Water gets a lot of attention in New England this time of year. It’s beautiful, sparkling and irritating, wreaking havoc on our travel plans and wardrobes. The snow may have seemed nice when you woke up the other day, but you probably weren’t too pleased when you accidentally sunk your Uggs into eight inches of icy slush while running to class. Such grumbling may be the most thought you’ve ever given to water.
Few of us have considered the amount of water that went into making our Uggs (thousands of liters), or where the majority of that water came from (the very dry continent of Australia, where the sheep whose wool goes into to the shoes were raised). It’s enough of a hassle to jump over the puddles, let alone ponder their existence. But watch out, because, like Uggs, water is poised to become a trendy subject in the coming years.
Those of us from drier climates may have already given some thought to the topic of water scarcity, and for good reason. Drought-induced famine is the number one cause of death from natural disasters worldwide. Such disasters are expected to become more common through the 21st century due to population growth and the effects of climate change. Though climate change will increase precipitation in some areas, raising flooding concerns, it will decrease precipitation in others.
Many of the countries that will experience greater drought are in the developing world and have limited means of importing food for their citizens and improving water infrastructure. In the United States, we can throw all the money we want at droughts in the West and still may not solve the problem of insufficient water for sustaining farms, cities, suburbs and ecosystems.
Even in places with sufficient water, a lack of infrastructure often prevents people from using their resources safely or at all. Today, 18 percent of the world population, or 1.1 billion people, lack access to safe drinking water. According to the Sierra Club, by 2025, the percentage of the world population lacking access to sufficient safe water is expected to reach 67 percent.
The greatest challenge of the new century will be to meet the world’s growing demand for water at the same time that climate change is reducing the resource where it is needed most.
Increases in efficiency and technologies like desalination will play major roles. Aid groups are working hard; just this winter a group from Yale’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders went to Cameroon to help dig wells, and STAND is raising money to help rebuild wells in Darfur. But students and residents can and should play their part here in New Haven to alleviate the water crisis. That we live in a relatively wet climate does not mean we don’t — and won’t — have to deal with these issues.
It may rain a lot in Connecticut, but that doesn’t mean our water use here has no impact. In order to ensure a reliable water supply, dams and reservoirs have been built on rivers that once flowed freely. These structures impact aquatic ecosystems by changing river flows and shapes, sometimes drastically.
They also pose obstacles to fish migration. In fact, because of river damming and diversion, as well as water pollution, 40 percent of North American freshwater fish species are now threatened with extinction.
The more water we use, the more extensive infrastructure we require and the more impact we have. Using more water means we will have to build more water facilities and use more energy — to transport, heat and treat it. Those of us who savor thirty-minute showers should recognize that not only do long showers use water; they also increase greenhouse gas emissions. The same is true of leaving the water on while brushing teeth.
Going trayless in the dining hall saves water and energy, too. When Brown went trayless, the university started saving 18,000 liters of hot water each week. And trayless dining has a second, less obvious but even more important impact on world water resources. Domestic water use (like for showering or dishwashing) is just a drop in the bucket, so to speak, compared to the water it takes to produce and transport all the food and Uggs we consume.
Statistics show that when you go trayless, you waste less food — food that was probably grown in a more water-scarce place than New Haven. Skip the second hamburger? Save 2,400 liters of water. (Food for thought: meat products require much more water and energy to produce than vegetable products). Fill your own one-liter bottle with tap water instead of buying a bottle? Save at least 2 liters of water. There are easy things you can do every day to make a difference — not just for fish, but for people.
So take some time to contemplate the water you consume. And the next time you step in a puddle, please, pause to appreciate it.
Ariel Patashnik is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.