Realities of a global water crisis

A few weeks ago, this features editor had the bright idea to write a story on water. “How unlike anything we’ve published this year,” I thought. I envisioned a unique and informative piece addressing the ways in which water functions in our body and our environment. Not only was it going to be fresh and original, it was going to be fairly straightforward. Right. To put it nicely, my research presented me with far more worry inducing information than I was at first ready to hear.

So here I am, writing my adapted feature on water, having learned more than I wanted to and yet not as much as we all need to. More than anything, I learned this:

The world is running out of clean fresh water.

Research is an essential part of the process involved in preparing a feature for print. As part of my research for this feature I decided that I would wake up Monday morning and keep track of the amount of water I used in one day. Within the first hour I had flushed a toilet, washed my hands, had a 20 minute shower, used countless water-based products like shampoo, body lotion and toothpaste, washed dishes, made a cup a tea, bought a coffee and consumed a salad. Within this first hour, I completely gave up trying to keep track of my water consumption.
Our usage of water

Maude Barlow, arguably one of the most knowledgeable individuals on the planet when it comes to the global water crisis, tells us in her book Blue Covenant that “the average human needs 50 liters of water per day for drinking, cooking and sanitation.”

Sadly, I likely used close to 10 times that in the first hour of my day. The average shower uses roughly 15 litres of water a minute, meaning I used somewhere close to 300 litres during my 20-minute shower.

Unfortunately my water usage does not qualify as abnormal. The average North American uses almost 600 litres a day; 12 times Barlow’s quoted amount.

Our gross over-usage of water is made all the more disturbing when compared to the usage of those in other parts of the world. The average inhabitant of Africa uses only six liters per day.
The realities of the global water crisis

One billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water and close to two billion people now live in water-stressed regions of the planet. The reasons for this include climate change, pollution and rapid population growth.

“The issue of access to water is linked to the broader problem of global inequality,” Wilfrid Laurier University global studies professor Alex Latta highlighted.

The lack of consistent sustainable economic development in the global south means that water and sanitation infrastructure has not kept up with population growth and the increasing population shifts from rural to urban locations.

“A lot of people do have access to water, but it is not really fit for consumption,” Latta continued. “If you do not have sanitation infrastructure you can be surrounded by water but it won’t be fit to drink.”

Sadly, each year more children are killed as a result of consuming dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS and traffic accidents combined.

This is what Barlow refers to as a “twin water crisis,” one of both scarcity and inequity. We are rapidly depleting our global supply of clean water through the contamination of our fresh water resources, in addition to overusing in the global north.

Canada’s water woes

As residents of an affluent Canadian city that boasts an excellent water and sanitation infrastructure, it can be difficult to imagine the lives of those for whom water is more valuable than gold.

Laurier’s sustainability officer Sarah English recognizes that Canadians live in somewhat of a bubble when it comes to appreciating the severity of the global water crisis. “Because we are in Canada and have access to what we think are abundant sources of water, it doesn’t really hit home that there is a water crisis going on.”

Canada possesses between 16 and 20 per cent of the world’s fresh water supply, but according to Jim Geer, a biology professor and the chair of the Institute for Water Sciences, “Only about six to seven per cent of Canada’s fresh water is renewable and most of that flows north. In the south, renewable and accessible freshwater is only at approximately 2.5 per cent.”

Latta also emphasized how misleading Canada’s high water statistics are. “We are using and abusing our water supplies in ways that are going to get us in trouble,” he cautioned.

English was particularly concerned with the water here in Kitchener-Waterloo. “Most of our water comes from ground water sources,” she said. “And we don’t even think twice about that and how our daily activities affect ground water.”

Despite the fact that we pay little attention to the health of our ground water, currently the water in Kitchener-Waterloo is incredibly safe. English goes out of her way to be an example for others by walking past the water cooler next to her desk at the sustainability office and filling up from the tap.

Increasingly individuals are relying on bottled, commercialized water instead of municipal supplies. According to Barlow, 30 years ago only a small portion of the population drank bottled water.

Addressing the issue at home

“Within the Canadian context, we can do a lot to address the water issue in our own lives by moving away from the commercialization of water,” Latta explained.

Many people are unaware of the fact that municipal water systems are held to higher standards of inspection than commercial bottled water is. Translation: you are wasting your money.

The commercialization of water costs the consumer unnecessarily and contributes greatly to the amount of plastic in our landfills. More than this, when individuals buy into commercialized water, they divert support away from public water services.

“Once you become a consumer of public water supplies, you need to invest yourself in the protection of those water sources,” Latta urged.

So how do we begin investing in our most precious resource? A good place to start would be to attend World Water Day information sessions taking place on March 22, at Laurier.

Organizers of the event hope to highlight the research that is being done at Laurier and to raise awareness about water issues in the Waterloo community.