Central to life
The CfA, Harvard-Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics, suggests that water vapour probably appeared in pockets a mere billion years after the Big Bang (Astrophysical Journal Letters, 2015). To put that into perspective our Sun and Earth were formed more than nine billion years after the Big Bang, so water pre-dates our solar system.
The early stars were short-lived and their explosions spread hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) throughout the universe. Where they met in the cold of space they usually combined to form either water (H2O) or carbon dioxide (CO2), less frequently and where hydrogen abounds they formed methane (CH4) and ammonia (NH3).
Scientists do not agree why Earth has so much water, compared to other rocky planets, but it seems to have arrived quite early after formation of the planet. The Bible and Talmud say that God/Jahweh created the seas on the third day of creation and stocked it with beasts on the fifth day, creating us on the sixth (Genesis). The Qu’ran agrees that Allah created the heavens and the earth in six days but has a rather Darwinian six-period evolutionary process for the creation of man. All three confirm the significance of water and its importance for life. Science advises that the earliest life on Earth emerged 2.8 billion years ago, primitive animals 700 million years ago, the first mammals 200 million BP (Before Present) and homo sapiens just 600,000 years ago.
Water is perhaps the most remarkable material that we encounter. It is colourless, odourless and has no taste. We experience it as rain, ice, sleet, hail, snow, steam, fog, dew, condensation, clouds, wells, pools, lakes, brooks, streams, rivers, seas and oceans, not to forget its presence in blood, sweat, tears and urine. Bizarrely in its solid form, ice, its density is lower than its liquid form, which is why ice floats. Water is soft and fluid, yet erodes rock. It covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface and its ability to dissolve so many other materials (more than any other substance we know) has a unique distributional ability.
Hold your water
Sweat is 98% water, tears are 97%, urine 95% and blood 92%. Our lungs are 83% water, our kidneys and muscles 79%, our brain and heart 73%, skin is 64% and even bones are 31% water.
It is water that controls our body temperature through respiration and sweating. It is in the saliva and stomach fluids that help us digest and absorb our food intake and then flushes our system via urine. Water as part of our blood system carries oxygen and other vital nutrients to our cells. Water’s capability in dissolving substances is the very basis of our biological functions, the water in our blood distributes carbohydrates and proteins around the body.
The many biological processes involved in human metabolism depend on water. It lubricates our joints and soft tissues. It acts as a shock-absorber for our brain and spinal column – and in a woman protects a foetus. A baby is 78% water, though by twelve months old this has dropped to 65%, adult males are 60% water, adult females 55% water; though the presence of fatty tissue can reduce this percentage
Understandable then, that water is essential for our survival. An adult male needs 2.5 litres of water each day, an adult female just 2.0 litres; some of this is achieved through the ingestion of food.
Survival experts preach a useful ‘Rule of Threes’ which says we can survive without food for up to three weeks, can last just three days without water and a mere three minutes without air! It is certainly a useful rule-of-thumb though in fact there have been instances of humans lasting eight-to-ten days without water. Three minutes under water has also been exceeded.
Before our early settlements learned how to manage water resources they sensibly gathered beside rivers and lakes to ensure a ready access to water. The very earliest civilisations grew up along fertile river valleys and it was here that agriculture and animal husbandry first evolved to support a growing, more settled population.
But as we expanded our global population this common sense approach seems to have been lost as today, some 1.2 billion of our seven billion population have no safe access to water, that’s 17% or one-in-six. In the UK we also seem to have forgotten about floods, given the incidence of building new houses on established flood-plains.
Water management is not globally consistent, the 1.2billion inhabitants of Africa are calculated to spend 40billion hours every year collecting their water. African women do two-thirds of this walking for drinking water, severely reducing their opportunity to pursue other activity, like education! And yet despite this fetching and carrying, some two million African children die each year from lack of safe water.
As we saw above, human population doubled in the past three decades, with human water-usage per capita tripling across the same period. This is exacerbated by the 2.7billion population of China and India developing the desire to espouse Western ‘middle-class’ approaches to living. This doubling and trebling means that the available water-per-head of world population has thus been slashed to a sixth of its previous levels – and its supply is finite, what is there in the water cycle is all we have!
BRIEFER: Lake Baikal in Siberia is big and old. It has existed for 25 million years and is the world’s deepest lake (1,642m – thus more than a mile deep!) it represents a seventh of the surface area of all lakes worldwie. The continental rift lake contains more water than the US/Canada Great Lakes. An implausible 20% of the world’s unfrozen fresh surface water is ‘stored’ here (UNESCO World Heritage Site #754).
Only a tiny 6% of the world’s water is not salty and two-thirds of that freshwater is stored deep in underground aquifers. Aquifers have been accumulated over millions of years and we are depleting them far too quickly. A United States Geological Survey 2013 report showed Americans between 2004 and 2008 drew three times their historical average.
