Earth’s H2O Status Report

Impact of water in a water-surface
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While 1.8 billion people have Internet access, nearly one billion people lack access to adequate amounts of fresh water, according to a comprehensive new Living Planet report by the WWF and Global Footprint. It will take a concerted effort on the part of researchers, industry, and governments to make a dent in this figure, but fortunately, there is increased activity around water and wastewater technology and research, which we'll cover in an upcoming post.

Techcrunch recently took a look at the Living Planet Report and culled these 10 startling facts about the world's water supply:

  1. Of the world's total estimated 6.5 billion population some 28% has internet access today, while 15% of the population doesn't have enough freshwater to live a healthy life.
  2. Seventy-one countries are experiencing stress on blue water resources, defined as sources of water that people withdraw, use and don't return to the ecosystem. Nearly two-thirds (or 45) of these countries are experiencing moderate to severe stress.
  3. Countries experiencing blue water resource stress today are major producers of agricultural goods for national and global markets, including: India, China, Israel and Morocco. The strain on water resources will become more acute with increased human populations and economic growth, and be further exacerbated by the effects [of military conflict] and climate change. It will also make everything from energy to food more expensive.
  4. Since 1900, more than half of the world's wetlands have disappeared.
  5. Overall, about one-third of the world's 105 largest cities obtain a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from protected areas.
  6. The "water footprint" of a typical, U.S. cup of black coffee is massive -- an estimated 591.74 cups (140 liters). This includes all the water used for growing, harvesting, refining, transporting and packaging the coffee beans, selling the coffee, and brewing the final cup. It's that big if you drink it out of a reusable mug.
  7. A latte-to-go with sugar has a water footprint of 845.35 cups (200 liters). The water footprint increases when ingredients are added, and will vary according to whether sugar, for example, came from sugarcane or sugar beet. If the final product is a takeaway coffee in a disposable cup, the water footprint will include the volume of water used to produce the cup as well as the water used to produce, deliver and make the coffee.
  8. The United States has the third largest "production water footprint" in the world, after India which has the largest, then China. A production water footprint accounts for the volume of green water (a.k.a. rain) and blue water (withdrawn water ) that's consumed in the production of agricultural goods from crops and livestock.
  9. The agriculture industry forecasts that "a doubling of agricultural output without associated increases in the amount of land or water used" is possible by 2050.
  10. The Living Planet Report tracks 714 species living in the world's currently available freshwater, 636 species in marine water, and 1,341 terrestrial species. These marine and freshwater species declined 10% more than terrestrial from 1970-2007.

What have you done personally or professionally to combat the world's water crisis?


ehorahan's picture

This is a great post - we spend a lot of time hearing about carbon footprints and rarely hear about water footprints. My first year of college, the area suffered a drought and we all had to cut back on the length of showers and didn't use trays in the dining hall - using only paper plates instead. Even when the drought ended, many people never used a tray again - my last year you could tell who was a senior and who wasn't - we were the ones without trays.

Douglas Clark's picture

Thanks, glad you liked it! Your story of the drought you went through in college raises an interesting point: exactly where does water usage fall in the whole green equation? Often I avoid using disposables like paper plates (though paper is certainly better than styrofoam!), but which is worse? Tossing a paper plate and increasing your carbon footprint, or increasing your water footprint by using dishes that have to be washed? I guess if you're in an area like LA or the Southwest where water is in short supply, water should take priority, but it does get complicated, doesn't it?

Robert S's picture

To add a little more complication... The paper v. plastic argument is often decided without full consideration of the life cycle. Plastic products may be petroleum based, but are much more energy efficient to produce. So depending on what factors you weight, for example water footprint, plastics might be the better choice. There are many other factors that might further aggravate the discussion, such as recycling (plastic - when it is done - is a more energy efficient process) and bio-degradation (in the right conditions paper will degrade faster, but in typical landfill conditions the race is a little closer). I try to use reusable bags and containers when possible, but here there is also a large unknown quantity to the water equation. If you take your coffee in a reusable mug but then wash your dishes by hand with the faucet on the whole time (instead of doing it batch-wise) you have easily negated any positive impact.

