It Never Rains, But it Pours
The world’s water systems were largely built on the more stable climate of yesteryear. However, climate change, caused mostly by the burning of fossil fuels, has disrupted the Earth’s water cycle (hydrological cycle) and a change in when, where and how much rain falls has left some areas without running water and others prone to regular flooding.
“Day zero” is a phrase that has been coined to describe the day in which a city’s water supply runs dry.
After suffering a three-year-long drought, Cape Town, a city on the southwest coast of South Africa, narrowly escaped day zero that was initially predicted for April 2018, thanks to careful planning and severe rationing.
Cape Town residents were limited to 13 gallons of water each per day and advised against flushing potable water down the toilet and it was suggested that they limit themselves to two showers per week to help the situation.
São Paulo, a city in Brazil with a population of 20 million, endured its own day zero in 2015, forcing the city to turn its water supply off for 12 hours a day, leading to the closure of multiple businesses.
Barcelona, Spain, was also forced to import tankers of fresh water from France in 2008.
Droughts are becoming increasingly frequent and more severe, and many of the world’s largest cities are experiencing water scarcity or drought conditions. According to a 2016 study, two-thirds of the global population (four billion people) live under conditions of severe water scarcity at least one month of every year.
It’s Not Just Human Consumption
Many factors affect the world’s water crisis. While climate change plays a massive part, population, economic growth and poor water management are also significant players.
cooking, flushing and washing accounts for around just 3% of total water consumption
While increased population does put a strain on a nation’s water supply, home use of water for cooking, flushing and washing accounts for around just 3% of total water consumption. 80-90% of water is consumed by agriculture and the rest by energy production and industry.
A water footprint is the net amount of water that is used to grow or make something. This may be fruit, grain, drinks, microchips or anything else that uses water in the growing or manufacturing process.
a typical 750ml bottle of wine has a water footprint of nearly 200 gallons
The southern suburbs of Cape Town are notable wine-growing regions and export over a hundred millions of gallons of wine each year. It is estimated that it takes between 26-53 gallons of water to grow the grapes and process them into one 125ml glass of wine. Therefore, a typical 750ml bottle of wine has a water footprint of nearly 200 gallons.
Most of this water is lost to evaporation, a small amount is stored in the grapes, and the rest is unsuitable for reuse. While the evaporated water will eventually fall as precipitation, it’s unlikely that it will fall in the same region.
30 billion gallons of water in citrus export
On top of the wine they export, the Western Cape exported an estimated 231,000 tonnes of citrus fruits in 2017. Each piece of fruit has a calculated water footprint of 21 gallons, giving an estimated total of 30 billion gallons of water in citrus export alone.
Water isn’t just used in agriculture. Water is used to manufacture most things, from buildings, cars and electronics to furniture, books and toys. The water used in these processes is known as “virtual water” as it goes mostly unseen.
South Africa also exports masses of products that use a huge supply of virtual water, including metals, oil products, and minerals.
Other countries that suffer considerable water scarcity of their own such as China and India also export an abundance of virtual water.
Using Water Better
Water is just another resource that is taken for granted. South Africa currently has an estimated 7 million people without access to water. Meeting their needs would require 33 billion gallons of water per year, just one-third of what the wine industry consumes.
38% of the EU’s water demand lies outside the EU
An increasing dependence on imports puts a strain on even water-rich countries. Roughly 38% of the EU’s water demand lies outside the EU, due to many of the goods consumed by its citizens and businesses being produced abroad. That makes the EU vulnerable to drought by proxy.
Cape Town has plans in place to make use of ocean water and is building its first desalination plant. However, many believe that the answer is to switch to less water-dependent crops and grow and produce things in the right place; i.e. water-demanding crops should be grown in regions where there is a lot of water.
More also needs to be done to reduce wastewater. Currently, Cape Town reuses only 5% of its treated wastewater, while nations like Israel reuse 85% and have also eradicated water-thirsty crops and made improvements in water efficiency to free up more water for population growth.
What is happening in Cape Town could happen anywhere in the world. Many areas have reached the limit of how much water can be exported and plans need to be made to prevent more nations suffering drought conditions.
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