It’s more than oil. It’s even more than gold. It’s water!
“Water, not oil, is the most precious fluid in our lives, the substance from which all life on the earth has sprung and continues to depend,” wrote Maryann Bird in a Time article.
“Water is worth more than gold and necessary for survival above all other resources on earth,” said a feature published by South Review, an independent international magazine aimed at presenting the perspectives of Third World countries.
If the world runs out of oil and other fossil fuels, it can always use alternative energy sources. People can live without the precious gold. But without water, the world is doomed.
In theory, some 34,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater are available globally for human use every year. “This amount would be enough to meet human needs, if freshwater were evenly distributed,” observed Donald Hinrichsen, an award-winning American journalist who writes for various United Nations publications. “But available freshwater supplies are not distributed evenly around the globe, throughout the seasons, or from year to year.”
This is the reason why some countries are undergoing water crisis in some parts of the year. Just recently, some Filipinos – particularly those living in Bansalan, a first-class municipality in Davao del Sur – are already experiencing what it feels without clean, drinkable water. To think, the country is surrounded by bodies of water.
In the 1950s, the Philippines had as much as 9,600 cubic meters of clean water per person, according to Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, an academician with the National Academy of Science and Technology. Four decades later, Filipinos must make do with little more than a third for that volume – 3,300 cubic meters per person.
“Everyone agrees water is basic for life,” wrote Juan Mercado in his column. “When cisterns go dry, disease and death rates surge. That ushers in economic decay – and political instability. Water riots can be ugly.”
Until now, no one has invented a substitute for water. Yet, the population around the world continues to grow. In the Philippines, for instance, there were 68.24 million people in 1994. By the end of 2019, the country will be home to 109 million Filipinos.
“As population continues to soar, so does the demand for freshwater,” wrote the late Senator Edgardo Angara in his column in 2016. “Today, around 16 million Filipinos – almost 20% of the population – have no access to potable water.”
The Philippines is not yet what hydrologists call a “water stressed” nation. That label applies to a country whose annual water supplies drop below 1,700 cubic meters per person. When supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, the country faces water scarcity for all or part of the year. These concepts were developed by Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark to gauge current and future water needs and to measure scarcity.
While the country is still not “water stressed,” it has already areas suffering from water scarcity. Four river basins – Pampanga, Agno, Pasig-Laguna, and the island of Cebu – are experiencing water scarcity from time to time.
During summer months, many residents of Metro Manila – home to more than 10 million people – are coping with a “water supply crisis.” Metro Cebu in the Visayas and Davao City in Mindanao are already experiencing the same status.
The three major cities – along with six others (Angeles, Bacolod, Baguio, Cagayan de Oro, Iloilo and Zamboanga) – were identified by a study done by Japan International Cooperation Agency in 1991 to be “water-critical areas.”
Four years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute (WRI) predicts the Philippines will experience a “high” degree of water shortage by 2040. WRI defines water stress as “the ratio between total water withdrawals and available renewable surface water at a sub-catchment level.” A total score of 3 out of 5 was an indication that the country has “high” level of water stress.
“We cannot talk of providing sustainable water to people unless we protect the sources of the commodity – the watersheds,” said Elisea Gozon when she was still the head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
The country’s water is supplied by rainfall as well as rivers, lakes, springs, and groundwater. With changing water patterns worldwide due to climate change, rainfall is getting scarcer. The little that comes from the heavens is collected, or wasted, in watersheds with balding forests.
A study done by the environment department showed that around 112 billion cubic meters – roughly 70% of the total water resources available to the country – is lost and wasted each year.
Another DENR study said that 90% of 99 watershed areas in the country are “hydrologically critical” due to their degraded physical condition. Massive destruction of the once-productive forested watersheds by illegal loggers and uncontrolled land use from mining, overgrazing, agricultural expansion, and industrialization have contributed to water depletion.
“Land use and vegetative cover in the watershed are very important because they affect water flow and water quality,” Patrick Durst told this author when he was the regional forestry officer of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
River pollution also contributes to the country’s current water woes. A report released by the Asian Development Bank some years back counted 16 rivers which were “biologically dead” during the dry months. Some 48% of water pollution came from domestic waste, 37% from agricultural waste, and the remaining 15% from industrial waste.
There is more bad news. Water levels in the country’s major sources have been dropping at the rate of 50% over the past two decades. Excessive pumping of groundwater has caused water depletion and consequent decline in water levels.
