EM SC 240N
Energy and Sustainability in Contemporary Culture



Quick Quiz

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately how many people in the world use a drinking water source that is contaminated with feces?

(a) 10 million
(b) 175 million
(c) 1 billion
(d) 2 billion

Click for answer.
ANSWER: (d) 2 billion. This is according to a July 2017 report from the World Health Organization. They actually state that at least 2 billion use feces-contaminated water. So why should we care? They go on to note that: "Contaminated water can transmit diseases such diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio. Contaminated drinking water is estimated to cause 502,000 diarrheal deaths each year." Access to clean water can mean the difference between life and death, for children and the elderly in particular. This is but one reason to care about sustainable access to fresh water.
graphic depicting the water cycle, including evaporation, condensation, precipitation, ground water storage, and more.
Figure 3.3: The Water Cycle. You probably learned about the water cycle in elementary school. What you may have forgotten is that the amount of water on the earth has been the same for thousands (if not millions) of years and that this amount will not change for the foreseeable future. (Link to text version of Figure 3.3 that opens in a new window.)
Source: U.S. Geological Survey (public domain)

It is a widely known fact that people can survive much longer without food than without water. Under optimal conditions, humans can go around a week, maybe a bit more, without water, whereas it is possible to go more than a month without eating food. But when water sustainability is being discussed, it is rare that death from lack of drinking water is the concern. A more likely cause of death (or, otherwise, a reduction in quality of life) is water-borne diseases like diarrhea and cholera. Lack of access to water will likely be a very important problem in the future, but it also poses a threat right now.

To Read Now

The World Health Organization (WHO) was established by the United Nations (UN) in 1948. Its goal is "to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world" and its "staff work side by side with governments and other partners to ensure the highest attainable level of health for all people" (source: World Health Organization). They perform and fund research, write reports, establish international health recommendations/standards, provide aid throughout the world, and publish a LOT of data. They are a great source for information regarding international health (and sickness/disease).

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is a non-profit headquartered in Switzerland whose members are a who's who of the global economically elite corporations. The WEF is best-known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which is frequently attended by world leaders, including the U.S. president. The WEF is often critiqued for not doing enough about income inequality and other issues facing the world's impoverished, but they do provide a lot of information that reflects the perspective of many of the world's economic leaders. This includes their annual Global Risks Report, which ranks what it sees as the top global risks in the next 10 years. Water figured prominently in the 2016 Global Risks Report. (The 2017 report focused more on inequality, social polarization, and climate change.) You are welcome to read the entire press release here, but here is the content most relevant to this lesson:

An increased likelihood for all risks, from the environmental to society, the economy, geopolitics and technology, looks set to shape the global agenda in the coming year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2016 has found.

In this year’s annual survey, almost 750 experts assessed 29 separate global risks for both impact and likelihood over a 10-year time horizon. The risk with the greatest potential impact in 2016 was found to be a failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation. This is the first time since the report was published in 2006 that an environmental risk has topped the ranking. This year, it was considered to have greater potential damage than weapons of mass destruction (2nd), water crises(3rd), large-scale involuntary migration (4th) and severe energy price shock(5th).

The number one risk in 2016 in terms of likelihood, meanwhile, is large-scale involuntary migration, followed by extreme weather events (2nd), failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation (3rd), interstate conflict with regional consequences (4th) and major natural catastrophes (5th).

Such a broad risk landscape is unprecedented in the 11 years the report has been measuring global risks. For the first time, four out of five categories – environmental, geopolitical, societal and economic – feature among the top five most impactful risks. The only category not to feature is technological risk, where the highest ranking risk is cyberattack, in 11th position in both likelihood and impact.


