Water: AN OVER EXPLOITED RESOURCE?

By Virgina Thomas-Pickles, GLOBUS Correspondent

Water is clearly an important resource. We need to drink freshwater to survive. We need freshwater for sanitation. We need freshwater for agriculture. All essential for life to continue, yet despite it being so important, water is continually over-exploited and polluted. 

When thinking about water, you would be right to think that there is plenty of it- just consider the vastness of the oceans! However, the oceans contain saline water that is difficult to cost-effectively convert into freshwater. The much more useful freshwater actually only represents less than three percent of all the water on Earth- with over two thirds of this being frozen, and a further 30 percent located in the ground.  Perhaps the Earth’s freshwater supply is not as large as you thought.

With such limited amounts of freshwater available, it would be easy to assume that it is being used sparingly and respectfully. Unfortunately, you probably have to think again. 

The Hidden Uses of Water 

This short article cannot outline all the uses of water; it would be indefinite. Instead, it considers the water used within the lesser considered fashion and fracking industries, and the damage these industries are doing. 

The Fashion Industry 

We all know that fast fashion is bad for the planet in terms of landfill and greenhouse gas emissions. But did you know this industry also requires a huge amount of water? For example, to grow enough cotton for a T-shirt requires around 2,700 litres of water– which does not include any of the water needed for dyeing, or consumer washing. Considering that the World Health Organisation (WHO) say the minimum amount of water a person requires each day is 50-100 litres, a single cotton T-shirt equates to the basic water needs of up to 54 people!  

Not only does the industry use large quantities of water, but it pollutes huge quantities too. The textile industry comes second only to agriculture as being the greatest polluter of clean water, with many of the dyeing chemicals used hazardous to human health. These chemicals can enter local waterways, meaning local communities are exposed to polluted waters. How can 21st Century industries be allowed to get away with such pollution? 

The Fracking Industry 

Already a controversial industry, fracking uses fluids under high pressure to break rock, allowing gases to be extracted. These fracturing fluids are at least 90 percent water, with the US Environmental Protection Agency estimating that the annual water requirement for the fracking industry ‘ranges from 70 to 140 billion gallons’ (318-636 billion litres). This figure it concerning for a few reasons. Firstly, this equates to the basic annual water needs of over 34.8 million people (using the WHO’s 50 litre per day, based on the 140-billion-gallon figure). With many individuals around the world not having access to water, is fracking using such huge amounts justified? Secondly, this is an estimate; the true water use figure is unknown. When water is a finite resource, surely, we need to know exactly how much is being used.  

And it gets worse. Any fracking fluid that returns to the surface post fracking is most commonly disposed of by underground injection. This means polluted water is pumped into underground wells- raising concerns about groundwater contamination. With many of the chemicals used in fracking fluids being carcinogenic or having other impacts on human health, the thought of groundwater contamination is very concerning for local communities that use these wells for their drinking water.  

The future is not looking bright  

If industries today using and polluting huge quantities of water was not bad enough, the situation is likely to worsen in the future. Two of the main reasons for this are: 

Population Growth 

According to Kirsty Jenkinson from the World Resources Institute, water use has been increasing at more than twice that of the rate of population increase in the 20th Century, with increases set to continue into the future as the global population continues to rise. Not only is the global population increasing, but wealth is increasing also. This increasing affluence leads to more water-intensive lives, such as through dishwashers and increased energy use. 

Climate Change 

Coupled with population growth is climate change. This will see the water cycle intensify, with floods and droughts becoming more extreme, whilst frozen stores of freshwater will melt. Whilst you may think that frozen stores melting will increase available freshwater, polar ice melt will go directly into the oceans, and glacier melt in the long term will reduce a water source for rivers – so it not effective. Plus, the impacts of climate change will be disproportionately felt by the poor, with droughts occurring in much of the developing world like Sub-Saharan Africa. Considering the developed world is responsible for most of the historic greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change and polluting much of the freshwater needed to fulfil constant energy and consumption needs, the developing world being most impacted by the future situation is unjustified and unfair. 

What needs to be done? 

With a finite amount of freshwater on Earth, and an ever-growing population to divide it between, it is clear we need change. Furthermore, we must make sure those most impacted by water pollution and future changes are helped. Water directly features in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) in Goal 6- Clean Water and Sanitation. The targets for this goal include: 

  • Achieving universal access to affordable, safe drinking water by 2030 
  • Improving water quality by 2030 through targeting areas like pollution 
  • Increasing the water-use efficiency amongst all industries by 2030 

Source: United Nations 

But this is not the only goal concerning water. Water can be related to many other goals, such as SDG 2- Zero Hunger, as water will be needed to grow, manufacture and transport food. Also, SDG 16( Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) is highly relevant, as water shortages could cause both national and international conflicts. 

Whilst this article could say that we should all fix dripping taps and shorten our showers (which are great methods to reduce individual water consumption), we need to be realistic. Industry level change is needed to protect our freshwaters. We need tightened international legislation and regulation surrounding the use and treatment of water. Plus, companies need to all do their bit to innovate- creating and utilising water saving technology. 

Consider the fashion industry. We need this industry to reduce the quantity of water is uses, and reduce the pollution it creates. Levi’s, for example, has created Water<Less manufacturing which has saved over 3 billion litres of water since 2011, and seen the recycling of 5 billion litres. Whilst this is not going to tackle the water issue alone, it is a positive step forward that other companies can learn from. 

Conclusion 

We need water to survive. Industries need water to survive. We need significant change to ensure there is enough good quality freshwater to meet all our needs. We need that change now. 

Header Image by Manki Kim on Unsplash

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