“Water isn’t just a commodity. It is a source of life,” says Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project.
The New York Times reported that more than half of all accessible water on the planet has been diverted for the use of one species of the millions on the planet – human beings.
Worldwatch Institute said that ideally, a person should have at least 50 liters of water each day to meet basic needs – for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry and house cleaning.
Water, after all, is fundamental for life and health. “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity,” the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights pointed out. “It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.”
Water is life, so they say. As Dr. Willie T. Ong pointed out in his book, How to Live Longer: Practical Health Tips from a Heart Doctor: “No water, no life. Our bodies are made up of mostly water. Just look at these facts: The brain contains 74% water, blood contains 83% water, lean muscle has 75% and bone has 22% water.”
Water – composed of two atoms of hydrogen and a single atom of oxygen – covers more than two-thirds of the earth’s surface. But only 2.5% of that water is fresh water. And 99.7% of that fresh water is unavailable, trapped in glaciers, ice sheets, and mountainous areas. This means that about 0.3% of the planet’s fresh water is shared by its entire people.
“Every year, the rain falling on Earth’s surface amounts to about 110,000 cubic kilometers,” wrote David Molden, Charlotte de Fraiture, and Frank Rijsberman, in their paper, Water Scarcity: The Food Factor. “About 40,000 cubic kilometers contribute to rivers and groundwater. The remainder evaporates directly from soil.”
But human beings don’t use water efficiently. “We dam rivers, pump groundwater and siphon lakes and rivers to grow our food, quench our thirst, spur our industry,” wrote Jerome Casagrande, director of the Environmental Innovations Initiative at Ashoka. “We use our rivers, lakes and oceans intentionally and unintentionally as dumping grounds for our waste.”
Worldwide hunger problems are actually water problems. “Over the coming decades, feeding a growing global population and ensuring food and nutrition security for all will depend on increasing food production. This, in turn, means ensuring the sustainable use of our most critical finite source – water,” said Ban Ki-moon, former UN Secretary General.
Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water around the world. Take rice, for instance. In his book, Water: The International Crisis, author Robin Clark reports that an average farmer needs 5,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice.
Producing food from livestock – particularly meat and milk – also entails the use of water. The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that one pound of pork needs at least 1,630 gallons of water to produce while one pound of beef requires 5,214 gallons of water.
“As water is increasingly diverted from agriculture to higher-return economic uses (such as booming industry and tourism), food supply will dwindle and go only to those who can pay for it,” Casagrande observed.
But even if there is enough food to eat, people may still be slowly dying from another form of hunger called “invisible hunger” and it comes from drinking unsafe water. Statistics showed one in five people around the world lack access to safe drinking water.
The notion that water can carry disease first occurred to the ancient Greeks. The physician Hippocrates, the ancient innovator of medical ethics, advised that polluted water be boiled or filtered before being consumed.
“The number of people that die every year from water-related diseases is the equivalent of 20 jumbo jets crashing every day, mostly full of children,” said Stephen Turner from WaterAid, an international British charity.
Installing a flush toilet in the home increases a newborn child’s chances of celebrating a first birthday by 59%, studies show. In the Philippines, out of every 1,000 children, 27 never make it to their first birthday.
“It is chilling fact that a child dies every 15 seconds from water-related diseases and by 2025 two out of every three people will be living with water shortages,” deplored Joanne Greene from Tearfund, another British charity.
Today’s “crisis in water and sanitation is – above all – a crisis of the poor,” observed the United Nations Development Program study, “Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Water Crisis.”
Scientists, water professionals, environmental campaigners and others have urged to solve the problem before it’s too late. “The world has got a very big water problem,” says Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. “It will be the progenitor of more wars than oil.”
Falkenmark has likewise admonished: “We have to stop living as if we had unlimited water supplies and start recognizing that we must deal with serious water constraints.”
In Falkenmark’s view, the relevant question to ask about water is not how much water do we need and from where do we get it, but rather how much water there is and how can we best benefit from it.
Meanwhile, Postel believes water problems will be right there with climate change as a threat to the human future. In an International Council for Science survey of environmental experts in more than 50 countries, freshwater scarcity ranked second to climate change as a 21st century issue.
“Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” Dr. Postel says. “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”
And that’s a fact, indeed. “Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1798’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. How true, indeed. But on second thought, in Exodus 23:25, it said, “Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water.”