Environment / Health / Pollution / Toxic / Water / Worldwide

Water, Water Everywhere. But Not a Drop to Drink? (Part 1)

We need it, we like it, we are it. Water. It comprises over 70% of our bodies, and over 70% of the earth’s surface. H2O – two hydrogen atoms, one oxygen atom.

Hydrogen-Oxygen Bonding in Water

Chemical Structure of H2O

It is one of the most unique compounds in our known universe – the only one to have a solid that is lighter than its liquid form, it is the universal solvent, it is tasteless, odorless and invisible, etc.. It is both the environment life was likely born in, and the compound that all forms of life require to exist. It’s the refreshing liquid after exercise, the stunning architecture behind a snowflake, and the burning steam from the kettle. Every part of Earth and Earth’s history has been directly influenced and affected by this marvelous mystery of nature.

Well, where did water come from? No one actually knows. Our earth is 4.6 billion years old, and water appears in our earthly record at roughly 3.8 billion years ago, when the world was a fiery, chemical world with rocks just precipitating. The most common theory is that it formed from the gases released from the volcanoes that covered the world over. However, as water exists in many other places in the universe, as evidenced by meteors and other celestial bodies (Jupiter’s moon Celestia contains is covered by 160 km thick shell of frozen and liquid water – more than on all Earth!), so perhaps it arrived as a stowaway on the comets and asteroids that were constantly blasting the earth. While we can’t say for certain, we do know that the amount of water on earth has been the same throughout our geologic history. The best estimate is roughly 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water, as projected by the Russian scientist Igor Shiklomanov. It’s not being created or destroyed, but just shifted around in varying compositions in a process known as the ‘hydrologic cycle’. The image below describes the beautiful cycle of water as it evaporates from oceans and plants, condenses in the air as clouds, falls back on earth, and is returned to the sea. There’s a myriad of offshoot processes, but that’s basically it. All rivers run to the sea, but all rivers are the sea, just at a further point in the cycle. And that’s the beauty of it. Our beautiful blue planet has this incredible system that desalinates, stores, and provides water in potable format to all living beings – free of charge.

Hydrologic Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle

Water is stored in many places: glaciers, lakes/rivers/streams, aquifers (natural underground storage chambers), permafrost, and the ground water (the water found deep underneath us in the earth, saturating the layers of rock). It’s all around us, abundant and plentiful. So what’s the problem? Why are many scientists projecting a bleak and scary future for water? If it’s the same amount, and always will be – que pasa?

The problem can be divided into three major issues: distribution, demand and pollution. I’ll discuss them in a 3 part series over the next week.

1) Distribution. Yes, there is water all over, and it is abundant and plentiful. But it is not distributed evenly across the planet. Some places (think Brazil, China, Russia, Canada) have more than enough water to meet local demands, even when they are outrageous. Other places (think the Sahara, southwestern USA, parts of Chile) are so dry they simply cannot meet local water demands. It’s not a simple case of uneven distribution either; even in water rich countries like China and Canada which have roughly the same amount of freshwater, we have to keep in mind China’s population has 1 billion more people than Canada. And in the case of the southwestern USA being heavily populated and demanding water, well that’s just not natural at all. They have basically irrigated a desert, and expect people to live there in the same hydrated comfort they do say, in the moist North Pacific.

So some places have a lot, and other places have little. The problem comes into play even moreso with water bodies that are shared by different nations, or worse – when the headwaters (where the water source is based) are in one country, and the outlet to the sea is in another. Think of the infamous, oft-ignored case of the Colorado River. For 6 million years, this powerful river poured forth from its birthplace in the Rocky Mountains, draining 2,250 kilometres south and west through deserts and canyons, lush wetlands, and into the Gulf of California in Mexico. In the 1920’s U.S. states began diverting water from it for irrigation, dams, and to support the booming populations of cities springing up in dry areas: Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego. In 1944, Mexico and the US came to an agreement about sharing multiple water bodies, including the Colorado, but since then the water quantity and quality (these waters are entering Mexico highly salinated after being irrigated in the US) has steadily declined – to the point that Mexican farmes are no longer able to grow their crops as before. Additionally, there’s even many inter-state conflicts in America itself over who gets how much water from the river. All the while, water levels all along the Colorado are sinking steadily, having severe ecological and anthropological health impacts. Even this superficial exploration of a single river demonstrates the complexity of distribution issues in regards to water. Who gets it? Who owns it? A consumption heavy nation with an incredibly large military and nonchalance for world resource consumption can certainly outweigh a smaller, poorer, less organized nation in water rights – but we all still need potable water to drink, sanitize, and grow food. Even when you have people like the Texas Commissioner Susan Combs who have made public outcries to just flat-out dam the Colorado and prevent any of the water from reaching Mexico over other water disputes, calling the natural flow of a river ‘giving’ Mexico water. Who’s going to monitor these situations for the greater good of the planet and the welfare of all?

