CHAUTAUQUA - Water, one of the planets most precious resources, is taking center stage at Chautauqua Institution this week.
As part of its daily lecture series, Chautauqua Institution invited Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic, and Sandra Postel, founder of the Global Water Policy Project and freshwater fellow at National Geographic, to speak about water conservation at the amphitheater Monday.
"Water feeds our atmosphere, recharges our rivers, powers waterfalls, refreshes lakes and provides us with what we need every day, all seven billion of us," Dimick said. "It's important to understand where the water goes."
According to Dimick, 70 percent of the available freshwater in the world is used for agriculture, 22 percent is consumed by industry and only 8 percent is used within the home. He also said water has been profoundly important in the development of many regions both within the country, as well as around the world. The worldwide need for freshwater coupled with a rising global population however, is driving many regions to consume much more than they had previously.
"We're increasingly seeing rivers that are running out of water before they even make it to their deltas," said Dimick. "There has been an increase in demand even though the supply remains constant. It's causing a disconnect between dreams and reality. We want to believe everything is blue and wonderful, but the reality is much more of these trends that we're actually seeing."
Sandra Postel and Dennis Dimick speak on the importance of water conservation for “Water Matters” week at Chautauqua Institution on Monday.
P-J photo by Ryan Atkins
A CHANGING PLANET
Pollution, especially that caused by humans, plays a significant role in the worlds water supply, as well as the delicate ecosystems housed within the water.
Due to factors such as nitrate pollution, there is a rising frequency of a phenomenon known as a hypoxic zone - an aquatic dead zone caused by excessive nutrient pollution from human activities, along with other factors, that doesn't contain enough oxygen to support most marine life. A 2008 study counted more than 400 hypoxic zones worldwide.
Besides an increase in man-made pollution and dead zones, there have been other notable changes in the planet's behavior. Since 1970, the average air temperature of the planet has increased by .9 degrees Farenheit. This, coupled with an increase in moisture content in the air, a 31 percent increase in heatwaves and a 7 percent increase in extreme rainfall has led to a much greater volatility being displayed in wet/dry cycles. These changes in the water cycle have a profound effect on farmers and can cause food insecurity.
"Because of the insecurity, there is an increase in food prices which can cause global instability," said Dimick. "Historically, droughts have caused entire civilizations to go away."
Sandra Postel, who grew up surrounded by the sea, knew from a very young age that her purpose was to do something for the planet and nature.
"How can we meet all of our needs with a finite supply of water?," said Postel. "That's the problem that I work with."
According to Postel, the average personal water footprint is close to 2,000 gallons every day, with only about 100 gallons of that total number coming from the tap or other water sources at home. Many people tend to eat several servings of meat over the course of a day, which has a very high water cost. The average hamburger takes upwards of 600 gallons of water to produce, from the water used in the raising of cattle to the transportation and even the water used to create electricity to bring the final product to the consumer. On a similar level, a single cotton shirt can take more than 700 gallons of water to produce. National Geographic provides a water footprint calculator on their website, www.nationalgeographic.com, for those interested, along with tools to help educate users how to better conserve water.
GOING WITH THE FLOW
Worldwide, dams are used to control water in order to allow humans to better allocate it for their needs. With the growing scarcity of this resource however, dams need to be managed with the needs of nature in mind as well. Across the United States, many dams are beginning to come down, allowing rivers to return to their natural state.
"Rivers do heal," said Postel. "It just takes time."
The National Geographic Fresh Water Institute is currently working with other organizations to help restore the flow of water to the Colorado River, which has been slowed to a trickle due to the excessive use and waste of water. If the program is effective in Colorado, it will be rolled out across the country to help revive other damaged rivers, and eventually taken globally.
RUNNING THE NUMBERS
There are 5 million deaths annually from unsanitary water, most of whom are children. Two out of five people in the world live with no sanitation whatsoever, which complicates matters even further. Furthermore, one out of every six people lacks a safe water supply. Dimick urged those attending the lecture to promote the idea of helping to develop a way to create safe water supplies, as they can change the lives of those affected.
"We are the stewards of this planet," he said. "We need to not take this resource for granted. It is daily, it is immutable and it is us. Our relationship with water is more than just utilitarian, it's sacred and special."