Two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules create the mercurial substance that sustains all life. It is the only natural substance found in all three physical states at temperatures that occur on earth. We experience water as a liquid in rivers, lakes, and oceans, a solid in snow and ice, and a gas in clouds and streams. We are from the water, and it brings us joy. And yet, we take water for granted.
With a turn of a knob, water runs freely from the faucet. Clear water flows as if there is an endless amount. Unfortunately, this is an illusion. We have been lulled into a falsehood. Water is both a subtle presence in our daily lives and a powerful force causing harm. Water can harm when there is too much, too little, or when it is polluted. The increasingly intense weather patterns have brought damaging floods, droughts, and polar winter weather. Polluted waterways are harming wildlife around the world.
Water risks are a major humanitarian and environmental threat.
Let’s explore the threats in three dimensions: 1) water access, 2) water stress, and 3) water for wildlife. It is time to open our eyes, understand the water situation in our world, change our relationship with water, and take sustained action.
Water Access – One-in-four people do not have access to safe water. Our bodies are 50% water. We can only survive three days without drinkable water. In developed countries, clean water is transported to our homes, businesses, and farms at a minimal cost. Because of this seemingly easy accessibility, we get the sense that there is an abundant amount and that everyone has equal access. False.
Only 74% of the world has access to safely managed water A shocking 26% — nearly 2 billion people do not have access to safely managed water.
Of these 2 billion, over 1 billion have a 30-minute trip to collect drinking water. The remaining people do not have access to any safe drinking water. Depending on where you live, and your income, your access to water can be vastly different.
To better understand the inequity of water access, refer to CHART 1: Income Impact to Access to Clean Water and CHART 2: Water Accessibility by World Region.
Water Stress: Freshwater is being used faster than it is being replaced.
About 70% of all people live within 3 miles of the closest water feature. Water is part of every aspect of our life, including our health, industry, agriculture, and energy production. Each person uses on average 1004 gallons of water a day. We use 70% of the world’s water annually for agriculture. The United States uses a large amount of water for industry (18.2 billion gallons per day) and energy production (58 trillion gallons of water per year). We are drawing down too much fresh water between individual, agricultural, and energy production use. There are ways to perform these activities with much less water, yet we continue to use unsustainable amounts of water year after year.
It takes hundreds of years to replenish groundwater.
Climate change worsens the problem by intensifying floods and drought, shifting precipitation patterns, altering water supplies, and accelerating glacial melt and sea-level rise. Already 17 countries (refer to CHART 3) are facing extremely high water stress as their agriculture, industry, and communities use up to 80 percent of the available surface and groundwater each year. Even in countries such as the United States with overall low-medium water stress, some communities are still experiencing highly stressed conditions. The people of New Mexico have as much water stress as some of the most stressed countries. Another four states (Colorado, Arizona, California, and Nebraska) are at high risk and using 40-80% of the available water. When water demand overwhelms supply, there are dire consequences.
Over 50 million Americans live with some amount of water stress today.
Water for Wildlife – Nature needs water and is really good at taking carbon out of the atmosphere.
Wildlife needs water to survive. By letting the byproducts of our daily lives pollute waterways, we are participating in the alarming decline of wildlife globally. Unintentionally we destroy the network of life.
Peter Wohlleben beautifully explains this in his book, The Secret Network of Nature. (Read our review.) Did you know that trees and bears can rely on the nutrients of salmon? Along rivers with low nutrient soil, the salmon swim upriver to spawn while hungry bears and other hunters haul in a meal. When the salmon die, they deposit a wealth of nutrients. Up to 70% of the nitrogen in vegetation growing alongside these streams comes from salmon. In addition, the data shows that Sitka spruce in these areas grow up to three times faster than it would without this natural fertilizer. It is all connected, the water, the salmon, the bears, and the trees. When we block or pollute rivers, we disrupt the network of life.
Our waterways and oceans are dumping grounds. Since 1950, 8.3 million tonnes of plastic containers have been produced. Only 9% gets recycled, and the rest ends up in our landfills and litters our land and waterways. Plastic is problematic in many ways. It degrades slowly; lightweight bags are eaten by livestock and wildlife, and plastic bags are among the most common types of marine litter. At our current pace, oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050. We need to protect and expand natural places.
Some of the best solutions to our water problem are nature-based solutions. These include restoration of coastal seagrass, regenerative agriculture, and protecting and expanding forests and natural areas. Reducing pollution, protecting natural areas around waterways, and increasing natural habits benefits all life.
Read our blog, It is Time to Love, Care For, and Share our Water, to learn small joyful changes you can make to save water.