Freshwater is one of the most essential natural resources on our planet. It’s imperative to take an integrated, sustainable approach, consider the world's water cycle, and think about the usage and conservation of freshwater. By asking why water conservation is important, we will begin to uncover the damaging effects of some of our habits and daily-use items.
Freshwater accounts for only 3% of our surface water3. And most of the fresh water on our planet is not available for use since it is locked away in various forms of storage. Such forms include ice, glaciers, and groundwater.
Usable water is already a scarce resource in many parts of the world, and this is becoming an increasing concern. As our compilation of water pollution facts illustrates, its availability is likely one of the critical issues that humanity will face moving forward.
Those designing sustainable systems must think about how people can conserve and utilize freshwater effectively. They also need to come up with how to manage the land to maintain the integrity of the water cycle. Examples include channelling water to where it is required, and ways to reclaim polluted water. We must always bear the precious resource of freshwater in our minds to designing effective systems that conserve water rather than waste it.
Many parts of our planet are already facing a freshwater crisis, and humanity causes most of these problems. We make dryland areas, even drier through deforestation and poor land management. Towns and cities, surrounded by polluting industry and agriculture, face water pollution on an unprecedented scale. The problem has already created an absolute shortage of fresh water for many urban residents.
The lands allocated to agriculture, especially for growing food, is not always suitable, due to a lack of fresh water sources. So we squander clean water in perpetuating non-sustainable farming systems. Planting strategies rarely take the conservation or effective management of freshwater into account.
Likewise, industrial processes use copious amounts of freshwater without consideration for how to reduce it or with any recycling or purification plans before releasing it back to the environment.
We often share the blame for the world’s freshwater crisis as individuals and households. We splash water around, often using it without thought – running unnecessary appliances and wastewater on lawns and car washes. For ideas, you can action check out our tips to reduce water waste at home. Most people spare little thought for the freshwater cycle on the planet and readily take available clean water for granted.
The good news is that the perpetuating cycles of our planet mean that there will always be enough freshwater to meet our needs. However, this will only happen if we end the cycle of abuse and misuse. We also need to start storing and using water sustainably.
When we think about water conservation, we often focus on household use. We might think of water conservation measures such as turning off taps while brushing or shaving and being careful about how often we shower or wash our clothes. These things are important too. Real water conservation means moving beyond how we define the concept.
Every item we buy–from the food we eat to the clothes on our backs comes with a water cost. We need to take this into account and consider how we can conserve water when it comes to making genuinely sustainable decisions in our daily lives.
Take cotton clothing, for example. Besides carrying other costs for our environment, this material also has a high water supply cost. A report from Scientific American reveals that the global average water footprint for just 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres – as much as you might drink in almost 14 years!
One 1kg of cotton only makes around two T-shirts. The big question is, “should we be choosing two T-shirts over 14 years of fresh drinking water?” Questions like this have helped give birth and exposure to the sustainable fashion movement. Further, when it comes to that t-shirt, ask yourself if you really need a new one? Or perhaps cast your eye over our list of online thrift stores and pick up your next clothing essential second hand.
Sustainable improvements in cotton-growing are making a difference in the United States. Irrigated farms use less freshwater in places like India, where inefficient water use and high rates of water pollution mean a high water footprint. However, standard cotton production still wastes vast amounts of water each year.
Besides thinking about what we buy, we also need to consider the management of the broader ecosystems around us. It is only when we look at land management that we can begin to see how we can conserve water on a global scale. And why taking this step is so important.
Understanding the world's water cycle is crucial to determine how to manage water on a macro and micro scale. How quickly water cycles depends on where it finds storage. The oceans contain 97% of the total water (fresh and salt) on the planet4, the turnover rate (to cycle completely) is 37,000 years. It is important to understand how the cycle perpetuates, both on a long-term and short-term basis if we are to manage the period to sustain our lifestyle on earth effectively.
While growing up, we learned that water from the oceans evaporates, condenses as clouds, falls as rain, and then repeats the cycle. What most people don’t understand is the crucial role that trees play in the water cycle. Forests are essential to maintaining the water cycle, ensuring natural precipitation, and storing water after it falls as rain.
The simple cycle described above mainly holds for the ocean. 100% of the rain that falls is the water that comes from the ocean. Of the approximately 117,600 km3 of water that falls to the terrestrial surface as precipitation each year, less than a half 45,800 km3 (39%) comes from the ocean. While the majority derives from the land2 (71,800 km3, or 61%),
Transpiration, which is the release of water through the pores of trees and other plants, accounts for up to half or even more of all moisture returned to the air. And water vapour is the most dominant greenhouse gas on our planet.
Deforestation can significantly reduce rainfall in an area. It affects the formation of Eckman spirals and the air currents that increase precipitation. It also reduces the amount of cloud cover formed as a result of transpiration and evaporation. Besides, it reduces the organic particles sent airborne, which form the nuclei for condensation and allow rain to develop. Clearing our forests is detrimental to the conservation of water. It will definitely disrupt the water supply cycles.
The soil is also vital to the water cycle. Soils contain many times the water of ponds, pools or streams. However, poor management of agricultural land means that our activities threaten much of the world's topsoil. Barren areas used for crops, especially in dryland areas, often undergo degradation to the extent that they require urgent remediation work to absorb, store, and cycle water as they should.
Practices such as planting trees, adding trace elements and organic matter through mulching and organic feeds, non-destructive agricultural methods of well-managed natural yields, sparse grazing and conservation farming can increase the ability of the soils to hold and infiltrate water by up to 70-85%1.
Degraded land, when left bare, is prone to water run-off. This can destroy topsoil ecosystems and, in extreme cases, lead to a complete loss of the valuable growing medium. By effectively managing water flow, sustainable land management systems can prevent and reverse land degradation and protect the world's soils–conserving fresh water at the same time. All efforts towards conserving of water will gain little momentum if we do not care for our soils.
It is essential to conserve water. By following sustainability ethics, principles, and practices, we can safeguard our planet's water cycle and preserve one of humanity’s most valuable natural resources for the future.
To make sure we are part of the solution rather than part of the problem we need to:
It is only by taking these steps that we can ensure humanity's continued survival on this planet. And make sure that all its precious natural resources are still intact for the benefit of future generations and all other life forms.
|Kathryn, L., Dang, Y. P., Dalal R. C. (2020). The Ability of Conservation Agriculture to Conserve Soil Organic Carbon and the Subsequent Impact on Soil Physical, Chemical, and Biological Properties and Yield. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems|
|Sheil, D. (2018). Forests, atmospheric water and an uncertain future: the new biology of the global water cycle. For. Ecosyst. 5, 19. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40663-018-0138-y|
|PennState & NASA for Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences' OER Initiative. Distribution of Water on the Earth’s Surface|
|Baker, B., Aldridge, C., Omer, A. (2016). Water: Availability and use. Mississippi State University Extension. 2016. p3011.|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.