Having three to five litres of clean drinking water per person per day and 2,000 calories or more of balanced and nutritious food gives everyone on the planet the necessary water and food requirements for optimal health. On top of that, an additional 25 litres of water is necessary for bathing, cooking, cleaning and sanitation.
At present, a billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.6-billion lack access to basic sanitation. As a result, half of the world’s hospitalisations are due to people drinking water contaminated with infectious agents, toxic chemicals and radiological hazards. According to the World Health Organisation, just one of those infectious agents – the bacteria that cause diarrhoea – accounts for 4.1% of the global disease burden, killing 1.8-million children a year. Right now, more people have access to a cellphone than a toilet.
If we solved this problem, it would mean saving many lives and it would also mean that sub-Saharan Africa would no longer lose 5% of its gross domestic product that is wasted on health spending, productivity losses and labour diversions all associated with dirty water. Further, because dehydration also lowers one’s ability to absorb nutrients, providing clean water helps those suffering from hunger and malnutrition. As a bonus, an entire litany of diseases and disease vectors gets wiped off the planet, as do a number of environmental concerns (fewer trees will be chopped down to boil water; fewer fossil fuels will be burned to purify water). And this is merely the beginning.
This issue isn’t just the amount of water required for hydration and sanitation, it’s that water is thoroughly embedded in our lives, woven through almost everything we manufacture or consume. The reason that 70% of the world’s water is used for agriculture is because one egg requires 450 litres to produce. There are 378 litres in a watermelon. Meat is among our thirstiest commodities, requiring almost 18,000 litres per kilogram or, as Newsweek once explained, “the water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer”.
And sustenance is just the beginning. Everything in the abundance pyramid is affected by issues of hydrology. Beyond food, education takes a hit, as 433-million school days a year are lost to water-related disease. More than 130 litres of water are used to make one microchip – so information abundance suffers too. Then there is energy, where every step in the power production chain makes the world a dryer place. In the US, energy requires 20% of non-agricultural water. At the pyramid’s peak, threats to freedom have also been correlated to scarcity. According to UC Berkeley professor of economics Edward Miguel, there is strong evidence that better rainfall makes conflict less likely in Africa. Finally, with 3.5-million people dying every year from water-related illnesses, nothing is clearer than the direct ties between health and hydration.
Our agricultural practises must be totally revamped, and our industrial practices as well. We’ll need water-wise appliances, novel infrastructure solutions and a lot of honesty about a planetary population pushing toward nine-billion. We need a change measurable in orders of magnitude. With 97.3% of the water on the planet too salty for consumption and another 2% locked up as polar ice, an orders-of-magnitude change does not come from bickering over the remaining 0.5%. If our goal is abundance, we need a new approach. Fresh water must go the route of aluminium, from one of the scarcest resources on earth to one of the most ubiquitous.
Our planet is a pale blue dot because it’s an aqueous world - two-thirds of its surface is covered by oceans. Those oceans are our backbone and our lifeblood. Our oceans hold the secret to a better future, but it will not happen automatically. We have much work ahead. Yet, because these water-wise technologies are all on exponential growth curves, they represent the greatest leverage available.
So, for today, right now, bring on the efficiencies, take shorter showers, eat less beef, do all that we can to preserve a limited resource. But for tomorrow, know that a world of watery plenty is a very real possibility, and putting our energy behind exponentials puts us on the fast track. (1)
Sources and further reading:
Diamandis, H.P and Kotler, S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
COPYRIGHT © 2015 Singularity Institute Africa