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“We cannot command nature except by obeying her.” – Francis Bacon

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With the fracking boom that has swept many parts of the world using vast quantities of water, it is worth considering the importance water plays within both society and the agricultural system. 97% of the water on the Earth is salt water and only 3% is fresh water; with slightly over two thirds of this being frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps. The remaining unfrozen freshwater is found mainly as groundwater, with only a small fraction present above ground or in the air.

Groundwater Is Decreasing

Fresh water is a renewable resource, yet the world’s supply of groundwater is steadily decreasing. With depletion occurring most prominently in Asia and North America, it is still unclear how much natural renewal balances this usage, and whether or not ecosystems are threatened. (1)(2)(3)

Scores of countries are over pumping aquifers as they struggle to satisfy their growing water needs. Most aquifers are replenishable but some are not. For example, when aquifers in India and the shallow aquifer under the North China Plain are depleted, the maximum rate of pumping will be automatically reduced to the rate of recharge. But for fossil aquifers, like the Saudi aquifer, the vast Ogallala aquifer under the U.S. Great Plains, or the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, depletion brings pumping to an end.

Farmers who lose their irrigation water have the option of returning to lower-yield dry land farming if rainfall permits. But in more arid regions, such as in the southwestern United States and parts of the Middle East, the loss of irrigation water means the end of agriculture.

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvests in some larger countries, including China, which rivals the United States as the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in August 2001 revealed that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces over half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, was falling fast. Over pumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well drillers to  turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.

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Shortages Around The World

As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more serious in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. To date, India’s 100 million farmers have drilled more than 21 million wells, investing some $12 billion in wells and pumps. In August 2004 Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.” As water tables fall, well drillers are using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water, going down a half mile or more in some locations. In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is now rain-fed and drinking water must be trucked in. Tushaar Shah, who heads the International Water Management Institute’s groundwater station in Gujarat, says of India’s water situation, “When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India.”(4)

Large scale agriculture and the irrigation of land, crops and the grazing of livestock is by far the biggest user of water. In developed countries such as North America and Europe, the average per capita domestic usage of water ranges from around 350 to 550 litres per day. In less developed countries per capita usage ranges from around 10 to 75 litres per day, significantly less than its richer counterparts. Not only are we ‘consuming’ large quantities of water on a daily basis, we also consume vast quantities of water in the associated foods we eat and products we use. We can clearly see different types of food require different amounts of water to produce. It is vital that we understand the processes that go towards producing foods and the externalities that exist in doing so.

Embedded Water in Foods and Clothing

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Waterwise an independent not-for-profit, non-governmental organisation promoting water efficiency and conservation based in London, has calculated the amount of water embedded in a number of everyday beverages and foods we take for granted in the West. Embedded water is the amount of water used in the process of producing and distribution of any agricultural products. Here are some of the more common products you might encounter each day. A pint of beer (575ml) – water embedded 170 Litres, Cup of coffeewater embedded 140 litres, glass of orange juice (200ml)  – water embedded 170 litres, glass of milk (200ml) – 200 litres embedded, slice of bread 30grams – 130 litres embedded, hamburger (150grams) – 2400 litres embedded, cotton tee shirt – 500grams – 4100 litres embedded, packet of potato chips (200grams) – 185 litres embedded.

Making A Shift In The Way We Live

Moving forward it is obvious that livestock as well as cotton are clearly not efficient uses of water. Researchers, scientists and environmentalists have been advocating that if humanity is to survive in its current form, with significant populations, we must see a shift towards a vegetarian diet. It is not difficult to understand how a vegetarian diet makes sense when we look at the inputs that go towards producing various foods. At the very least we should be factoring in the opportunity cost and externalities involved in the food we produce in an effort to conserve water. While domestic water consumption is only 8%, the amount of water used to produce various foods should be taken into account and factored into any water based calculations for richer nations. The embedding of water in the foods we eat significantly increases the average household usage of water.

Apart from making conscious decisions about how we live, the way we grow food, what we eat, wear and consume, water conservation is the most cost-effective and environmentally sound way to protect our waterways and reduce demand for this valuable natural resource. Using less water reduces stress on the environment, infrastructure and uses significantly less energy. Our diligence and awareness is crucial in conserving water and making a difference. By initiating personal change we can reduce our impact on the environment and conserve this vital natural resource. There are a multitude of water saving devices that can positively impact the way water is used. The most effective way to save water is by eliminating unnecessary practices. Here are a few practical ideas to get started.

