Water is an extraordinary substance. And without it, no life on Earth could be sustained
In Western societies we often take this precious resource for granted. Yet an estimated 2 billion people (I think this number should be seen in full; it’s 2,000,000,000 people) live without secure access to safe water. That’s 1 in 4 of us alive today. And as a society, we are equally oblivious as to how we deal with our wastewater.
The UN World Water day, annually on 22 March, aims to highlight and educate the world’s population on water, its importance, scarcity, uses, treatment and what we can and need to do to preserve this resource. We have a lot less of ‘it’ than you might think.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink…”
The well-known words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his classic poem of 1834, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner reminds us that not all water is drinkable. (But as the mariner shot an albatross with his cross bow my sympathies are limited!). The Earth’s water cycle is remarkable but in order to sustain the scale and reach of our world-wide spread of humanity, we need to treat most water before we can drink it or use it in manufacturing, irrigation and cleaning.
The techniques for purifying water to be drinkable (potable) vary slightly across the world but mostly follow filtration and disinfection processes similar to those used in the UK. Desalination is used in some places such as the Middle East, but this is a very energy intensive (and thus expensive in both costs and environmental impact). The global availability of clean water is decidedly non-isotropic, and an increasing number of conflicts have been caused by the need for water. Drought is the predominant natural cause of famine and starvation, especially in sub-Saharan and east Africa. On a much smaller scale, water shortages are not unknown in the UK and hosepipe bans are becoming more frequent due to climate change.
Wastewater treatment can be effective, but often the UK aged network of pipe and wastewater treatment works capacity can be overloaded and deliberate (to preserve the treatment plant) releases to the environment are made. However, many of these discharges could have been avoided. Water companies have a (literally) get-out-of-jail card if they cite exceptional weather. The UK water companies have greatly increased the number of raw sewerage discharges to the environment since their privatisation, and again since they are no longer constrained by the EU bathing waters directive. Remarkably, England is the only country in the world where water services have been 100% outsourced to private companies.
Essential for life
Water can also be a huge problem for humans and the environment. It’s essential for life, but if we cannot get enough of it we dehydrate and can, in the extreme, die of thirst. If we get too much of it, we drown. Interestingly, drinking too much water can also kill us; water toxemia can be fatal.
Water is a greenhouse gas; it retains warmth and is a major contributor as to why we don’t freeze to death overnight. In liquid form it (as seawater) has a very low albedo (reflectivity) and so absorbs solar irradiance. In its solid form, and especially as snow, it is highly reflective. The importance of ice in the context of global warming has previously been described.
Water’s effect on the built environment in terms of flooding has, sadly, been demonstrated many times. Its erosive effect as marine waves can been seen in the evolution of our coastlines. Water is literally all around us, it’s in the air we breathe and the human body contains ~60% water by mass. So we really need to be aware and to preserve it. (Our brains are >70% water so this helps explain why we have such a hangover headache when we’re dehydrated after excessive alcohol)
How do we protect this resource?
So what can you and I do to preserve this precious resource and maintain our access to clean water and a healthy, pollution free river and marine environment? Well, the UN 2023 Water Conference has a neat action list.
But the actions we need to do boil (sorry for the pun!) down to just two. And they’re the same two actions I have previously petitioned that we need to take in respect of the climate crisis:
Think about your everyday use and appreciation of water. Am I wasting water. Can I use less. What would I do if the taps ran dry. Can I help others in a less fortunate position than me.
Teach our children about water, where it comes from, how not to waste it, how others are less fortunate. Shout out where pollution incidents happen; don’t assume someone else will report that mess you’ve seen in your local stream or river. Protest at the damage commercial activities cause to our water environment. Don’t accept the excuses of water companies blaming “exceptional weather” for pollution incidents they could have prevented by diverting the immense profits they make. Petition your local council and MP that water and the environment has to be top of their agenda. We have only one world and we cannot allow environmental vandals to pollute and destroy it.
Do you care enough?