“Ocean: A body of water occupying two-thirds of a world made for man—who has no gills.” ~Ambrose Bierce
When I give environmental talks to elementary school children (or politicians), I use an analogy that compares the waters of the Earth with a glass of water. If you ask what portion of the water in the glass is readily available for humans to drink, many children assume that you have to immediately pour out approximately two-thirds, which represents the salt water in the oceans.
“So does the rest of this glass represent all the fresh water in the world? Can humans drink this water any time we like?” No. I pour out the rest of the glass and enjoy the startled gasps of the audience. “Nope. Oceans may cover 70 percent of our planet’s surface, but they run deep as well. Actually, 97.5 percent of all water on Earth is salt water, leaving only 2.5 percent as fresh water.”
I then hold up the glass, which hopefully still contains a few glittering beads of water residue. “A precious few drops…at least we have these readily available to drink, right?” Wrong. I mop up all but one of the remaining drops with a cloth. “Well, actually, most of the world’s fresh water is locked in polar ice caps, soil moisture or deep underground. Less than 1 percent of the world's fresh water (~0.007 percent of all water on earth) is accessible for direct human use. That is, fresh water that is conveniently located in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers that we can tap.”
This analogy usually gets the audience’s attention. They’re now paying better attention when I talk about how foolish it is for us to go to all the trouble to treat this water to make it drinkable and then do stupid things like use it to flush our waste products. I also remind the audience that it’s not just humans that rely on that tiny drop, either; there are all the freshwater fish and invertebrates, all the land plants, insects, birds, and most every land animal that you can think of.
It is increasingly said that water is the new oil. The gap between those who have access to clean fresh water and those who don’t is growing. Wars will be fought over water—indeed, they already are being fought. Even those of us in water-rich countries are feeling the impacts of increasingly extreme droughts in the form of higher food prices and the economic drag on an already sluggish economy.
But unlike oil, there is no substitute for water. We can only conserve and use it wisely, for unlike solar energy we’re not getting a free steady stream from the sun. All the water we’re ever going to have is here now. It’s time we start building our buildings with rainwater catchment systems, “gray water” reuse systems, and other technologies to literally make every precious drop count.
“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.” ~Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732
by Kyle Crider
Kyle Crider is Manager – Environmental Operations at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a Master of Public Administration degree with a double-emphasis in Urban Planning & Policy Analysis. He is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development (LEED AP ND). He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.