Is the earth’s freshwater receding?

To be told that the capacity of the earth’s ecosystem to supply freshwater for human consumption is dangerously receding, when one is aware that the earth is composed roughly two-thirds of water, can be quite jarring to the mind.

Especially when one lives in a southeast Asian country like the Philippines, located smack on the path of tropical storms with their yearly load of floods, its seasons diametrically cut into wet and dry, its islands and borders circumscribed by the vast sea, it becomes quite intellectually remote and inconceivable that that magnitude of water may soon be a thing of the past.

Remote though it may be, perhaps in this part of the world, the grim reality seems that, indeed, one in six people living on planet earth today has no safe water to drink–and the rate is deteriorating, not improving. In fact, a United Nations report avers that 40% of the world’s 6 billion population today, or more than 2 billion, suffer from water shortages.

What an expert engaged by the World Bank in a recent study calls the “grim arithmetic of water” amply shows this.

Of the two-thirds water of which the earth is made, almost all of this, or 97%, is saltwater found in the seas and oceans. Close to 2% consists of polar ice sheets and glaciers, and even smaller than one percent is what goes for drinking, irrigation and industrial use. Of this last portion, all of 70% of it goes to agriculture or irrigation, and 30% is what is shared by humans and industries. A minuscule portion subsists in the atmosphere as water vapor.

Based on these figures, the United Nations fear that if the rate and styles of consumption of freshwater continue as they are at present, there would be severe shortages to ensue by year 2025.

People. Increase in human numbers and human consumption are at the roots of nature’s increasing incapacity to replenish the freshwater surface quantities flowing in rivers, wetlands, and lakes – in groundwater and in reserves contained in underground aquifers.

What people drink is small enough compared with what the earth needs for agriculture – to produce the crops, livestock and ingredients needed to produce foodstuff needed by people to live.

If today, at a time when the population count stands at six billion, there are people already dying from thirst, and another 1.2 billion reportedly drinking unclean water, how would the situation be when world population reaches 9 billion in the year 2050?

The demand for more food and the growing concern for basic human survival have worked in awakening interest in the use of traditional and modern technology for tapping more water reserves – by siphoning off water from rivers and lakes, or digging deeper in the ground and pumping water out.

The move, however, has been found to cause the drying up of surface and ground water, even of hidden aquifers, and lead to the intrusion of saltwater where freshwater levels have plunged.

Many coastal towns in the provinces of Cavite and Cebu, which had breakthroughs in housing and industrial development, reportedly experienced salty groundwater, which could only have been caused by the intrusion of saltwater due to overpumping of groundwater.

The situation becomes unfortunate since, as a former official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources maintained, groundwater is a favored source of water supply for its nearly pristine condition that requires minimal treatment. Moreover, he had added, groundwater has the essential minerals needed by humans.

Elsewhere the signs indeed are getting grim. The Yellow River in China, after being taxed exorbitantly by farmers and by cities along its path, fail more often than not to reach the sea. The same has been the case of the Colorado river in the U.S., which used to wash out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Aral Sea in Central Asia reportedly shrank by half when diverted to irrigate crops in the Soviet Union.

Farmers in India, who once enjoyed a boom in crop harvests from irrigating their fields by pumping water from the ground, found that they had to dig deeper every year for water. When costs of digging and pumping soared, they had to close and leave the farms.

Lessons. But the experience provided them with a lesson against overtaxing nature. Now, villagers in India have found that when they impound water in-between the hills when the monsoon rains come, the water from the basin does many good things. It not only becomes a source of water during the long dry months. It also seeps down and across the earth as groundwater, restoring the water level, and replenishing the aquifers under the ground.

With so many earthen basins worked out by the villagers, the local water situation stabilizes, allowing for more agricultural and village-level industrial activity, raising the level of living and economic conditions, allowing as well for better personal and home upkeep.

On a larger scale, urban-based water conservation, which has been largely an ideal concept in other cities, has become a showcase in the city of Durban, South Africa.

A city of 2.5 million whites and blacks in 1992, Durban’s residents were not paying for water. Wastage due to broken pipes and mains, leaky toilets and faulty plumbing ran high. Yet demand for more water grew by 4% every year, and called for the building of another dam.

