Magazine article Geographical

Bleeding the Earth Dry: Although We Only Directly Consume about 150 Litres of Water a Day, the Hidden Cost of Producing Our Food, Clothing and Other Goods Is Creating a Water Crisis

Magazine article Geographical

Bleeding the Earth Dry: Although We Only Directly Consume about 150 Litres of Water a Day, the Hidden Cost of Producing Our Food, Clothing and Other Goods Is Creating a Water Crisis

Article excerpt

Earth is the water planet. It contains an almost unimaginable 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of the stuff. However, more than 95 per cent of it is sea water that we can't drink and can't--except in a very limited number of local circumstances--afford to desalinate. Of the remaining fresh water, four fifths is locked up in ice caps and glaciers.

After that, we're in luck. Around 95 per cent of the world's liquid fresh water resides in underground aquifers. Much of it has been there for thousands of years and is only slowly replenished by rain. But we can pump it up to the surface without too much difficulty, and it's usually clean and safe to drink. The remaining five per cent is already on or above the surface, in lakes, the soil, atmospheric water vapour, living organisms and--just one per cent of all the surface water at any one time--in our rivers. Even the Amazon, between whose banks a fifth of all the world's river water flows, is a mere splash in the planetary bucket.

Traditionally, most settlements have been built beside rivers because easily accessible water is their first requirement. But nature has placed many of the world's greatest rivers in regions where few people can or want to live. The three largest--the Amazon, Congo and Orinoco--all flow through inhospitable jungle. And three more of the top ten--the Lena and Yenisei in Siberia and the Mackenzie in Canada--run primarily through Arctic tundra.

Greenland's 60,000 citizens have access to more water than anyone else. Each of them could potentially consume 30 million litres of it every day, but having no crops to irrigate and few major industries to sustain, they need little. By definition, people in the driest countries have the greatest need, but the least supply. The Palestinian desert enclave of the Gaza Strip is the most water-starved political unit on Earth, with just 140 litres of brackish underground water a day for each inhabitant.

Few of us realise how much water it takes to get us through the day. We only drink about five litres or so. Even after cooking, washing and toilet flushing, we consume in the region of 150 litres each. But that's just the start. It takes around 500 litres to grow the wheat needed to produce a loaf of bread, more than 2,000 litres to grow a kilogram of rice, 6,000 litres to raise a chicken for the Sunday roast, and a staggering 11,000 litres to provide feedlot fodder for enough cow to make a quarter-pound hamburger.

And food is only part of the story. You could fill several bathtubs with the water it takes to grow the cotton to make a t-shirt--which gives a whole new meaning to the wet t-shirt contest. …

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