For those living in industrial countries, it is easy to take water for granted. Every home has a seemingly unlimited supply of clean, crystal clear water, plentiful and suited for any purpose. Americans have the luxury of filtered drinking water, taking long showers, watering their yards, and filling and draining pools at their leisure. When Americans are too lazy to fill a glass or bottle with the water from their tap, entire cases of purified water can be purchased for less than five-dollars at any local grocery or convenience store. From childhood onward, those living in first-world countries are groomed to think water scarcity is irrelevant to them. Television documentaries and social media lead many to believe that only impoverished countries with hot climates are affected by water scarcity, most often depicting rural African villages and Indian cities. What the privileged few don’t realize is that the endless supply of water they have is nothing but an illusion of plenty.
It is estimated that only 2.5 percent of Earth’s water is freshwater. Out of this 2.5 percent, less than 1 percent of all water is actually safe for consumption, a figure which is on the decline (Barlow). In other words, Earth’s supply of drinkable water is dangerously low, and every region will eventually see the effects. In the near future, water could become the oil of the twenty-first century: essential, valuable, and most of all, limited. But where is all of Earth’s drinkable water going? Due to the presence of water pollution, climate change, and water misuse, the issue of water scarcity continues to be increasingly exacerbated. Unless the issue is addressed, water security will be more elusive for following generations.
With the state of today’s sewage and agricultural systems, water pollution and contamination are one of the main causes of fresh water scarcity. In many countries, the only available fresh water sources are contaminated, and unsafe for human consumption. In India, a country universally known for its water scarcity problems, 75 percent of rivers and lakes are so polluted that they can’t be used for bathing or drinking (Barlow). Similarly, a 2005 nationwide survey found less than 25 percent of the Pakistani populace has access to clean drinking water (Barlow). In Russia, many rivers carry waterborne diseases, and 60 percent of rural residents regularly drink from contaminated wells (Barlow). According to the European Commission, 20 percent of all surface water in Europe is “seriously threatened,” (Barlow). In addition to the lack of clean drinking water that scarcity comes with, 80 percent of illnesses circulating in developing countries are caused by poor sanitation systems and dirty water sources (Ahmad). Though many industrialized countries have been safe thus far from extreme contamination, their current rate of contamination is much higher than that of developing countries. Technologically advanced countries rely heavily on cheap convenience, and exhibit more environmentally harmful behaviors. Some top contributors to water pollution are plastic waste, farm runoff, pesticides, minerals, and runoff from industrial processes.
Taking one stroll through a local grocery or convenience store is all it takes to see that plastic is designed to be waste. Every plastic peanut butter jar, cookie tray, and chip bag are eventually destined to end up in one place: the trash bin. The reason for this is the dominion of single use products over, not only the United States, but most of the world. Given recycling was more prevalent, this may not be a bad thing. However, studies have shown that only 9% of discarded plastic has been recycled since 1950 (Abbing). Whether this statistic was born from consumer laziness, or the high collecting costs recycling comes with, the fact remains 91% of discarded plastic ends up in landfills, littering our streets, and in essential water sources. In 2010, scientists estimated that coastline countries were responsible for up to eight million tons of plastic dumping annually. That’s the same as a truckload of waste being tipped into the ocean every minute. This figure is only expected to grow; by 2030 this will be two truckloads, and by 2050 it will be four truckloads.
Though all forms of plastic waste acts as pollutants, plastic becomes most harmful when it is broken down into small fragments known as microplastics. Though plastic is unable to break down chemically when left in oceans and lakes, it does break down physically, sometimes becoming invisible to the naked eye. As more plastic waste accumulates, plaguing the main source of earth’s fresh water replenishment, humans are ingesting more and more of it. In the future, prolonged microplastic ingestion could result in serious health complications, just as it has for many marine animals. Plastic fragmentation doesn’t stop at microplastics, however. There are even smaller plastic particles swimming in the seas. These are called nanoplastics, and they are so small that there is no reliable way to measure the extent of their presence. Nanoplastics also have a surface area massively larger than their volume, meaning they can bind more toxins. The mere presence of plastic fragmentation can compromise the health of both humans and aquatic life.
