Where would we be without it?
Earth isn’t called the Water Planet for nothing—an abundance of water and the right temperatures to make it available separate us from any other place we know of in the universe. Yet, the oceanic ecosystem is struggling, droughts are prevalent from East Africa to the American Southwest, floods are a regular feature in South Asia and southern Africa, groundwater is being depleted, and our petroleum addiction fuels water pollution from the Gulf of Mexico to the Dineh reservation to the Amazon. And then climate change is changing the global hydrological cycle. Water woes!
Water not only makes life possible on our planet - it makes life beautiful - as here at Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park
Water = life on earth
Accessible water sets Planet Earth apart from every other planet we have discovered—in the universe. Water covers a majority of the planet's surface, and while only 3 percent of this is fresh water—and two-thirds of that is locked up as ice in the polar regions or in glaciers—there’s still plenty to sustain life.
But this life-giving liquid is in jeopardy from human activity
Over 800 million people in the world don't have ready access to clean water, and some three times this number have inadequate sanitation. As a result, 9000 children die every day from causes related to impure water. In the USA, water is increasingly imperiled by hydraulic
fracking in search of oil and natural gas. Unlike other water used by the energy sector, this water contains so many chemicals and other impurities that it is lost for other purposes—such as drinking or irrigating crops.
One fracking well can use—and foul—as much as 30 million gallons of water, and there will be a million more wells in the next 20 years. And see what fracking is doing to the Dine' reservation in New Mexico!
As the climate warms and becomes less stable, it will affect rainfall patterns, drenching some areas with more rain than ever, while creating some 50,000 square miles of new desert every year. These weather-related "natural disasters" threaten the well-being of 135 million people in 100 countries—and are predicted to create tens of millions of environmental refugees in the coming decades. Low-lying areas, such as coastal regions of South Asia, are already being affected by rising sea levels and drought, resulting in climate refugees in Vietnam; the same can be said for Central Americans fleeing toward the US border. Meanwhile, Greenland will shed 400 billion tons of ice into the North Atlantic this year, four times the rate of a decade earlier.
Overuse and Pollution
In the US, we're over-pumping our aquifers (underground reservoirs of water) by 3.2 billion gallons a day. The Ogallala Aquifer, irrigating one-fifth of the US grain crop, is dropping by 12 billion cubic meters a year. A leading cause is meat consumption, as it can take nearly 2000 gallons of water to irrigate the grain to produce 1 pound of beef. In other parts of the world, water sources are even more imperiled. In India, Coca-Cola bottling plants for soft drinks and water cause aquifers to drop dramatically. Water privatization is also an issue in many areas, as corporations try to capture the market on this precious resource.
Primarily due to agricultural run-off (farm waste and fertilizers) and burning fossil fuels, there are over 400 "dead zones" in the world's seas and oceans—including in the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico—places so oxygen-depleted that sea life cannot live there. In addition, mercury levels in the oceans have risen precipitously during the industrial era, adding this toxin to the human food chain.
Humanity’s fate may be nearly as closely tied to the oceans as it is to dry land. Oceans play a key role in oxygen generation (phytoplankton creating as much as 70%! of the planet’s air!), CO2 absorption (the seas absorb 30% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions, with phytoplankton playing a key role), climate regulation (the oceans have absorbed much of the excess heat from climate change, sparing us – for now – the full impacts of a warming world), food supply (the primary source of protein for 2.6b people), and employment (60m people in fishing and aquaculture).
Of course, the oceans are in trouble. One-third of global fish stocks are over-fished; unintended catch (bycatch) accounts for up to 40% of all fish caught, killing over 60 billion pounds of sea life every year; so much carbon has settled on the seas that acidification prevents shellfish from forming shells (has to be embarrassing!); every year, 8 million tons of plastic enters the oceans (now found inside creatures at the bottom of the Marianas Trench); an over-heated ocean is a) killing coral b) sending fish to cooler waters, as warm water holds less oxygen c) expanding the volume of the water, leading to sea level rise d) melting glaciers (ditto); making food for pets, pigs and poultry consumes about one-third of wild fish caught.
How do we safeguard this largely unseen and unappreciated ally?
Plastic: coastal nations from Vietnam to Panama to Kenya are banning or reducing plastic – why not the USA?
