A drop in the Ocean


The availability of clean drinking water is becoming a major worldwide issue and it is time to realise that we should not take this scarce resource for granted, writes Louise Flanagan with the UCD Eco Soc.

Looking at earth you wouldn’t think water availability would ever be an issue. The planet is covered in the stuff, and this blue mass easily overshadows the land that us humans populate and call home. However, the reality is that water is in short supply, and for a number of reasons.

Water is central to our daily lives. Many of us take it for granted. We can just turn on the tap and out comes clean, flowing water. We can take as much of it as we want. There is nothing in our way (except maybe for those incoming water charges).

We use it for almost everything, from brushing our teeth in the morning, to keeping ourselves clean, and hydrating us throughout the day. While it may not be directly obvious, large proportions of water are actually used in industry and agriculture as well.

On a much more primitive level, water is required to survive. The prospect of life on other planets is often postulated by the presence of water. It is thought to be one of the vital ingredients of life and it is literally part of who we are, with human bodies consisting of up to 65% water. However, the importance of water is not restricted to humans by any means. Water is essential for all life, ranging from the birds and the bees to the weird looking plants and fish at the bottom of the ocean. Water also has a central role to play in weather and has an influence over climate too. It can also have devastating effects as can be seen in the many flooding and tsunami events that happen across the globe. It cannot be denied that there is something inherently special about water.

With earth’s populations increasing, pressure on water supplies is always on the rise. At present approximately 700 million people suffer from water scarcity across 43 different countries and it seems this will only become worse with time. It is predicted that by 2025 this number will have risen to over 1.8 billion people.

Strange as this may sound, the amount of water available is not the crux of the problem. The key instead seems to be water accessibility, distribution and purity. According to the 2006 UN Human Development report, there is enough water on the planet for 7 billion people, just about enough to cater for our current population. All of this water appears to be coming from a relatively small proportion of the world’s water supply though.

Portable drinking water for humans can only be easily accessed from freshwater locations and according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, only 2.5% of the planet’s water supply is freshwater. The other 97.5% of the earth’s water is salt water, and is largely contained in the oceans. Of the freshwater, 69% of it is locked up in glaciers, 30% exists as groundwater, and 1% is found in rivers and lakes. This does not leave us with a lot to use it seems. Although as stated before, it should be enough. The problem is that water is being distributed unevenly. Much of it simply goes on to become polluted or unsustainably managed.

As with many other environment related issues, there is an uneven distribution of effects across the planet. By 2025 it is predicted that there will be a 50% increase in water withdrawals in developing countries compared to an 18% increase in developed countries like Ireland.

Water stress seems to affect Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. This has come about because of a variety of reasons including, poor water infrastructure development due to lack of funding, colonial borders that have caused social conflict over shared water resources, and droughts, which are experienced by 13% of Africans once a generation on average.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region with a rapidly growing population. Many countries within the region are becoming urbanised and many parts are under constant threat from desertification. Coupled with poor water infrastructure (limited access to aquifers and groundwater), weak governments and disparity between water resources across different regions and you have a recipe for high water stress, sanitation issues and political unrest.

Water and sanitation are essential for economic growth, but without the funds to input infrastructure, access to safe water cannot be acquired, leaving these countries in a Catch-22 situation. How can this problem be fixed? It is clear that improvements to water infrastructure must be incorporated into economic development, but responsibility needs to be taken by countries and governments outside of Africa too. Places like the US and Europe are the least affected by the problem of acquiring clean water but it could be argued that they are contributing to the problem the most. For example a person from Mozambique uses less than 10 litres of water a day compared to a person from the US who would 575 litres in the same day.

According to the UNESCO-IHE 2011 report, we need to take a more worldwide view of water consumption and exportation. Focusing purely on local and national water concerns is leaving us blind to global consumption patterns. These patterns can help us pinpoint regions where water exportation is having damaging effects and is seriously decreasing the supply of potable water to the local population. Some Northern European countries get much of their freshwater from external resources despite water not being scarce in their own country. Ignoring these patterns could prove to be detrimental to future water problems.

The bottom line is that water is a finite resource. We need to take responsibility for it and we need to protect it.