Text and photos: Javier Pinzón
Water –the colorless, odorless, and tasteless liquid that runs through every ecosystem in the world– brings life to everything it touches. Sometimes it is silent, sliding from ice to rivers, while other times it is deafening, plunging down mountains or speeding over rapids.
Today, however, the world’s water faces a crisis and many ecosystems are crying out silently for help. Glaciers, which cover 10% of the Earth and account for more than 75% of the world’s fresh water, are retreating. A study conducted in Alaska by geologist Bruce Molnia shows that, since the mid-nineteenth century, 99% of all glaciers have receded considerably. For example, since 1941 the Muir glacier has retreated nearly two miles and lost 1,300 feet. According to Simon Cook, professor at the Metropolitan University of Manchester (United Kingdom), Bolivian glaciers have lost 43% of their volume. And it’s not only the Bolivian communities close to the glacier mass that use melt water for human consumption, irrigation, and hydroelectric power; large cities such as La Paz and El Alto get their drinking water from the same source.
The paramos, or high tropical Andean plains, are not being cared for as they should be, despite the fresh water they provide to human populations and their energy-producing reservoirs. These water factories, where fog is the star, are disappearing. Wouter Buytaert, a specialist in Andean waters at Imperial College London, has determined that Andean cities will face enormous constraints due to water shortages; Bogotá, Quito, and Cuenca will be among the most vulnerable urban areas.
Although 70% of the planet is covered with water, only 0.03% of the liquid is accessible and available for drinking. It’s not surprising that 4.5 million people lack sanitary services and 2.1 billion have no access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Although it is a vital and very scarce resource, UNESCO found that 80% of all wastewater returns to the ecosystem without being treated or reused.
The pressure we are exerting on ecosystems is enormous. WHO reports that four out of ten people are affected by the water shortage. About 1.2 billion people –almost one fifth of the world’s population¬– live in areas of physical water scarcity, while 500 million are approaching this situation. An additional 1.6 million –about a quarter of the world’s population– face situations of economic scarcity of water (where countries lack the necessary infrastructure to transport water from rivers and aquifers).
Figures from The Nature Conservancy leave us concerned about the way we use water: an average American uses 32,900 glasses of water per day, of which only 10% is for daily tasks such as drinking, cooking, and washing. The rest is spent to produce food, clothes, and energy. Indeed, 46,400 glasses of water are needed to produce the cotton needed to make a pair of trousers, 20,800 glasses are required to produce the meat in a hamburger, and 4,800 to 16,000 glasses are needed to keep a 100-watt light on for a week.
In 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations recognized the right of all human beings to have access to sufficient safe, acceptable, and affordable water for domestic and personal use (between fifty and one hundred liters per person per day). The 1977 United Nations Conference on Water was the first broad attempt to address the issue and the 2005-2015 International Decade for Action “Water for Life” gave 1.3 billion people in developing countries access to drinking water, driving the process to improve sanitation as part of the Millennium Development Goals. This year marks the start of the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development, launched on World Water Day, March 22, 2018.
A number of organizations and NGOs are committed to working with this resource. The Nature Conservancy, an organization that has been helping protect water for sixty years, has more than 400 experts working on over 100 projects in 35 countries. One such project is the Open Government Partnership (OGP), which has fostered dialogue and joint work between States and non-governmental actors –civil society organizations in particular– to improve access to information, transparency, participation, and accountability as fundamental principles for strengthening democracies and keeping them stable. The OGP action plans are an opportunity and an effective tool for progressing toward greater citizen involvement and participation in the implementation of the human right to water and public policies aimed at fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and effectively adapting to climate change.
In this year’s World Water Development Report, the UNESCO and UN-Water advocate for nature-based solutions. Gilbert Houngbo, president of UN-Water and the International Fund for Development of Agriculture, states that “for too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or ‘gray,’ infrastructure to improve water management. In so doing, it has often brushed aside traditional and Indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches.” UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay warns, “We therefore need new solutions for managing water resources to offset the rising challenges to water security. If we don’t act now, by 2050 close to 5 billion people will live in areas with water shortages.”
These global movements represent a renewed interest in ecology and the use of nature-based and “green,” as opposed to “gray,” infrastructure to improve water management. It is essential to preserve the role that ecosystems play instead of relying on civil engineering. There are already many examples of “green” solutions: in New York City, for example, the three main hydrological basins that provide the city’s water are now protected. The city, which now has the largest source of unfiltered water in the United States, saves more than 300 million dollars a year operating and maintaining its water treatment system.
Rajasthan (India) also began using ecosystem approaches in 1986, following one of the most severe droughts in its history. In the years after the catastrophe, an NGO, with help from citizens, created structures to collect water and regenerate part of the region’s soil and forests. As a result, forest cover increased by more than 30%, the level of underground springs rose several meters, and the productivity of arable land improved. Some of the many other examples of this green technology include Madagascar, which has developed a system of rice intensification, and the first “sponge cities” being created in China to recycle 70% of rainwater through more permeable soils.
Wetlands, which cover only 2.6% of the planet, play a significant hydrological role: they have a direct impact on water quality and act as filters to contain certain toxic substances derived from pesticides, industrial waste, and mining activity. They also serve as barriers and sponges that help to prevent the impact of natural catastrophes. In some regions, wetlands have been recreated to treat, at least partially, industrial wastewater. In other places, such as Chile and the U.S. state of Louisiana, coastal wetlands are being preserved and restored to prevent or limit the impact of certain natural disasters.
The UN World Water Development Report calls for a rebalancing of both approaches and stresses that nature-based solutions are an essential part of the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations in 2015. There is still much to be done, but, as Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary General of the United Nations, said, there is still enough water for all of us, but only if we keep it clean, use it wisely, and share it equally.