Another leading cause of water pollution is land based chemicals such as metals, pesticides, and oil. Metals are released into water through mining and industrial processes. Generally, this includes cadmium, copper, zinc, chromium, silver, and most infamously, mercury (Weis). Metal contaminates globally eaten fish and seafood, and may even alter the genes of marine life, damage the nervous system, and transfer toxins to developing embryos (Weis). Fresh water sources are most likely to receive these contaminants by runoff and wastewater ejected from industrial processes. Unlike metals, most pesticides make their way to water sources from agriculture, lawns, golf courses, and gardens, instead of being directly introduced to the water. The role of pesticides, and herbicides, is to kill organisms; when met with water-based ecosystems, this can cause extreme toxicity (Weis). In the Unites States, 40 percent of rivers and 46 percent of lakes are too dangerous for fishing, drinking, and even swimming due to toxic farm runoff (Barlow). Polluted runoff can contaminate entire lakes, rivers, and even the ocean, which creates problems with fresh water access and replenishment.
Sewage is also very harmful to essential water sources, and detrimental to health of humans and animals. Annually, more than 860 billion gallons of sewage escapes sewer systems across the United States. This means highly toxic human wastewaters floods basements, spill onto streets, and are washed away to pollute fresh water sources. Though waterborne diseases may not seem like a pressing issue to those living in first world countries, it is estimated that up to 3.5 million Americans get mildly sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or touching water presumed to be safe for consumption (American Rivers). Sewage runoff has caused many illnesses, and is a very serious issue within the worldwide water crisis.
Climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions have a very dangerous impact on water scarcity, one that is often overlooked due to its overall harmful presence. Global warming is infamous for melting land-based ice, glaciers for example. This causes sea levels to rise, which in turn contaminates groundwater and freshwater sources with salt. This is known as saltwater intrusion (Thompson). Climate change also alters the transfer of water between the sea, air, and land, or more commonly known as the hydrological cycle (Postel). Since warmer air can hold more water vapor, rainfall patterns will shift, and hurricanes and monsoons will intensify. Many areas are expected to experiences serious drought, since warmer air will boost evaporation by 7-15 percent. When rain does come, instead of being absorbed into the dry, hard soil to create harvestable fresh water, the water will become runoff (Postel). Not only will this create problems with soil quality, but crops and livestock will require more water in compensation of the heat.
Water scarcity also threatens fragile ecosystems, which subsequently disturbs the hydrological cycle. As wetlands and rainforests are rapidly destroyed, water is less likely to soak into soil, and is instead carried out to the sea. The destruction of water retentive landscapes means that less precipitation remains in river basins and continental watersheds (Barlow). Wetlands and lakes are shrinking as rivers are diverted to cities and agricultural fields (Postel). Wetlands are already being drained of their water in the battle of water scarcity, which makes the future of water replenishment seem even bleaker.
Along with water scarcity comes many economic consequences. With a presence of water scarcity, crop-producing and farming regions will suffer economically. Water will also increase in value, meaning food will become less accessible, and produce prices will skyrocket (Pereira). Water scarcity will increase the cost of any consumer good that uses copious amounts of water in production, this includes clothing and electronics, both industries known for their astronomical rates of water use (Ahmad). In high income nations, industry accounts for up to 59 percent of total freshwater use, which is no coincidence (Barlow). For many businesses, having secure access to fresh water is very important. Given an area is undesirable due to a lack of freshwater, its job opportunities and population are bound to decline. In areas where water is scarce, and soil is poor, natural resources are not able to cope with the demands of the modern society. A market economy has no chance of functioning properly in water scarce conditions.
Water Misuse and overuse contributes to water scarcity. Many industries have unsustainable practices, using massive amounts of water, and polluting what water they use (Ahmad). The agricultural industry is a large culprit. Irrigation efficiency worldwide is estimated at less than 40%, so most of the water diverted for agriculture never even benefits crops (Postel). Another source of water overuse is the mass depletion of groundwater. Groundwater is the water present beneath Earth’s surface in soil pore spaces and in the fractures of rock formations (Barlow). About 2 billion people worldwide depend on groundwater supplies for clean water. Currently, groundwater is being used faster than nature can replenish it. If pumping is not brought into balance with recharge, eventually the underground supply becomes too expensive to harvest, and too salty to use as it is pulled from greater depths (Postel). Deforestation and land degradation make it so soil can’t hold water, and less groundwater is replenished as a result. To countries that get most of their rainfall in a three to four-month time period, groundwater is essential (Postel). For a country like India, for example, absorbent soil and groundwater replenishment is the difference between extreme drought and devastating floods. Depleting the earth of groundwater will have serious consequences for agriculture, and the hydrological cycle.
