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Management in the Future

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In areas that are forced to deal with more regular droughts and less regular rainfall, a number of management strategies will become increasingly vital over coming decades. In rural areas especially in underdeveloped countries, potential strategies include techniques already being piloted in many places including rainwater storage, household treatment using filters, planting of drought-tolerant crops and drilling of shallow boreholes or tube wells. As we have already seen, poor and disadvantaged populations in developing nations will bear the brunt of adverse effects of climate change. Yet these nations also have less potential to adapt as a result of limited resources. Thus, developed nations will be under great pressure to help their developing counterparts. Adaptation will be the most difficult for sub-Saharan Africa.

In more developed countries, management strategies include conservation, groundwater recharge, storm-water control and capture, preparation for extreme weather events, diversification of the water supply, and resilience to changes in water quality.

Resource Management

Drip irrigation in an orchard in New Mexico Schematic showing potential means of household water conservation. Sorghum, a drought tolerant tropical cereal growing in Mozambique

Click the images above to see full-size versions and complete source information.

The following video is a great summary of our current water situation and what you can do to help out:

Video: Virtual Water and Sustainability (12:41)

Click for the video transcript.

PRESENTER: Water. H2O. Dihydrogen monoxide. It's the stuff of life. You may not feel it, but we're in the midst of a water crisis. Really, an impending doom for humans worldwide if we don't do something about it soon. In this video, we're going to talk a little about the problem surrounding water supply today, some new ways to view your water consumption, and how you can contribute towards a sustainable solution to the current water crisis. What better way than to jump right in.

So, where is all this water? 97.5% is in the oceans, and the rest of the 2.5% is limited fresh water. Of that fresh water, 70% is locked in the ice caps and snow cover in mountains. About 30% is in groundwater, and just 0.3% is fresh water found in lakes and rivers. Very little is available to us. Of the water that the world uses, about 70% is used for irrigation and agriculture, about 22% for industrial use, and about 8% for domestic use.

Rivers don't just transport water, they provide a habitat for plants and animals. And very importantly, they carry silt and nutrients that are vital to the natural process of carrying water from the headlands down to the ocean. They shape and create the land around them, and provide productive wetlands and floodplains where many millions of people farm.

Unfortunately, humans have changed these natural processes. We build dams, dump pollutants into waterways, and divert flows to irrigate for crops and provide water for cities. These actions cause serious change in local, regional, and even worldwide environments. Let's start with an example close by in the US, the Colorado River. The Colorado River is 1,450 miles long, bringing water to cities and croplands and generating hydroelectricity for seven states.

Virtually all of its water is used up for these purposes before reaching the ocean. All that water is carefully regulated, legally doled out state by state. However, the total water flow has been diminishing due to drought. Dam reservoirs simply hold less water than was expected when they were built. There is serious worry that there isn't enough water for all the people and cities that depend on the Colorado River.

Here's another problem, salt is building up. Normal river flow brings salt wash down from the mountains and irrigated lands all the way to the ocean. But now, none of it gets that far. Remember how almost none of the water makes it to the ocean? It's all used up. Greater evaporation at wide irrigated croplands and vast reservoirs where water is spread out at the surface causes the concentration of salt to increase. Increasing levels of salt water poison more and more fields of crops.

Here's an example you may have heard about. The Ogallala Aquifer, also known as the High Plains Aquifer, is a shallow, underground storage of water that stretches across portions of eight states in the Great Plains of the US. The Ogallala provides irrigation water for about 30% of the nation's crops. The problem is that this aquifer gets recharged, or rather, water is added, at a very slow rate that takes years and years to come back. We are literally drying up all that water, and we'll virtually never see it again.

All around the world, water projects are undertaken to provide water to people and to produce the products we consume, but the side effects are catching up. Rotting vegetation in an artificially flooded reservoir to generate hydroelectricity in the Amazon rainforest actually pollutes more through methane emissions than it would through an equivalent fossil fuel run power plant.

Remember how rivers naturally carry silt? Well, sediments are piling up in reservoirs, especially in China, but also elsewhere in the world, effectively rendering dams useless without an easy fix. In many efforts to control water and provide for growing populations, dams are constructed on major rivers. Over time, many dams across China, India, and the rest of the world have failed, spilling over with water, or bursting open with the fury of an entire reservoir of contained water. These are the dams that claim to provide stable flood control and bring peace through irrigation and hydroelectricity. But more often than not, they are met with failure.

Even if there is access to water, it doesn't necessarily mean it's safe. In developing countries, about 80% of illnesses are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions. More than one in six people worldwide don't have access to the recommended level of safe fresh water for daily use. As you can see, the water crisis is a real deal. All over the world, humans draw upon and exploit natural resources of water in order to feed, clothe, and provide for a growing population. This exploitation may have provided in the past, but the problems surrounding dams and other water control technologies are unnatural and are just setting us up for major failure.

