Water. No known life can exist without it. Up to 75% of the human body is water. If we lose just 15% to 20% of that, we die. An adult human needs to drink about 2 liters of water a day to stay healthy. Water is also essential for sanitation and the continued existence of all the plants, animals and fungi we make our food of. Throughout much of human history, water ways have been important for travel, trade, transportation of resources, and even warfare. Ocean currents moderate the temperature of the planet, making Earth habitable. In short, water is very, very important for humans' (and the rest of the planet’s) survival and well-being.
Given all this, you'd think we would be doing more to protect it.
Water is fast becoming one of the worlds most threatened resources, for a number of reasons. In many places around the world, the water in ancient aquifers and rivers is being used up far faster than it can be replenished. All over the world, large quantities of valuable water are used annually to (among other things) fill private swimming pools, water lawns and golf courses, and grow water-thirsty crops such as corn and cotton, in virtual deserts. Such disregard for the value and increasing scarcity of water often leads to drastic depletion of water tables and/or river flow. When water supplies grow frighteningly low, people try to manage them “better”. Allowing water to evaporate, or sink into the aquifer is considered wasteful, and measures are put in place to minimize “loss” this way. This only serves to disrupt small water cycles*, and deplete the water table even further. Rivers are sometimes dammed to store large reservoirs of water, but this destroys the local ecosystems, and can be disastrous for the people farther down the river who depend on its water for their well-being.
The numerous rooftops, parking lots, highways, and other paved surfaces that pepper today’s landscapes aren’t helping. When rain falls on unpaved ground, it slowly trickles downhill, percolating into and replenishing the aquifer as it goes. Eventually the remaining water reaches a stream that carries it to a river, etc. Because paved surfaces are non-porous, they cause rainwater to run off into streams/rivers much faster, depriving the aquifer of much-needed replenishment. The faster flowing water also causes more erosion, and picks up pollutants it ordinarily would not.
Pollution is another major problem. Waste from factories, run-off from industrial farms, and other pollutants render many waterways unsafe for human use, not to mention devastating for the numerous ecosystems, in and around them, that depend on them for their survival. Industrial farms are particularly destructive. The pesticides and synthetic fertilizers applied to crops wash away with the rain and end up (guess where!) in our water. Excess nutrients in the water (caused by run-off of synthetic fertilizers) spur the growth of toxic algae to unnatural speed, creating huge blooms that smother natural ecosystems. Toxic pesticides, such as atrazine and glyphosate, also cause problems for surrounding people and wildlife. Studies show that exposer to atrazine in amounts as small as 0.1 parts per billion, can cause biologically male frogs to produce so much estrogen that they become functioning females**. The allowable level of atrazine in drinking water is 3 parts per billion. Both atrazine and glyphosate are linked to numerous health problems, including birth defects and multiple types of cancer. Though industrial farms pose a formidable threat to water safety, they are far from the only one. Dangerous chemicals and other waste products from plants, factories and oil/natural gas extraction/processing are often released (sometimes illegally) into rivers and other waterways. Birth control, steroids, antibiotics, and other drugs are excreted through urine and then flow into the sewage-treatment system. Waste water treatment plants are not designed to filter out such pollutants, so most of them just end up in the environment and inevitably, our drinking water.
These are only a few of the many urgent problems facing our water supplies, problems that need solving now. We can’t close our eyes to them any longer, they aren’t going away. In the coming years, fresh water will probably become one of the world's most sought-after resources; more valuable than oil or gold. We are at the point where we can no longer afford the extravagant use of water. We have to start putting much more energy into protecting and restoring the health of our waterways and aquifers, and into water saving technologies such as recycling waste water. We have to switch to more sustainable methods of farming that do not include the growing water-thirsty crops on equally thirsty land, and the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. We need to start building our parking lots, roads and sidewalks out of more porous materials. We must protect Earth’s most valuable resource before it is too late.
*small water cycles – “a closed circulation of water in which water evaporated on land falls in the form of precipitation over this same terrestrial environment; in contrast to the large water cycle, which is the exchange of water between oceans and continents.” (definition courtesy of Michal Kravcik and Jan Lambert)
**according to Tyrone Hayes, U.C. Berkeley.