Water to Burn?

Today is UN World Water Day, and for many of the planet’s residents, one of our most plentiful resources has become all too scarce. The rest of us are busy playing golf in the desert.

March 15 was a good day for Tiger Woods at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He turned in his best round for the year and ended, as Fox Sports put it, “a peculiar drought at a tournament he won four straight times,” shooting “his first sub-70 round in three years.” The wording was ironic, however, because by some estimates, in addition to breaking 70, Tiger also used up hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons of water. So did every other golfer—a peculiar drought indeed. But at least they were playing in Florida instead of, say, the desert. Americans expect to be able to play golf anywhere, just as they expect to be able to have a nice green lawn in places like Phoenix or San Antonio. The amount of water thereby consumed is mind-boggling.

Stephen Grigory, a San Antonio-based piping consultant, estimates that in his area “each time a golfer plays a round of golf it takes between 2,200 and 3,500 gallons of water to support his game based on golf course average water use.” San Antonio’s 56 golf courses alone suck up 6.4 billion gallons of water per year. To put that figure in perspective, consider that in Africa, average daily human consumption is 47 liters, or about 12.5 gallons. That means the San Antonio golf courses’ annual water consumption equals about that of 1.5 million Africans.

March 22 has been declared World Water Day by the United Nations; this year’s theme is “Coping with Water Scarcity.” Water issues are probably not uppermost in the minds of most Americans, who, except for the poorest and those living in the drought-affected Midwest, are fortunate enough to have access to as much clean water as they want, whenever they want it. Water to burn, it seems. But 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have adequate drinking water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation. Poor water quality is a key factor in many illnesses and public health problems: Diarrheal diseases and malaria kill more than three million people a year, 90 percent of them children under age five. The U.N. estimates “1.6 million lives could be saved annually by providing access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene.” Yet official development assistance for water projects is only about $3 billion a year for the whole world.

As with energy, Americans are notoriously wasteful of water. The United States occupies 16 percent of the world’s land area and has seven percent of the world’s population, and that population uses about four times as much water as the average—about 16,000 cubic meters per person per year. [PDF] By another measure, that means household use in the U.S. is 578 liters a day per capita (153 gallons), compared with 334 liters a day in Britain and only 95 liters a day in Asia. When you consider watering lawns and golf courses are forms of irrigation—though ones completely non-productive of food—American water use starts to look a little extravagant.

How could one person possibly use so much water? Visit an old-fashioned toilet a couple of times (five gallons per flush) and you have already reached about 40 liters. In the developed world we are used to “limitless” drinking water, long, hot showers (often at several gallons a minute), dishwashers, clothes washers…

As you read this, your computer is consuming electricity, some of which was probably produced hydroelectrically. And that, really, is only the beginning. If sometimes it seems the oil economy is involved in everything (including your computer’s plastic and even the buttons on your shirt), how much vaster is the water economy. It includes not only water for personal use but all the water that went into the products you consume. In fact, almost 70 percent of all freshwater consumption globally goes to irrigated agriculture. And there’s livestock, of course. It takes 15,000 liters of water to produce one kilo of grain-fed beef. [PDF]

Nor does it stop with things you ingest. As you read this, your computer is consuming electricity, some of which was probably produced hydroelectrically. Everything you own that is made of wood, cotton, leather, or any number of other commodities is also ultimately dependent on water resources. No water, no wood, no wool, no world. No you, either (98 percent of the molecules in your body are made up of water).

Water is a contentious issue, not to mention big business. Obviously, freshwater is not evenly distributed over the earth; but just how uneven it is may come as a surprise: A mere nine countries hold 60 percent of the world’s freshwater resources. They are Brazil, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, China, Colombia, the United States, Peru, and India. And because water isn’t evenly distributed, 33 countries depend on other countries for more than half of their renewable water resources, among them not just developing countries but several European nations, including the notoriously wet Netherlands, as well as Portugal, Romania, and the Ukraine.

But being on the list of the nine lucky countries is no guarantee of water security. China and India are both on it, but more than half of the multitudes who lack access to adequate water and basic sanitation live in those countries. Or take Bolivia: It borders the largest lake in South America (Titicaca), but, according to the U.N., “the lack of access to clean water is a key factor in the country’s high rate of child illness and death.” Among the problems in Bolivia are “high water tariffs, industrial pollution of drinking wells, global warming and rapidly melting glaciers.” [PDF]

The U.N.’s bottom line is that “the hydrological cycle, upon which life depends, needs a healthy environment to function.” Thus, a central idea of the Fourth World Water Forum (held in Mexico City March 16-22) is that physical water scarcity is not the only issue. A country that has a lot of filthy, polluted water still suffers from water scarcity.

