Freshwater can cause entire nations to celebrate or mourn; water can transform a desert overnight into a cacophonous shout of color and life; a steady stream of water can become the anchor of commerce and community for centuries. Water isn’t just the rain that falls or the lakes, marshes and rivers that define our geographical regions; but the groundwater, the aquifers, the glaciers, and polar ice caps. Water means life.
Freshwater, though a seemingly abundant resource for those of us in the Midwestern United States, is quite precious and rare. Do you know how much of the world’s water is freshwater? Less than 4%! Of that tiny bit, over 65% is trapped in glaciers and snow caps. That leaves only 0.76% of the world’s water available to humans in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers. Think of the world’s total water (fresh and salty) as a gallon jug. About ⅔ cup of it would be all the freshwater, but people can only drink, irrigate crops, and manufacture with ⅛ cup.
The water we drink today comes from the same water drunk by Sue, the Chicago Field Museum’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. Water continuously cycles from vapor to precipitation, to groundwater, glaciers, snow pack, rivers, lakes, and even biological storage (living organisms, including us, are mostly water), and back to water vapor, as it has for millennia. Water is amazing!
How much water do Americans use? In 2010, the average water use (both surface and groundwater) per capita in the United States was 1,146 gallons per day.¹ This includes water used for irrigation and in other economic, agricultural and industrial activities. By contrast, the per-capita water use in India in 2010 was less than half that at 456 gallons/day, including irrigation and economic/industrial activities.² At the household level, the United States uses the most water of any country in the world.³
Many people worry that too many of our neighbors on the planet, 2 out of 7, do not have access to adequate clean water. Last year, the World Economic Forum identified “water crisis” as the global risk issue that would most devastate global developments, even more than cyber attacks, fiscal crises, and interstate conflict.⁴ While 91% of people around the globe now have access to an “improved drinking source” compared to only 76% of the global population in 1990, “improved” does not necessarily mean “safe.” An improved water source, according to the World Health Organization/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, is one that “by the nature of its construction and when properly used, adequately protects the source from outside contamination, particularly faecal matter.”⁵
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 663 million people globally rely on unimproved sources of drinking water, but 1.8 billion people’s drinking water access comes into contact with human feces, which causes a plethora of diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid and diarrhea.⁶ That means over 2 billion people’s water sources are unimproved, are not constructed correctly or used properly and cause contamination, illness, and even death.
In the developed world people tend to think of inadequate pure water as a problem of others, of those in the developing majority world such as Africa,. Yet water issues extend to every continent and every country. Lack of access to safe water even afflicts the world’s largest economy, the United States, often due to social and racial injustice. For example, the majority black community of Flint, Michigan was subjected to widespread lead poisoning in its drinking water from 2014 to 2015. The scathing Flint Water Crisis Task Force report highlights the injustices at every turn.
What of the global population’s future ability to access clean water? Again, according to WHO, by 2025 fifty percent of the world’s population will live in water-stressed regions. Current calculations estimate that 8.1 billion people will walk the earth in 2025, and about 4 billion will make their homes and raise their families in areas without consistent, adequate access to clean water. Increasing numbers of thirsty families will increase demand for water so much that it will overwhelm improvements in water-saving technology and decreases in per-capita water use.⁷ Even in 2016, in most areas of the world, current water demands outpace the replenishment of sources. Growing populations will demand more water even as climate change reduces its availability through diminished snow pack, reduced glaciers and increased drought.
What regions will suffer the increasing water-stress of increased demand and reduced supply? Substantial areas of every continent will! Projections by Vörösmarty et al.⁷ identify the eastern half of the US and Canada plus California and the southwest, nearly all of Latin America, nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa, nearly all of Europe and the Middle East and Asia (except interior Russia and China), and the Pacific coast of Australia and Papua New Guinea will demand more water than is available by 2025 from population increase and climate change combined. This means virtually the entire globe will be using water unsustainably. Water scarcity will increase globally as human economic activity and populations increase in the face of negative climate patterns that reduce the water supply and disrupt the water cycle.
In John 4, Jesus called himself “living water” and offered eternal life to the Samaritan woman at the well. Few Bible passages are as poignant as this one, as we reflect on our daily need for water, both physically and spiritually. Out of hope for the coming Kingdom of Jesus, Christians have devoted significant amounts of time, energy, and money to address water and sanitation needs, particularly in the majority world. The (US) National Groundwater Association lists about fifty “organizations involved with groundwater projects overseas” on their website, of which many are explicitly Christian.
Jesus offers us the water of life, but we still need physical water to live. We can rest on the future restoration of creation, which includes “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city” (Revelation 22:1) even as we steward and care for the creation God has entrusted to us as his children. As we love our neighbors locally and globally, we recognize clean water access is a fundamental problem today and a formidable challenge for the next 9 years (yes, 2025 is only nine years away!). What are some next steps we can take to conserve clean fresh water?
- Learn about the big picture: Familiarize yourself with the data and big international programs aiming to tackle water issues. Check resources cited in the footnotes.
- Understand your water use: Track your personal or family water footprint and decide how to reduce that amount. Check out the National Geographic’s water saving tips, and take the Water Footprint Calculator test.
- Engage in your community: In your places of work, ministry, and influence, talk about and implement water conservation measures.
- Contribute to Global action: Support at least one organization that responsibly works to improve water access and quality. Look for organizations with in-place transparency, monitoring and training systems,along with financial accountability.
- Pray for the sake of so many who do not have access to clean water; repent for when you have taken for granted the water that comes from the faucet (and that we flush down the toilet every day!); pray for Spirit-led ways of using water with care.
- Vorosmarty, C. J. et al. 2000. Global Water Resources: Vulnerability from Climate Change and Population Growth. Science 289:284-8 http://science.sciencemag.org/content/289/5477/284