So let's pull things in a little closer and talk about the water you and I use. Of course, we encounter water each and every day. We drink it, shower, wash our hands, flush the toilet, jump in puddles, et cetera. This is the water we see directly. What you might not consider, or have never thought about, is the concept of virtual water. This is the term for the water that is involved in the growing and manufacture of products traded all around the world.

A lot of water is used and polluted from the manufacturing of goods, like T-shirts, cars, plastics, and electronics. It also takes a lot of water to grow corn, wheat, rice, vegetables, and fruits. For instance, water is used in immense amounts, not only to water the plants, but also in the process of creating artificial fertilizers that we depend upon to grow our food.

Then there's the water used up in finding, collecting, and processing the fossil fuels used to make these fertilizers and run farm equipment. We use up water to create this artificial energy, which is then used to grow food energy. In the end, it's a large waste of water in order to grow the amount of crops for the population. It takes even more water to grow crops to feed and care for livestock like cows, pigs, and chickens, who eat those crops for you.

We could go on and on about the water used to grow the cotton in that T-shirt you might be wearing, the water used to mine the metal and process it into your car, the water used to get the coal to burn and generate electricity. But in the end, water is everything, and our decisions as consumers dictate water use around the world. The products that we buy influence water in geographically diverse areas.

That Egyptian scarf that you bought consumed water from the driest areas of Egypt, depriving local people of fresh water because of pollution from textile mills. Food, or other products, imported from around the world influence those local people. In the end, it is not OK to forget about virtual water consumption in Massachusetts just because we live in a wet climate. The products you consume have effects on water systems around the entire globe.

Let's look at a typical day. Maybe you spend about 15 minutes in the shower and use 22 gallons of water. Then you brush your teeth, shave, wash your face, whatever else, while the faucet runs, maybe another gallon or two. Over the course of the day, you use six gallons of water by flushing the toilet. Then the dishwasher uses 10 gallons of water.

We'll cut it off there, but that's already over 40 gallons. The average American uses 100 gallons of water a day directly. The amount of water that you use indirectly is staggeringly greater, but you can radically change that total by being mindful of the types of things you consume.

Let's compare some products and the differences virtual water behind them. One pound of beef takes 1,799 gallons of water to produce. Compare that to one pound of pork, which takes 576 gallons, one pound of chicken, which takes 408 gallons, and 1 pound of goat at 127 gallons. Take a look at some other product comparisons.

Some of the biggest decisions you can make to influence your consumption of virtual water is to watch what you consume. Just think about. Think about what you buy. Though you wouldn't immediately think so, everything costs water in some way. If we buy less, there's more money saved and less of a water footprint. Think about what you eat. Try to eat less meat, especially beef and pork. Choose vegetable and grain options that are both healthier for you and reduce your consumption of virtual water.

You can try once a week Meatless Mondays, or even try cutting it out altogether. After you reduce your consumption of stuff and reuse what you can, think about recycling. All products and packaging use water to produce, so recycling can be important in reducing water used to make new goods. A lot of virtual water is consumed when processing and exporting waste materials that are shipped to other countries or put in local landfills, so it's really important to reduce, reuse, and recycle,

Now, don't get the idea that saving water only matters in considering what you eat and what you consume. Your every day and weekly routines matter, too. While we've talked a lot about virtual water affecting the globe through consumption, there is also direct water use from the faucet. This affects your local and regional water that might just be down the street or across town.

Use only full loads of clothes in your washing machine with cold water. Use the dishwasher only when it's full. Pay attention to how long you leave the water on when brushing your teeth or when taking a shower. We use a lot of precious drinking water in all of these situations and it's something we can't afford to waste.

Just think. You're not only saving the water used, but also the fossil fuels used to heat the water and the sewage system that has to manage the water afterwards. Drink tap water and don't buy bottles. Plastic waste alone is enough of a worry, but it also wastes a lot in burning fossil fuels to make the plastic to transport the bottles and to keep them cold, not to mention that bottles of water are expensive. You're paying 2,900 times the cost of tap water.

Educate yourself. Think about where your drinking water comes from. If you're a student at UMass Amherst, your water comes from the Atkins Reservoir, as well as the ground water pumps in the swampy region of South Amherst. Go visit and see what your water source looks like. You'll make a connection with where your water is coming from, see that it's limited, and begin to care about how you treat it.

Now you've learned how humans are impacting water around the world and using it up in unsustainable ways. You have the power, as a consumer, to make decisions to limit your consumption of direct water and virtual water, as we strive forward for a sustainable water future. Interested in learning more about the water crisis, virtual water, and what you can do? Check out these websites.

It is likely that many or all of these strategies will be required for populations to adapt to declining water resources. One technology, desalinization, has great potential to provide large quantities of water in arid regions, especially those along coastlines.