by water, only 1% of that is freshwater and therefore available to us to drink and water plants as well as providing food and so many other things¹. Not only is freshwater a scarce resource, but we are depleting it through inefficient use and pollution: about half of the world’s 500 most important rivers are being seriously depleted or polluted while around 40% of US rivers are too polluted for fishing and swimming². It is clear that our water problems are both complex and urgent to resolve. But what are we doing to protect our freshwater resources?
Governments around the world are legislating to ensure that water used for industrial purposes is cleaned up before being reintroduced in the water stream, the same goes for water used in cities and households as the sewage system and water treatment processes aim to clean the water. Initiatives are also in place to ensure that our farming activities impact the environment and our freshwater resources to a lesser extent. Farmers often use pesticides and fertilisers to grow crops; their use often pollutes the water used for irrigation and causes imbalances in the aquatic ecosystems where that water ends up.
What is more, at an international level, in 1992 governments signed up to the “Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes”. This is a UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe) agreement which aims to protect and ensure the quantity, quality and sustainable use of transboundary water resources by facilitating cooperation across countries³. Members of the Convention agree to cooperating on the management of transboundary waters by entering into specific agreements and establishing joint bodies. While initially negotiated as a regional instrument, as of March 2016 other UN member states can sign up to this Convention, making this into a universally available legal framework for transboundary water cooperation.
While progress is being made in a lot of parts of the world, there are many developing regions where water protection is not taken seriously. For example, the impact of clean water technologies on public health in the US is estimated to have had a rate of return of 23 to 1 for investments in water filtration and chlorination during the first half of the 20th century⁴. At the other end of the spectrum, the state of water in countries like China is in a very different condition: 20% of the groundwater in China used as drinking water is highly contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals which cause high levels of water pollution⁵.
How can we protect our freshwater resources better?
One very important element is to make sure developing regions invest in protecting their freshwater resources better to eliminate discrepancies in legislative ambition for water protection. This can be achieved by putting pressure on local governments as well as supporting civil society organisations working on the ground in South America, Asia, Africa and other regions to deliver projects that will help clean and protect our freshwater resources.
But we can also help protect our freshwater sources by doing things closer to home. Given that the average American lifestyle requires about 2,000 gallons (7,570 litres) a day, with 70% of that going to support our diets, making small changes could add up to big savings⁶. For example, by switching off the tap when you are brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes, you can end up saving a lot of water. Just think that fixing leaky faucets can add up to saving up to 10-25 gallons (37-94 litres) of water a day. Make sure you use technology that allows you to optimise water use and reduce consumption such as low-flow showerheads or dual-flush model toilettes and buying energy efficient electrical appliances and white goods. Our diet can also have a tremendous impact of water conservation. Eating less meat can make a real improvement to water scarcity as a typical hamburger can take 630 gallons (2,384 litres) to produce. When designing your garden, opt for native plants and grasses as these are more likely to thrive with rainfall and very minimal additional irrigation.