Brushing your teeth with the tap running, waiting for cold water to get cooler, and languishing in a bath to soak away the day may seem like fairy tales as absurd as the tooth fairy for future generations. Just as it does for millions of people around the globe in developing nations who do not have such luxurious access to clean, fresh water.
With rising temperatures upsetting the delicate balance of the endless water cycle that provides the planets living tenants with clean drinking water, in conjunction with a thirsty rising human population set to rocket from the current 7.6 billion to 10 billion by 2050, forget a summer hosepipe ban, we could soon be on the receiving end of kitchen tap rations.
Despite living on a planet that is 70% water, only 2% of that is fresh, the rest being salt water in oceans that is notoriously difficult and expensive to make drinkable. Almost 70% of that fresh water comes from snow, glaciers and mountaintop runoff, 30% is in underground reservoirs, 0.5% comes from the surface from lakes, rivers and streams, and 0.05% is from moisture in the air. And like everything else, these fragile conditions that provide all of the Earth’s safe drinking water is under extreme threat from relentless human activity.
The melting icy swathes of the planet from mountain tops and glaciers, where 40% of the population, primarily in South America, Asia and Australia get their drinking water from, will run into the oceans and become part of the vast oceans of undrinkable sea water. As they melt to nothing but ice cubes, the planet will lose its primary source of fresh water. The rising sea levels as a result of the melting ice will flow into underground reservoirs of clean water, making it undrinkable. Blighted not only by dehydrating salt water, but runoff from industrial pollutants and agricultural pesticides and fertilisers will contaminate most sources of groundwater. As the warmer temperatures melt icy regions, it will also evaporate surface level reservoirs of water, turning vast basins of clean, fresh water into dust bowls.
If dwindling water supplies weren’t enough, warmer climates will increase the levels of water and airborne bacteria, with algae blooms thriving in the warmer environment, any remaining water will quickly become unsalvageable. Also with natural threats, our own human effluent will contaminate our essential water supplies. With toxins, pharmaceuticals, industrial pollutants and even record amounts of cocaine found in the UK drinking water making their way into water supplies, our limited water supplies are swiftly becoming hazardous to all life on earth, affecting human, animal and plant health. Fish near wastewater plants are becoming biologically androgynous due to oestrogen from the contraceptive pill being too small and abundant to filter out, and vast climes of aquatic plant life essential for removing the stock of co2 from the atmosphere are dying from the unmanageable concentrations of toxins. The impact we’re having on the natural environment will only advance the state of climate change.
Our wastewater treatment systems are not advanced enough to deal with the sheer amount of pollutants entering waterways. Operating through outdated systems from the 80s, the UK’s water supply pipes leak out over 3000 million litres of water every day, equivalent to the daily water usage of all the households in the South West and South East combined. And with less water in the system, there is not enough available to dilute the concentrations that threaten the entire natural and human-made ecosystems on the planet.
Efforts have been raised for decades to mitigate water shortages. From converting sea water in costly missions that proved unsuccessful, to making billboards into huge dehumidifiers to soak up moisture in the air. But California, where residents have been experiencing a decade-long drought, the only way they could find enough water has been to mine out underground reservoirs. But like most mining expeditions, this has lead to massive environmental impacts, land 1200 miles wide has been steadily subsiding as the aqueous buffer has been sucked out from the bedrock.
It seems almost everything we do has dangerous and far-reaching impacts on the world around us. Continued investment in innovation and research will be essential to providing the knowledge, skills and technology needed to combat freshwater scarcity in the future. Above all else, our wasteful and reckless abandon with the planets most vital resource cannot continue if we are to provide for our growing and thirsty population and the environment we live in.