Water Solutions: Conservation, Scarcity, Additives, and Other Issues
Life on earth requires water. Although water covers over 70 percent of the planet, only 2.5 percent of it is freshwater. Only one percent, located in rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and in groundwater shallow enough to tap, is readily available for people. That is also the amount of freshwater regularly renewed by precipitation and is thus sustainable. One percent of all the water on earth must stretch somehow across a human population of seven and a half billion people and counting.
How Does Freshwater Become Tap Water?
Water treatment produces water of varying qualities for industrial, medical, or laboratory, environmental, or public use. For this article, water treatment is the process by which water is taken from natural sources in the environment and made safer for drinking.
The water treatment process may comprise many different steps depending on the initial quality of the natural source. Some common steps in the treatment process may include:
- Coagulation: Added chemicals like alum form tiny sticky particles known as floc which attract and stick to dirt suspended in water.
Sedimentation: The combined weight of dirt and floc become heavy enough to settle to the bottom to be removed while the clear water at the top moves on to filters.
- Filtration: The clear water passes through a set of filters including carbon filters that help remove even the smallest particles while improving the taste.
- Storage: Filtered water is placed in a closed tank and disinfected.
- Disinfection: A small amount of chlorine is added or some other disinfecting method is used to kill any bacteria or microorganisms that still may be present. The disinfected water then flows through pipes to taps in the community.
Some additives are necessary to make water safe to drink. Right now much of our water is treated with chlorine to kill the many water-borne microorganisms that are harmful when ingested. Chlorine is probably not the healthiest solution possible to this problem but is cheap and very effective. Unfortunately, the addition of chlorine to untreated water causes the formation of DBPs, which are linked to elevated cancer risk according to the CDC. The health benefits of adding chlorine arguably outweigh the health risks of doing so. This does not mean that we should give up looking for safer options to provide better public health in the future.
Fluoride is another common additive in drinking water, especially in the United States. Fluoride, unlike chlorine, does not make drinking water in any way safer. It is known to cause health problems when ingested. The human body doesn't require a minimum amount of ingested fluoride the way it requires calcium or iron. Adding fluoride into drinking water is a bad old idea that should be stopped immediately.
Current proponents of drinking water fluoridation likely haven't considered all the facts as they are known today. Proponents will point to the decrease in cavities reported in children's teeth since fluoridation first began in the US, probably unaware that children's cavities have decreased at a similar rate in non-fluoridated populations across the world wherever most kids have ready access to fluoride toothpaste (which isn’t swallowed) and regular dental care.
In the United States today, the majority of teens (about 80%) exhibit signs of fluorosis, or fluoride poisoning. Ironically, fluoride poisoning causes tooth decay in young and old alike.
Unfortunately, teeth are not the only parts of the body harmed by fluoride. Fluorosis adversely affects bones and organs, including the brain. It may cause bone loss and is linked to the risk of osteoporosis in the elderly, as well as to the increase in childhood bone cancer. It has also been associated with lower IQs in children in 43 separate scientific studies conducted across the globe (which represents 86% of all studies ever conducted on the topic.)
Currently, newborns and older people without any teeth to worry about, teens already suffering from fluoride poisoning, and the rest of us (regardless of the states of our health) are receiving medical treatments that we didn't ask to get and may not want. We receive them anyway every time we cook with or take a drink from the water from our taps.
There is no way to control the fluoride dosage that each person receives when tap water is fluoridated. How much a person ingests depends on too many factors. Some of these factors include:
- The fluoride levels in tap water.
- How much water a person drinks daily (active children and teens, dieters, heavy caffeine users, and athletes tend to drink more water. The poor and elderly tend to drink more tap water as opposed to bottled water, which may or may not contain fluoride.)
- How much fluoride comes from other sources including foods (many of which are grown, processed, and cooked using fluoridated water.)
- Whatever is absorbed or ingested through the use of toothpaste, mouthwash, and dental fluoride treatments, and bathing in fluoridated water since fluoride penetrates the skin.
