3500 liters for 1 kg poultry, 1650 liters for 1 kg soybeans, and 500 liters for 1 kg potatoes.

So you can perhaps understand how agriculture is responsible for nearly 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Chemicals and fertilizers used in agriculture are washed into the waterways, causing serious problems for the health of the rivers, lakes, bays, and gulfs into which they flow. Fertilizers in particular cause problems when they enter the ocean where they fertilize the algae, which bloom to huge numbers, in a process called eutrophication. It's a problem because soon those algae will die, and the bacteria that decompose their bodies will use up the oxygen in the water, creating hypoxic "dead zones". These zones have too little oxygen for fish and other animals to breathe. The most notorious dead zone is that in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been known to reach 22,126 square km/8543 square mi--almost the size of New Jersey, and a little larger than Wales.

Some places have plentiful renewable water resources, but others are tapping into more water than they perhaps should be. In some cases, river waters are diverted so severely that the river...stops. Irrigation of the great Nile River in Egypt causes the river not to reach the Mediterranean for parts of the year. Similarly, it takes so much water to support the cities in always sunny (never rainy) southern California that the Colorado River doesn't always cross into Mexico to flow into the Gulf of California. Tough luck for the Mexicans who wanted their river.

The most notorious example of overuse of water ruining the resource is the tragic Aral Sea. Irrigation diverted for agriculture all the water that once flowed into the sea, and now the sea is half its original size of 66,000 square km. The mineral concentration is four times its original concentration, killing off all the fish that once thrived in the sea. The fishing industry that once supported 60,000 fishermen with 40,000 tons of fish a year is entirely gone. Former seaside towns are now 70 km from water, and heavily polluted with pesticides and heavy metals. They are ghost towns.

Cases like the Aral Sea are good warnings, but the problem is not always so visible. In countries including the U.S., China, India, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt, the withdrawal of groundwater is greater than the recharge rate. We are depleting our groundwater, in some cases leading to saltwater intrusion (freshwater removal allows saltwater to creep in farther--sometimes as far as the wells). In these cases of groundwater, water is not a renewable resource.

As world population increases and water resources continue to be drawn down, water access will increasingly become a problem over the next decades. While 500 million people lived in countries chronically short on water in 2000, by 2050, it is projected that 4 billion people will live in countries with chronic water shortage problems (this includes India, South Korea, South Africa, Belgium, and Germany, to name a few). Suddenly, this short bit from Robin Williams on Broadway doesn't seem so funny...

OK, still funny. But not so far fetched. It's quite a sobering thought--that conflicts over water resources may spread over the next few decades.


Well now that I've gone on about the doom and gloom of water resources, what can we do? There are many people out there with plans to improve clean water access and sanitation for people in the developing world. If you want to help out some of these projects, here are some recommended charities (recommended by Blog Action Day, not me specifically):

Fund the building of wells with charity: water

Bring clean drinking water and the dignity of a toilet to people around the world, with Just $25 can give one person clean drinking water for life.

As for the water shortages, I don't know what to say other than to think a little before wasting water. Turn off the water while you're brushing your teeth or putting shampoo in your hair. I'm sure if we get a little closer to water doomsday there will be other ideas. Well, we can hope.

Have a happy Blog Action Day! Go pour yourself a glass of water, and enjoy.

Notable sources for this post:
Most of this information is from The Water Atlas, the "textbook" (60-page picture book... OK, mostly graphs and maps, but they were colorful) from the course I took:
Clarke, Robin and Jannet King. The Water Atlas: A Unique Visual Analysis of the World's Most Critical Resource. New York: The New Press. 2004.


Anonymous said...

So, I'm an aquatic ecologist by training, and I think it's great that you posted this! Everyone in ecology will tell you that water is going to be the next big crisis if we don't watch out. Thanks for spreading the word!


Eleni said...

Nice, another water nerd :)

It's something we totally take for granted. Everyone's heard about how we're going to run out of oil at some point, but water is a renewable resource, right? Trouble is there's only so much accessible at a time. And there's no substitute for water.

Sebastian said...

There's a good TED talk about how the world isn't doing as bad as academics like to think.

Basically, the developed and developing worlds really aren't that different now. The last 30-40 years have seen a huge leap from India/China, and more affluent parts of Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still a huge issue of course, but even so: they've had the biggest increases in recent years.

This infographic popped up on my forum the other day -- you'll like it:;topic=2273.0;attach=3161;image

(And yes, we need to conserve water!)

Eleni said...

Well that's good that things are getting better. I did notice that when I took the class, it was over a billion people who didn't have access to safe water, and now a few years later the estimate is 900 million.

Nice infographic. Doesn't look so good for the environment, though.

Sebastian said...

Hehe, well, I'm sure you're aware that the main problem will come from the 3 billion in Asia that will want access to cheap power and water for the next few decades.

There isn't a whole lot we can do to prevent that -- other than continue work on the technologies we're already working on (desalination!)

Of course, my favourite solution is just to invest a tiny bit more in space travel...

Eleni said...

Turns out there's a good bit of water on the moon (though, granted, nothing compared to what we have here). And what are the latest theories on Europa having water underneath the ice? And then there's Gliese 581g (maybe)...

Hopefully new technologies will increase the Earth's carrying capacity, because at present it just can't support that many people in the standard of living that the developed world enjoys. It's terribly unfair, but it's how it is. I guess only time will tell how the problem will be confronted.

Sebastian said...

Aye, 6% water! Not bad.

Sounds like the Moon would make an ideal spaceship harbor, though :)

Eleni said...

Time to start a colony on the moon! Or at least a space station, seriously. It's overdue :)

Sebastian said...

Well, you know how I feel about it!

We should be ploughing money into space travel. It's the first thing I'd do, as emperor.