Douglas Clark's picture

Yes, Robert, the more one thinks about it, the more complicated it gets. I think this is a major reason why much of the responsibility ultimately should go to a cooperative effort of academia, government, and industry. Individuals can certainly make a difference, but most people--even intelligent and concerned people--can easily make the wrong decisions for the environment, despite their best efforts. Of course, it's up to individuals to push for government and corporations to work together and do what's right for the planet. Thanks for the link. I've often wondered about the question of paper vs. plastic and just knew it couldn't be an easy answer! I love, BTW! Your remark about washing a reusable mug brought to mind my thoughts about dishwashers and dishwashing. I know dishwashers can be very water efficient, but it can't escape anyone that those machines do run on electricity! I wash/rinse dishes by hand in batches and use my dishwasher as a dish-drying rack, much to the amusement of my friends!

May's picture

Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion topic. I think the media has certainly down-played the complexity of being green. I agree that it is up to the individuals to start making a difference and encourage the industry, educators and the governmental policy to make a change. I think it will be too naive to think that the world's pollution problem can be tackled over night. Doug - I am really glad to see that I am not the only out there who use the dish washer as a drying rack! I find it easier for me to housekeep if I get to wash my dishes immediately after use instead of piling them in the dishwashing waiting for the next load.

Robert S's picture

It would be really great if we could get together some group, like you suggest Douglas, that could bridge academia and industries to take some of the fog out of the equations. I think one of the strengths of the "local" movement is that being able to talk to your supplier removes a lot of the unknown variables. I would prefer to buy produce from a farmer that I have met and know that, while he may use some, pesticides are used sparingly and with the overall intent of making the smallest impact practicable than from a factory-farm across the country that may be following the letter of the organic code but is causing much more damage with other practices. Not that this is always possible, but I would like to do it that more often. And currently most, if not all, of the responsibility is with the consumer. "Green" has gotten enough media play that it is being overused as a marketing buzzword. Consumers need to do some research on the company and what goes into the product to make sure it is a good product and not just a marketing campaign. Unfortunately, as smaller green companies become big companies the research still needs to be done. There was a pretty big flap early this year when some of our friends that are parents found out that an ingredient used in their organic formula came into contact with hexane. A fatty acid derived from algae (organically grown) was extracted with hexane, which was then cooked off leaving the fatty acid to be put in the formula. There might be no hexane in the final product. But this is an efficient process and might be the only way for them to meet demand - but does it fit with the overall philosophy? Tough call. Also good point on the dishwasher. A lot of times, it isn't that an appliance is good or bad, but how it is used. The most energy efficient device can be used inefficiently. Ours was used mainly after group events when we could fill it all the way up.

Chandani Patel's picture

Thank You for this interesting article and equally interesting discussion. It is evident that picking the lesser of two evils is mostly the case for individuals who want to (or have to) make a difference. Despite that being a tough call, I think that being sensible in our use of either water or other products that would leave a carbon footprint is an essential step towards taking on a 'green' responsibility. For example, I live in a household with a family of five, whereby we need to run our, might I add, energy efficient dishwasher every other day. This is more efficient for us due to the volume. However, we also grow a lot of our own vegetables in the garden which increases the need for water consumption. To be mindful of this, I set up buckets in the shower every morning and collect all the water for the garden whilst I wait for the water to get warm, and instead of turning the sprinklers on, we recycle a good deal of water through various other ways as well. Not to forget the complete eradication of harmful pesticides etc. from our consumption. My point is that if you are able to somehow balance your use and be sensible about it, then although factors such as electricity used to power the dishwasher, or the carbon footprint behind the manufacturing of the paper plates are not negligible - they can become slightly less significant due to adjustments made elsewhere.

Robert S's picture

I agree with your point Chandani. Sounds like you operate a very water efficient household, not to mention the water and energy saved in not requiring shipment of your homegrown produce. Everyone has a different situation, but we should be able to handle them all without waste. Another aspect to this is raising the awareness of rule makers, not only the population. There are devices available and used in Europe and other places that will do this - collect grey water, treat, and store it for reuse all throughout the house. So you can not only water your garden, but do other things like flush your toilets and can collect all of your shower or sink water. But plumbing codes vary by jurisdiction some do not allow for this type of reuse, making it very hard for them to be marketed in the US. I posted some information on these systems in an earlier post if you are interested -

dclarkchenected's picture

That makes a lot of sense, Chandani. And, yes, I think you're absolutely right that it's a question of the lesser of two evils and a bit of a balancing act, based on individual circumstances. A dishwasher certainly makes a lot of sense for a family of five. I don't know about May, who commented earlier about dishwashers, but I live alone, so even the ridiculously small dishwasher I have doesn't usually make sense unless I'm entertaining. BTW, there's more on water in today's post. Anyone who's been interested in this post will be interested in the work these researchers are doing: