The humble water molecule is full of surprises. Although it is just one oxygen with two Mickey Mouse ears of hydrogen, water is arguably the most important substance on Earth. It has sculpted the planet’s surface, carving out vast canyons, turning mountains into hills, and depositing great masses of sedimentary rocks across the planet. A quirk of water’s chemistry, along with the saltiness of seawater, prevents the oceans from freezing through because its solid phase (ice) is less dense than its liquid form (water), forming an insulating layer of sea ice instead. Water is a crucial reactant in photosynthesis, a product of cellular respiration, and the medium that allows nutrients and enzymes to mix and move throughout our bodies. It is, without question, necessary for all life on Earth and beyond.
And today is World Water Day! Held every year on March 22 for the past 2 decades, this United Nations-sponsored event helps raise awareness of global freshwater issues and promote the sustainable management of this precious resource. Just to set the stage, consider these fascinating facts about freshwater:
- While water may seem abundant in the environment and readily available from the tap, freshwater only constitutes a tiny fraction of all the water on Earth, and most of it is locked up in snow and ice.
- Although we might think of our personal consumption as just the water we drink and use for dishwashing and showering, domestic water use is just a drop in the bucket compared to agricultural and industrial water consumption.
- Most water goes into producing the food we eat, the energy we use to heat our homes, and the manufactured items we purchase.
Source: UN Water
In many parts of the world, however, water quality is equally as important as quantity. Nearly a billion people lack access to clean water and twice that number live without adequate sanitation. These conditions jeopardize the environmental integrity and socioeconomic prosperity of many communities in the developing world. Limited water resources can even contribute to gender inequality in places where women and girls lack water rights and bear the primary responsibility of collecting water for their families, a task that can consume up to five hours a day!
For these reasons, freshwater management is a pressing global issue worthy of a concerted international effort to raise awareness, and one that promises to get more complicated in the future. Luckily, science can help us understand the state of the worlds water resources and how they might change due to increasing urbanization, industrial development, population growth and climate change. Quantifying the health and size of the Earths freshwater reserves is the starting point for effective management, and scientific monitoring of management practices is the only way to figure out what works and what doesnt.
But there is a human element to water use that resists quantification. As the worlds finite reserves of freshwater come under pressure, will we choose to share? The answer to this question is complicated by the fact that water does not heed national boundaries. There are over 270 so-called transboundary water basins in the world, and some rivers, like the Nile in Africa, travel through more than 10 countries before emptying into the sea. All of these nations must live with the up- and downstream effects of their neighbors, and may seem, on the surface, to be ripe for conflict.
If all this sounds too depressing, take heart: the theme for World Water Day 2013 is Water Cooperation, and by and large, history tells a story of success. Social scientists who study the interaction of humans and the natural world have found that instances of cooperation are twice as common as episodes of conflict in water disputes. Nearly 500 international treaties have been signed in the last 150 years to help countries share freshwater resources, many of which still stand today.
And although water issues can spur local unrest and place further strain on tense international relationships, they can also provide a common ground on which to begin negotiations. Researchers note that countries at war have succeeded in managing water disputes throughout periods of military conflict, including Israel and Jordan, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and India and Pakistan. Water, it seems, can be a powerful force for peace.
Most encouraging is the fact that the potential for conflict does not seem predetermined by geography or intractably entrenched by corruption. Scientists who study international water issues have discovered that the prevalence of water conflicts is not related to seemingly obvious factors like aridity or type of government or national wealth, but instead depends on the efficacy and resilience of water management agencies. Unlike the weather, which is beyond our control, the strength of these institutions can be reinforced and improved through international aid and cooperation.
Occasions like World Water Day, which is the capstone to the 2013 Year of International Water Cooperation, illustrate that it is possible to raise awareness, spur meaningful action, and empower people to sustainably manage freshwater resources. In the end, it may be a happy World Water Day after all!
See why water is necessary for all life, even beyond Earth, in this NOVA article!
Visit the UN Water portal to interactively view global water data.
Tweet about the importance of freshwater with the hashtag #WorldWaterDay!
Written by Julia Rosen
Julia Rosen is a freelance science writer and PhD student at Oregon State University. She received a Bachelors degree in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University before beginning her doctoral research on polar ice cores and climate change. In between, she did her Master's in backpacking around the world and skiing. Julia is a periodic contributor to Oregon States research magazine, Terra, and helps write blog content and develop learning modules for Visionlearning.