On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly declared that “Safe and clean drinking water and sanitation is a human right essential to the full enjoyment of life and all other human rights.” (More)

The General Assembly affirmed with this statement that water security is a prerequisite to human happiness and necessary for all other human rights. On the face of it, that statement seems obvious, but the idea is one which we are not accustomed to thinking of.

What is water security?

Water security is the ability to reliably access clean potable water in sufficient quantity and with sufficient ease to facilitate a comfortable standard of living. According to UNESCO:

Water security involves protection of vulnerable water systems, protection against water related hazards such as floods and droughts, sustainable development of water resources and safeguarding access to water functions and services.

My Introduction to Water Security

A few years back I took a class in Hydrogeology. We had a lab experiment where we tracked our daily water consumption for seven days. For that lab, I took samples of water flow from various faucets and the shower head at my residence using a measuring cup and a stop watch. For each sample I turned the faucet or spigot as I usually would. I then put a measuring cup under the flow of water for ten seconds and logged the volume of water. I repeated each sample three times: turn on the faucet, collect water for ten seconds, and then turn off the faucet. The idea was that I would likely turn the flow of water to about the same level by habit, and a sample of three would give a reasonable average of the flow of water from that device. I divided each average by ten to get my usage per second. I also researched the typical volume of water consumed per flush in a residential toilet.

Then for a week, I timed my showers which were usually two a day (it is hot and muggy in Florida). I counted the number of bottles of water I drank. I counted the seconds each time I turned on the faucet to cook, or wash my hands. I counted the number of flushes of a toilet. Along the way I realized I needed to count my frappes from Starbucks. I needed to estimate the water consumed at the drinking fountain I stopped at after a trek across campus in the Florida heat. Towards the end of the week, I had become so conscious of my water habits that I was beginning to alter my behavior – to conserve water. I could see in my log that my daily water use had begun to decline by the end of that single week. It was an amazing realization.

For that lab, I calculated that my daily water consumption was about 200 Liters. Two hundred liters is roughly 53 gallons. And that was for my direct personal use. It did not include the sprinklers that watered the lawn, or water that was used for manufacturing the things I used. Nor did it include the water in mundane things like my shampoo. It also did not include my laundry, a major component of my weekly water consumption.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the typical American consumes about 65 gallons per day (245 liters). So my water consumption, factoring in the missing data, is probably about on par for an American.

I don’t have my lab results anymore, but here is a table by DrinkTap.org:

Imagine 122 2-liter bottles of soda, and you can see just how much water a typical American uses per day.

Now compare that with the typical daily consumption of water in the developing world. Ten liters. That’s just five 2-liter bottles of water. Per day. To cook, to clean, to do laundry. It quickly becomes evident how lucky we are over here in the “developed” world. And how unconscious we are of our water usage. But water consumption is only part of the story. There’s also water cleanliness and sanitation. What if those five bottles were muddy? Or filled with toxic chemicals and agricultural runoff? Or filled with deadly parasites and diseases such as cholera? And you had only that to drink, to cook, to bathe, and to wash your laundry. What if your homeland is torn by drought or war, or has no infrastructure to deliver water, and you have to walk for miles each day to get your ration? These are some of the considerations that the “developing” world faces each day in the daily struggle to survive.

Water Security: A global challenge

According to the United Nations:

Water scarcity, poor water quality, and inadequate sanitation negatively impact food security, livelihood choices, and educational opportunities for poor families across the world. Water-related natural disasters such as floods, tropical storms and tsunamis exact a heavy toll in human life and suffering. And all too regularly, drought afflicts some of the world’s poorest countries, exacerbating hunger and malnutrition.

Beyond meeting basic human needs, water supply and sanitation services, as well as water as a resource, are critical to sustainable development. It is a major source of energy in some parts of the world, while in others its potential as an energy source remains largely untapped. Water is also necessary for agriculture and for many industrial processes. And in more than a few countries, it makes up an integral part of transport systems. With improved scientific understanding, the international community has also come to appreciate more fully the valuable services provided by water-related ecosystems, from flood control to storm protection and water purification.

Water challenges will increase significantly in the coming years. Continuing population growth and rising incomes will lead to greater water consumption, as well as more waste. The urban population in developing countries will grow dramatically, generating demand well beyond the capacity of already inadequate water supply and sanitation infrastructure and services. According to the UN World Water Development Report, by 2050, at least one in four people is likely to live in a country affected by chronic or recurring shortages of freshwater.

In this continuing series of Evening Focus, we will examine a number of issues affecting this basic human need.

Readers Comments are welcome.