Water as a resource
Why we should be mindful about how we handle this vital substance
We may live on a ‘blue planet’ but fresh drinking water is an extremely scarce resource. Even back in 2015, the United Nations warned of the threat of water scarcity in its ‘World Water Development Report.’ The major culprits are agricultural irrigation and increasing industrialisation. On top of that, climate change is altering the global water cycle. Current estimates are based on 3.6 billion people (51 % of the global population) living in water poverty. These developments are all the reason we need to use this vital resource as responsibly as we can.
Water scarcity spurs innovation: water consumption in the American state of California was strictly regulated from 2011 to 2017 because of a persistent drought. Resourceful gardeners therefore decided to spruce up their lawns with environmentally friendly spray paint. After all, gardeners are always in competition with their neighbours to have the greenest lawn. Green lawn paint in a can has since become popular in Europe and elsewhere, too.
This would be a quaint little story about humanity's quirks if it had not arisen from such an earnest problem. Water shortages and limited access to water in many regions (i.e. the fresh water available per person per year) are becoming an ever greater challenge on a global scale.
Take Germany as an example: the Rhine is one of the largest waterways in Europe and at the end of 2018 it threatened to break records for how little water it was carrying. Yet, public awareness of the problem remains relatively low in Germany. Scientists, politicians, business leaders and the population in rich industrialised countries – and elsewhere, for that matter – largely perceive the issue very differently. Looking at the facts, we can see that domestic, commercial and industrial use of water must become more sustainable in future. And the response must be global. In short: we urgently need to save water – in part because several poorer countries with relatively few water resources are already on the brink of collapse. In reality, though, this affects all of us!
The tricky part is that the problem is not purely down to wasteful water usage. Another factor is the increasing pollution from waste water outlets which further exacerbates the situation, with severely contaminated drinking water causing 80 % of all disease in poor countries. This comes at a human cost of 3.5 million lives per year, including many children.
Not forgetting that top importing nations like the USA, China and Germany have goods delivered en masse from other parts of the world, essentially using the water supply in those areas for themselves. Here and elsewhere, industrial and agricultural production is very water intensive. This is a further factor which can contribute to water stress in some places if too much of a region's water is used to produce exports. That water is then not available in that area and, at a certain point, that brings with it risks of environmental and economic issues. Looking at this factor, it becomes clear that all issues are intertwined when it comes to water and we can see why it is an issue that affects the whole world.
But isn't the Earth covered in water?
Our blue planet is two-thirds covered with water so it seems illogical that water shortages would ever be a serious issue. Earth certainly does have plenty of water – about 1,400 trillion litres, in fact. A mind-boggling figure.
Yet fresh water accounts for only 3 % of the total and only a small fraction of that is readily accessible. Most of the water that would potentially be of use to humans (although it would only be potable in specific circumstances) is located at the Poles or trapped in permafrost.
Clean drinking water is even rarer, coming in at 0.3 % of the total. If you imagine the Earth's total water as a 1 l bottle, that would fill it to a height of 3 mm – not even a thimble full. Just thinking about these proportions is enough to make you thirsty!
More than 97 %, then, is saltwater which would have to go through a labour-intensive and expensive process before it could be used in, say, agriculture. It is therefore not a particularly good alternative to naturally occurring fresh water for drinking or other purposes. Against this backdrop, it is no wonder that water prices are slowly but surely rising.
We only ‘borrow’ water, as it were, for a period and later return it to the cycle one way or another. The issue comes down to this: the more water we ‘borrow’ or are using at one time (or render temporarily useless with pollution), the lower the overall supply is for everyone during that time. It's simple maths.
The problem is exacerbated by how unevenly water resources are distributed throughout the world, as well as by factors such as industrialisation in developing countries and climate change – even though, to start with, these effects will only be regional. But the fact is that the volume of water available at any one time is shrinking on a global scale.
What else should we mention? Water is, without question, the most valuable resource on Earth. After all, it gives life and maintains it. And we only have the one Earth. We must therefore learn to steward our resources as carefully as we possibly can. Saving more water is an important and unavoidable step on this journey. Otherwise, even we will be turning off the taps at some point – and then high water prices will be the least of our worries.
At MEIKO, we are responsible warewashing technology specialists and take the issue of water sustainability very seriously. The following article in our series about water will therefore focus on food service aspects in particular.