When introduced to the crisis of water scarcity, many people suggest desalination, the process of removing salt and other minerals from seawater. Theoretically speaking, if a sustainable method of desalination were perfected, then water could potentially be seen as an infinite resource. However, there are many reasons why desalination is neither realistic, or the answer to the problem of water scarcity. As it is now, the process of desalination is outrageously expensive, requires large amounts of energy, and can be extremely damaging to the environment (Hydrofinity). Not to mention this method of water replenishment is only really practicable for coastal communities. There are two main methods of desalination, thermal distillation and membrane filtration. Thermal distillation involves boiling seawater and collecting the purified water vapor. Membrane filtration, on the other hand, pushes water through a series of microscopic sieves rolled up into larger cylindrical filter which separates pure water from both salt molecules and impurities. Not only is this extremely expensive, but a single desalination plant averages 15,000 kilowatts of power for every million gallons of fresh water produced (Hydrofinity). All methods of desalination produce a waste product that is dumped back into the ocean, or injected deep into underground wells. Pumping this salty brine back into the ocean harms aquatic life. When weighing the pros and cons of desalination plants, it becomes apparent that desalination does more harm to the environment than good.
Large-scale water filtration also shares similar setbacks to desalination. Both desalination and water purification involve the use of filters, but current methods are energy intensive and costly. The reason why water filtration is so expensive is because of the microscopic scale of bacteria (Loe). The particles in water that make it unsafe to drink are generally too small to remove with the current commercialized membrane technology. Even when it is possible to remove particles like pathogens, bacteria, and salt ions, it’s expensive to supply the power required for the process. Currently, scientists and engineers from all backgrounds are researching ways to improve upon current filtration designs, expand the efficiency of removing harmful particulates, and lower the cost of operation (Loe). Though large-scale water filtration may be a viable option for water replenishment in the future, as of right now water scarcity needs to be battled using different methods.
Water scarcity can be combatted with in many ways. One of these ways is to develop sustainable habits to reduce personal overuse. A toilet with a leak from tank to bowl could waste up to one hundred gallons of water a day (Postman). This is why it’s important to eradicate leaks and other water inefficiencies. Installing water saving appliances such as low flush toilets and low flow water faucets will greatly minimize household water use. Always keep in mind that some household appliances, such as dishwashers, will save water. While handwashing a load of dishes, up to 27 gallons of water is used. With a dishwashing machine, a load of dishes could take as little as 3 gallons to clean (Postman). Taking shorter showers and, and turning off the faucet when it’s not in use is also helpful. An effective technique is reusing greywater at home (Postel). This can be done by collecting excess shower or bath water, and using it to do things such as water your plants, or dump it into the toilet bowl. Though many people find it pointless to reduce their household water use since large corporations and industries are responsible for a majority of overuse and contamination, if everyone employed these water saving habits and large improvement will be seen.
Since irrigation is such a water draining industry, using water efficient irrigation systems will save tremendous amounts of water each year (Pannirselvam). Traditional irrigation practices use flood and furrow irrigation. In both cases, so much water flows beyond the crop’s root zone that large amounts of pesticide contaminated water flow off fields, soiling fresh water sources. Not only are the most popular irrigation practices wasteful of water, but they also compromise fresh water sources (Pereira). Switching to water saving irrigation systems would greatly impact the state of current water reserves. Firstly, growing low water-use plants in good quality, water retaining soil will reduce the need to large amounts of water in agriculture. The simplest way to reduce water overuse is to water crop by hand, rather than using water intensive irrigation systems. However, this will only work on small scales, and isn’t realistic for large agricultural companies. Drip irrigation could be a viable replacement. Drip irrigation involves supplying water straight to the soil instead of watering over top of the plant. This reduces water evaporation, doesn’t wash away mulch or topsoil, and prevents farm runoff (Pereira).
Increasing water storage in reservoirs will allow for more rainwater to be stored, therefore lessening water scarcity (Pannirselvam). Reservoirs can also be improved to ensure water is successfully kept. One of the enemies of water scarcity is evaporation. First, reservoir locations should be placed in areas that reduce evaporation. By shielding reservoirs from solar radiation by covering its surface by adding floating covers, evaporation will be reduced. Reservoirs with deep storage are also preferred, since a larger surface area of water means it will evaporate quicker and more easily. These rules go for many forms of water harvesting and collection.
Though the water crisis is a worldwide issue, sitting on years of water misuse and environmental damage, everyone has the opportunity to lessen their personal impact, whether that be by monitoring the household water use, or limiting contaminated runoff. Though it is possible that the current generation won’t see the effects of water scarcity, their posterity certainly will. Water is a finite source, and once that source is depleted, replenishment will not be easily obtainable. While many sources of clean water are still available, it is important to care for those sources. It is important to address the issue of water pollution, climate change, and water misuse in the present to ensure water security for future generations.