Chapter 4

The Availability of Water

The millions of people who live along the coastlines or occupy the water-rich regions of the earth sometimes find it difficult to believe that millions of others struggle to find enough water to survive. It seems that the earth is oversupplied with water—until we understand some significant facts.

The most basic fact is that 96.3 percent of the earth’s water is found in its oceans. While seawater is critical in many ways to life everywhere, it’s too salty for people to use for drinking, for irrigation, and for most industrial purposes. Fresh water, then, amounts to only 3.7 percent of the world’s supply. That’s actually a pretty hefty amount of water, and if all of it were available for direct human use, it would more than supply all our fresh-water needs. But most of it is not available. The great bulk of it is locked up in glaciers, ice caps, the atmosphere, and in ground moisture. The amount available to human beings from wells, streams, and lakes is .007 percent of the global water supply!

To get a good picture of this, imagine that all the earth’s water is collected in a thirty-gallon drum. Now fill a gallon-size container from the drum. That represents all the fresh water there is on earth. Finally, pick up a teaspoon and dispense from the gallon container enough water to almost fill it. That’s all we have available for ready use. But, believe it or not, even that small amount can adequately provide humanity with all its fresh-water needs—that is if we don’t pollute it, don’t overexploit it, and don’t hoard it. We also need to keep in mind that the other air-breathing creatures of the world, also loved and cared for by their Creator, need their share of fresh water—a fact poetically presented to us by the biblical psalmist:

He sends the springs into the valleys; they flow among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. By them the birds of the heavens have their home; they sing among the branches. He waters the hills from His upper chambers; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works (Ps. 104:10-13).

If all the earth’s fresh water were neatly portioned out to human beings, we’d each have about 2 million gallons of the vital stuff. And over a normal span of life, we would take in and use only about 16,000 gallons of water. The amount ideally available to us and the amount we consume to keep our bodies working seems to indicate that we have a lot to spare—until we start adding up the hidden spending of H2O by the modern human. Consider these common water usages in the life of the typical American:

• 2 gallons to brush one’s teeth each day

• 4 gallons to flush a toilet once

• 12 gallons to put dishes through an automatic washer

• 20 gallons to handwash dishes

• 30 gallons to take a shower

• 2,000 gallons to make four new tires

• 37,000 gallons to make a car

• 1 gallon to process a hamburger

• 11 gallons to process a chicken

• 9 gallons to process a can of fruit or vegetables

• 5 gallons to make one board-foot of lumber

• 24 gallons to make a pound of plastic

• 1,800 gallons to refine one barrel of oil

When people have to pay for water to be delivered, it really adds up. For example, a citizen of water-rich Canada pays about a penny for 8 gallons of water. In the Old World nations like Germany, a citizen pays about a penny for every gallon. Developed nations typically deliver water through municipal waterworks, requiring far less effort for their citizens than those who have to hand-carry water. The result of this difference is that the poorer citizens in less developed nations will end up paying 12 times more in actual currency for water.and who knows how much more in labor.

Inequities like this, of course, are not the result of deliberate hoarding. They merely reflect the reality of the irregular distribution of fresh-water supplies around the world. For example, the Great Lakes, which are shared by the United States and Canada, contain almost 20 percent of the worldfs fresh water. Lake Baikal in Russia holds close to the same. This means that 40 percent of the earthfs available fresh water lies in confined areas within the political boundaries of just three nations. One illustration will help us understand the scope of this amount of water: If mainland United States were totally flat and the Great Lakes were allowed to flow evenly over its surface, every American would be struggling to stay afloat in 91.2 feet of water!