Adding anything unnecessary into tap water is terrible public policy, no matter how admirable the intentions for doing so. This is especially true if what is being added has harmful side-effects at higher dosages. There are better and safer ways to make fluoride readily available for tooth-care to a population. Germany, for example, does not fluoridate water. The grocery stores there offer table salt with added fluoride as well as fluoride-free table salt, giving people choices. Many households opt to use regular salt for cooking and fluoridated salt as an inexpensive mouth rinse.
How Many Sources of High Fluoride Are in Your Life?
What Is a Water Footprint?
In the developed world, we rely on turning on a tap to get as much water as we need to drink, bathe, water our gardens, fill our pools, and wash our clothes, pets, and cars. According to the United States Geographical Survey, 80 gallons per day is the most conservative estimate for how much treated water fit for human consumption the average American uses for indoor and outdoor residential purposes.
If 80 gallons of residential water usage per day per person sounds like a lot of water, it is. In comparison, the average person in the UK uses about 40 gallons per day. The average person in Cambodia, Angola, or Haiti uses just 4 gallons per day.
However, residential use makes up only a small percentage of our water footprint. The rest hides in the foods we eat, the energy we use, and the products and services that we purchase. If America's commercial and industrial water usage is added to our total domestic usage and divided per capita, then the average American uses over 2000 gallons per day. This number is what is known as our national water footprint. America's water footprint is the largest of any nation on earth.
What Is Water Scarcity?
Water scarcity refers to an insufficient water supply to meet the demand in a given region. This is a man-made problem as well as a natural phenomenon.
There is enough water readily available to support the earth's current population. Unfortunately, water is not always located where it is needed. Much of the available freshwater on earth is polluted, wasted, or otherwise poorly managed.
More than half a billion people on earth have no safe drinking water available to them. Every 21 seconds, a child dies from drinking contaminated water. In many parts of the world, the infrastructure necessary for delivering safe drinking water through pipes to communities in need just doesn't exist and may never be built in the average child's lifetime. We are starting to opt for more immediate and portable solutions to provide safe water to the most remote locations on the planet.
Portable Water Technology Changes Lives
One day we may expand the one percent of water readily available to us for drinking. Water purifying technology continues to advance. Solar-powered water desalinization plants could convert enough ocean water on a large scale right now if we had the political will to invest the money. Graphene filters may soon make it possible to filter ocean water into potable drinking water as easily as pouring the water through a funnel.
What Is Water Conservation?
Water conservation is the combined efforts of individuals, communities, corporations, and governments to help reduce unnecessary water waste world-wide. Conserving saves money, extends the life of septic tanks, alleviates stress on infrastructure while helping prevent water pollution and environmental destruction.
When conserving at home, get the whole family involved. Doing the related home projects together make conserving fun, bonding, and educational. Play conservation games together and hold competitions for the kids. You can start good habits now that will last a lifetime, get passed on to your grand-kids, and create new family traditions. Below are some quick tips to get started.
Tips for Water Conservation
Around the House
- Next time you plan to take the entire family out, make sure all the water is off. Before you leave write down the water meter reading. If it is the same when you return you know you don't have any leaks to find.
- Fix your leaks! Even the slowest drip can waste 20 gallons per day.
- Every time you change your pet's water, throw the old into a plant.
- Collect water from your gutters into rain barrels. Use this water for your garden.
- Reroute washer, dishwasher, sinks, and showers to empty into a yard irrigation system.
- Make sure your pavers, stepping stones, and walkways are made of porous material. It will help keep water in your yard.
- Make sure your pool, pond, or fountain has a recirculating pump.
- Don't overfill your pool. With a lower water level, you will lose less water to splashing. Use a cover to keep out debris and slow evaporation when the pool is not in use.
- Don't let the hose run when washing cars. I use a hand sprayer to cut the water off until I need it.
- Wash dogs or let kids play in a sprinkler where your yard needs water the most.
In the Garden
- Help rain and sprinkler water penetrate to the roots and lessen wasteful runoff. Once every couple of months, pierce holes in your lawn about six inches apart and three inches deep. Just be careful not to pierce irrigation or sprinkler pipes in the process. I use a piece of colorful duct tape to mark the correct depth so I don't get too carried away.
- Put layers of mulch around your trees and bushes. It looks nice, holds ground moisture, and discourages weeds naturally.
