“Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” might be thought of as just a line from Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem, but it is truer than you might think. While water is the most abundant element on the earth, covering 75% of its surface, fresh, drinkable H2O accounts for less than 3% of that total amount. Over 1 billion of the earth’s inhabitants currently have no access to clean water, and with a constantly growing population, and increasing urbanization, this situation is becoming worse.
Every year, the supply of fresh water on earth is less and less. Africa’s Lake Chad, for instance, covered an area larger than the state of Vermont in the 1960s, but today is smaller than Rhode Island. Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake, and the source of 60% of the country’s protein, which normally swells to six times its dry season volume during the monsoonal rains, gets smaller during each monsoon.
With the planet being made up of 75% water, it seems a fair question to ask, “Why are the fresh water sources like lakes shrinking?” One of the first things that probably comes to mind is ‘climate change.” While climate change has been a factor in the shrinking of the world’s lakes and rivers, alone it only accounts for 1/5 of the shrinkage. The factors that contribute to the reduction of our fresh water supply are numerous and complicated.
Pollution: Lakes and streams across the globe are being increasingly compromised by the waste from human activity. Industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and improperly treated sewage from urban settlements are making a large percentage of the remaining fresh water supply undrinkable.
Population growth: The earth’s population is increasing geometrically. With this larger population comes increasing demands on the water supply. Each year, millions more are added who have no access to clean water; vulnerable to diseases that come from polluted water; and generating even more waste, leading to more pollution. As societies are becoming even more urbanized, there are even greater increases in the amount of human waste generated and increasing demands to supply potable water.
With the vast array of global threats we current face, from international terrorism to AIDS, lack of clean water can get lost in the background noise. This, though, is potentially one of the most dangerous threats humankind might have to cope with. Each year, millions die from waterborne diseases; children die in infancy from preventable diseases caused from dirty water; and the population just keeps on growing, adding to the problem. There are, unfortunately, no easy answers, but if answers are not found, the lack of such a simple thing as clean water threatens the very existence of life as we know it.