As you can see, some progress has been made in the global fight for access to clean water, as evidenced by the fact that the UN's Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on drinking water has been met. The MDG was to "halve the proportion of the world's population without sustainable access to safe water." This goal was met in 2010. However, the article indicates that while the broad goal was met (global percentage), none of the 48 "least developed" countries met the goal. As per usual, there is a deficiency in terms of equity with regards to access to clean water, with "low-income, informal or illegal" populations "usually having less access to improved sources of drinking-water than other residents." The consequences are dire, as over 500,000 people are estimated to die each year from diarrhea alone, as indicated by the article. And nearly a quarter of a billion people are affected by schistosomiasis, which is a painful chronic disease also caused by water contamination.

These and other factors combine to make access to water an essential part of quality of life. The United Nations has declared access to water and sanitation a human rightand thus should be provided to all people equitably. The UN realizes that access is a fundamental component of the ability to live one's life and further that "clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights" (Source: United Nations).

All of this is reflected in the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Risk Report 2016, which ranked water as the third highest global risk in terms of "impact." (It was the most impactful risk in 2015, so I guess that counts as progress. Though perhaps the other issues became worse rather than water access getting better.) Note that the WEF did not rank water crisis on a large scale as highly likely relative to other things, including extreme weather, but that if it does occur, it will be very impactful. This speaks to the importance of access to water.

Good to Know

The United Nations declared its Millennium Development Goals in 2000. They focused on 8 themes, each with many practical steps listed as ways to achieve the goals:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Achieve universal primary education
  • Promote gender equality and empower women
  • Reduce child mortality
  • Improve maternal health
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases
  • Ensure environmental sustainability
  • Develop a global partnership for development

Actions were to be taken for a period of 15 years and assessed every year along the way. This period concluded in 2014, and in 2015 the UN published the final report assessing the progress toward the goals. You can view The Millennium Development Goals Report here. This is optional reading but will give you a very good feel for a lot of the development activities undertaken by the UN.

Water Scarcity and Sectoral Use

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) indicates that its goal is to "achieve food security for all and make sure that people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives" (Source: FAO). They are widely regarded as a leading international organization in the movement to alleviate malnutrition and food poverty across the world, particularly in impoverished areas of the world. In the video below, they provide an introduction to the concepts of physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity and provide some data about these two phenomena. Note that the data provided are a few years old, but have not changed much. Note that the following video has no audio narration.

Water Scarcity
Click Here for Text Alternative of Water Scarcity Video

It says: Water scarcity occurs when the demand for water from all sectors (agriculture, cities, environment, etc...) is higher than the available resource. Because water has been relatively abundant throughout our existence on earth, we have come to take it for granted. However, we now find our water supplies severely reduced as water scarcity is fast becoming wone of the most serious resource issues we face today. The amount of water on our planet is fixed, but very little of it is available for us to use with about 2.5 percent of all water on earth being fresh water and 68.9 percent of the fresh water is locked in glaciers, 30.8 percent in groundwater, and 0.3 percent in lakes and rivers.

Currently, one third of the world population lives in countries where there isn't enough water or its quality has been compromised. By 2025 this number is expected to rise to two-thirds.

There are two types of water scarcity. One is known as Physical Water Scarcity. This occurs when there is not enough water to meet our needs. Arid regions are gnerally associated with physical water scarcity. Physical water scarcity occurs in: the western United States, Northern Africa, Saudi Arabia, Eastern Australia, and areas of India and northern China. More areas are rapidly approaching physical water scarcity. Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Near East use over 75 percent of their water for agriculture. The other type of water scarcity is known as Economic Water Scarcity. This occurs when human, institutional and financial capital limit access towater even though water in nature is available for human needs. Economic water scarcit occurs in central and northern South America, Middle Africa, and in and around India. Poor households in developing countries spend higher portions of their income on water than families in industrialized nations.

You may think water issues are somebody else's problem. But in a few years it will be yours too. Follow a few easy steps to do your part in maintaining this precious resource. Don't throw your cooking oil down the drain. Close the tap when brushing your teeth. Don't buy unnecessary goods, as everything produced uses water.