- Buy soakers and sprinklers that create fat drops close to the ground. High arching spray creates a mist that evaporates or blows away too easily.
- Water the lawn or set sprinklers to go off at sunrise so that the water doesn't immediately evaporate. Don't water at night though because that can encourage unwanted fungus and root rot.
- Place an empty tuna can on the lawn. Turn on the sprinkler and time how long it takes to fill. That is the amount of time you need to run the sprinkler to properly soak a lawn to the roots.
- If you don't have a timer on your sprinkler system, use a kitchen timer so you won't forget to turn the sprinklers off again.
- Skip watering on windy days when your water is more likely to blow into the street.
- If landscaping, consider how much lawn you need and want to mow. Lawns are thirsty and require a lot more constant care to look great than other more environmentally friendly and water-saving ground covers. Some people think kids need lots of grass but my kid played happily with friends on an herbal ground cover, which always smells great, requires no mowing, and tastes delicious in any chicken or veggie dish!
- Landscape using native trees and beautiful native perennials which promote a healthy ecosystem and usually don't need much watering or care except during droughts. Many native perennials attract birds, butterflies, and other pollinators and beneficial visitors to your yard. Plus, perennials come back again after winter, saving you the work and cost of having to replace them. Some evergreen varieties look vibrant and lush all year long.
- Use composting, earthworms, and other organic gardening solutions instead of commercial fertilizers. That way any runoff from your yard nourishes the earth and keeps the water clean instead of polluting it. This will also save you money
In the Bathroom
- Install water-saving aerators in faucets and showerheads.
- Take shorter more efficient showers.
- Turn off the water when shaving, brushing teeth, soaping, shampooing, conditioning, then turn it on again to rinse.
- Install low flow toilets in new construction or when renovating.
- Place a couple of inches of sand or pebbles in a plastic bottle then fill it with water. Set it in an older model toilet tank (3-5 gallons) to reduce wastage during flushing. Make sure it is well-placed and secured to the side with duct tape so it can't interfere with the flushing mechanism.
- Put a few drops of food color in the toilet tank. Come back to check on it again after twenty minutes without flushing. If the color has bled into the bowl, your tank is leaking. Most likely the flapper or the gasket directly under it is the culprit that needs replacing.
In the Kitchen
- If you don't have a fridge with a cold water dispenser on the outside, keep a bottle of chilled water in the fridge. Running water until it is cold, before you pour a single glass, wastes a lot of water over time.
- If you wash dishes by hand and don't have two sinks to spare, use bus tubs to wash and rinse your dishes instead of washing and rinsing with running water.
- Use the most environmentally friendly dishwashing liquid you can find. Then you can retain the gray water for your trees and shrubs. My azaleas seem to love a good dishwater cocktail.
- Use a bowl to wash fruit or vegetables. Give that gray water to your plants.
- Save on the amount of water you use cooking. Steam instead of boiling when you can. Retain the nutrient-rich steamer water to make soups or feed all those tasty minerals to your houseplants.
- Don't just throw away used or dropped ice cubes, put them into a thirsty plant. If you are emptying a cooler or defrosting a freezer, feed the unwanted ice to a tree in your yard.
The solutions to our world water problems will likely be complicated ones, that will involve better water management and conservation, as well as improved infrastructure and new portable technologies.
How Can We All Help?
We can all help to make a real difference. No matter how old or how young, one person can inform and inspire lots of others to create a better future for everyone. Get your neighbors involved by sharing conservation tips. Don't pollute. Get involved in a water project or clean-up effort in your community. If there isn't one, why not start your own? If you think of any creative ways to conserve water, add them to the list below in the comments section.
Any of us can also help by supporting responsible charities dedicated to solving our world's water problems. Here is one worthy of consideration:
Charity:Water is a nonprofit organization that brings clean, safe drinking water to the neediest communities in the developing world. This nonprofit gives kids, schools, clubs, and people who can't afford to donate on their own the chance to start fundraising campaigns on the Charity:Water website. Because the cost of operations is covered by private individuals, 100% of donations go directly to providing wells, water filtration, and other needed water technologies through water projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.