Of all the things we as humans take for granted, water is probably way up on the list. We’re all guilty of abusing its existence. From brushing our teeth with the water running, to leaving our sprinklers on for hours in the summer time, to washing load after load of laundry, water it seems is in abundance. But it’s not actually. In fact, our individual footprint on water consumption is quite high. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water each day (where available). In other parts of the world, that much water may not be accessible nor clean.
In 2013, New Delhi hospitals experienced a water shortage that gravely impacted the lives of patients. The water shortage resulted in the inability to sterilize surgical equipment. This also meant physicians could not wash their hands, properly wash and sanitize bed linens or wash operating tables. Routine surgeries were put on hold. It is alarming when hospitals and staff, whose job it is to reduce the spread of infection can no longer control such a thing due to a lack of water.
What Is Water Scarcity?
Water scarcity is the lack of access to or too little of clean water in a region where there is a demand. Although the problem exists worldwide, it is especially prevalent in developing nations. In extreme cases, where governmental authority is abused, lack of access to clean water is a means to restrict the people through punishment or other consequential means. Overall, water scarcity can be fatal.
A whopping 289,000 children die each year due to poor water -- either because of a lack of or tainted water. Diarrheal disease usually stems from tainted water. This is an easily preventable disease and yet for those who do not have access to hospitals the death toll climbs.
Among major contributors to the lack of clean water is the agriculture industry. The sector heavily relies on irrigation systems to flush out animal waste and also provides drinking water for livestock. Because the livestock industry is a booming powerhouse, its direct and indirect impact on the environment and specifically water sources plays a crucial role in mitigating water scarcity. Take for example the California Imperial Valley. One million acres of alfalfa is grown in the region and irrigated thanks in part to the Colorado River. This alfalfa is solely grown to feed the livestock that is ultimately raised for human consumption. Is this a good use of our precious water supply?
There are many reasons for water scarcity which include drought, pollution, and climate change among others. In fact, these three causes alone are in sync, as each one ultimately impacts the other.
Causes of Lack of Clean Water
Drought - During the warmer months when the air is especially dry, the chances of precipitation are lower making droughts more likely. There are real societal risks associated with droughts especially since farmers are so reliant upon water for agriculture. Without clean water, crop growth suffers along with profit losses. Without crops, food sources can become depleted, leading to the next big problem of hunger.
Pollution - There are many causes to water pollution, but the biggest ones are animal and human waste seeping into our waters. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is mostly compiled of plastic and other non-biodegradable debris. This causes the garbage to float consistently in a vortex-like structure, clogging areas of the Pacific Ocean in which fish and other sea dwelling animals seek food and shelter. As a result, a dangerous precedent has been set: recent studies of baby fish revealed their preferred diet of plastic over actual fish food. In some cases, because their habitats have been severely compromised, fish are being bred in waters where plastic debris significantly outweighs natural food sources. To put that into a more dire perspective, plastic has serious effects on the brains of the very fish that humans consume.
Climate Change - When we think of climate change, we often think of extreme weather. Looking a bit deeper, water is an all too common component in the climate change sphere. Mountaintop water runoff and snowmelt accounts for at least 50 percent of our freshwater resources. The ice then melts into water reservoirs. With global warming causing an abundance of snowmelt, the water reservoirs become overwhelmed and unable to hold additional water. The additional water is essentially wasted, a precious resource lost. Richard Damania, lead economist at the World Bank in Washington D.C. once stated that when discussing climate change at the root of the matter, we’ll actually be discussing “hydrological change” as water is a fundamental aspect.
The Future of Water
If we want to see real change in how we deal with water supply and scarcity, it must start with policy change. Incentivizing industries that are responsible stewards of water supply and efficiency actually produces positive economic results. When lawmakers come together and see the strength of collective goals, the result can be overwhelmingly assuring.