Obviously life does not exist without water. In the coming years water rights, water scarcity, and lack of potable water will become pressing issues for not only humankind, but for all living entities including plants, animals, etc. The Water Project is a charity organization dedicated to finding solutions to the world’s problematic lack of potable water and they report that nearly a billion people suffer because they have little to no access to clean drinking water. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that water use has grown at more than twice the rate of population growth, meaning that people are using more water now than ever before. Clearly, this is a large and complex problem that will take extensive efforts on global, national, and local levels.
A central problem that contributes to the unequal distribution of water throughout the world is “virtual water.” Virtual water is water that is used to produce a product or good and by no means is virtual water used in a sustainable matter. A study performed from 1995-2006 by scientists at the University of Twente in the Netherlands was published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science and the study shows that virtual water accounts for more than 22 percent of water consumed worldwide. The study hopes to raise awareness in national governments worldwide in order to provoke conscious and conscientious efforts to make water usage as sustainable and non-pollutant as possible. The following graphic provided by The New York Times depicts how some countries (in green shades) are exporting virtual water and how other countries are importing virtual water to produce goods (in shades of red).
Photo credit: graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/02/15/business/map2/map2-blog480.jpg
Of that virtual water, 92 percent is used globally for agriculture. Cereal grains like wheat, rice, and corn consume 27 percent, meat production takes up another 22 percent, and dairy clocks in at 7 percent of that usage. Overall, virtual water accounts for one fifth of the water consumed globally, meaning water has become a valuable commodity as well as a necessity. By tracking where virtual water goes the study shows how some countries are utterly dependant on foreign water supplies. The dependant countries include North Africa, the Middle East, Mexico, Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Another problem that exportation of water creates is that the exported goods and water polluted ground and surface water more heavily than domestic goods. The study shows that Central and Southwest Asia and North Africa have the most unsustainable water usage.
Beyond depicting how water is imported and exported and to what end, the study also shows who uses the most water. There is a large disparity in the amount the United States uses when compared to its population. For instance, the United States is the third largest consumer of freshwater, despite the fact that it is populated by only 5 percent of the world’s population. Only China and India, the most densely populated countries in the world, surpass the United States in water consumption. The most disturbing fact is that the United States per capita consumes 2,842 cubic meters a year, whereas China and India consume 1,089 meters and 1,071 meters respectively. The study attributes this difference to the amount of beef Americans consume, which is relatively high when compared with other similar industrialized nations like Britain. Producing beef is incredibly water intensive.
The Twente study shows that water is an essential part of today’s economy, not to mention all life on earth. Therefore the importance of clean, potable drinking water cannot be emphasized enough. In order to reverse the inequality in water distribution and help keep water a sustainably used resource you can support groups like The Water Project or Global Water which work to create safe drinking water and maintain responsibility in water usage around the world.
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