How We're Flushing The World's Water Away

We live on a planet whose surface is about 70 percent covered in water. Observed from space, our world seems like a veritable gleaming, watery gem. So it might appear as if we have huge amounts of available water. Unfortunately, the reality is that most of the seemingly abundant water supply of our world is salt water. The graph in figure 1 shows the breakdown of earth’s water (via World Water Monitoring Challenge).

Of all the water available on earth, only one percent can be used for human needs such as drinking, bathing, cooking recreation, agriculture and industry. Two percent of earth’s water is locked up in glaciers and a whopping 97 percent of our water is salty water in the oceans. Looking at data from the last five years, there seems to be quite a gap between the countries with the most water and those that suffer from severe water scarcity.

The top five ‘water rich’ countries are Brazil, Russia, The United States, Canada and China. Brazil has almost double the amount of readily available water as the next country, Russia, has. By contrast, there are countries in Africa such as Ethiopia, Cameroon, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda where water access has been improved recently, although access to clean water is still a severe problem for the continent overall.

We will look at the ‘water rich’ countries and how they spend their water wealth, and  take a look at problems in Africa and how these are being addressed by various organizations. We’ll also investigate the delicate balance between earth’s forests and her water cycles.

People in North America are indeed fortunate to have an abundance of water for daily use. It often doesn’t even cross our minds that water could be a problem in some parts of the world. The good news is that anyone can get involved and lend a hand in the global water crisis.

The Water Rich

Data from the World Fact Book, based on 2011 figures, show that the top five countries in the world with the most usable fresh water (measured in cubic kilometers) are:

Let’s compare this availability to fresh Water Withdrawal (also according to the World Fact Book) Fresh water withdrawal measures the annual quantity in cubic kilometres removed from natural sources. Keep in mind that not all the extracted water is consumed, and some portion may be returned to the sources for further uses.

The figures for the top five water-rich countries (based on 2011 data) are shown in two parts: total annual water withdrawal and Per capita annual water withdrawal, in cubic kilometers (domestic/industrial/agricultural).

From these figures we can see that China withdraws the most in total from water sources per year, followed by the United States. Calculated per person, Canadians are the highest water consumers. It’s also interesting to note that Canada uses the largest percentage (70 percent) of water for industrial uses, followed by the United States at 60 percent.

Brazil’s largest water source is of course the Amazon river basin, and this South American country uses most of its water withdrawal for agricultural purposes. While Brazil saw a time when water was not a priority and water conservation went by the wayside, recently the Brazilian government has developed water management models and legislation to make sure that this precious resource is protected for generations to come.

The Water Poor

Let’s contrast these five ‘water rich’ countries with some of the most ‘water poor’ countries in Africa. According to Water.Org, there are 345 million people in Africa without access to water. An estimated 3.4 million people die each year from a water related disease – that is almost the entire population of Los Angeles.

Access to clean water is out of reach for an estimated 780 million people in the world. That’s almost three times the United States population. Nearly 99 percent of deaths from water, sanitation and hygiene-related causes, are in the developing world, according to a World Health Organization report from 2008.

The United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF estimate that more people on earth have a mobile phone than access to a toilet. Fortunately there are simple things that anyone can do to help spread the word about the water crisis and to lend a helping hand.

Hope In Africa

In Ethiopia, access to clean water is among the world’s lowest, despite the fact that it has fairly good water resources. The problem is particularly acute in the rural areas because the Ethiopian authorities spent more resources on improving urban water services than those in rural regions.

Cameroon has seen rapid urbanization in smaller towns and areas around cities, which overwhelmed resources. Progress was made in providing better access to water in urban and rural areas of Cameroon from 1990 to 2008. South Africa is also a relatively ‘water poor’ country, but authorities have made significant progress since 1994 towards the national water and sanitation programme, where 91 per cent of the population is not served. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world that formally recognizes water as a basic human right.

In Kenya, despite the fact that is located along the equator, there are extreme variations in climate due to the various landforms such as Rift Valley. The variable climate brings frequent droughts and floods. But since 2008, more than 83 percent of urban Kenyans have access to improved drinking water, and rural areas in Kenya have better access to clean water and sanitation than most rural areas in other sub-Saharan countries.

In Uganda there is a similar pattern where there are ample water resources, but providing adequate sanitation and drinking water to the majority of the population is an ongoing challenge. Uganda is also unfortunately prone to droughts, where eight drought periods occurred since 1998. In addition to reduced water access, the production of hydroelectric power in Uganda has also been affected every time there was a drought event. Nonetheless, the country hopes to have the majority of people served with water access by 2015.

Forests And Water

According to the Center for Watershed Protection and US Forestry Service, forests soak up rain water during wet seasons and slowly release the moisture during times of drought. So forests are like enormous sponges and play a vital role in the water cycle of our planet. Forests also provide natural storage systems as well as filtration.

It is estimated that 75 percent of usable water sources on earth are supplied by forested areas. Forests also have the ability to remove pollutants from streams and watersheds, because trees can reduce the amount of toxic substances that reach local waters and they also have the ability to minimize storm runoff. Hence the protection of the world’s forests is vital to the preservation of our water quality, not only now but also for future generations.

The most important thing that people in the water-rich world can do to improve the lot of the water-challenged countries is to spread awareness.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We understand only what we are taught.” – Baba Dioum, Senegalese Environmentalist

(images via AmericaPictures.netkewlwallpapers.com, GeoNice.com, Cullogo.com)

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