Water: Liquid Gold

Water connects and sustains all life on earth. Without it, we wouldn’t be here. Nor would the trees, plants, animals, or fungi. It’s the most valuable substance I know of – who cares about diamonds, gold or plutonium if there’s no water?

Growing up on a farm on the driest inhabited continent on earth, it was impossible to ignore the importance of water. When drinking water supplies rely on rainwater and it’s the middle of a drought, water’s true value soon becomes apparent. Our parents were constantly hassling us to have shorter showers, to not let the tap run excessively, and to only flush the toilet for poo.

I didn’t realise how ingrained this was in me until I recently found myself harassing my partner’s kids about their long showers. Shorter, shorter, shorter! As well as realising I’m turning into my father, I’ve begun pondering water and questioning my frugality when it comes to the liquid. Is it just a hang up handed down from my parents? After all, water is a renewable resource, and there’s plenty of it… Right? Well, yes but no.

City dwellers of the western world are an incredibly lucky bunch. Clean water, for most of us, is a given. We turn on the faucet and out it comes, the most valuable substance on earth, on tap. It’s stored in big reservoirs, piped kilometres and kilometres to the city and spurts out of numerous points in our homes with grand abundance.

However, in the same way supermarket meat in plastic containers is completely disconnected from the reality of the farm and the abattoir, the easy access to water for many of us means it’s often harder to see the bigger picture.

The big picture is incredibly beautiful. Water, the gift of life, just falls from the sky. This is a wondrous thing. It flows from mountains to oceans, sustains rainforests and deserts, humans, dragonflies and more. It’s constantly cycling throughout the earth and atmosphere in liquid, solid and vaporous form. It’s abundant, but the prevailing western value system has trouble valuing abundance – rarity is where the value lies. I’m no economist but I reckon it’s best we don’t wait till usable water becomes rare to value it…

Water isn’t always abundant or available, and it’s likely it’ll become less so in the future. By 2025, the UN suggests up to 2.4 billion people worldwide may be living in areas subject to intense water scarcity. This doesn’t mean the world is running out of water, but it does mean it’s not always available when and where people and natural systems need it.

The global issues around water are incredibly complicated and span all aspects of life on earth – culture, development, food, environment, and health. Here are some statistics:

  • Only 0.5% of the earth’s water is usable for human consumption. The rest is seawater or ice.
  • 98% of this usable water is stored in underground aquifers
  • 1% falls as rain
  • 70% is used in agriculture
  • 8% is consumed by humans
  • 22% is used by industry

So, most of the usable water in the world is required to grow food. The world’s population is growing rapidly, therefore we need to grow more food. But issues like severe weather incidences, increased demand, land degradation, pollution, and climate change are affecting the availability, usability and demand for water the world over. Ground water is being depleted at much higher rates than it can replenish, and as more land is cleared for agriculture issues of erosion and soil degradation increase.

Doctor Peter Gleik, water expert and co-founder of the Pacific Institute reckons we’re reaching peak water. “Peak water doesn’t mean we’re running out of water, it means we’re running into limits,” he says. “We can no longer take more water out of rivers when we’ve taken it all, we’re over pumping non-renewable aquifer supplies and are getting to the point where the use of additional water causes more ecological harm than it provides economic benefit.”

We have to think more carefully about the kinds of water we use, and the things we use water for.”

A highly publicised example of the complex conflicts around consumer demand, food supply, environment and water is almond growing in California. The state is the world’s largest producer of the not-quite-nut (it’s actually a seed). Global demand for almonds has doubled in the last decade, and in response farmers have planted more crops, with the amount of land devoted to growing almonds in the state doubling in the last decade.

The problem is water. California is in the midst of one of the most severe droughts on record, and almonds are thirsty creatures. If you scout around the Internet you’ll quickly find all sorts of information about how many litres of water it takes to produce just one almond (apparently around 5 litres). Many argue they’ve become a scapegoat for the wider issues around water availability and politics in California. For perspective, a kilogram of beef requires around 15 000 litres to produce.

Consumers demand more almonds because we’re told how good they are for us, farmers plant more because the price goes up, and the aquifers and rivers go down because they need lots of water. Less water flows into natural systems, affecting biodiversity and ecosystem resilience and aquifers aren’t replenished because the water is being used to produce almonds.

University of California hydrologist and leading expert on groundwater Jay Famiglietti reckons California is on a “one-way trajectory toward depletion, toward running out of groundwater,” he says in a 2014 article on NPR. This is a pretty scary thought given 98% of the worlds usable water comes from underground aquifers.

It’s not unlike having several straws in a glass, and everyone drinking at the same time, and no one really watching the level,” Famiglietti says.

With rise, comes fall. Consumer demand (and prices) for almonds have begun decreasing and then what? Lots of thirsty trees, lower prices, and seriously compromised groundwater supplies and ecosystems. It’s a pickle, and I don’t think any one party is to blame. It is, however, an example of the complicated nature of water web and the necessity, as Peter Gleik suggests, of thinking more carefully about what we use water for, where it comes from, and whether or not it’s benefit outweighs its potential environmental impact.

To me, the almond story illustrates the environmental, social, and economic consequences of the illusion of disconnection, of not seeing. Just because it’s harder to see the ties that bind us to the natural world doesn’t mean they don’t exist. This blindness isn’t a new thing. “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference,” Rachel Carson wrote in her book Silent Spring. Fifty years later and, perhaps I’m being cynical, but I’m not sure much has changed.

The truth is this: every choice we make has an impact, whether we see it or not, and the choice to see is ours alone.

This all comes back to liquid gold, the stuff spurting out of our kitchens, laundries, hoses every single day. Access to clean water is a gift not a given, and I reckon it should be treated with all the care, reverence, and value a life sustaining gift demands. Maybe my parents were onto something after all…