And the problems are getting worse. The report of the forum is disturbing reading: “Water quality is declining in most regions,” and the species that live in the water right along with it. Water gets nasty in other ways, too: “Ninety percent of natural disasters are water-related events, and they are on the increase.” The list of countries most at risk for floods and rises in sea level includes some you would expect, like Bangladesh, and others you might not, such as the United States. Paradoxically, two trends seem to be converging over the next two decades: a growing scarcity of water where we need it and inundations of water where we don’t.

In some places up to 30 to 40 percent of fresh water is simply lost through illegal diversions, leaky pipes, and other problems that might have technical solutions. Does this mean every time you tee off you should think about the fact that 3,800 children die every day from diseases linked to water problems? Well, maybe—given that current water use is unsustainable and likely to end in disaster. Water consumption increased by double the rate of population growth during the 20th century. The U.N. estimates that the world will need 55 percent more food by 2030 to feed a population swollen to 8.1 billion, and that means a whopping increase in water use. Although it comprises only 20 percent of total agriculture, irrigated agriculture produces 40 percent of global food.

This is not, however, a problem that can be solved merely by a Western handout. The U.N. recognizes that corruption and mismanagement are major factors in water problems, and that “essential freedoms, like the freedom of speech and the right to organize,” are key elements in solving the water crisis. Not surprisingly, the people who suffer the most from bad water quality or no water at all are the poor and oppressed. But even in a democracy, such as India, the poor are reduced to scrounging for clean water, or even stealing it. In New Delhi, the city pours 950 million gallons of sewage every year into the Yamuna River, which has become an unspeakable health hazard. Meanwhile, farms dry up and villagers wait for government trains to bring them water every couple of days. The poor also compete for water with big corporate interests; Coca-Cola has been the target of several campaigns by Indian communities because of its alleged diversion of vast amounts of water to its plants.

Is there anything we can do about any of this? I mean, it’s not like if I turn off the water while I’m brushing my teeth (thereby saving up to four gallons a minute), that water will end up in New Delhi, Bolivia, or the Sahel—at least not until someone invents a way for me to buy water offsets. (And just how much water is Al Gore’s mansion using, anyway?) Development assistance would be a good start; in some places up to 30 to 40 percent of fresh water is simply lost through illegal diversions, leaky pipes, and other problems that might have technical solutions. But stopping leaks and wastage has political dimensions.

Water connects everything, from how you practice your personal hygiene to U.S. foreign policy. Take China’s Three Gorges dam, the largest in the world, which has been called a “lesson in how not to build a dam.” Its construction across the Yangtze created a lake 370 miles long and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. Downstream, it has been blamed for dangerously lowering the level of the river and damaging the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen. Over the years, China has arrested, abused, and even executed dam protesters. Certainly, we can’t expect the current U.S. government to do anything to oppose development run amok. Nor is it likely we will criticize such policies as long as we continue to borrow $200 to $300 billion a year from China to finance U.S. deficits, and to gobble up the consumer goods desperately poor Chinese workers produce. But at the very least, we could refuse to treat Three Gorges as a tourist attraction.

With water conservation, as with all other aspects of halting or retarding humanity’s relentless assault upon the environment, one stumbles upon the question: Is any aspect of the American dream negotiable in the interest of saving the world? Since the Reagan revolution of 1980, the answer (at least politically) has been a resounding no, as developments from the SUV craze to attempts to weaken the Clean Air Act to the Bush administration’s gagging of climate-change scientists shows. Water awareness probably will only drastically increase if a lack of water becomes widespread—as it is already in some areas of the United States hit by drought—and if municipalities that make you pay for water raise taxes and fees. In fact, Americans may have a rude awakening about water similar to the one that came when U.S. gas prices finally began to approach those Europeans had been paying for decades. In fact, that realization may be closer than we think: The Rio Grande made the World Wildlife Fund’s top 10 list of rivers that are dying out because of pollution, dams, and climate change—“threatening a severe water shortage.”

And there may be other, more circuitous ways in which the water crisis will begin to show itself even in places used to plentiful supplies of safe water. The U.N. predicts that by 2030 the world will be three-quarters urban, and two billion people will be living in slums and shantytowns without sanitation (except for the infamous “bag and throw” method). As the world becomes more and more interconnected, the desperation, violence, disease, and rage born in those slums will no doubt be arriving in a neighborhood near you.

Bruce F. Murphy is a freelance writer living in Rome. He is the editor of Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (1996; 2008) and the author of several books. His poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Poetry, Commonweal, the Paris Review, Critical Inquiry, and elsewhere. More by Bruce Murphy