World Water Day: Deep Dive Into Water and Climate Change

Image credit: UN-Water

Why is it important for people to be aware of how much water they use on a day to day basis?

Ashmore: We don’t think about this often here these days, but clean water is absolutely a finite resource. It takes a lot of resources and infrastructure to convert sourcewater to a reliably drinkable state; the price of water from the faucet does not reflect the full cost of sourcing, treatment, and distribution because it is vital to life and we don’t want to restrict access. Yet there is a concerning trend: the need to replace water infrastructure and the effect of climate change on water sources is driving a notable year-over-year increase in costs — and therefore in prices too. As someone who is deeply concerned about the urgency of addressing climate change, I also believe that it is too easy to overlook the challenges we may encounter quite soon around water availability, even potentially in places where water appears plentiful right now.

By Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash.

In recognition of World Water Day, what are some small ways that individuals can conserve water and reduce their water consumption?

Cleveland: Use a reusable water container to decrease the amount of cups that need to be washed/recycled/disposed of. Wash only full loads of laundry and/or or combine with a roommate or friend. Only run the dishwasher when there is a full load, use the shortest cycle, and do not select the heated drying option. Additionally, shifting to a plant-based diet will reduce water use because meat and dairy products are far more water intensive compared to plants.

Do you think the ways in which people are mindful of their carbon footprint should translate to concern for their “water footprint” as well?

Cleveland: This works in both directions. The largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are from the use of fossil fuels. Producing coal, oil, and natural gas requires a lot of water at every stage of the supply chain. Using less energy, improving the efficiency of energy end use, and shifting to renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will reduce the water requirements of energy production and use. The flip side is that the supply of water requires a lot of energy to pump, purify, and deliver clean water. Reducing our water footprint thus decreases our climate footprint.

Photo by Ming De Dong Huang on Unsplash.

What happens when people use too much water; what is the larger impact on the Earth?

Ashmore: Ultimately our water is drawn from rivers, reservoirs, or underground aquifers. If human demand exceeds the natural replenishment rate of local sources, then the imbalance will ultimately lead to some form of breakdown. Cape Town came very close to “Day Zero” when faucets were projected to run dry in March 2018, largely as a result of climate change reducing the replenishment rate of water.

With an ever-growing population, how is the world’s water supply affected?

Ashmore: I’ll start with some good news: in much of the developing world increased water efficiency is leading to reduced per capita usage of water. However, overall the increase in the world’s population and also the increase in people seeking meat-based rather than grain-based diets drive increased demand for water. (Note in the question above we discussed the difference in water intensity of beef compared to an apple.) Aside from total demand, the geographical concentration of water demand in growing cities is an additional challenge. We need thoughtful professionals to enter the water management industry to help address these challenges.

How can we work to best identify how widespread water pollution is, and are there any solutions to protect ourselves and future generations?

Ashmore: We really need to be mindful of the myriad ways in which water becomes polluted and how that propagates through our entire water cycle. Pharmaceuticals that we wash away persist; microplastics in the relatively clean waste water from baths, sinks, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances persist; PFAS are chemicals that originate from Teflon and other compounds that also persist. We need to consider: what happens to wastewater and industrial effluent? Where and when are combined sewer overflows occurring? What substances reach water bodies after being deposited on streets and then being carried to water sources via stormwater runoff? What leaches from agricultural areas into our groundwater?

Photo by Louis Hansel on Unsplash.

Are there any myths about water conservation?

Cleveland: Where to begin? Here are two common myths about water.



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