The geography teacher says that water covers more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface — that makes it a lot of water. But environmentalists consider it the most precious resource and ask us to use it responsibly, warning the world of severe water shortage and impending crisis.

Sounds a bit contradictory. But if you look at it, both are correct. While two-thirds of the world’s surface is covered with water, all that water is not usable. We can neither drink it nor use it for agriculture, as it is saline in nature. Only fresh water — which is just 2.5 percent of all the water in the world — can be used for drinking, cooking and irrigation, etc. Even then, just one percent of fresh water is easily accessible as the rest is locked up in glaciers, which means only 0.007 percent of the planet’s water is available to be used by humans!

And when one says that water is becoming scarce, it means fresh water resources are dwindling, as its availability is limited and demand is growing due to increase in population. Many regions in the world are facing a serious water shortage, with lakes drying up, ground water levels dropping and rivers running dry.

Most of you must have been taking water for granted and would have hardly given a thought to the fact that water is a scarce resource, even if you have seen water tankers supplying water to your house, or men, women and children scrambling to collect water from wherever they can find. You probably think it is a local supply problem, which is in a way true, but only partially.

When one says water is scarce or a certain area is facing water shortage, it means that either water is not physically available in the area or is in short supply due to distribution or lack of infrastructure (the area does not have pipelines, tube wells, etc. to supply water).

Have you ever given a thought to where water is used, besides for drinking, cooking and bathing, etc., and how water is becoming scarce? One of the main reasons for water getting scarcer is climate change. Yes, you read it right — climate change! Due to higher temperatures and more extreme, less predictable, weather conditions as a result of climate change, some regions of the world are facing droughts due to less rain, while others are faced with increased incidences of flooding which destroys crops and contaminates water sources. Melting of glaciers due to global warming will in future impact the supply of water as the ice sheet thins.

To tell you a scary fact, about two billion people in the world live in countries which are facing acute shortage of water, and Pakistan is on the verge of joining these countries if we do not take immediate steps to conserve water. And by conserving water, I do not mean taking care to close the taps properly or using less water in the shower, or not washing the car with a hosepipe, or not watering the lawn. Though these minor steps are also important to begin with.

Water is linked to almost everything in the world. Without water, you cannot grow food, produce much energy (electricity), nor can you maintain good health and adopt hygiene. Want to know how and where it is needed? Read on …

Food production

Agriculture (or food production that also includes livestock and aquaculture) is the biggest user of world’s fresh water resources. Demand for food is growing because of increase in population. Obviously, more people need more food. So one of the ways to conserve water here is to consume food items that need less water to grow; for example, eating more vegetables than meat and dairy products, as producing meat requires more water than crops such as rice.

To produce one kilogramme of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres of water, whereas it generally takes 3,000-5,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice, 2,000 litres for 1kg of soya, 900 litres for 1kg of wheat and 500 litres for 1kg of potatoes.

So, you see how your food choices affect water usage. And your water footprint is seen in whatever you eat or drink. (Water footprint is the amount of water used to produce each of the goods we use, such as growing rice, making a pair of jeans, etc.)

Another thing to understand is that when you leave food on your plate, you not only waste food, which can be used to feed a poor child, but also waste the water used to produce it.

Use of modern methods of irrigation or using multiple sources of water such as rain water harvesting and waste water reuse, are some of the other ways to save water. This is all the more important because due to increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns, crop yield is expected to suffer in many tropical developing countries — unfortunately, these are the regions where food security is already a problem.

Electricity

Worldwide hydroelectricity is the major source of power generation, i.e. energy/electricity is produced through water, though now alternative sources such as solar are being sought. Electricity is important for not only running our industries, but is also used in food production and supply. And, of course, we need it to light up our homes, schools and offices, and run house-hold equipment and appliances, not to forget your computers.

Health and hygiene

You are always being told to drink sufficient water and wash your hands before meals and after using the toilet, as it is good for your health. But do you know that almost one-third of the world population (2.2 billion people) does not have access to clean drinking water and 4.2 billion lack access to proper sanitation facilities (i.e., they do not have toilets to go to and tap water to wash their hands). This affects their health as due to the use of unclean water and not washing up properly — in the absence of water and soap — they often fall sick (have diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases) and suffer from malnutrition because of frequent illnesses.

It is said that every person needs approximately 50 litres of water per day to meet their most basic needs. It is estimated that by the year 2040, one in four of the world’s children under 18 — which comes up to about 600 million children — will be living in areas where water is extremely scarce.

Even in cities, in localities where water supply is irregular or all households do not have water connections, you must have seen children standing with containers at community taps to get water for domestic use. They often have to go to other localities in search of water. The situation is worse in rural areas where well water is often not drinkable, and women and children walk long distances to get water. This water may also be contaminated and not safe.

When children are busy in such activities, they often have to miss school which affects their education. Combined with ill health due to the use of unclean water, they often drop out of school.

Water and ecosystem

It’s not only human beings who need water for survival. Everything on earth and underwater, i.e. forests, wetlands, grasslands, marine life, are a critical part of global water cycle, and form the ecosystem of an area. An ecosystem is made up of all living and non-living things in an area, including plants, animals, water, rocks, soil and sand, and their interaction with one another. Everything in an ecosystem has a role to play and contributes to maintaining the health and productivity of an ecosystem.

Shortage and pollution of water is disturbing the ecosystem, resulting in food scarcity (we have earlier read how much water is used in food production) which in turn results in malnutrition and poor health.

Water is life, for all living things, thus we must use it with care so as to make it sufficiently available for us and others.

Published in Dawn, Young World, March 21st, 2020