**anecdote-based rant interjection** The Southwestern USA has to be one of the most wasteful regions of water I have ever been in. In high noon last year in June, I vividly recall dry, sandy cemeteries being watered by hoses pointed straight in the air, and ‘cooling’ water being sprayed outside of every shop – both evaporating almost instantly (not even mentioning Vegas and its pools and lawns). Yet they complain about droughts, and completely absorb all water that would naturally head for Mexico, depriving an entire region of their agriculture while wasting such a precious resource constantly and completely for…. nothing?

Now for the elephant in the room – global warming. Without entering the debate, IF global warming occurs at projected rates, then so will higher rates of evaporation. There will also be higher rates of melting in the snowcaps and glaciers, and we are already seeing this happen at both poles. We are also approaching a dangerous threshold where the icecaps may not be able to regenerate throughout the winter, and thus speed up the collapse of the polar ice caps.

Change in Ice Sheet Mass from the GRACE Satellite data

Change in Ice Sheet Mass, as generated by data from the GRACE satellite, found on http://www.skepticalscience.com

What does this mean in the context of water usage? More than 2/3 of the available freshwater on earth is frozen. As this ice melts, it goes directly into the ocean, making less and less of it available for usage. It also encourages higher temperature, and thus higher rates of evaporation – again, making less of it available for usage. Not just for us, but for all other forms of life too.

There’s a final compounded problem that is the direct result of urbanization. Everywhere humans go, we love ease of transport. This first translated into dirt roads, then gravel, now paved. Paved sidwalks, roads, parking lots, houses. Less grass, plants, trees, and other absorbing features of the earth. When the rain falls, instead of sating the earth, saturating the soil, and percolating downards to replenesh the ground water to come out potable elsewhere (a very important sustainable source of water), it now directly runs off the pavement and often directly into other water sources or the ocean, where it is lost into the system that takes a longer time to regenerate the same amount.

This problem leads us into the next part on demand. With a growing world population and growing demands on water, all the ecological issues that the previous populations have led us to are becoming magnified and compounded. So, feel free to leave comments, opinions, and discuss this topic, while I work steadily on the next one. And don’t forget to suscribe!

*Much of this information was taken from the excellent text “Water – The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource” by Marq de Villiers, as well as a host of other awesome internet resources.


6 thoughts on “Water, Water Everywhere. But Not a Drop to Drink? (Part 1)

  1. Commodification of water, on the surface (no pun intended), seems counter to what should be a basic human right. The source of our troubles for key world issues boils down to distribution systems. We have more than enough, it’s just not going to the right places.

    Dr. Vandana Shiva tackles this daunting issue of water as well in her book, Water Wars.

    Here’s a link of interesting facts and social movements for water:

    “Water Is God’s Gift and Not A Merchandise” and “Water Is Life.”

    • Thanks for the link. I have a great book called “Blue Gold – The Corporate Theft of the World’s Water” that speaks to the commodification of water. Just the other week, I was at a hot dog stand in Chicago (getting a veggie dog, of course), and water was $3.00 a bottle, but pop was only $1.50. WTF?

  2. This reminds me… many of my neighbors in Los Angeles used to “sweep” the sidewalk outside their homes with the water hose. It drove me totally crazy.
    I think it’s difficult for most people to perceive water as a limited commodity since household taps seems so unlimited. If only we could somehow see the watershed draining….too bad it’s underground.

    • Great point Chris. People do that here on sidewalks here in the water-rich Great Lakes region too, but there’s really no need for it. It’s just laziness and pavement issues. I also agree that it is diffcult for people to imagine when they don’t have to walk 4 miles every morning for the day’s water – but in today’s information age, I firmly believe igorance is a choice.

  3. Its really fascinating to think about the origins of water, thanks for bringing that up. It definitely complements the piece on current water management strategies to think first about how our planet stacks up against others in our solar system and galaxy in water content. Turns out we are pretty lucky to have not only water but liquid water. Says Goldilocks, we are not too far from the Sun to be frozen and not too close to be boiled — just right for slip and slides !

    Water is such a critical component of life that it seems natural to suppose its always been around. I just saw this research on zircon minerals in Australia, that actually gives date evidence for rocks as early as 4.4 billion years ago and water at 4.3 bya… woa! http://records.viu.ca/~earles/zircon-jan01.htm

    Makes you wonder about our supposedly molten earth at 4.5 bya huh ?

    The posts are great, I hope they get to the right policymaker’s rational ear…

    • I wouldn’t call it luck. The fact that we are alive is directly because of water, so I would say it’s more of a direct linkage between the fact that there is water, and that we are alive to appreciate it and be aware of it. Causation, not coincidence 🙂

      As for the zircon stuff – that’s neat, but still speculation. I’ll wait until the full jury’s out 🙂

      (so hard on you Upham, there’s just no wiggle room)

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