I’ve been researching water and sustainability the last few days and much of what’s out there is intuitive. Fix leaks, take shorter showers, run only full loads of dishes and laundry, and try to minimize how much you water driveways and other paved areas (i.e. make sure sprinklers only cover vegetation). These are all examples of the how in the quest for water conservation, and they are all very doable changes. However, without a compelling case for why we should conserve water, making any lasting changes to status quo of water (over) consumption would be nothing short of a miracle.
People generally want to know what they are doing is making a difference. To know it matters—if not personally, then to someone (or thing) somewhere at some point in time. Why else bother breaking away from what’s comfortable? Even those who try not to live beyond their means because It’s the right thing to do, do so because they understands it matters in some way. But doing the right thing in water conservation for some people can compete with the right thing in other areas of their lives. This creates conflict, which makes the right thing less straightforward. How can we ask the family struggling to put food on the table to step back and focus on water conservation?
Before diving into equity complexities, let me begin with why water needs conserving in the first place. With about 332,500,000 mi3 (1,386,000,000 km3) of water on earth, it’s hard to imagine running out of water. The amount of water on earth is more or less constant—such a minute amount makes it to space that there’s no point including it in analyses. In this sense, we will never run out of water. The issue with water availability thus lies not within the total amount of water on earth, but within the amount of fresh water in forms available for use by humans and other species.
An image from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) depicting the amount of water on, in, and above earth recently went around both the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management and the Project WET Foundation.
Image credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.
It amounts to this: if all the water from our planet was gathered and balled up, the 332,500,000 mi3 (1,386,000,000 km3) of water would cower next to the size of earth itself. The biggest water sphere on this image represents everything—all water, including ocean, water vapor, lakes, rivers, icecaps, glaciers, aquifers, soil moisture, and even the water in our bodies and those of every living thing. The middle sphere depicts the fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers. This 2,551,100 mi3 (10,633,450 km3) of water is 99 percent groundwater, much of which is unavailable for human use. Finally, the barely noticeable sphere hovering over Georgia illustrates water from the world’s fresh-water lakes and rivers. This last 22,339 mi3 (93,113 km3) sphere is notable because the majority of people and life on earth get their daily water needs from these surface-water sources. (note: these are spheres, so even though it is tempting to compare their sizes to states and countries, doing so would be inaccurate and over-exaggerate how small the spheres are. States and countries are flat, but the water spheres have depth).
Even as a water resources management graduate student, this USGS image is sobering. The water connecting every living being—and every being that ever lived—is also something most of us take for granted. It’s true all that water will always be on earth. The water cycle sees to that, in all it’s sweeping complexity and constant transformation. But that also means earth will not increase it’s water supply either. The amount is fixed. And we as humans can perturb the cycle. We can pollute our finite supply of fresh water. We can extract it faster than nature can replenish it and cause imbalance in the cycle such that available water shifts into unusable stored sources. We can cause the climate to change and consequently alter where, when, and how much water is available for people to use—and research (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and many more) suggests the areas most vulnerable and likely to experience the greatest impacts are also the ones least responsible for the changes and the ones least in a position to adapt. But we can also choose a different path and change the status quo.
Education and awareness provide the foundation upon which change is built. Without it, we wouldn’t know a change was needed in the first place, nor would we know how or what to change. Project WET and other education and outreach organizations are vigorously and passionately working to fill the knowledge gap. For Project WET, that means teacher and child education and training through a plethora of outlets. It also means recognizing we live in a world full of diverse people, cultures, backgrounds, standards of livings, and expectations. One method of water conservation—say, turning on sprinklers in early morning or late evening to minimize evaporation and maximize infiltration—might work well for some and be completely arbitrary for others (compare a sprinkler-happy country club to a rural Ugandan village).
Image credit: Project WET Foundation
Effective education will lead to positive change when it speaks to people’s circumstance. Learning when and how to wash hands can be the difference between healthy living and disease for some, so it is important there to make that the focus of water. Capturing precipitation in a rain barrel and using it to water a garden can be the difference in improving the quality of life of inner city children, so it is important there to make that the focus of water education.
The answer to the why in water conservation is different for each individual. In some cases, the when might vary as well. But one constant across all walks of life is the thirst and need for knowledge. And when that knowledge empowers people to act, the first step towards change is taken.
“A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.”—Khalil Gibran