To Read Now

Read from the beginning through the "Did you know?" section on the United Nation's "International Decade for Action 'WATER FOR LIFE' 2005 - 2015." It provides a snapshot of water scarcity worldwide. This was the final report published by the UN after their decade-long focus on international water issues.

It is important to point out that despite what is indicated in the video above, reducing domestic water use is not the most effective way to reduce total water use. As you will see in the video below, much more water is used as a result of farming and industrial uses worldwide.

Fresh water sarcity: An introduction to the problem
Click Here for Transcript of Fresh water scarcity video

You might have heard that we're running out of fresh water. This might sound strange to you because, if you live in a place where water flows freely from the tap or shower at any time, it sure doesn't seem like a big deal.

It's just there, right?


The only obvious thing about fresh water is how much we need it. Because it's essential to life, we need to think about it carefully. Right now, at this very moment, some people, women and girls in particular, walk hours and miles per day to get fresh water, and even then, it may not be clean. Every 15 seconds, a child dies due to water-born diseases.

This is tragic!

The most compelling reasons to think about fresh water, therefore, have to do with what we might call the global common good. This is not something we normally think about, but it means recognizing how much fresh water matters for the flourishing of human and non-human life on Earth now and in the future.

How do we think about something as local as our faucets and as global as fresh water? Is there a connection between them?

Many people assume that fresh water shortages are due to individual wastefulness: running the water while you brush your teeth, for example, or taking really long showers. Most of us assume, therefore, that water shortages can be fixed by improving our personal habits: taking shorter showers or turning off the water while we brush our teeth. But, global fresh water scarcity neither starts nor ends in your shower. Globally, domestic use of fresh water accounts for only 8% of consumption, 8%!! Compare that to the 70% that goes to agriculture and the 22% that goes to industrial uses.

Now, hold up - you're not off the hook!

Individual habits are still part of the puzzle. You should still cultivate water virtue in your daily life, turn off the tap when you brush your teeth. But still, it's true. Taking shorter showers won't solve global problems, which is too bad. It would be much more straightforward and easier if virtuous, individual actions could do the trick. You'd just stand there for 30 seconds less, and you'd be done with that irksome, planet-saving task for the day.

Well, that's not so much the case.

Agricultural and industrial patterns of water use need serious attention. How do our societies value water? Distribute it? Subsidize its use in agriculture? Incentivize its consumption or pollution?

These are all questions that stem from how we think about fresh water's value. Is it an economic commodity? A human right? A public good? Nobel prize winners, global water justice activists, transnational institutions like the United Nations, and even the Catholic Church are at work on the issue. But, it's tricky, too, because the business of water became very profitable in the 20th century. And profit is not the same thing as the common good. We need to figure out how to value fresh water as a public good, something that's vital for human and non-human life, now and in the future.

Now that's a virtuous, collective task that goes far beyond your shower.

Credit: TED-Ed

The United State Geological Survey (USGS) is charged with compiling the U.S.'s water use data. The most recent report is from 2010 - the next report was supposed to be finished in 2016 (as of January 2018 it had not been published). Feel free to tool around with the data here, and go here for an interesting visualization of water use by category and state.

The chart below shows the percent of consumption different sectors of use are responsible for. You may be surprised by some of this, in particular, the use for thermoelectric cooling. (Keep in mind that about 50 million gallons of salt water are used for thermoelectric power, so irrigation is the biggest single freshwater user in the U.S.)

Pie Chart of estimated water use in the U.S. in 2010.
Figure 3.4: As you can see by the chart, thermoelectric cooling was responsible for almost half of the water withdrawals in the U.S. in 2010, with irrigation very close behind. However, about 30% of thermoelectric water use was salt water, so irrigation is actually the biggest user of freshwater in the U.S.

Click for a text description
2010 Withdrawals by Category, in Million Gallons per Day
Public Supply 42,000
Self-Supplied Domestic 3,600
Irrigation 115,000
Livestock 2,000
Aquaculture 9.420
Self-supplied Industrial 15,900
Mining 5,320
Thermoelectric Power 161,000

Note: Values do not sum to 355,000 Mgal/d because of independent rounding.

