Mismanagement of resources and our environment over the course of history, has seen numerous struggles and fights occurring over resource dispersion, acquisition and use. Almost invariably, the resulting inadequate access or unfair distribution leads to death, disaster or disease (or all three), along with the increased likelihood of the complete loss of the resource itself, often at the peril of a community, city or even a whole civilisation.
This happened in the most dramatic manner, when the former Polynesian-descended inhabitants of the remote Easter Island (more than 4000km’s west of Chile, and in excess of 2000km’s east of the nearest Polynesian islands in the Pacific ocean) slowly but surely felled all the timber on their land, leaving European settlers to discover a completely uninhabited and eerily bare landscape. Neglecting the fact that ultimately, we live in a world of finite resources, current societies could soon be realising a fate similar to those of the Easter Islanders, as well as the Mayans, Incas, Anasazi and many other ancient and more recent civilisations.
Worldwide, population growth has meant that our water supply is decreasing per-capita. In parts of the world like Africa, the Middle East and India – generally hot and dry climates, and where this population growth has been greatest – the decrease in the water supply (along with poor agricultural, sanitation and disposal practices) is turning out dire consequences.
World Bank reports state that up to 2 billion people are lacking in adequate water-sanitation facilities, and 1 billion lack access to clean water altogether. Alarmingly so though, UN reports have found that 95% of the world’s cities still dump raw sewage into their water supply. It is no wonder that questions are being raised towards water access and sanitation.
Unfortunately, the developed world may even be guilty of practices of a far worse nature. – Consider the fact that 80% of the world’s industrial waste is produced by the US and other industrial countries, while irresponsible practices of raising low-yield, high environmental-cost crops on unsuitable land flourish (take the cotton industry in Australia, for example) with a seemingly insatiable desire for economic growth, and surely there is a strong case in point for us in the developed world to be leading by example, for those developing countries who so often mimic our practice?
First and foremost – just as developed countries are now being awakened to, in times of economic crisis and acute climatic change – education into more sustainable use of our water supply is imperative to first of all, ensure access and then, to promote sanitation. Not only do farmers and communities in the developing world need to be taught more sustainable practices, they also need to be awakened to the ongoing problems that unsustainable farming methods will cause.
In Africa, agriculture consumes an amazing 88% of all water withdrawn from the water supply. If we consider the pumping of groundwater by farmers all over the world, and the current rates of natural replenishment, agriculture is exceeding these rates by 160 billion cubic metres a year.
Other poor practices accounting for water pollution are salinisation and waterlogging. Without proper methods of irrigation and drainage (or employing poor practice at best – particularly prevalent in the developing world) 30 million hectares of the world’s 255 million hectares of irrigated land are suffering from over-salination or waterlogging. This in turn adds to the degradation of agricultural land, the depletion of groundwater and is said to be contributing to 70% of the world’s water pollution. – All of which are accelerating.
Government and non-government organisations should be investing heavily into education and educational facilities and innovations that encourage and promote sustainable practices and limit waste being introduced into our water supply, while also limiting waste of water itself. Farmers need to be taught to plant water efficient crops, and irrigate them in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Moves away from traditional crops and agriculture, and towards those that are more sensible and efficient should be encouraged through subsidisation. The benefits of doing so should be introduced, instigated and instilled, just as the harms of not doing so should be highlighted too. The importance of educating all involved cannot be overstated.
80% of all health problems in developing countries can be traced back to unsanitary water. Educating the developing world on the simple reasons, means and methods of sanitary practices in their daily lives, should become equally as important as all of the above. Water treatment is one solution, avoiding or restricting its pollution, and ensuring its sustainability needs to be first priority, thus limiting the need for more costly sanitation or treatment needs further down the line. Without sensible, sustainable practice, there will too soon be no water left.
published on Helium.com for their ‘Pulitzer Centre’ competition