From Cape Town’s water shortages to California’s historic drought– headlines can make it seem like the world is drying out. So what’s going on: is Earth really running out of water?
Recent news about Cape Town’s water shortages has brought water to the front and center of many people’s minds. And for those of us that have access to clean water on a daily basis we probably don’t think all that much about it. But water is essential to human survival. We drink it, we grow our crops with it, we bathe with and it’s used in many industrial processes like manufacturing and power generation. And as our population grows, the demand for water will increase–and lack of usable water will become a real issue for lots of places.
Is lack of water an issue for places?
For many parts of the world, water is already a big problem. According to the United Nations, over two billion people end up having to drink contaminated water because they don’t have access to the clean water. And because of this more than half a million children die every year. And ensuring access to clean water and sanitation is one of the seventeen sustainable development goals of the United Nations.
Why is lack of water becoming a problem?
One reason is that some places are using up their water much faster than precipitation can replace it. Additionally bad water management policies can lead to misuse or waste of water. Lack of infrastructure or bad infrastructure can also make access to clean water an issue. For example, in the U.S., leaky pipes cause us to waste about 9,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water daily. Climate change can also exacerbate the problems–as the climate changes scientists estimate that both droughts and floods will become more intense.
How can we prevent Earth from running out of water?
There are lots of things we can do, ranging from individual things to larger scale solutions. For example traditional water conservation techniques can help us reduce our water use so that we are not using too much water too quickly. These tactics include things like replacing grass lawns with low water native plants, taking shorter showers, turning off the water when brushing your teeth, and replacing old appliances with water efficient ones. Depending on where you live, larger scale solutions can include desalination plants, but those can be super expensive and require lots of energy to run. Another potential solution is to get better at recycling waste water so that it can be used to water crops and to drink.
SOURCES AND ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
- Making Every Drop Count (United Nations)
- Drinking Water Key Facts (WHO)
- Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE (Water Resources Research)
- 2017 Infrastructure Report Card (American Society of Civil Engineers)
- Climate Change and Challenges of Water and Food Scarcity
- National Climate Assessment
- Four Billion People Facing Severe Water Scarcity (Science Advances)
- Cape Town Drought Limits People to 13 Gallons of Water a Day (PBS Newshour)
- USGS Water Science School
- The Water Cycle (USGS)