  • Total withdrawals were 355,000 million gallons per day (355 billion gallons per day)
  • Thermoelectric power, irrigation, and public supply account for 90 percent of total withdrawals
  • Withdrawals declined in all categories except mining and aquaculture
  • Freshwater withdrawals were 86% of the total, or 306,000 million gallons per day
  • Surface water supplied 78 % of all withdrawals
Source: U.S. Geological Survey. Public Domain.

It is important to keep in mind that it's not as easy as knowing how much water is being used. Unlike coal, natural gas, or other non-renewable resources, once water is "used," it does not disappear. (Recall that we have the same amount of water on earth now as we have had for thousands of years.) Rather, water is just moved into a different part of the water cycle. For example, with thermoelectric cooling, liquid water is converted to water vapor. It is then in a different part of the cycle, but is eventually converted back to liquid water (and perhaps solid) in the form of precipitation. If that precipitation falls over the ocean, it may stay there for a few days, or thousands of years. (The amount of time it stays in storage is called the residence time). If water is used to grow a food crop, it may evapotranspire in a matter of days, or it may stay in the plant, only to be consumed by an animal, and then perhaps by us, where it will eventually end up somewhere else. The UCAR Center for Science Education (who operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research) provides the following "highlights" of average residence times in the water cycle. It is important to point out that these are average residence times:

Atmosphere: The residence time for water in the atmosphere is a brief nine days; the shortest of any major reservoir. 

Soil moisture: Residence times for moisture in the soil average around one to two months. Roughly 122,000 km3 of water is contained in soil reservoirs. Transpiration puts 21,000 km3 of water into the air (essentially the same amount as is absorbed from the soil by plants), while evaporation from land accounts for 50,000 km3 of water in the atmosphere.

Ice Sheets: Water spends thousands, tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years in a frozen state in an ice sheet before returning to other parts of the water cycle.  (For example, the oldest ice found in Antarctica is about 900,000 years old.)

Glaciers: Water resides in glaciers for less time than it does in ice sheets, often about 20 -100 years. 

Snow: Water spends around 2 to 6 months as seasonal snow.  Each year approximately 11,000 km3 of water is in snow; about the same amount melts into water.

Like many sustainability-related issues, freshwater availability is complex. When we use water, we may eventually get it back in a usable form. But keep in mind that when we use freshwater (e.g. to irrigate crops, cool power plants, etc.), much of it ends up as water vapor, and on average (according to UCAR) 80% of precipitation falls over the ocean, where the residence time is an average of 3,000 years. It is difficult to convert it back to freshwater when this happens. As you will see below, the overall trend is toward less frewhwater being available. The take-home message here is that it is in our best interests to make sure we maintain an adequate level of freshwater as possible by minimizing use. 

Okay, so now you have an idea of what water scarcity is, and know different ways that human activity moves a lot of water in and out of different parts of the water cycle. You've also seen some indication of global water contamination issues. Two important questions remain: Are we at risk of running out of fresh water? If so, how do we know? The article below will help us answer these questions.

To Read Now

Water Footprint

Given that most water is used for things other than direct household use, it stands to reason that there are "hidden" water costs to many of the things we do, use, and consume. Take a look around you, and think about what you ate today and yesterday. Have you ever thought about how much water was used for all of that "stuff?" Have you ever seen a water use label on a pack of hamburgers in the store? How about a loaf of bread? The label on your jeans? Neither have I and just like me, you would probably be shocked to find out how much water is used to produce most things. The Water Footprint Network defines water footprint as "the amount of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use" (source: Water Footprint Network).

