Water, Water, Everywhere

This post is by contributing blogger Daniella Svoboda Schmidt, an experienced public school master teacher, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in engaging others in the positive power of food citizenship through The Thinkatarian Food Club. She currently lives in Germany with her husband and son.

My one-and-a-half-year-old son's vocabulary grows by the day. He enjoys repeating new words and explores different intonations and facial expressions as he revels in his flourishing vocabulary. His current obsession is saying, "water." At first he would only point to his cup and say the word. But then he realized that he could say "water" when taking a bath, watching me clean the dishes, washing his hands, playing in the swimming pool, pointing to the sky as it rains, and splashing gleefully in the aftermath of puddles. He, at his young age and in his small world, has already noticed that water is indeed, everywhere and integral to life.

With water -- clean water -- coming straight from the faucet at precisely the moment when we need it, it is easy to forget that we are privileged to have easy, immediate access to affordable water. Unfortunately, this is not the case for far too many who share this planet. In the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," a crew of sailors is tormented by thirst as the drinking water supply runs dry. They look out onto the ocean in despair and lament, "Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink." This line from the classic epic poem still describes the daily struggle of more than one billion people (of nearly seven billion on the planet), with about 2.5 billion also lacking access to a toilet. According to Water.org, more people die from a lack of clean water and its related sanitation problems than any war claims with guns, and a child dies of a waterborne illness every 20 seconds.

And for the many millions of people who share a potable community water source, the daily chore of fetching and hauling this precious liquid back home primarily falls upon women and their daughters, who spend the majority of their time each and every day on this never ending trek. In fact, many women in Africa must spend at least three hours a day traveling to the water source, waiting in line to collect the water, and then transporting it back home. Some women even brave the dangers of night to avoid queuing in order to save some precious time for their other responsibilities. Sadly, many girls cannot go to school because of the long miles they must travel to get clean water; they find it impossible to contribute to their family and local economy AND to get an education, thus binding them to a life of poverty. These chilling facts can be so difficult to fathom when we are among the lucky few who have all the clean water we need -- so much in fact, that most of us take clean water for granted.

Clean water should be a basic right, not a luxury for a few. And those of us who have clean, affordable water may not be aware of how much water is hidden in our daily choices, nor do many of us know how to be the most effective in using water wisely. Check out this helpful and easy to understand pictograph chart created by Good Magazine that illustrates our water usage by showing direct use (i.e., our own habits and the household appliances we have in our homes) and virtual use (i.e., the water required to make the things that we use, eat, or that power our homes).

As far as direct use goes, installing low-flow shower heads, toilets, and faucets saves lots of water while still sufficiently meeting our household and personal needs. However, I was surprised that an Energy Star rated dishwasher uses a mere four gallons (15 liters) of water! That beats my beloved dish cleaning method -- hand washing dishes -- by sixteen gallons! Though I am downright miserly when scrubbing down my dishes by hand and rinsing my dishes with a trickle of cold water (often receiving a disapproving glare from my husband when he finds a bit of flax seed stuck to a plate), it appears that even I cannot be more effective than the super high efficiency dishwashers now available. Still, I am daydreaming about a dish washing show-down where I prove that hand washing can also be super efficient.

I think most of us would be surprised to know what a large impact the food we eat indirectly has on our virtual water use. In fact, these virtual choices are the ones to examine if we are to really treat water as the most precious liquid on this planet, eclipsing our direct personal water usage. I knew that animal products were water wasteful, but I find it hard to comprehend just how wasteful. The statistics on producing beef, for example, are jaw-dropping staggering. According to the Virtual Water Project, it takes 4500 liters of water to produce one steak! How exciting it is to think about how much water each of can save by making our food choices with a water conscience.

For anyone interested in exploring your water footprint further, this website is quite helpful at explaining why conserving fresh water is important, and it offers a quick and extended water footprint calculator (in metric measurements) to estimate how much water you directly and virtually consume through your lifestyle and choices. I also ran across a visually interesting educational poster (perfect for educators and concerned citizens) and an app available for download for those people ready to dive in and eat more water-wise.

Clearly, we can have an enormous positive impact on conserving water at the household, domestic, and global level with our personal choices, but how can we support concrete efforts right now to get a fresh, potable water source to the people out there who desperately need it? My mind races back to the billion people on the planet without clean water at all. And the millions of women and girls carting their family's basic daily water needs by the sweat off their own brows. And to the baby or young child who will die in the next twenty seconds from completely avoidable diseases related to dirty water or lack of sanitation. Here are three four star charities (according to Charity Navigator) that are working to help the billions of people without clean water and/or access to a toilet: Water for People, Water.org, and WaterAid.

So, water, water is indeed everywhere, but most of it is undrinkable. Clean, potable water is still a privilege for a lucky few. And those of us among the fortunate should take heed of how we use the clean water that we have. Though being wise around the house by installing water saving devices can save us a considerable amount directly, it is a drop in the bucket compared with our indirect water footprint--or should I say water foodprint? I think I need to forget about that dish washing show-down and instead focus on the larger water picture. I am certain to win big and save millions of gallons of fresh water when I make informed decisions about what I choose to put at the end of my fork.

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