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With surging populations and increasing droughts, water scarcity is growing. This article looks at how water conservation practices can preserve this life necessity.
Water conservation is the practice of limiting water usage in order to preserve its supply. The impacts of climate change on freshwater supply have made water conservation essential. Water can be conserved by reducing its need at home and in industry, and reusing it when possible.
You may have heard the statistic that 70% of the earth is covered in water, and while it seems like there is no shortage of water in the oceans, usable water is not always easy to come by. So why is it so necessary to conserve water? In this article, I’ll cover some of the reasons that water scarcity has worsened and why our abundance of ocean water is not adequately helpful. I’ll also go over what water conservation is and what that looks like at both the industrial and the household level.
Water scarcity seems like it would only happen in dry, arid places, but even places like Hawaii are experiencing the pressures of water scarcity. When I was there doing conservation research, I learned firsthand about how increasing populations and changing weather patterns are stressing places that should be abundant with water.
What Is Water Conservation?
Water conservation approaches the issues of water scarcity by reducing usage and creating ways of using it more efficiently, as opposed to trying to create more usable water.
Water conservation practices can look different on a personal level and on a larger, more industrial level, but both are important and both involve practices like reducing water consumption and implementing methods to reuse and recycle it.
Many times, water conservation can include upgrading technologies or improving water management practices and allows for less water to be used for the same tasks. For example, recycled water can be used in processes like clothing manufacturing, firefighting, and even gardening. We’ll go over more methods of water conservation later on, but the most important thing to remember is that water conservation refers to reducing the use of water in all kinds of necessary processes.
Why Is Water Conservation Important?
Importance Of Freshwater
Freshwater (also called surface water) is what is found in things like lakes, streams, and rivers. Freshwater is defined as having less than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of salt by weight, as compared to saltwater, which can have anywhere from 1,000 to 35,000 ppm of salt depending on where it is. Ocean water is on the high end of this spectrum, and usually hovers around 35,000 ppm.
Thanks to the water cycle, freshwater is replenished by rain and snowfall. While freshwater is distinct from salt water, flows of freshwater into oceans are actually essential in maintaining the right level of salinity of oceans for ocean life.
As humans, we primarily need freshwater to survive, since we can’t drink salty ocean water. However, only about 3% of the water on earth is freshwater, with much of that being unavailable in glaciers, ice caps, and even the soil.
Conserving the freshwater that we already have is the least intensive method of ensuring we have enough freshwater, but it isn’t impossible to convert saltwater to freshwater when needed. Unfortunately, though, this process uses huge amounts of energy, is often expensive, and requires proper facilities. However, in areas where conserving water is not a viable option or areas that are experiencing severe droughts, desalination can be necessary.
Distillation and reverse osmosis are two processes that are used to create freshwater from saltwater. Distillation requires heat to boil water and separate it from the dissolved salts, then condense it into freshwater. Reverse osmosis, on the other hand, requires slightly less energy than distillation, and involves forcing water through a membrane that separates salt from water.
Climate Change And Water Availability
Climate change has huge impacts on the availability and distribution of freshwater, largely due to changing temperatures and weather patterns. Increasing temperatures change the rate that water is evaporated from oceans and other water sources, altering the water cycle and causing the atmosphere to hold more water within it in the form of water vapor.
Warming effects of climate change that cause a higher proportion of rainwater versus snow can also impact water availability by preventing sufficient snowpack. Less snowpack and warmer weather can cause earlier melting, greatly affecting regions that depend on this melting for freshwater.
Changes in participation and weather patterns are increasing due to climate change and water scarcity in certain regions has become especially dire. Droughts are one of the biggest reasons that water conservation is important. Droughts occur when below-average precipitation causes a shortage in freshwater in a particular area, causing economic, environmental, and health impacts.
Decreased precipitation in places like the Southern and Midwestern United States can cause droughts that last from months to years. Droughts also have more of a global impact than any other natural disaster, and can result in things like forced migration and even civil unrest.
Conserving water doesn’t prevent the occurrence of droughts in the way that mitigating climate change does, but it does help mitigate the impacts of them.
How Can Water Be Conserved?
If you live in a place where there aren’t frequent droughts, it might not seem like water scarcity is an issue. You can always turn on the tap and fresh, clear, (likely) drinkable water comes out. Other than paying the water bill at the end of the month, you might not think much about your water usage.
However, American households use more than 300 gallons of water per day on average. This water usage adds up, especially with our growing population, and conserving water on a personal level can help save money in addition to reducing the impacts of droughts.
Some important ways that water can be conserved at the personal and household level include fixing leaks and running toilets, installing aerators in faucets that reduce water use, and opting for high-efficiency appliances. Only washing full loads of laundry and dishes also adds up to hundreds of gallons of saved water per year.
Additionally, designing drought-resistant gardens or opting for climate-appropriate grasses can save huge amounts of water, especially on hot days and in hotter climates.
Industrial, agricultural and manufacturing processes require enormous amounts of water, from making cars and clothing to growing things like food and coffee beans. High-income countries use about 59% of their water for industrial use, with about 16 billion gallons of water in the US used per day for industrial purposes.
Water conservation strategies in industrial contexts vary greatly depending on the industry, but usually involve improving water management practices and efficiency of water use in their processes.
Water Reuse & Recycling
The terms ‘water reuse’ and ‘water recycling’ are generally used interchangeably, and both refer to the process of reclaiming water for beneficial purposes. Water is usually still treated in order to reuse it, but it is taken from what would normally be wastewater, as opposed to from freshwater sources like rivers or aquifers. This conserves water by increasing the availability of usable water, and can be especially important during times of drought.
Water recycling can either involve potable (drinkable) or non-potable (non-drinkable), depending on their water quality objectives. Water that does not need to be potable can be treated less in order to be used for things like industrial or certain agriculture uses. On the other hand, potable water must be treated sufficiently in order to be safe for human use and consumption.
Water recycling doesn’t always have to happen on a large scale, though, and water conservation at home can include ways of reusing water without needing to treat it. Examples of this can include collecting water otherwise wasted while warming up the shower, washing vegetables, or even cooking pasta, and reusing it for things like watering the garden.