08/11/2014 02:30 pm ET | Updated Oct 11, 2014

Water Efficiency in a Global Crisis

Listen to the headlines and you will hear more and more frequent anecdotal evidence of the crisis facing our global fresh water supply. Only 3 percent of the water on earth is fresh, and of that some 2 percent is locked in the polar ice caps, thus leaving us with the astonishing conclusion that the entire population on earth is reliant on 1 percent of the available water worldwide to sustain its fundamental need.

That need is universal; each of us -- no matter who we are, what we earn, or where we live -- should consume at least two quarts of water per day to sustain basic daily physical health. According to the World Health Organization, an individual requires 18 gallons a day to provide medium term maintenance to include drinking, cooking, personal hygiene, washing clothes, cleaning homes, growing food, and sanitation and waste disposal.

There is an apocryphal story of a proposed reality television show focusing on water use of a middle-class American family of two adults and three children. The value entertainment was to derive from the inter-personal consequences of reliance on the minimal supply to meet the profligate use of water in the United States for domestic uses only. The trial was a disaster as the family chosen could not subsist a week on these conditions, deprived of infinite supply for cooking, showers, dishwashers and washing machines, lawn and garden watering, without serious negative psychological effect, inter-family conflict, and rejection of the experiment.

The headlines speak of water shortages everywhere, in large amounts, and in many forms. We read of cities closing down their water systems because of toxic run-off, of the poisoned water from fracking oil wells that leak into watersheds, streams, and rivers; of droughts that evaporate available water and radically decrease supply for irrigation of industrial farms and orchards; of wildfires that cannot be contained because there is no available water to fight them. There are many more examples; add them all up and you have a water crisis that threatens rich and poor everywhere in the world, has serious financial implications now and for the future, destroys communities, and indeed becomes a context for conflict.

All this threatens total supply and must force us to re-think how we manage the efficiency of our water use. Certain changes seem obvious: becoming more aware of the problem and modify personal use by turning off faucets, shortening showers, collecting rain water for gardens, not washing the car, replacing old appliances with conservation-certified new ones, and understanding that every gallon wasted by indifference is a gallon gone and irreplaceable for you or anyone else.

Individual actions can, of course, be scaled up by government actions and regulations. The Alliance for Water Efficiency, for example, exists as an authoritative voice for water conservation in North America, informs and advocates for the development of state and municipal laws, codes, and standards, and supports a national partnership with the US Environmental Protection Agency called "WaterSense" that promotes best water conservation management practices for homes, hotels, factories, businesses, treatment plants and water distribution infrastructure, and rewards the best examples of the most efficient water conservation technologies.

But this is nowhere near enough. Water consciousness must improve dramatically at all levels of society to enable us to recycle water effectively, to divert treated water to alternative use, to channel urban run-off from roofs and storm systems back into the usable water supply, to revolutionize our agricultural irrigation practices that today consume a vast majority of water resources worldwide, and regulate any and all industrial or extraction behavior that continues to pollute our waterways with harmful pollutants and poisons with unacceptable local health and downstream consequences.

And yet, in the United States at least, determined politicians are attempting to reverse any such intelligent controls by diluting or over-turning clean water laws and regulations already established in the name of protecting threatened corporate interests, denying the role of government to regulate destructive practice, and sustaining the status quo. Wouldn't it be interesting to put those representative lawmakers in a situation like that American family? Where they would have to live together, with of their individual hypocrisies, compromised decisions, and destructive political ideologies? I wonder how long they would last having to live together up close and personal in today's global fresh water crisis?