National Geographic Explorer David de Rothschild pictured aboard the Plastiki, a boat made of post-consumer plastic bottles which embarked on a voyage from San Francisco to Sydney one year ago yesterday. The expedition made de Rothschild one of our 2010 Adventurers of the Year.
Op-ed by David de Rothschild; Photograph courtesy of Adventure Ecology
If you type the phrase "how long can you last without" into Google, given the thousands of preemptive suggestions to fire back to complete the phrase, it might surprise you that "water" is the first word to bubble up and claim top spot. Scan the first few pages of the 159,000,000 search results and you’re presented with a collection of near identical survival websites focused on tips needed to keep your personal water tank from dipping dipping into the red.
But amid all the reams of cut-and-paste references, one particular tip caught my eye. It was a sentence that could easily win the award for most obvious statement of 2011: "The best method to survive without water is not to be placed in that situation in the first place."
Had Google existed before the Industrial Revolution, when our population barely topped a billion, the hills were alive with the sounds of bird song, and the horizon actually did seem endless, this statement might have appeared plausible. Back then, our reserves of natural resources really did seem inexhaustible. Keep yourself amply supplied with water and you’ll never have to bother to live without it. Simple, right?
Fast forward to 2011 and not only does this maxim seem naive, but it’s no longer feasible. Today our global population is just shy of seven billion, with an expected surge up to nine billion by 2050. That’s an unbelievable number, too large to comprehend. What is no longer hard to understand for large parts of the world is that our water is in short supply.
Of course, you wouldn’t be alone if you were to now ask a seemingly straightforward question: On a planet that’s approximatly 72 percent water, shouldn’t there be plenty to go around? We’re not that greedy of a species. But here’s the catch: only 2 percent of that 72 percent of water is actually drinkable. Coupled with an access issue that currently leaves 1.1 billion without an adequate clean water supply and suddenly our most precious resource shrinks. Dramatically.
The math here is ugly. Under siege from nearly every industry—agriculture, clothing, and yes, even our own personal consumption—our water supply is not only drying up before our eyes, it’s being used on all the wrong things. Our sodas, our blue jeans, our laundry ... it all takes water. And lots of it. Coupled with a rapid decline in the volumes of water filling our aquifers, lakes, river, and even seas, and the unpredictability of rainfall patterns due to a changing climate, cut in half again by the prevalence of waterborne diseases. The result? This year alone, 12 million people will die from a lack of safe drinking water, of which more than three million will die from waterborne diseases.
We can do better. This isn’t a far-off problem. It’s here, now. And it’s only going to get more urgent.
Consider this exercise. Shut your eyes and imagine the doorbell ringing. The postman hands you a slip, not to pick up your mail but for a stack of containers that turn out to be sloshing full of fresh water. Imagine this is the entire quantity of fresh water allocated to you for the rest of your life.
Now, apart from the headache of trying to figure out how to get your allocation home, I’m pretty sure that once the gravity of the situation had sunken in, you’d most likely spend every waking hour thinking and fretting about how to conserve every drop as efficiently as possible.
The good news is that this scenario is still purely hypothetical. But as unbelievable as this might seem, once you break down our rate of usage and wastage versus our rate of input and conservation, water rationing is not a long way off.
No matter where you live, or how abundant your water flow might seem, there’s an ugly water crisis unfolding right beneath your feet. We all desperately need to start viewing our water in a whole new way.
So at the risk of sounding cliché, I cast my vote for prevention rather than a cure. Most importantly, I vote for prevention over enforced rationing! The time has come to start instilling a greater sense of shared responsibility and urgency in all of us over the way we treat our water. The good news? Like most other environmental challenges, we already possess most—if not all—of the tools needed to tackle this issue! In my opinion it involves a simple, three-fold approach.
First, we must undergo a fundamental re-understanding of our current situation. We need to work hard to eradicate the perception that water access, distribution, and hygiene are merely issues for developing nations, and instead recognize that it’s a critical issue for every species and every individual on this planet. By changing the narrative, we can create a sense of ownership across all demographics, so that everyone takes part in the global conversation. From every part of society, the developing to the developed, rich to poor, old to young! Across all governments, conservationists, corporations, communities and individuals, our diminishing water supply should be at the top of everyone’s endangered list. Moreover, water should be clearly labeled as the one resource that above all else holds the highest value. Simply put, water = life. No water means no life.
The second challenge is for us to take this new-found inclusive narrative and use it to catalyze system-wide changes. Not just changes, but improvements. This would alter not just how we capture, store, reuse, and distribute all forms of freshwater, but also how we try and eradicate the dumb inefficiencies—inefficiencies like those stated in a United Nations 2009 World Water Assessment report called "Water in a Changing World which cites leakage rates of 50 percent in urban environments! We simply can’t afford to lose up to half of our supply because of dated technology. It is no longer an option.
The third step we need to take in order to create a more efficient planet 2.0, one in which we carefully manage our precious water supplies, is to build adaptive management and innovation into the very heart of our plans. By adaptive management, I mean we must increase our awareness of wide-scale behavioral patterns, not only in terms of water flow and fall but in every aspect of water consumption. (For instance, should we really be flushing the loo with drinking water? Or hosing down on our driveways?) We must broadly analyze our habits if we’re going to change them. (Each flush of the loo uses the same amount of water that one person in the developing world uses all day for washing, cleaning, cooking, and drinking!) And we must chart our successes and failures. An adaptive approach like the one I am suggesting provides the fundamental bedrock upon which to apply and innovate new technologies and thinking.
You might be wondering why we should go to all this trouble. After all, what’s in it for you? A lot, actually. If we follow this plan, our future might hold a wealth of possibility. Imagine a 21st century holistic global water management system that seamlessly manages every kind of water on Earth from drinking to waste, rain to storm, and everything in between. Imagine a system that can help us from ever running out. But these will be nothing more than possibilities until we put in the hard work to make them real.
Or, we can stick to the status quo. We can let the problem continue to grow. We can keep refusing to improve. We already know what kind of future that will entail. Even more billions of people without water, even more waste, even more thirst. The choice is ours.
How long can you last without water?