Water security essential to sustainability worldwide

| 11th May 2018

South Georgia

Water covers the majority of the Earth's surface and is essential to the survival of all life on this planet. However, the next crisis that humanity might face is drought, unless we can increase water security, says EMILY FOLK

Human habits have also resulted in what many scientists are deeming the next major crisis of the century: drought.

A plethora of different environmental hurdles have risen to dominate the public consciousness in the past half-century. Chief amongst these is the obvious culprit: global climate change and its many faces.

In the past decade documentaries, articles and even public education have embraced the task of informing us about the potentially catastrophic effects of global climate change. In other cases, the dialogue has turned to the less defined implications of global cultural consumerism.

However, one key aspect of developing a sustainable model for the world is often overlooked: water. Clean drinking water — and sources thereof — grow increasingly rare, and estimations of a world without drinkable water are fairly grim.

Greater watershed

Human tampering often has the unfortunate side-effect of inadvertently poisoning large bodies of water, many of which are rendered sterile or irrecoverably toxic for decades to come. In other cases, the accidental introduction of invasive species can wipe out entire vulnerable ecosystems.

Grouping all the manmade aquatic trouble under one umbrella is difficult. However, both human existence and the overall health of the earth both require that large bodies of water are protected from harmful human existence.

Human influence has both obvious and nefarious effects on the health of various aquatic environments. Everything from the damming of rivers — ironically to help produce ‘clean’ electricity — to the subtle changes in oceanic temperatures caused by melting polar ice caps and atmospheric warming will have inevitable and unpredictable impacts on their respective area of effect.

Unfortunately, many of the causes of these changes are deeply rooted in current economic and social systems.

Farming, for instance, relies heavily on fertilizer. Both rain and irrigation result in runoff through crop fields, and some percentage of the fertilizer washes away and into the greater watershed.

Aquatic environments

Though not toxic unto itself, components of the fertiliser that are used to stimulate plant growth — primarily phosphorous and nitrogen — stimulate large algal blooms which in turn alter the oxygen content throughout large bodies of water, wiping out vulnerable marine life in the process.

In other cases, runoff from urban or industrial areas can have a similar impact, wiping out an entire environment by introducing unknown and dangerous toxins into the watershed.

For many decades dumping industrial waste into waterways was the status quo, and certain rivers and lakes nearby urban centers still suffer from the toxins of decades past.

In these instances the water is not only contaminated for marine life; it’s also unsafe for human consumption and can easily transmit toxins into the surrounding area, introducing a high volume of toxins into the local groundwater.

These are only two instances of the direct impact that human activity can have on aquatic environments and the natural ecosystem therein. While losing one river or lake is unfortunate, it also potentially threatens the balance of the surrounding area as well.

Human consumption

Animals that regularly rely on eating fish from this body of water might starve, setting off further ripples in the environment. Often, these impacts are not felt or entirely understood for years but result in major environmental changes.

Human habits have also resulted in what many scientists are deeming the next major crisis of the century: drought. Seasonal shortages of water regularly occur in various countries around the world.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East are particularly prone to shortages of desalinated water and often rely on a few major bodies of water and communal wells to survive. However, in many regions, human use and misuse exceeds the rate of natural replenishment.

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) released a report in 2015 asserting that within the next 10 years roughly two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed regions. This, in addition to the knowledge that close to 750 million people still live without reliable or safe drinking water, paints a harrowing picture for the future.

In many areas, the misuse of water is related to the aforementioned runoff and pollution. In certain areas — the Ganges in India, for instance — the significant bodies of water have become so polluted from human use that they are no longer safe for human consumption or use.

Conservation strategies

While water purification equipment would go a long way, it is not readily available for many countries. These areas must utilize another source.

In areas of Africa, desalination — the removal of salt from seawater — has worked well as a source of fresh drinking water. Unlike fresh groundwater, seawater is not in any danger of depletion: it covers roughly 70 percent of the world’s surface and constitutes some 96 percent of the total volume of water on the globe.

Another two percent is made up of ice caps and other permanently frozen resources, leaving only .76 percent as fresh, drinkable groundwater. Hough desalination is still too expensive for worldwide use, improvements in the field could see it widely utilised in the future.

The future is widely determined by human habits. If the consumption and abuse of fresh groundwater reserves continue unimpeded, the world will face a continually worsening crisis.

However, by implementing water conservation strategies and tech, we can skirt disaster and instigate the kind of sustainable future that will see us all drinking fresh water.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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