By the simple expedient of repair work, installing meters, replacing 4-gallon flush toilets with 2-gallon models, and retrofitting showerheads and taps, the measures so succeeded that the plan to build the dam has been shelved, and the city is confident of comfortably absorbing another 300,000 residents in a decade.

The city seems also to have succeeded in recycling waste water. It reportedly treats 125 million gallons of wastewater daily, and has been selling 10 million of these to local industries. The industries like it because recycled water costs less. But, the other effect is that recycling has cut the city’s demand for water by about 5%.

If only recycled water the way they do in South Africa can fill the water-impounding basins being built across the arid plains of India, or to irrigate farms elsewhere … Such a development would free so many of the world’s rivers, wetlands and lakes from being tapped for irrigation – which consumes 70% of the freshwater supply!

The looming specter in the earth’s receding freshwater may yet dissipate in the face of people affected by the threat, pooling their minds and muscles together to do the job, applying these very practical and doable techniques.

Already, in many parts of the world, farms are diverting to the more efficient drip-irrigation system. The system not only reduces the use of water to the minimum that a plant or tree needs. It seems that vegetation is often over-hydrated. When supplied with only the minimum that it needs through drip-irrigation, through which nutrients can be directly infused into its system, a fruit tree has been found to bear fruit more productively.

Focus. The serious challenge posed by receding freshwater supplies in the face of steadily rising human demand levels and the unreliable quality of the water accessible to human consumption has made the United Nations sound the alarm.

The UN has declared 2003 as the “International Year of Fresh Water” to raise general awareness of the problem and to galvanize governments and other stakeholders to pull together in finding ways “to ensure water conservation and keep water sources clean.”

The move should occasion the showcasing not only of experiential breakthroughs in the efficient ways of using water, in treating and recycling it, and in conservation. It should also bring out in the open endemic social problems.

One festering case drips from the urban slum situation in metropolitan Manila. Of the area’s 13 million present population count, 4 million are reportedly slum dwellers, and these are increasing by 4% every year. In these enclaves a complexity of social problems sprout, not the least of which is sanitation, topped by the deplorable state of human waste disposal.

A study made by the University of the Philippines College of Public Health shows that “one out of three households in a typical slum in Metro Manila drinks water contaminated with waste.” In fact, broken or poorly fitted water pipes have previously been fingered as the culprits in cholera epidemics breaking out during flood months.

The upgrading of the metropolitan water system, which is outdated and decrepit, is one of the pressing reasons behind the government’s decision last year to hand over operation to two private concessionaires.

The bigger of the two in area coverage, Maynilad Water Services serves the west zone, consisting of 9 cities and 2 municipalities of metropolitan Manila, one city and 5 towns in Cavite, with a population of 5.5 million.

Top of the agenda of the concessionaire is rehabilitation of the distribution network. A wide area is still served with pipes 120 years old, considered the oldest in Asia. Leaks from these pipes, worsened by pilferage and illegal connections, contribute to the high non-revenue water (NRW) rate in the service zone of 69.5% of water produced and distributed.

Their target is to reduce the NRW rate to 35% by 2021, and ensure an uninterrupted 24-hour water supply at a minimum pressure of 16 pounds per square inch -the world’s standard.

With new pipes replacing the old and with robust pressure within, leaks and the risk of contamination would be considerably lessened, if not totally eradicated.

The containment of leaks in the system alone can go a long way in resolving the issue of rising water costs. It is estimated that a 1/8-inch leak can fill 418 kerosene cans of water a day – costing a household another Php 269 in its monthly bill at present rates.

Another important area of water conservation that can help reduce the quantity of household use and cost is the recycling of tap water for watering plants and general cleaning.

With the focus on freshwater conservation this year, it can be hoped that heightened attention can be gained in conserving as well the country’s watersheds. Watersheds are nature’s huge storage and filtration facility, where the trees and vegetation keep the water in the ground. The water spreads throughout the ground and seeps down and become a river or a lake until it gets to the sea.

As it travels down, evaporation ensues. From evaporation, it comes down from the sky as rain that re-starts the whole cycle once again, serving the needs of all the living.