Safe drinking water is a human birthright – as much a birthright as clean air. However, much of the world’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. Of the 6 billion people on earth, more than one billion (one in six) lack access to safe drinking water.
Moreover, about 2.5 billion (more than one in three) do not have access to adequate sanitation services. Together, these shortcomings spawn waterborne diseases that kill on average more than 6 million children each year (about 20,000 children a day). Water covers 70 percent of the globe’s surface, but most is saltwater.
Freshwater covers only 3 percent of the earth’s surface and much of it lies frozen in the Antarctic and Greenland polar ice. Freshwater that is available for human consumption comes from rivers, lakes and underground sources and aquifers. Together these sources account for just 1 percent of all water on earth.
Six billion people depend on this supply and a significant portion of the world’s population now face water shortages. Today 31 countries representing 2.8 billion people, including China, India, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Peru, confront chronic water problems.
Within a generation, the world’s population will climb to an estimated 8 billion people. Yet, the amount of water will remain the same. The challenge is as clear and compelling as pristine water cascading down a mountain stream. We must find new and equitable water conservation methods, using and recycling the water that we have.
Making water both potable and safe involves saving and redistributing water supplies in ways that enable supplies to reach those who need it in a waste-free and inexpensive manner. Water conservation seeks to save existing sources, not to develop new ones.
The simple act of plugging leaks from tanks, pipelines and taps can save large quantities of water. In many countries, more than 30 percent of the domestic water supply is lost to porous pipes, faulty equipment, and poorly maintained distribution systems.
Periodic repair and upgrade of these systems, combined with modest modifications in domestic water facilities (for example, installing reduced volume flush toilets), could make substantial amounts of water, which are currently wasted, available for consumption.
Ensuring adequate supplies of safe drinking water focuses on reducing demand is another water conservation strategy. In developing countries, agricultural practices place the highest demand on water, accounting for nearly 90 percent of all water consumption. In developed countries, industry, which accounts for about 60 percent of all consumption, is the largest user.
In both the North and South, domestic needs represent less than 15 percent of total water withdrawals. As these percentages show, reductions in demand for water must come from the agricultural and industrial sectors.
The good news is that newer and more water-efficient processes for both of these sectors have been developed over the past 50 years. For example, the amount of water used in the production of one ton of steel has declined sharply from 80 tons in the 1950s to six tons today.
Replacing steel with aluminum, other alloys and plastics (for instance, in the automobile industry) has reduced industry’s need for water.
Traditional agriculture worldwide, particularly for the cultivation of rice and wheat, has been characterized by water-guzzling practices. For many farm commodities, minor improvements in agricultural efficiency could substantially reduce the demand for water without compromising the quality or size of the yield.
Innovative water conservation methods which have been adopted in many countries, could serve as models for others to follow.