The Ancient Mariner and his men suffered horrific thirst because their ship becalmed at sea; he wouldn’t recognize the water problem we have today.
Scientists monitor the state of the planet: there is the Living Planet Index, which looks at the trends of vertebrate species, the Ecological Footprint that studies the demand on the world’s total resources, and the Water Footprint examines the global water supply.
In some ways, this last might well be considered the most important because without it life would simply cease to exist. It’s often hard to imagine, especially in the United States, the full extent of the problem given the fact we simply turn a faucet and there it is. Populations in the southwest and California are seeing the issue more up close and personally over the worst drought in a millennia. Our thinking is led astray by the fact that 70% of the planet is covered by water (326 million trillion gallons of it). However, when you scale down how much of that is usable and combine it with the Ecological footprint, the situation is alarming. In rough numbers, 2.5% of the total amount of water is fresh-water. Of that, two-thirds remains locked away in glaciers and ice caps. More of it is stored in the atmosphere, the soil, and in aquifers. Rivers, lakes, and swamps account for a mere .008% to sustain the world. Industrialized countries utilize technology to augment those needs by harvesting from deep-water acquifers, but the rate of depletion, here and across the globe, now outstrips the water cycle that returns usable water to the system.
North America is the largest exporter of cereal grains worldwide, and these crops are heavily dependent on water sources. As we deplete those sources to serve the worlds growing populations, especially China, India, and Nigeria, we will ultimately fall prey to the problem brought out by the Ecological footprint. Little did I wonder in 1970, as I struggled through my first semesters in high school, that it was the year the global population reached a level of parity with the planet’s ability to sustain it. Today, with seven billion people, the estimate is that it would take 1.5 planet Earths to sustain life. By 2050 the world’s population might reach, or even exceed, ten billion. The Living Planet Index has shown us that in the same forty-five year period, there has been a 52% decline in natural wildlife through hunting, habitat loss and degradation, and climate change; this brought about by irresponsible birth rates.
Of our current population, there are 769 million people without ready access to clean water. Three billion people, who live near one of the world’s 200 river basins, experience water scarcity at least part of the year.
There are organizations in our own country who seek to provide stop-gap measures in underdeveloped countries where women and children (“a child dies on average every 20 seconds from water-related disease”) must spend a significant part of each day hauling water for their families and villages – that’s forty-four pounds for a five-pound jug of water lugged over an average of 3.75 miles per day.
Water.org, a non-profit organization formed in 2009, from an alliance between WaterPartners International and H2O Africa, led by actor Matt Damon and Gary White, seeks to leverage commercial and social capital sources to make loans for drilling wells through their Water Credit program or by direct investment in areas for the “poorest of the poor”. To date, they have made over half a million loans with a 97% repayment rate in nine countries.
In 2008, a small group of college students led by then 19 year old Seth Maxwell, gave birth to an organization, the Thirst Project, that has served nearly 300,000 people in thirteen countries by drilling wells (40-year life span) or providing bio-sand filters (10-year life span) that remove pathogens and solids from water. To date, they have completed over 900 projects. The unique part of their program is that most of the fundraising effort involves over three hundred thousand high school and college students across the country. Their efforts have attracted such people as actor Pauley Perrette; Michelle O’Droske of Primerica; Tina Silvestri, the former vice president of operations for NBC owned TV stations; and Robbie Brenner, a film producer and president of production for Relativity Media to its Board of Directors. [Disclosure: my ex-wife and son are very committed and involved in this effort.]
To visit either of their websites (click on their hyperlinks) will yield an enormous enlightenment on the world’s water problems and each deserves consideration for support.
My only suggestion to the Thirst Project is a review of its catchy slogan: Water is a Human Right. While it’s true that many have circled the wagons around their essential cause, it also misdirects the fact that water use isn’t just about human consumption. One might even argue that access isn’t really a right at all, but simply a life necessity for all living things – it’s a shared planetary resource. That minute amount of fresh water must go to irrigation, livestock, domestic use, industrial use, the rapidly diminishing numbers of wildlife, forests, rainforests, and aquaculture. In this country, we take so much for granted. I personally measured one day’s water usage (not including running either the dishwasher or the washing machine) – it totaled 89 gallons: shower – 75, brushing teeth – 3, three toilet flushes – 9, drinking – 1, and my two dogs – 1.
We all need to adopt more responsible thinking about our resources in general, but most especially, water. If we don’t, we might all find ourselves lamenting the catchphrase of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem and the title of this post.