Background on Water Conservation

Watery Lake

Water is our most primary natural resource. Yet, in some places, we are beginning to run out of water. Underground reserves that farmers could once reach only a few feet deep are now so low that a hole drilled half a mile down cannot find water. The great rivers we first heard about in geography lessons—strong blue lines on our atlas maps stretching all the way from mountains to the oceans—are running dry. In the real world, the blue lines have sometimes given way to desert. The Nile in Egypt, the Ganges in India and Bangladesh, the Indus in Pakistan, the Yellow River in China, and the Colorado in the United States are among the rivers that no longer always make it to the sea. Nature’s water cycle is not faltering. Our demands on it are increasing so much that, we are exhausting our water sources.

The world faces a massive water crisis. One in every six people on Earth do not have daily, immediate access to safe drinking water. Think about this for a moment.

Imagine if instead of just going to a tap in your kitchen whenever you were thirsty, you had to hoist a heavy vessel onto your shoulders and walk two hours to a well, where, after filling your vessel—now even heavier—you had to carry it two more hours back home. After your trek, how much more time and energy could you hope to have to farm, cook, take care of your elderly and sick family, clean, work or even go to school?

This is the dilemma facing hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Afghanistan, India and other parts of Asia, Central and South America each day. They live in communities where water is scarce, contaminated, or both. Nine times out of ten, it is the responsibility of women and children to find a safe source, whatever the distance or terrain. They are among the 6,000 people who die every day, because the need for safe drinking water outweighs supply. But, with your help, they will see a way out of their cycle of poverty, disease, and death.

Few of us realize how much water it takes to get through the day. On average, we drink not much more than a gallon. Even after washing and flushing the toilet, we consume only about 40 or 50 gallons each. But that is just the start. Think about the water needed to grow our food. It takes between 250 and 650 gallons of water to grow a pound of rice. That is more water than many households use in a week.

When you start feeding grain to livestock for animal products like meat and milk, the numbers become even more startling. It takes 3,000 gallons to grow the feed for enough cows to make one quarter-pound hamburger, and between 500 and 1,000 gallons for that cow to fill its udders with one quart of milk.

Agriculture is the biggest consumer of water in the world today. Two-thirds of all the water that we take from nature ends up irrigating crops. Whenever you eat burgers made of meat from Central America, or clothes made from Pakistani cotton, you are upsetting the water balance of those countries.

Cotton grows best in hot lands with virtually year-round sun, deserts, also need huge volumes of water. In order to grow its cotton, Pakistan consumes almost a third of the flow of the Indus River—enough to prevent any water from reaching the Arabian Sea.

In many places around the world, we are taking two, three, or even four times more water from local rivers than we took a generation ago. And there is a surprising reason for this: It is the flip side of a great global success story—the green revolution.

In the 1960s and the 1970s, the world experienced its first great fear that it would not be able to feed itself, as population was expected to double in 30 years. The world’s population did double, but so did food production. Scientists created a new generation of high-yielding varieties of crops, like rice, corn and wheat that kept the world fed. But now those super-crops are using much more water than the crops they replaced. So, while the world grows twice as much food as it did a generation ago, it takes three times more water to do it. So instead of running out of land to grow food, we are running out of water.

Economists estimate that by 2025, with current water use patterns and the growing population, water scarcity will cut global food production by 350 million tons a year. That is the equivalent of a loaf of bread every week for every person on the planet. For hundreds of millions of people, that disappearing loaf may be the only one they have. And if the current boom of growing crops to make biofuels continues, then the demand for water from the world’s farms will be even greater. If the world converted a quarter of its fuels to biofuels, that would effectively double our water demand for crops.

No wonder that in dozens of countries—Pakistan, Mexico, India, China and Indonesia among them—there have been water riots in recent years. And soon, nations may even go to war over water. In the Middle East, water is as big a source of conflict between Israel and its neighbors as politics and religion. There are no treaties for the sharing of some of the world’s greatest international rivers, upon which tens of millions of people depend for survival.

Despite all of the bad news, there is hope. We need to come together to conserve our water, which can be accomplished in two ways. First, we need to use our water cycle better more efficiently. We need a modern version of the old water tank catching natural rainfall. And it is starting to happen: in Asia, farmers are reviving ancient methods of capturing the rain on their fields, and then pouring it down their wells for storage underground. Whole villages join in, and the effects on their crop yields are often profound.

Second, there needs to be a revolution in the way we use water. We must begin treating it like the scarce resource that it is. Municipalities need to reduce leaks in water mains—in most of the world’s cities, between a quarter and half of the water put into distribution networks never reaches homes because it simply leaks away. Similarly, we need to reduce the vast losses from evaporation at reservoirs.

Meanwhile, much more wastewater should be recycled by humans a few times before we give it back to nature. We can do that in our homes by changing domestic plumbing, for instance to allow water from the shower to be reused to flush the toilet.

But the biggest water savings worldwide must be made by farmers, since they are the biggest consumers of water. Tens of millions of farmers around the planet still irrigate their crops by flooding their fields. It is an incredibly wasteful process: most of the water evaporates and little reaches the plants. But cheap, modern systems of drip irrigation—delivering water drop by drop close to the crop roots—can cut water demand by 40 or 50%, or in some soils even 70 or 80%. We need a “blue revolution” to breed crops that use water better and to train farmers to use water more sparingly.

The simple truth is that we are abusing nature’s water cycle. To protect our rivers and assure water supplies in the future, we must use less water and leave more to nature. The days of seeing water as a free resource, available in unlimited quantities, are over.

Blue Planet Run