12 March 2011

Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink*

By Marguerite Finn

It is World Water Day on 22 March and the theme for 2011 will be “Water for Cities – Responding to the Urban Challenge". The day is an initiative which grew out of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Rio Earth Summit) and it will also be one of the key dates in the lead-up to the 2012 (Rio + 20) conference. On World Water Day this year, we know that there are seven billion people in the world and that half of them live in towns and cities. That’s a lot of urban dwellers – especially when you realise that each one of them is entitled to sufficient, safe and affordable freshwater and sanitation as a fundamental human right. Economic reasoning dictates that an increasing number of people will move to urban areas to seek a higher quality of life. It is estimated that by the year 2030, approximately five billion people – that is 60 percent of the world’s population – will be residing in urban areas.

This has important ramifications for the supply of fresh water. In this increasingly urban world, water supply is related to costly urban infrastructure, which must be financed. Recent studies show that within the next twenty years water demand in many countries will exceed supply by as much as 40 percent. Scientists, policy makers and water economists have all been looking at this problem at a recent meeting in Canada. They believe that a new way of thinking is needed because looming shortages caused by climate change and population growth are threatening communities, industry and agriculture. The world we live in is mostly made of water; but, only 2.5 percent of the world’s water is fresh water and less than 1 percent is available for use.

So how are we using our water today? Agriculture is the biggest water user and is responsible for seventy to eighty percent of a country’s water consumption. Billions of dollars are spent in subsidies to farmers throughout the world but they are allocated without any consideration to water problems, thus creating artificially a water crisis, which will manifest itself as a food security crisis. Margaret Catley-Carlson, a renowned water economist, argues: “The water problem is as much a financial problem as a water problem. There is no solution to the water problem without some overhaul of the way agriculture is subsidized”.

Industry and manufacturing also use a disproportionate amount of fresh water and produce almost as much pollution, which affects rivers, streams and drinking water." However, let us look at the situation locally. The ‘per person’ count is what really matters. With higher levels of development come higher demands on water. That is why the announcement in the EDP of 28 February that the “region needs a growth plan to boost economy” is so alarming, when you realise that the same growth plan is based upon building over 34,000 new houses in Broadland and South Norfolk. This will put at least another 34,000 cars on already crowded roads – along with the desire to wash them every weekend!

Anglian Water said at the recent Examination in Public into the Joint Core Strategy (which came up with the figure of 34,000 houses) that they could provide the water required for the new housing developments but “it will cost you”, because after 2016, new methods will have to be developed to supply water. They did not say how much it would cost and, oddly enough, nobody asked – perhaps being too frightened of the answer! And before we take personal consumption into account, we must not forget the huge amount of precious fresh water that will be used in building these houses – which are unwanted on this scale. One of the most stupid things about our management of water in the developed countries is that we use purified potable water for everything: recreation, irrigation, food processing, sanitation, clothes manufacture, armaments, refining oil into petrol etc.

Water cannot be created – it can only be managed – and we are making a bad job of ‘managing’ our water use. We need to manage our demand – and the first logical way of doing that is by metering water. Anywhere there is metering, demand drops and the “waste not, want not” principle is invoked. There are other ways of conserving and reusing water: rainwater harvesting is just one of them, using ‘greywater’ (collected from showers and baths) for flushing the loo is another. It would not be rocket science to incorporate these methods into the design of all new houses being built. These water conservation measures could reduce household demand in developed countries by 70 percent. But the area I believe that most people do not even think about is that of “virtual water”. Virtual water is embedded in the production process of almost every thing that touches our lives – want we eat, what we wear, what we use. Manufacturing a desk-top computer, for example, requires 1,500 litres of water or 1.5 tonnes.

A pair of denim jeans uses up six tonnes, a kilogram of wheat uses one tonne, a kilogram of beef uses up to 30 tonnes. As ‘consumers’ we must start asking questions about the goods we buy – how much water was used in their production? Gradually the message will get through to the buyers and producers. This World Water Day we are being given a “wake up” call – at an individual level we can make great savings by using water sensibly – that is, where appropriate, using harvested rain water for our gardens and using grey water for disposing of our waste. I think we would be surprised at the difference that would make. *Title taken from The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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