Natural Landscaping

“The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.”  – David Suzuki

Each plant has naturally adapted to a particular landscape and specific climatic conditions. Planting species not suited to an environment results in significantly increased water usage. Native plants, that is, those plants that occur naturally in an environment, are low maintenance and far more resilient than plant species that have been introduced. Native plants are able to thrive in specific climatic conditions, have the ability to resist pests and use minimal water when compared to introduced non-native species. Native plants require minimal or no additional watering apart from what nature offers. They are programmed to deal with the naturally occurring rainfall. The average ½ inch garden hose pumps about 9 gallons, or 34 litres per minute. So you can do the math as to how much water you will save by reducing the time spent watering plants that don’t actually need much water.

When you need to water plants here are a few tips that will make a difference in reducing your water consumption. To reduce evaporation rates, make sure you water plants when it is cooler, usually in the morning or late afternoon. Learn as much about plants and their water requirements as possible, so that you don’t unnecessarily over water them. Many plants and trees have deep roots that enable the plant to sustain themselves for several weeks without being watered. Another great way to reduce evaporation rates is to place a layer of mulch around trees, plants and vegetable gardens as this significantly reduces watering and evaporation rates.

Watering Lawns!

“When the well runs dry, we shall know the value of water.” – Benjamin Franklin

Much of suburbia takes great pride in growing and cultivating the perfect lawn. It is interesting to note that the lawn originated from Europe around the 1600’s. The cool mild, climate of Europe was conducive to grasses and various ground covers. The earliest lawns and grasses had practical applications and were used in and around medieval castles in Britain and France. The low ground cover provided guards and watchmen an unobstructed view of any approaching danger. The practical application of being able to ward off hostile enemies does not practically translate into the current western culture.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reports that landscaping and the maintenance of lawn, account for approximately 30% of all water use in the United States. Considering that lawns serve no practical purpose and are purely aesthetic in nature, it seems extravagant that such a precious resource is wasted on a hangover from the 16th century. With the increasing cost of transport and rising food prices it seems like a perfect time to reduce our lawns and start investing and or propagating native plants, fruit and nut trees, vegetables and other edible plants. Trees have much deeper root systems so don’t need as much watering, plus have the advantage of providing nutrient dense foods. If you do need to have lawn then here are some handy tips for minimising the use of water.

  • Water your lawn only when needed, most lawns only need watering every 5 to 7 days.
  • Let the lawn grow. Having longer grass gives the lawn a chance to seed and protects the roots from drying out. A healthy lawn should be at least two to three inches in length.
  • Choose shrubs and ground covers instead of turf for hard-to-water areas such as steep slopes and isolated strips. Don’t water your lawn on windy days as most of the water blows away or evaporates.
  • To determine whether your lawn needs watering or not use this simple method as a test. Walk on the grass. If the lawn springs back up when you move, then it doesn’t need watering. If it flattens out and doesn’t rebound then the lawn needs some water.
  • Grasses, lawn and other organic materials are great for building soil composition and provide nutrients and fertiliser for gardens.

Some Practical Tips for Conserving Water Around the Home

There are hundreds if not thousands of different ways to save water, from efficient capture of rainwater in tanks, water saving devices, drip irrigation, through to simply being conscious about water usage. Here are a few basic tips to help save water around the home which may stimulate some ideas and help further your research on the subject.

Check for leaky faucets around home.    Use half flush system on toilets.    Take shorter showers.     Add less water to the bathtub.    If you have a pool put a cover on it when not in use.   Turn off water when brushing your teeth.     Water plants in the morning or evening.     Install a water tank.    Use a broom as opposed to a hose for cleaning outside surfaces.   Wash your car with a bucket.   Install faucet aerators.   Don’t defrost food using running water.  Wash up the old fashioned way by hand.   If using a dishwasher only use when it is completely fullInstall low flow shower heads.   Only wash clothes when the washing machine is full.   Reduce the amount of lawn in your backyard  Plant native plant species.    Spread a layer of organic mulch around plants. Grow your own food.   Eat less Meat.   Only purchase sustainably locally sourced products……

Remember every time you use water to be aware of how precious and scarce it actually is. In some countries people get by with as little as ten litres a day! So think about how you use water and the impacts of what you eat do and consumer have on this precious resource.

Article by Andrew Martin editor of onenesspublishing  and author of  One ~ A Survival Guide for the Future…


Excerpts from One ~ A Survival Guide for the Future…

(1) Earth’s water distribution”. United States Geological Survey.

(2) Scientific Facts on Water: State of the Resource”. GreenFacts Website.

(3) Gleeson, Tom; Wada, Yoshihide; Bierkens, Marc F. P.; van Beek, Ludovicus P. H. (9 August 2012). “Water balance of global aquifers revealed by groundwater footprint”. Nature (488): 197–200.


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