Water A World-wide shortage!

Graph of the locations of water on Earth
Image via Wikipedia

It is estimated that 69% of worldwide water use is for irrigation, with 15-35% of irrigation withdrawals being unsustainable. It takes around 3,000 litres of water, converted from liquid to vapour, to produce enough food to satisfy one person’s daily dietary need. This is a considerable amount, when compared to that required for drinking, which is between two and five litres. To produce food for the 6.5 billion or so people who inhabit the planet today requires the water that would fill a canal ten metres deep, 100 metres wide and 7.1 million kilometres long – that’s enough to circle the globe 180 times.

Fifty years ago, the common perception was that water was an infinite resource. At this time, there were fewer than half the current number of people on the planet. People were not as wealthy as today, consumed fewer calories and ate less meat, so less water was needed to produce their food. They required a third of the volume of water we presently take from rivers. Today, the competition for water resources is much more intense. This is because there are now nearly seven billion people on the planet, their consumption of water-thirsty meat and vegetables is rising, and there is increasing competition for water from industry, urbanisation and biofuel crops. In future, even more water will be needed to produce food because the Earth’s population is forecast to rise to 9 billion by 2050. An additional 2.5 or 3 billion people, choosing to eat fewer cereals and more meat and vegetables could add an additional five million kilometres to the virtual canal mentioned above.

Thus in the Arab Middle East, where populations are growing fast, the world is seeing the first collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 10,000 more people to feed, and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

Given the future uncertainty of river water supplies, farmers in Syria and Iraq are drilling more wells for irrigation. This is leading to over-pumping in both countries. Syria’s grain harvest has fallen by one-fifth since peaking at roughly 7m tonnes in 2001. In Iraq, the grain harvest has fallen by a quarter since peaking at 4.5m tonnes in 2002.

Few of us will know what it is like to live without water in our homes. Many will have traveled to countries where it is not advisable to drink tap water and may be the consequences with a “tummy bug” or a stomach disorder.

It seems strange that while three-quarters of the world’s surface is covered with water, getting an adequate supply of it that’s fresh, clean, and safe to use for drinking, cooking and washing, is one of the most difficult problems that faces humanity. Most of the earth’s water is salt water in the oceans; only three per cent is fresh and only a small part of that is accessible. It may be trapped deep underground, in polar ice caps and anyway is unequally distributed around the globe, hence the occurrence of droughts and floods. Of the remaining freshwater, much is polluted and dangerous to use.

A large part of UNICEF’s work is to bring safe water to people and educate them in basic health care, hygiene and nutrition. Diarrhea and enteric diseases spread by polluted
water and lack of hygiene are among the most common causes of death and illness in children under five in the developing world.

Although water gives life, it can also transmit diseases, from cholera and typhoid to leprosy and trachoma – a leading cause of blindness among children. Mosquitoes, and
flies that breed in water bring yellow fever, malaria and sleeping sickness in their wake, so adequate piped water supplies are needed to eliminate the need for people to gather in an infested area.

In rural areas, women and children spend a major part of their time going out to collect water, often walking many miles each day to provide just the minimum family needs for
cooking, washing, and drinking. And they can’t carry vast amounts while walking over rough terrain carry a heavy bucket.

Because children have to play their part in family life, and that includes getting water, they may be unable to go to school, or be so tired when they get there that they
have difficulty learning. They may even have to spend the whole day without a drink as there may not be any clean water there, either.

Last year UNICEF aimed to get almost 90,000 water systems installed. To benefit 20 million people is often just to ensure survival. A well may mean the difference between
life and death.