Water. It’s one of the most basic compounds known to humanity, and also one of the most necessary for the survival of nearly every form of life. It powers not only our individual bodies, but provides insulation for the planet, energy for our civilizations, and food for people, both indirectly and directly. Simply put, no other substance could be more basic, universal, or important for our survival than water.
So why is it used so irresponsibly? Many people have yet to realize it, but our societies, especially those of very developed or developing countries, use or pollute colossal amounts of water, even in the simplest day-to-day activities. The real problem I want to focus on though is the area of life in which the modern world uses water most freely (and oftentimes, irresponsibly): agriculture.
Now, I’m not going to try and argue that the world as a whole needs to cut back on agricultural development. Of course this is good and necessary, especially in our modern technological society. But there are many practices in this crucial field that can help reduce the titanic amounts of water we pour into it.
But first, how much are we really using for these things? Here are a few examples: A pound of corn requires about 108 gallons of water to grow. The same amount of cotton uses 713 gallons, cheese uses 600, and a pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water. Now, there is the argument that all these figures exist in a vacuum (that is, they seem like significant numbers, but there’s little to compare them to in order to put them in perspective), and this is somewhat true. Perhaps comparing this to the amount of freshwater remaining for us will help.
The main source for American agriculture (which is centered in the Midwest) is a huge underground “sponge” of rock called the Ogallala aquifer. This aquifer supplies around a third of America’s farming, with around 14 billion gallons of water withdrawn yearly for farming and another 330 gallons or so taken out for other purposes. At this rate, it’s estimated that we’ll have drained this aquifer down to nothing with 190 years or less. Some estimates even hold that the US will face severe water shortage issues with 50 years. The Ogallala aquifer isn’t refilling either. It’s filled with what is sometimes called “fossil water,” meaning that the water was deposited there millions and millions of years ago and is hardly being replenished at all.
So what to do? The biggest problem facing modern agriculture is that it has become tied to a hugely outdated system of ideas that were established in the 19th century Industrial Revolution. Many good things came of this development, and the economic strength and stability of agriculture was vastly improved, but all of this came at a high cost to the environment in the form of ecological destruction and use of huge quantities of natural resources. While we may have had an excuse during the Revolution for the new pollution and contamination, we’re no longer blameless. It’s crucial that agriculture, especially in the developed and developing worlds, is responsible and efficient. We can do this by watching how much water is used in irrigation, what kind of irrigation we use, restriction of pesticide use, and so many other innovations. The time to seize the future of our water supply is now. Time is short.
Note: A great resource to use if you’re hoping to understand the water crisis better and get a better grasp on how much water we use is the National Geographic Freshwater webpage, which is where these statistics came from. Also, if you can get your hands on the April 2010 issue of that same magazine, it’s a special edition on the water crisis and a fantastic set of articles. Some books I would recommend are Blue Planet Run and Water Consciousness, both of which offer a lot of insight into this subject (and BPR has a lot of fantastic pictures too!).