The irregular geographical distribution of fresh water is the prime cause of both apparent and real inequities in human access to it. But other factors are also important in the growing international water crisis— most of them the result of human behavior. Consider these factors that compound the problem of uneven freshwater distribution:
Population Increase. The number of people on the earth 2,000 years ago was only 3 percent of the total living today. Yet there is no more fresh water available today than there was then. Global water use has increased six times in the past 70 years, while the population increased only three times. This means that not only are there many more people using water, they are also individually using—directly and indirectly—more water in their daily lives. If people consume water in 2025 at the rate now enjoyed by residents of developed nations, 90 percent of all fresh water will be used up in 2025. Unless Lake Baikal, the Great Lakes, and other beautiful and cherished bodies of water become nothing more than reservoirs of water for human consumption, this means a severe water shortage is looming for many people around the world. In addition, as we use more and more available fresh water for human purposes, less remains to maintain river, lake, and wetland habitats vital to the health and survival of both people and wildlife.
It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people, or almost 1 of every 5 people in the world, are without access to safe drinking water, and half of the world’s population lacks adequate water purification systems. Add to this the fact that 2.4 billion people, or 40 percent of the world’s population, do not have access to adequate sanitation. The sad result is that some 2.3 billion people in the world suffer from water-related diseases, and millions of them die each year. In Bangladesh, for instance, three quarters of all diseases are related to unsafe water. Sixty percent of infant mortality in the world is related to inadequate water quality and quantity.
Water Quality Decline. Population growth and increased consumption not only create shortages, they also degrade the quality of the water that is available. The world’s fresh-water supply is being contaminated by substances that eventually make it life-threatening rather than life-giving. Pollution is caused by both deliberate and accidental dumping of sewage into the world’s waterways. Chemicals from industry, agriculture, and human households are continuing to find their way into our fresh-water supplies— in spite of increased educational endeavors and governmental controls. Further, hormone- and antibiotic-laced animal and human waste is also finding its way into our fresh-water supplies. Scientific studies are beginning to provide evidence that these are creating potentially devastating effects on both human and animal immune, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Many researchers are convinced that the early onset of puberty in girls in the more affluent nations is the result of hormones found in both our food and our water.
As the world’s population increases, the demand for food rises. This in turn requires more intensive agricultural production. Agricultural irrigation is responsible for 70 percent of the total water used globally. Agricultural waste, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and silt are poisoning and choking huge river systems. The pumping of water for agriculture is drastically reducing the water levels in most of the world’s underground water reservoirs (called aquifers). When the fresh water in an aquifer near the ocean is pumped out, it is often refilled by saline water from the sea—salt water that is useless for farming and human consumption.
Even dams, which were once thought to be the answer to the world’s fresh-water shortages, are now shown to be a cause of water degradation. Unlike rainwater, which is purified by natural distillation, water held behind dams is usually more saline—eventually degrading the soil upon which it is applied. The soil in vast regions of Iraq and even in the still agriculturally productive desert regions of the American Southwest is becoming so salty that little will grow there. Whitish crusty soil loaded with salt often glitters in the sunlight next to crops that grow only because they’re pampered by intensive, expensive, and increasingly futile farming methods.
Because fresh water is consumed by a rapidly growing world population, numerous small and large rivers no longer even reach the sea. And many of those that do are polluted. The inevitable result is the serious degradation of coastal ocean waters, killing off coral reefs and destroying other marine habitats important for the production of fish and other seafoods needed to feed so many of the world’s people.
One thing is made clear by this growing fresh-water crisis: We must do more than just consume water; we must become its caretakers as well. The life, health, and well-being of billions of people around the globe increasingly depend on our understanding and careful management of the world’s fresh water.
Offering a cup of water to a thirsting individual as an expression of obedience to love our neighbor has become more than just a symbol. It also reflects the sobering reality that the world’s fresh-water resources are being threatened. So the Christlike act of neighborly love will increasingly involve protecting access to this lifecritical substance for all people.
Seventy percent of the water drawn from the world’s rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers is used for agricultural irrigation. And almost half of that water is lost to evaporation and spilling before it reaches the roots of thirsty plants. So the single most significant water stewardship practice would be to develop and implement more efficient irrigation practices. Drip irrigation, which was pioneered by Israeli agricultural scientists and farmers, has evolved into a wider variety of low-waste watering methods worldwide now called “micro irrigation.” These methods typically result in cutting water use in half. It’s clear that wide acceptance and implementation of such practices would be wise water management.
There are a number of other important macroconservation efforts that would significantly reduce water consumption:
Recycling Of Urban Wastewater. Mexico City, for instance, uses urban wastewater to irrigate and fertilize alfalfa fields. Arcata, California, and many other cities in the US, are now incorporating wastewater treatment with wetland development to purify water, irrigate crops, and increase wildlife habitat. Thousands of municipalities now require new buildings with paved parking lots to provide water-catchment basins that will allow rainwater to seep back through the ground into the local aquifer instead of being flushed into streams and out of town via expensive storm drains.
Recycling And Conservation Of Industrial Wastewater. It typically requires 300 tons of water to make a ton of steel. This shows the magnitude of industrial water use. Yet in the US from 1950 to 1990, water use by industry has fallen one-third while industrial output has risen four times. This is a strong indicator that the message about water conservation is finally being heeded. The more developed nations, however, at present have more resources and more resolve than the less developed nations to incorporate good principles of water management. Western European countries, for example, use half as much water to produce a ton of paper as China does, which consumes nearly 119,000 gallons of water per ton of paper.
Landscaping To Match Natural Local Vegetation. Standards for what makes landscaping beautiful are changing rapidly in response to the fresh-water crisis in many countries. Cities and citizens in arid locations used to strive to “green up” lawns, parks, and boulevard medians by pumping copious amounts of water onto the landscape— sometimes merely as a symbol of affluence. Many now recognize how wasteful it is to endeavor to create a rainforest in a desert climate. They’ve gone from “green and lush is beautiful” to “prickly and sparse is beautiful.” Many of the cities in America’s desert Southwest now seek to landscape both public and private property with native, drought-resistant plants. This simple attitude change—compelled by rising water costs and water shortages—has resulted in a dramatic reduction of water use.
If these macroconservation practices by institutions are added to micro-conservation practices by individuals, the benefits of water management will become more and more apparent to all. Some of these personal practices might include the following:
• installing low-flow toilets or toilets that compost waste rather than transport it to water-treatment plants
• installing low-flow shower heads
• repairing water leaks
• not letting the water run continuously when brushing teeth
• washing clothes less frequently, and then only in full washer loads
• using dishwashers only when they are full, and running them on the short cycle
• not letting the water run when washing dishes by hand
• keeping chilled drinking water in the refrigerator instead of running the tap until the water is cold
• composting waste food instead of putting it through a disposal
• washing your car from a bucket and running the hose only to rinse
• sweeping walks and driveways instead of spraying them clean with water
• watering lawns and landscaping early in the morning or in the evening (which is better for the plants, anyway)
• using “gray water” from tubs, showers, sinks, and washers to water plants
• collecting and using rainwater to water plants
• reconsidering the “necessity” of swimming pools in arid climates
• returning large irrigated lawn areas to naturally watered vegetation
These are just a few of the many personal efforts to conserve water that might be considered as practical ways to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If we do sense the wonder of water, we are likely also to be reminded of the One who not only created our world but placed it under our care (Gen. 2:4-15).