The following post is written by Dr. Bob Patterson, an NC State crop science professor.
Water—that colorless, tasteless and odorless basal fluid of every living organism on earth—animates life and thus is a basic human right. Yet more than 1 billion people lack sufficient access to clean, safe drinking water. The United Nations predicts that by 2025 two out of three people will be in similarly dire straits. Those two out of three won’t just be thirsty; they might be sick, too. Already some 5.1 million people die each year from waterborne diseases—many of which stem from water pollution and lack of sanitation.
The global water quantity problem
On average, each inhabitant of our planet uses at least five gallons of water daily for drinking, cooking and personal use. Already, many parts of our planet—such as Australia and the Middle East—are running out of water. In fact, Mexico City is sinking as overpumping depletes its aquifer. Growth in population, infrastructure development and poor ecosystem management all accelerate the water quantity problem. Increasing consumption is a problem, too. A lot of water is required to manufacture that cell phone you are holding in your hand; to produce, harvest, transport, process, distribute and prepare the food you will eat today; and to provide you with the clothes and shelter you are enjoying at this moment.
The global water quality problem
Of all surface water in China, 80 percent is polluted beyond use for agriculture; in India, that figure is 75 percent. And water quality hazards exist even in our own country. Environmental Working Group estimates that more than 50 million Americans drink water that exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for arsenic and that tap water in 42 states is contaminated with 141 chemicals for which our government has failed to set safety standards. That’s 141 contaminants in addition to the 114 already under scrutiny. These unregulated contaminants have been shown to be linked to cancer, immune system damage, and developmental and reproductive toxicity. Drugs—including natural and synthetic hormones, antibiotics, painkillers and antidepressants—have found their way into American waterways. While the levels of pharmaceuticals found in drinking water are extremely low, scientists are learning that increasingly smaller amounts of certain chemicals are anything but inconsequential. Exposure to minute traces of the wrong chemical at the wrong time—at critical stages of fetal or child development, for example—can cause more harm than larger doses later in life. Everything goes somewhere, doesn’t it?
Why water is the world’s most precious resource
Forget gold. An abundance of clean water needs is a key—perhaps the key—to an elevated quality of life. But global demand for clean water is increasing as supplies of clean water are increasingly limited. That combined with increasing climatic extremes creates new realities for our food supply. There is an old adage: “Too little water will hurt a farmer, but too much water can ruin him.” Oftentimes too much water—at the wrong time—can be even more devastating for food production than too little water. More intense storms and other changes in rainfall patterns will lead to increased shortages and excesses of water, which could cause food shortages in the most vulnerable regions.
How you can help slow an impending water crisis
What can we do locally to help slow, and hopefully prevent, a water crisis? Our increasing “global thirst” requires us to be innovative. As individuals, we must set a proper example by conserving water. As a society, we must set a proper example by harvesting rainwater; treating human, agricultural and industrial waste effectively; regulating how much water we remove from aquifers; and promoting investment in food, clothing and shelter resources that are more water-use efficient.
Yes, thinking globally and acting locally is the answer—the only answer—that will assure all future generations enjoy a clean drink of water throughout all the tomorrows. What a gift to pass on.