A water footprint - like an ecological footprint - can be calculated for individual products, individual people, or groups of people (communities, cities, countries, etc.). The folks at the Water Footprint Network provide a lot of information about water footprints. What is particularly nice about this organization is that they use peer-reviewed research as their information sources. The video below indicates some of the footprints of "everyday" products. The specific numbers are not meant to be gospel, but give you a good idea of water footprints. Note that the following video has no audio narration.

The Global Water Crisis | How Much Water Do We Really Use Everyday?
Click Here for Text alternative to the Global Water Crisis Video

Over 41 percent of All Freshwater in the US is Used for Agriculture. The United States uses more than 400 million gallons of water a day. This is more per capita than any other country on earth, and much of it is hidden in places you'd never expect. It takes 3 gallons to make a water bottle. It takes 10 gallons per hour to power appliances in your home. It takes 3 gallons to make this sheet of paper. It takes 2866 gallons to make a pair of jeans. Water is hidden in everything. you should start by conserving what is visible. You should fix leaks, curb bad habits, wash full loads. Fresh water makes up less than 3 percent of all the water on earth. Water managers in 36 states expect shortages by 2013.

Think we can ignore the cost of hidden water? Think Again. What you can do is more than just a drop in the bucket. Especially when evryone does the same. We've arrived at Last Call.

Credit: TakePart

Take a look at the Water Footprint Network's product gallery to see the (often surprising) water footprint of many common items.

Water and Equity

As with other sustainability issues, problems associated with access to fresh water is most acute in disadvantaged areas of the world. This includes low-income countries - particularly those in arid or semi-arid regions like sub-Saharan Africa - but also in impoverished communities in otherwise wealthy countries.

To Read Now

Read through "Access to drinking water around the world - in five infographics" by the Guardian, for a snapshot of international water issues.

UNICEF is an organization that fights for the rights of every child worldwide through advocacy and action. It is part of the United Nations and is the best known and most powerful child advocacy organization in the world. They perform research, publish reports, collect donations, and administer aid throughout the world.

  • (OPTIONAL) "Drinking Water: Equity, safety, and sustainability." UNICEF. Browse through the section entitled "Social Disparities" (pp. 26 - 31). You do not have to read all of the content, but at least take a look at the charts provided. You are welcome to read the rest of the report as well.

What About Desalination?

Since about 97% of the water in the world is salt water, why can't we just desalinate (remove the salt from) this abundant source so we can use it for freshwater? Well, actually we can! This is done all over the world. According to the International Desalination Association, an industry organization, there are over 18,000 desalination plants in 150 countries that supply some 300 million people with at least part of their needs. Aha - problem solved! Wait, what's that you say? It is very energy intensive? It has negative environmental impacts? It is expensive? (You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?)

Desalination is a very promising technology, but it is not without its problems. You are welcome to read through the articles below, but the bottom line is that desalination plants, while a proven technology, require an immense amount of energy, can impact local environments in a variety of ways, and is quite expensive. Desalination is probabably necessary to satisfy the world's energy needs (and likely increasingly so), particularly in arid arease of the world. But as succinctly stated by Scientific American: "Due to its high cost, energy intensiveness and overall ecological footprint, most environmental advocates view desalinization...as a last resort for providing fresh water to needy populations."

OPTIONAL Desalination Readings

The articles below provide a snapshot of domestic and international issues related to desalination. These are optional.

If you are interested in digging a little more deeply into the specific pros and cons of desalination, you can read through this article from Water Deeply. The author provides links to a lot of quality information sources.

Check Your Understanding

Water scarcity is not a problem in wealthy countries like the U.S.

(a) true
(b) false

Click for answer.
ANSWER: (b)false. As indicated in the map from FAO and the UN, water is scarce in the Western U.S. The drought in California is also a major concern right now.

Optional Reading

Finally, Sandra Postel summarizes many of the issues outlined above, and provides additional insight into water sustainability issues in her book chapter in Is Sustainability Still Possible?This is optionalbut may be helpful.

  • Chapter 5 of Is Sustainability Still Possible? pp. 51 - 59.