Subsidies: nations give $35b in harmful subsidies to the fishing industry; the US government has recently moved to do the same
Protection: The US Senate has blocked ratification of the UN Law of the Sea, a key international treaty
Seafood Best Choices (eating seafood without damaging biodiversity and endangering fish stocks)– Abalone (farmed), Arctic Char (farmed), Catfish (US), Clams, Cockles, Mussels Cod: Pacific (AK), Crab: King, Snow & Tanner (AK), Lionfish (US), Oysters (farmed & Canada), Rockfish (AK, CA, OR & WA), Salmon (NZ, US West Coast), Scallops (farmed), Shrimp (US farmed), Squid (US), Tilapia (Canada, Ecuador, Peru & US), Trout (US farmed), Tuna: Albacore (trolls, pole & lines) [See Seafood Watch for more info]
Glimmer of good news: There were only 450 humpback whales left 70 years ago; thanks to protection, they are now near their historic high of 27,000. Whales sequester carbon, plus their poop feeds phytoplankton – see above for why that matters J
US consumers purchase 30 billion bottles of water per year, spending over $20 billion. Producing them required 17 million barrels of oil; then we throw away 60 million every day. The UN Millennium Goals ask for $15 billion a year to cut in half the number of people in the world who don't have clean water. Go figure.
Want to keep the water flowing?
Think outside the bottle! Join campaigns to assure clean water for all—or start your own, like these girls from Bali did, to prevent plastic pollution of our oceans. Meanwhile, the world spends over $300 billion annually on bottled water—the majority of this in the Rich World where other sources of clean water are readily available. Resist!
Stuff – consuming less stuff saves water (making a car=over 40,000 gallons; producing 1 gallon gas=18 gallons; 12 ounces soda=60 ounces of water; one pound paper=10 pounds water) ; pair of jeans=1500 gallons
Stuff II – recycling paper, aluminum, plastic and glass saves up to 80% of the energy, water and pollution
Diet – if US'ers cut meat consumption by half, we'd save 14 Colorado Rivers' worth of water and stop a lot of water pollution! (the average US meat-based diet requires 1350 gallons of water per day!)
Diet II – eating organic foods keeps fertilizers out of waterways and uses 30-50% less energy
Just Don’t Do It – the most heavily irrigated crop in US? lawn grass, with 25 million acres under irrigation (golf courses use 4 billion gallons per day in US).
Energy – conserving energy reduces acid rain and water usage (generating 1 kilowatt requires 2 gallons of water); climate change is the greatest threat to the world's water supply
Conserve – preserving forests safeguards water cycles and water supplies. Support NCP's Two (!) Million Tree Campaign!
Calculate your own daily water consumption here.
Join us on a Learning Tour to the Amazon, Alaska, Burma, Malawi or other places where this key resource is at issue—or imperiled
The Greenland ice sheet: as large as the USA east of the Mississippi River and 2 miles deep at some points
Greenland's ice is going fast due to climate change, at the end of the summer losing as much as 12 billion tons of meltwater per day. The immediate issue is that all this freshwater flowing into the North Atlantic could eventually stall the Gulf Stream (there is come indication this is already happening), the warm waters of which are what keeps Europe from becoming Siberia. If it ever completely melts, likely a 23-foot rise in sea levels.
NCP raised funds to dig a well for a Batwa community in Congo. Previously the women had been walking two miles fo fetch water from a river - hard work, sometimes dangerous, and resulting in much water-borne disease. The well serves 850 families.
Ponds of toxic waste from the oil industry in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest - the headwaters of the mighty Amazon river. The USA imports 200,000 barrels of oil each day from Ecuador - this is what is left behind.
Recent studies have shown that mountaintop glaciers in the Himalaya are melting much more rapidly that previously thought, sometimes leading to catastrophic flooding. About half of the world's people—including millions in the American Southwest—depend on snow melt for dry-season water supply.
NCP partner communities in Malawi have been pummeled by a series of climate change-fueled droughts and floods, leading to widespread food insecurity.
NCP's Two (!) Million Tree Campaign is planting 200,000 trees per year in Malawi and other partner areas in Africa, Asia and the Ecuadorian Amazon. Benefits include regulating rainfall patters, slowing run-off (and consequent flooding and soil loss) and mitigating climate change.
Sources: The World's Water, Peter Gleick; Earth Under Fire , Gary Braasch; The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan; UNDP; State of the World 2004, World Watch Institute; Earth Policy Institute; United Nations Environment Program