Peak Water Has Already Come and Gone

UXBRIDGE, Canada - Canadian Kevin Freedman is celebrating World Water Day Tuesday by living on 25 litres of water a day, instead of the North American average of 330 litres per day. And he has enlisted 31 others in his "Water Conservation Challenge" to go water - lean, using just 25 litres per day for cooking, drinking, cleaning, and sanitation for the entire month of March.

"People in Canada and the U.S. have no idea how much water they use or how much they waste," Freedman told IPS.

irrigation at dawn

"Although people live on less, it is very difficult to use just 25 litres a day. You can't shower or use a washing machine," he said. "I'm hoping to raise awareness that water is a finite resource."

Nearly a billion people don't have good access to safe fresh water. In a single generation, that number could double as growing demands for water will exceed the available and sustainable supply by 40 percent, according a recent study. "Peak water" has already come and gone. Humanity uses more water than can be sustained, drawing on non-renewable reserves of water accumulated over thousands of years in deep aquifers.

"Water cannot be created, it can only by managed," said Margaret Catley-Carlson, a former senior official with both the Canadian government and at the United Nations, a renowned global authority on water issues, and a director at the Canadian Water Network.

In many countries and regions water scarcity is a fundamental challenge to development, Catley-Carlson told IPS. A lack of access to water can lead to starvation, disease, political instability and even armed conflict.

"Governments see their role as delivering water to the public and industry," she said. "This has to change to sustainably managing water resources for society and the natural environment."

Policy-makers haven't treated water as a valuable resource and as a result water is wasted, with leaky water infrastructure losing 20 to 50 percent of the water it is supposed to deliver. Even water-poor countries in the global south don't make water a top priority because water availability is mainly an issue for women and the poor and they are not well represented in government, she said. Instead limited public funds are spent on things like the military and other priorities.

"It is so frustrating," she said. "We can do without oil but we can't do without water."

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged governments to make pro-poor investments in water and sanitation, particularly in urban areas where the need is acute and has grown by 20 percent in the last decade.

This is "a crisis of governance, weak policies and poor management, rather than one of scarcity," Ban said in a statement.

As the world population and economy grows, the water challenge becomes all the greater. By 2030 the global water demand will be 40 percent greater than today's "accessible, reliable, environmentally sustainable supply" according to the U.S.-led study "Charting Our Water Future" by consultants McKinsey and Company.

About one-third of the population, concentrated in developing countries, will live in basins where this water deficit is larger than 50 percent, the report found.

Agriculture accounts for approximately 71 percent of global water withdrawals today and the water challenge is closely tied to food provision, the study notes. Inefficient and inappropriate irrigation accounts for much of this water use. Thirsty crops like maize are grown in dry places like Spain, requiring enormous amounts of irrigated water. Even a low-value crop like sugar cane is grown under irrigation in some places, which Catley-Carlson calls "ludicrous".

Poor policies, subsidies, such as those for biofuels, trade agreements and bad habits are collectively responsible for much of the world's water misuse in food production, she says.

Domestic water use is just eight percent of overall water consumption. Industrial use is the other major user of water. All products have a water component, often called "virtual water", to describe the volume used to make something.

"A desktop computer, for example, requires 1.5 tonnes (1,500 litres) of water; a pair of denim jeans, up to six tonnes; a kilogramme of wheat, one tonne; a kilo of chicken, three to four tonnes; a kilo of beef, 15 to 30 tonnes," says Nicholas Parker, chairman of the Cleantech Group, an international firm that works to accelerate the development and market adoption of clean technologies.

The annual global trade in "virtual water" today is said to exceed 800 billion tonnes, the equivalent of 10 Nile Rivers.

"What people don't often realise is how much water there is in everything we make and buy, from t-shirts to wine," says Parker.

Everyone can become a better steward of water no matter who they are, says Kevin Freedman. The lessons learned through the month-long 25-a-litre-a-day water diet can be applied all year round, he says.

"Everyone in North America can reduce their water use by at least 25 litres. I challenge people to make a pledge to do it," Parker says.

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