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Water, Water, Everywhere, But Not Enough to Drink

Updated on December 4, 2016

Water is Life

Water is the driving force for life. While for many of us it can be easy to take for granted what comes out of the tap; water is a finite resource. while it is reusable, much of it is not suitable for drinking. The following goes into where Earth's water is located, how it is used, and why water demands will increase in the years to come.

Where is the Water?

While our planet is largely covered with water, the majority of it is not drinkable without significant energy being used to purify and filter it. In total there are about 1,386 quadrillion cubic meters of water on earth and about 35 quadrillion cubic meters of it is fresh water with more than two-thirds frozen in the ice caps, glaciers, permafrost, and etc. Out of all the water only about 1 trillion is inside all living things, plant or animal. All in all, about 1% of fresh water is available for direct human usage and is replenishable with precipitation. This amounts to roughly 300-400 trillion cubic meters of water.

Water Pop Quiz

How Much Water is Freshwater on Earth?

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Water Source
Other Salt Water (Salt Lakes, etc)
Glaciers, Ice Caps
Ground Water
Surface Water/Everything Else

How is Water Used?

Assuming that a human drinks 0.75 gallons or 2.8 liters a day that amounts to roughly 2.5 million cubic meters of water consumed a day. However, human direct consumption ranks very small in the use of water in our lives. This would amount to roughly 2% of annual water withdrawals.

Water places a major role in our lives from the food we eat, the energy we use, and products we enjoy. The overwhelming use of water is agriculture accounting for 70% of all water withdrawals. A large extent of this is used for irrigation. This includes the vegetables and grains we eat as well as the vegetables, grains, and grass eaten by the animals we consume. It is important to note that a large portion of irrigation water goes towards the feeding livestock we later consume. For example 1 lb of beef takes 1,799 gallons to produce and 1 lb of chicken takes 468 gallons of water. This compares to 13 gallons for 1 lb of lettuce or 108 gallons for a lb of corn. Also, water is used in aquaculture as well.

Water is also used in industry, amounting to 20% of all water use in some reports. Water is used in the processing of food, metals, plastics, papers, textiles, and various other goods. Also, it is used in the production of energy and as a cooling medium.

Lastly, water is used domestically. Primarily it is used for cleaning and sanitation from toilets, showers, faucets, and laundry. Then, of course there is the water we drink and cook with.

Water, Who Has It, Who Doesn't?

There are roughly 7.2 billion people in the world and that number is climbing rapidly. Out of the total world population roughly 750 million people lack access to clean water. In perspective, that is a little more than twice the population of the USA, half of China, or 12 times the United Kingdom. The areas hit hardest with water inequality are Africa, Oceania, and Southern Asia. They account for almost 97% of the individuals without access to clean water. Also at the time of this article, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation or roughly 1 in 3 people on Earth today.

Water scarcity is particularly common in inland areas where there is not a lot of surface water. Also, in areas where there is surface water, contamination from waste (human or other sources) can make it dangerous without filtration and water treatment. Lack of water can lead to the spread of disease and in many cases death. Also, lack of water for agriculture can lead to malnutrition and starvation.

Line of Jugs at Empty Distribution Tap
Line of Jugs at Empty Distribution Tap

How To Help

Below is a list of a few of the many organizations working to end water scarcity among other issues.
Non-profit humanitarian organization focused on providing people with access to clean water and sanitation world wide.

Engineers Without Borders
Non-profit humanitarian organization that supports community-driven development programs world wide via the design and implementation of projects ranging from water, sanitation, infrastructure, electricity, agriculture and others. As a side note, this is the organization I currently volunteer with.

Charity: Water
Non-profit humanitarian organization centered on bringing clean and safe drinking water to every person. Also, it is worth noting that all their operating costs are funded by private donors so all of your donation goes to projects.

What's the Problem?

Currently, groundwater is a tremendous source of our freshwater. However, not all of it is replenishes as fast as it is drawn and much is lost and transferred to other water sources that are not suitable for consumption or freshwater altogether. For example, the High Plains aquifers have lost 350 cubic kilometers of water over the last 50 years. Furthermore, it is predicted with current depletion rates that the Southern High Plains will be unable to support agriculture in the region in 30 years. In 2013, 25 cubic kilometers of water were pumped from 40 aquifers and this withdrawal rate continues to grow. Also to note, 60% of irrigation water in the United States come from groundwater.


A Case for Water

Our population is expected to grow by 25% over the next 40 years. With that comes a higher demand for food which is the largest constituent of water use. Also, as developing countries progress so does their demand for water for sanitation, consumption, agriculture, and industry. As mentioned before, literally a third of the world's population does not have access to toilets. While improved sanitation for all is something worth striving for it showcases another way in which we need and will continue water.

Overall, water means food, health, and overall life. This means that we will have to become all the more conscious and innovative about water to uplift those that don't have it while sustaining those of us in the developed world. Whether this means more efficiently using water or making better technologies to tap into the other water sources to augment supply, it is a problem we must solve in the years to come. Failure to recognize the importance of water could result in food shortages, poor health outcomes, and increased levels of conflict.


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