Fresh water is something we all take for granted until it is in short supply. Though the world will not soon run out of fresh water, it is a precious resource that we waste as if it is created out of thin air. Only 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh, the rest is in the oceans. And over 2/3 of that 2.5% is locked away in ice caps and glaciers. Most of the rest lies below ground. All this means that only .03% of the total fresh water on this planet is fresh and on the surface (in rivers and lakes).
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There may come a time that our population is too great to feed. Not so much because of lack of land or soil, but for lack of water. We mine it at unsustainable rates from ancient aquifers and when our wells run dry we simply drill another one and dip a longer straw into the drink. These aquifers replenish themselves on geologic not human timescales, so we are guaranteed to run short eventually.
Then we will need to transport water long distances from places where the groundwater is not yet depleted. We will also need to figure out a way to cheaply desalinate water, but this is always going to be energy-intensive, so may not be a great option unless we figure out how to exploit solar on an enormous scale in the future.
All that is pretty depressing. But let’s step back and appreciate water for the wonderful thing it is. Water is the most important reason why life evolved on this planet. It is not only the ‘universal solvent’, where all the chemistry necessary for life can take place, but it also literally keeps our planet breathing. Water in the atmosphere transports heat from warm areas to cold, making agriculture possible in many places where it would otherwise be too cold. It is the most powerful greenhouse gas.
(But please ignore those who doubt the role of CO2 in global warming. These ‘skeptics’ believe that water dominates as a greenhouse gas and will keep us from warming. They don’t know what anybody who takes Meteorology 101 knows, that the effects of water are buffered and even out over short timescales. CO2 and methane are still the most important greenhouse gases as far as climate change goes. Water’s role as greenhouse gas is important only in terms of weather- not climate change.)
Water is also responsible for erosion, transporting materials from the mountains to make the soil we grow our food in. Water deep inside the earth is critical for melting of rocks, creating volcanoes. Volcanoes are crucial for recycling gases back into the atmosphere, including CO2 and water itself. We would have frozen over long ago without volcanoes. Water essentially lubricates the earth, making plate tectonics possible. Without plate tectonics the earth would be dead or nearly so, with only submicroscopic life.
So let’s celebrate water today and every day. Enjoy it but respect it too. Take shorter showers, turn off the faucet while brushing your teeth, never leave a hose or faucet running, plant your yard with plants that do not need extra water beyond what falls from the sky. Install low-flow fixtures. Remember the old saying “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” You can, I’m sure, think of many other ways to conserve water.