I wonder…where did all the water go?


Over the past months I’ve been following the news, with a particular attention to the droughts all over the world. It made me really wonder about water. Fresh water to be exact. With all these droughts a question popped up in my head:”Where did all the water go?” A bit of a weird question maybe? Why bother? I brought up the topic of my wonders at a wedding party the other day while talking to Paul Newsham and he had exactly the same question! So we decided to do a little wander and research the question together. 

The third week of September is The Global Week to act for the SDGs (#act4sdgs). A week full of global action and attention for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. A time to reflect on the world around you and take action. A good moment to send out this edition and hope you enjoy our wander in the world of water.

Once per 500-year draughts in the Northern Hemisphere

Lakes and rivers are running dry due to massive droughts in the USA, Europe and the UK as reported by ABC News. Draughts that are unseen in the past 500-1000 years. We know the climate is changing due to human-caused global heating and that some regions get extreme rainfall and other regions get droughts. But these extreme weather conditions cause more and more stress on the availability of fresh drinking water.  And if there is stress on fresh water, not only is it a problem for the eight billion people on the planet, it also puts stress on agriculture, food-production and all living things in the biosphere in general. So where did the water go?

Conservation of mass and other facts about water

First of all the availability of fresh drinking water should still be the same as it was billions of years ago. If we apply the principle of mass conservation that states that matter is neither created nor destroyed the volume or amount of water should still be there. With all these lakes and rivers running dry, where did it go? It can’t jus disappear right?. So let’s get some of the facts in place:

  • Water covers 70% of our planet, and it is easy to think that it will always be plentiful. However, freshwater (we drink, shower and use on farms) is incredibly rare.
  • Only 3% of the world’s water is freshwater,
  • Two-third of the freshwater is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use. 
  • So bottom line we only have access to 1% of the freshwater on the planet
  • Agriculture uses 70% of the available freshwater capacity

That leads to water stress for 1.1 billion people worldwide that lack access to water, and a total of between 2.3 and  2.7 billion that find water scarce for at least one month of the year depending on the source.

Global water scarcity

So water scarcity is really a global thing. Of course The United Nations have been addressing the issue for years. The UN defines water scarcity as “The amount of water that can be physically accessed varies as supply and demand changes. Water scarcity intensifies as demand increases and/or as water supply is affected by decreasing quantity or quality.”

In fact there are two Sustainable Development Goals directly associated with water.

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SDG 6 addresses water-stress and this (2019 data) map of the UN shows water scarcity around the world. The US and China are low and most of Europe will be in stress levels after these recent draughts. Over the next 20 years more and more countries will turn yellow and red as populations increase and agriculture and climates changes affect fresh water availability.

Global water scarcity

In the last decade, highly populated areas of first-world and developing countries such as Italy, South Africa and India have come dangerously close to reaching their “day zero” where they run out of water to support their population. 

What if there were already solutions out there to solve water scarcity?

There are already so many initiatives around the world, that it is hard to give a simple answer to that question. Let me focus on what we found. But let’s start with a simple one.

What if we started using tab-water instead of bottled water

The quality of tap water in most countries is good enough, however I’m a it biassed coming from The Netherlands with the best drinking water in the world together with Finland, Iceland, Norway, UK and Switzerland according to this ranking)

Another great company that is promoting TAB water over bottled water is Zereaudrinks.com. They make tap water points available at schools, business and restaurants and hotels. Currently crowdfunding so you can become an investor and join the movement! 

What if we could use saltwater and turn it into drinking water

I wondered why aren’t we just using seawater? That’s just the most sensible thing to do right? The process of removing salt from water is called desalination. A Dutch startup drinkseawater.com caught my attention in a podcast claiming they were the first company to distribute desalinated water to consumers. They have a desalination plant setup in Scheveningen, The Netherlands and a contract with one of the biggest retailers delivering 41.000 (recycled plastic) bottles to consumers. Surely this is a world first I thought? It is something we should try here in Australia as well is what I thought.

I shared the story with a local friend here in Evans Head and he looked at me like I was crazy. No mate, we’ve got plenty of water here, why would we use the ocean? By the way he said, that’s not new. He had been a captain on a fishing trawler 13 years ago and they had a desalination plant on board so they could  stay out at sea for longer. He told me that ocean desalination is already a major water source in Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Cities in the Middle Eas, Mediterranean Europe, the U.S. Southwest and Australia also rely on it. 

So yes, despite the Dutch being good with water, they Dutch startup wasn’t really the first. Interesting video here if you want to learn a bit more.https://www.linkedin.com/embeds/publishingEmbed.html?articleId=9167597212898521645&li_theme=light

What if we stopped stocking up bottled water?

Today over 1 million  single-use plastic bottles are wasted every minute! All these bottles are unnecessarily produced and transported around the globe. 1 million bottles is at least 500 thousand litres per minute of fresh water consumed, but how many others are waiting to be consumed in large stores and warehouses in first-world countries?  Would this volume of water possibly equate to some of the new found water scarcity in recent decades? 

Paul and I wondered what would happen if we could get some of those stocks back into the ecosystem. Could we regenerate the global availability of fresh water? Image if we were able to redistribute that to those 1 billion people that have water stress…

What have we learned so far

So that’s what the wonder has taught us thus far:

  • We have a very limited supply of freshwater
  • Fresh water is distributed unevenly in the world so there are over 2 billion people that have limited access
  • Climate change is putting additional pressure on the freshwater supplies creating water stress. 
  • There are solutions out there like desalination, but it is still expensive. 
  • Changing our water consumption behaviour can help to keep water stocks available

So what can we do to minimise water stress and keep our consumption low? Personally this is how I #act4sdgs:

  • I make sure to take very short showers. I try to teach my four (teenage) kids to do the same thing, but let’s call that work in progress as they do not feel the same urgency as I do. I’m still waiting for a home / consumer based solution to stop long showers like they have on most camping sites. You know just five minute showers for 1 coin. Tips welcome 🙂
  • I just try to minimise the number of plastic bottles we buy as a family. No soda’s in plastic bottles, just cordial in glass bottles the kids can mix up with tap water. Great alternative. If you want bubbles just get one of those sodastream.com solutions.
  • When I work remotely. I always carry my refillable bottle with me. There is this great Dutch company Dopper that produces recycled plastic refillable bottles, but I’m sure you can find your own local brand.
  • When I go running I pick up plastics to prevent them going into the waterways.

All small things in attempt to be the change I want to see in the world…

Will’s weekly wonders Linkedin newsletter

This blog is part of my Linkedin Newsletter” Will’s weekly wonders”.

Resources and further reading:

This blog has also been posted on Linkedin as part of my Newsletter. CHeck out the post here .