Dr. Lučka Kajfež Bogataj
Water is a natural asset of our planet, and essential for survival and the evolution of humanity and ecosystems. It is the main component of living creatures, as it is an excellent coolant, solvent, diluent, lubricant, nutrient and transport medium in cells and in the body. Water is also the most accessible means of maintaining hygiene and preserving health, although, unfortunately, two and a half billion people do not have access to sufficient water to ensure safe hygiene. Water is also immensely economically significant, as it is used in various industries, transport, the energy sector, for supplying beverages and food, and tourism and recreation. Water is essential for producing all energy products, from timber to uranium, while being a renewable resource when used in hydro power, wave power and tidal power. Water also has aesthetic significance, as the proximity of natural bodies of water raises the quality of life.
Consumerism and the virtual water needed to sustain it
The use of natural resources and water is driven by our patterns of consumption and production. When it comes to water, we have been outspending its natural renewal capacity. We have forgotten that we use water to grow, produce or process food, manufacture clothing, furniture and appliances and produce electricity. When we buy a product in the shop, we have no sense of the water used to make it, embedded in it, which we do not take home. This is called ‘virtual water’. Between two and three thousand litres of water is needed for the daily consumption of a single person. A slice of bread with a slice of cheese has some ninety litres of embodied water, and two decilitres of apple juice has 190 litres. Over 15 thousand litres of water are used to produce one kilo of beef. While many products do not contain water, water is used in their production. A lot is also used to generate electricity, as up to 3,000 litres are needed to produce one megawatt of electricity from coal.
So our ‘water footprint’ does not only comprise water gauged by water meters, as the figure is much higher. Because products in the shops are made all around the world, we are actually massively importing water from all around the world and exporting it with our products. Incessant consumerism means lavish overuse of water. In reality, a European ‘consumes’ about four thousand litres a day on average. Every day, every resident of Germany uses as much water as three people living in Asia. Developed countries do not use only their water, as there is more water in their imported than exported products. If a country is exporting goods that are made using a great deal of water, it is exporting hidden water. According to scientific estimates, the number of trade links and the quantity of water linked to global food production have more than doubled in the last twenty years. In order to increase their revenues, many poor countries export food, while suffering water shortages at home.
The problem of fresh water is growing. While the physical properties of water and the hydrosphere have not changed much in human history, the lifestyle and number of our species has markedly changed in the last few centuries. Since the beginning of the 20thcentury, the population of the planet has increased threefold. According to the ‘medium-growth scenario’, the global population will have exceeded nine billion by 2050. The world is also being urbanised faster than ever. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. The number of medium-earning consumers has been soaring, particularly in Asia, and will continue to do so in the next decades. Naturally, this will affect future access to water and the management of water resources.
Another cause of surging water consumption is the urbanisation of global population. City life has moved away from many principles of sustainable development, creating problems connected with ensuring a high-quality fresh water supply. In addition to shortages or undeveloped infrastructure, one of the reasons for the water crisis is the incorrect management of water resources. By 2030, four billion people will face a serious crisis in terms of their access to water, while climate change will create drier conditions on land.
Water shortages and droughts clearly show that there is a need for more sustainable water management. In order to establish healthy ecosystems capable of providing clean freshwater, a systemic approach is needed, as the condition of ecosystems is closely connected to the management of land and water resource, and the pressures that they are exposed to from agriculture, energy, transport and other sectors of industry. More efficient use of water can be achieved in several ways, such as the many unexploited opportunities for recycling waste water, which has proved a valuable water resource in dry conditions and the most effective method of combating water shortages.
Water management in industry and the public water supply can be improved by using more efficient production processes, water-saving measures in buildings and better urban planning. It is unacceptable that over 40 per cent of water may be wasted before it reaches the tap due to leakages in the network. An important step in reducing losses is to renew water-supply systems. In all sectors of the economy, consistent measurement of consumption and pricing is crucial for improving the management of water needs and promoting more efficient use. Heavy subsidies for water used for irrigation are unacceptable, as they encourage inefficient use.
Appropriate use of land and spatial planning can alleviate water shortages. Therefore, an in-depth examination of parallel, combinable uses of groundwater and surface waters should be conducted. The pursuit of short-term benefits, such as a short-term increase in productivity and changes in land use lead to greater use of groundwater, which may trigger a cycle of unsustainable social and economic development, which leads to an insecure energy and food supply and, consequently, greater poverty. Wise use of land can markedly alleviate unfavourable hydromorphological changes in ecosystems. It is unacceptable to continue to drain or dam major wetlands, forests and floodplains, or to redirect rivers in order to feed the needs of urban enlargement, agriculture, energy supply or inefficient flood protection.
The government and the widest civil society should do their part. Issues relating to the quantity and quality of water, water needed for irrigation, conflicts emerging due to water use, environmental, social, economic and risk-management aspects must be included in institutional and political systems.
These are unpleasant, but vital issues, which are interlinked and may seem contradictory. To provide an example: what is more important, high-quality freshwater, healthy ecosystems, energy, food or the climate? Water links all economic activities, including agriculture and energy production, and transport, too. Unfortunately, governments often fail to provide clear answers about who is responsible for ensuring sufficiently high-quality water for human consumption, other organisms and industry. If politics is focused on one sector too much, its environmental policies and measures are contrary to good water management practices. Only collaboration can overcome cultural, political and social tensions, building trust among groups, communities, regions and countries.
Individuals can do a lot by realising that water is the most significant strategic natural resource available. We should educate ourselves about it, by expanding our knowledge beyond how it is used by the body to learning about its use in industry, about water legislation and its shortcomings and the constitution. We must keep up with developments and recognise what can threaten the good current condition of local waters. We should be involved in as many water-related decisions as possible and draw attention to inconsistent measures and activities in water and riparian land and water-protection zones. We can fight the methods of waste- water discharge and cleaning. By being aware and informed, we can reduce our impact on the water cycle. Whenever we reduce waste quantities, discarded food or energy consumption, we reduce our effect on the water environment. Most importantly, we should be aware that we consume over four thousand litres of water a day with our current lifestyle, because we are excessive consumers. Reducing purchases of items we do not really need is the most effective method of saving water. If we change our eating habits to consume more plant-based foods, we will save thousands of litres of water in every meal.
The water cycle connects all living and non-living things that exist on the planet in a tapestry of life. Freshwater is the main thread determining the existence of land species, including humans. The unsustainable use of existing water supplies will become the main environmental issue of the century, and it will be felt much sooner than climate change or loss of biodiversity. Many regions have already exceeded the safe limit for sustainable water availability, and the quality of life of a quarter of the population has been reduced due to insufficient water. As water is everywhere on the planet, all the problems of the planet are reflected in the water cycle. The threads that maintain a balance in nature have been woven into a pattern destroyed by humans at every step. A major part of humanity is sobering up to become aware of these complex links and the critical boundaries of the planet.