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The State of Our Water: World Water Day 2014

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Welcome to World Water Day 2014.

As I said last year, I think every day should be World Water Day, not just March 22nd, but hey, those of us who work on water take what opportunities we can to get the word out. Here are some thoughts that warrant repeating about water and important water news from the past year.

  • Those of us who are lucky enough to live in countries with high-quality tap water take it for granted. Go to your tap, draw a glass of water, and drink it. Then remember that nearly a billion people still do not have reliable access to safe, affordable tap water and cannot do what you've just done.
  • Stop taking your toilet for granted, too. Nearly 2.5 billion people (more people than lived on the planet in the 1930s) don't have safe sanitation.
  • Do you know anyone who had cholera, or typhoid, or dysentery? Probably not. Yet just a few generations ago, some of your ancestors certainly died from one of these diseases. The bad news is that millions of people still die from these preventable diseases -- associated directly with the lack of safe water and sanitation.
  • That food you're eating or the clothes you're wearing or the computer you're sitting at to read this? It took a lot of water to produce them. That water is part of your water footprint. Here are some resources that discuss water footprints.
  • We read all the time about the damages we're doing to the environment, and especially of the species that we're driving to extinction. But most of them aren't furry mammals or photogenic megafauna. The majority of species threatened with extinction are aquatic -- threatened by human use and contamination of water. Here is the IUCN "Red List" of vulnerable, threatened, and endangered species, worldwide. In the United States, more than one-third of threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, according to the U.S. EPA.
  • There appear to be growing risk of conflicts over water resources. The Pacific Institute has worked for more than two decades cataloguing and analyzing the risks of conflicts over water. Here is a link to our Water Conflict Chronology.
  • The news about climate change and risks to society just keeps getting worse. And risks to water are at the top of the list. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientific report was released a few months ago, and the IPCC Working Group II assessment of impacts is coming out in days. Their conclusion? "There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend."
  • Because climate changes are already occurring, weather events, including extreme events, are increasingly influenced by them. Scientists have been clear: expect to see more extremes of heat, extended drought, and water shortages in many places. This year, California is ground zero, with a seriously severe drought. Here is a recent discussion of the links between climate change and the California drought.

Some Good News

  • The assumption that demand for water must go up, up, up with population and economic growth is wrong. The U.S. (and many other countries) uses less water today than 35 years ago and far less per person. This is due to a combination of improved efficiency and changes in our economy. Figure 1 shows this trend for the U.S., and it is great news, though we're waiting on the most recent update on US water use, pending from the USGS.
. 2014-03-21-USWaterGNP.PNG
  • There is tremendous additional potential for improving efficiency and productivity of water use. We can do far more with less water in every sector from agriculture to industry to our homes.
  • It is possible to restore damaged natural ecosystems if we restore some semblance of natural water stocks and flows. Here is a pretty cool new data set and interactive map from American Rivers on removal of old, dangerously unsafe, or ecologically damaging dams in the United States.
  • There is a formal "human right to water" declared by the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and while by itself this will not magically solve water problems, it acknowledges the importance of meeting basic needs and lays out the responsibilities of nations to more actively address water and sanitation needs for their poorest populations. Here is some new work from the Pacific Institute on integrating the human right to water with business practices.
  • There are wonderful non-governmental, international, and community organizations of all kinds working on water problems, from research and policy (such as my own Pacific Institute) to on-the-ground assistance. (Here is one list; here is another; commenters should feel free to add more!).

So happy World Water Day 2014. Don't take your water for granted -- and take action.

Peter Gleick

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