BRIEFER: Agricultural irrigation in the USA consumes 37 percent of all the water withdrawn from its aquifers, lakes, and rivers.
Worse, the residual third or 2% of non-salty water, around 85% of this is semi-permanently frozen at the poles in glaciers or permafrost.
Of the net balance (three-thousandths of a percentage point) of the world’s fresh water we still have to factor out the quantity that falls or lies in the wrong place, either in remote areas (like Siberia) or coming unhelpfully as monsoons and floods, so not usefully available for human use. Of this minuscule balance of useable water, unhelpfully around 4% evaporates from our lakes and reservoirs, though it is recovered by the water cycle.
Future of water
Today agriculture uses 66% of all available water (based on an average 25% in the West and 75% to 90% in the East), industry consumes 20%, leaving less than 10% for domestic use.
The World Water Council reported that to meet our growing global agricultural needs, by 2020, we will need 17% more water than there is in fact available to us. A separate study showed that one-third of the 47 least-developed countries will be short of water by 2025.
That’s not surprising if we look at two worldwide staples, wheat and rice. To create just a single kilo of wheat takes a massive 1,200 litres of water, the same yield in rice requires twice that volume. And this is assuming they use an efficient production technique, of course many locations prove much more wasteful than this.
We seem to be trying to ‘sell’ the millions of Asian vegetarians the benefits of a Western red meat culture and diet, when it takes sixteen times the water to produce a kilo of meat than it does a kilo of wheat. Our ‘convenient’ hamburgers each use a stultifying 2,400 litres of water. In the West coffee outlets seem to have multiplied in the last few decades and a small cup of coffee uses 140 litres of water to grow the necessary beans.
The bio-fuel business now vies for agricultural acreage. Their appeal is that while not all countries have been blessed with hydrocarbon deposits, they can all grow plants. The equations are not compelling, to produce enough soya beans to propel an average vehicle for one kilometre consumes 28 litres of water, that’s twelve gallons of water to drive a mile. Ethanol 85 is a little better at 25 litres of water per kilometre. By comparison, gasoline or diesel consumes just one-third of a litre of water per kilometre. So these new biofuels are less efficiently using water resources and they progressively bring pressure to bear upon the amount of land that we are then able to dedicate to food production.
It is not just fuels that have extravagant ‘water footprints’. A single sheet of A4 paper uses 10 litres of water when you factor in the tree’s growth and the paper’s manufacture. A smart pair of leather shoes’ have a water footprint of 8,000 litres and let’s not start thinking about large designer handbags!
Water features heavily in human hygiene, the preparation and supply of clean drinking water, the basis of personal cleanliness and sanitation to prevent the spread of disease.
Today some 2.6 billion of the world’s population lack any sanitation facilities, that’s 37% or well over one-in-three of us. Many more have inadequate sanitation provisions, with 761 million having access to only public or shared sanitation. Surprisingly this is not just a rural feature, it includes 12% of the world’s urban dwellers.
Some 1.5 billion (>20%) people use simple pit latrines that all too often manage to seep out into drinking water supplies. Worse a further billion people (14%) of the world’s population still practice open defecation – in fields, bushes, rivers, beaches, and woods. Two-thirds of these open-defecators live in India and it has been calculated that every single minute some 1.1m litres of human excrement is dumped into the River Ganges, meaning that water for drinking and other purposes is inevitably affected.
BRIEFER: Gandhi is quoted in Young India Weekly (late 1924) ‘The one thing which we can and must learn from the West is the science of municipal sanitation. The peoples of the West have evolved a science of corporate sanitation and hygiene from which we have much to learn. We must modify western methods of sanitation to suit our requirements.’ That was almost a century ago!
Everyone suffers from the contaminating effects of open defecation. In 2013 more than 340,000 children under five years of age died from diarrhoeal diseases, that’s almost 1,000 dying every day. Diarrhoea claims in total some 842,000 people each year and infects 44 million pregnant women with worms.
Improved hand-washing technique can bring significant benefits. UNICEF states that hand-washing by midwives/attendants at births reduced infant mortality by 19%. Neo-natal mothers who washed their hands reduced new baby mortality by 44%. Regular hand-washing can reduce the under-five mortality rate through diarrhoea by 50% and reduce respiratory infections by 25%. (Source: UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Programme [JMP] for Water Supply and Sanitation)
Throughout recent history it has often been severe outbreaks of disease like the plague and cholera that became the impetus for more careful water supply technologies, sanitation and hygiene to advance. (See image F7)
I’ll get down from my soapbox now let’s focus upon our subject – The Three Ss and The Three Ds…