In the Northern hemisphere, months of April, May and June mean summer. At the peak of summer, most lands look parched and dry. Availability of water in summer becomes a problem in different parts of the globe.
Perhaps, as a warning of this oncoming problem, the world observes World Water Day on March 22nd every year.
The Stark Reality – Water, a Finite Resource
Water is a renewable resource. At the same time it is a finite resource. The amount of water available globally is in fact very limited, for nearly 98 % of the water on earth is in the form of water in the seas and oceans, as salt water. This water is neither useful for industry, nor agriculture, animals nor humans.
Trying to harness this brackish sea water through the modern reverse osmosis process is not only capital intensive and costly but the annual operations and maintenance costs are prohibitive too. That puts almost 98% of water on earth, out of our reach.
Given this scenario we have to depend on the balance, little over 2% water for our water needs.
A substantial portion of this 2% of fresh water too, is locked up as ice in the 2 poles, the ice caps on snow covered mountains and the heavy glaciers in them. They form about 1.725 % of the total water on earth.
So, what is left as flowing fresh water, is hardly 0.025 % of all the water in the world.
Flowing fresh water is thus not infinite, but finite and very miniscule. Human population on the other hand has been growing steadily, adding about one billion to its population every few decades.
This means that the same quantity of water has to be shared by a billion more people every 10 years, which means that there is going to be less and less water for each individual, for their needs of life, as the years roll by.
Farming, a Water Guzzler?
The major needs of water for life are not for drinking, bathing and washing, but the major consumption of water is for growing the food we eat. Hence many tend to classify farming as a water guzzler. Many city dwellers are also under the impression that animal products may be a viable alternative to growing food during water shortage.
Is that really so?
1 Kilo of grain, be it rice, wheat, pulses, cereal, needs about 1500 liters of water. That is indeed a high volume of water needed to grow grains.
In comparison, to create 1 kilo of meat, approximately 15000 liters of water are calculated to be required. So, growing live stock for meat is actually 10 times more water intensive than growing grains for food.
This is a bigger water guzzling reality.
Vegetarianism – A Need, Not A Choice Any More
If earth has to be sustainable and water resources have to be judiciously handled for the burgeoning population, then it becomes not a choice, but a necessity, that we move away from being a meat eating population to vegetarianism, so that 9/10th of the fresh water currently lost on growing live stocks just for human consumption, is made available once again for human needs.
Food Wastage – What else is wasted?
What is even more worrying to observe, is the atrocious wastage of the food that has been produced using this limited, precious water. It is estimated that about 30% of all the food that is produced is wasted. Just imagine the amount of manual effort, land use and other resources that had gone into the production of this food for consumption. Think of the amount of the precious water that has gone into producing these foods, which literally goes down the drain when the food is wasted.
The water that goes into the production of food is now referred to by the term “virtual water” of the product. In today’s world economy, there is free trade of food from one region to another. With newer technologies to keep food produce fresh during transport and genetic modifications to give them a longer shelf life and world appeal, we have now transcended the bounds of seasons, climates, geography and topology.
Non seasonal and non local foods have therefore found their way into local reach thus encouraging some regions of the world to produce in excess of their local consumption needs, so that it can be exported for more gains, to other regions of the world where this product is in demand.
Along with the produce, since there is also a virtual transfer of the water that has gone into the making of the produce, there is also a “virtual water trade” happening along with every trade of produce.
Producers get paid for their produce.
Exporters get paid for their handling.
The nation receives foreign exchange.
But what about the “virtual water” that has gone into the growing of the produce and has been traded with?
Has the land been compensated enough for the depletion of this virtual water?
Will the monies received, be able to reproduce water in excess of the finite limit of fresh water that falls on a land?
Who is to compensate for this loss in Nature? Does it really matter to us?
This question gains further significance in the context of the current, lopsided, world economy and trade.
A Man-made Global Imbalance
A careful look at trends around the world will show that most of the water intensive produce of the world is produced in and exported from the developing and underdeveloped countries of the world. Typically the countries in the tropical belt which receive more rain and shine.
These countries send out their finite amount of fresh water as “virtual water” in their product exports on one hand and complain of shortage of water on the other hand to meet the direct needs of water. They finally end up borrowing from the developed nations to find solutions for their water shortage problems, little realizing how it is being created in the first place.
As a global community, we need to become aware of this virtual truth, of an imbalance being created by mankind in the last few centuries.
A Natural Balance
Our ancients seem not to have encountered such an issue. Could be because of their prudent way of living, guided by the rhythm of seasons, climates and topology. Humans and animals consumed locally produced seasonal products – those that were adapted to be produced in their local topology, those that could be produced in that season, for their climatic conditions.
This not only kept them fit and healthy for their local conditions but also did not put undue stress on their finite amount of local water, in order to produce locally for the entire world.
Reflecting on Virtual Water
The overall amount of water on this earth has not changed. This earth has in the last many millennia sustained its population of people, animal life and plant life with these finite water resources. We the humans have made this free natural resource into a trading commodity in the last few decades.
How long will this help sustain the modern, commercial times that we live in? Are we, in our pursuit of satiating our taste buds with alien foods and in our greed for monetary wealth, creating imbalances in our minds, body and Nature?
It’s time for mankind to pause and think, “Do we all really need global food at our local kitchens, at the price we are all really having to pay for it?”
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