3 Steps to Save the World’s Water Supply

© Pete Oxford/iLCP

This is our seventh blog about Conservation International’s Nature Is Speaking campaign.

Picture the world the size of a classroom globe. Now imagine a small marble; this is larger than the 0.4% of fresh water available for us to use — the amount not locked up in glaciers or underground.

This “marble” is what allows all people on Earth to survive and thrive. In addition to quenching our thirst, it waters our crops, helps prevent the spread of disease and provides a huge source of electric power.

Our ponds, streams, rivers and lakes contain a larger concentration of life than terrestrial or marine biomes, providing habitat for about 120,000 species (about 8% of all known species). Freshwater plants and animals provide their own benefits for people, from food to water filtration to storm buffering and everything in between.

Yet fresh water, voiced below by Penélope Cruz, is in grave danger.

We all need water to survive — so when water suffers, people suffer too. Just consider these facts:

  • Currently, 780 million people don’t have access to clean water and almost 2.5 billion lack adequate sanitation. These numbers may double over the next 30 years as human populations explode.
  • About 6,000 children die each day from water-borne illnesses — a death toll equivalent to 10 jumbo jets going down every single day.
  • In the U.S., nearly 40% of all rivers and streams are too polluted for fishing and swimming due to sewage, agricultural runoff and precipitation of industrial airborne pollutants. In China, seven out of 10 major rivers are severely polluted.
  • In countries like Colombia and Indonesia, flooding is increasing — a shift partially attributed to climate change.
  • In other places like California, East Africa and Australia, droughts are taking a horrible toll on agriculture — which soaks up 70% of freshwater use — and everyday life.
  • The collapse of freshwater-dependent species like Chinook salmon in the western U.S. has impacted the livelihoods of numerous commercial and subsistence fishermen worldwide.

All of these conditions are felt first, and hardest, by the world’s poor. Wealthy people can buy bottled water, move to higher ground — but what about everyone else? If a country has too little or too much water and cannot afford infrastructure to manage it adequately, then what can be done?

The challenge is massive, but I firmly believe the global community can rise up to meet it.

Solutions will come in the form of three steps. We must understand our water and its role in ecosystems, as well as its interaction with other human needs like food and energy. We must manage our water, protecting its sources and flows and encouraging its wise use. And we must value our water, recognizing that it is not truly a “free” resource — because as long as we view it as such, we will fail to protect it sufficiently.

Understanding Water

In order to better manage our water, we need to first understand where it comes from.

Fresh water flows over and under our lands in rivers and sits in aquifers and lakes before eventually emptying into the oceans. Everyone knows that rain allows plants to grow; less well known is that plants and forests — especially cloud forests — also give some of the water they use back into the water cycle to make rain.

But here’s what we know about the state of freshwater ecosystems: They’re in trouble. In fact, they are the most threatened in the world.

WWF recently estimated that 76% of freshwater species were lost between 1970 and 2010 alone. Some of the most dramatic extinctions have hit North American freshwater mollusks, with up to 37 species of mussels extinct. 41% of amphibian species — bellwethers of ecosystem health — are currently threatened with extinction. We have lost half of our planet’s wetlands. Nearly every major river in the world has been dammed.

Freshwater ecosystems are also among the Earth’s least protected environments. Currently there are 1,218 inland wetland protected areas, yet these only make up about 12% of the total area covered by terrestrial protected areas.

Working with partners around the world, CI is leading research to learn more about the complex ways in which freshwater ecosystems function, from species discovery and ecosystem monitoring in Suriname to mapping how climate change will impact water availability in the Colombian capital of Bogotá to our forthcoming Freshwater Health Index, which will assess the status of specific benefits that people derive from freshwater ecosystems.

Managing Water

As human populations continue to grow, so do our standards of living and demands for goods and services. All of these developments increase pressure on our water resources. Water moves across landscapes and is needed for multiple, competing purposes along the way. In order for this to work, it needs to be managed at a bigger scale.

In Cambodia, where I live and work, rice and fish are everything — and both require flowing and clean fresh water. But just as the complex Mekong River system transcends national borders, so do problems of access and management. The region has recently seen an explosion of hydropower and agricultural development that, while beneficial for some, threatens to destabilize a freshwater system that has been a “fish and rice factory” for millennia, providing millions of Southeast Asians with a major protein and income source.

In order to ensure that development does as little damage to natural and human communities as possible, CI Greater Mekong is working with partners to develop more sustainable options that incorporate the value of nature into development.

Valuing Water

Scientists have estimated that the wide range of ecosystem services that fresh water provides are collectively valued at more than US$ 7 trillion per year. Yet in many countries, including the U.S., water is the cheapest utility that people pay for.

This is a discrepancy that needs to be fixed. If humanity continues our “business-as-usual” development trajectory, by 2050 we could lose all of the natural areas we have left that provide us with the ecosystem services we depend upon.

Payment for ecosystem services (PES) programs could be part of the answer. From Peru to Madagascar to Colombia, CI is helping to connect water providers with water users, providing financial incentives for people to keep the forests that filter fresh water standing and rivers clean.

Fortunately, more and more governments, businesses and communities around the world are starting to focus on managing ecosystems holistically, in recognition of the many connections within and between them. This same approach goes for the intersection of water, food and energy; actions within one industry have direct impacts on the others.

As Penélope Cruz says as Water, “Will wars be waged over me?” This is a real concern, especially in drier places in Africa and the Middle East — but it is not the only option. Instead, we must realize that a long-term solution will come only if we work together.

Tracy Farrell is the senior technical director of CI Greater Mekong. To learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website.