This past Saturday was the 16th-annual World Water Day, a U.N.-sponsored event begun in 1993. Its purpose is to raise awareness about major water-related issues, such as the fact that there are over a billion people in the world who lack access to safe drinking water, and to encourage further action on U.N. development goals concerning water. It's also a good opportunity to reflect on the ways in which we interact with and rely on water in our daily lives.
The title of this post lists the words for "water" used in many of the countries I've traveled to. Thinking back on my experiences abroad, I've definitely had different relationships with water in some countries than in the U.S., but I've never come close to experiencing water scarcity.
In Seoul, South Korea, visitors are advised not to drink from the tap...by guidebooks and their home governments, that is. I think the Korean government has officially designated the city's tap water safe, though I couldn't find a figure on how many people actually drink it. The result is a lot of plastic bottles, and a lot of money spent. I'd never buy bottled water in the U.S.--most comes from the tap anyway--but the talk of heavy metal contamination was enough to convince me otherwise in Seoul.
Needless to say, I didn't drink a drop from the tap during my bicycle tour through Southeast Asia either. It's also supposedly a bad idea to order drinks with ice, but I ignored that rule and suffered no obvious consequences. Bottled water was significantly cheaper, as low as 15 cents for the small ones, though I imagine this is still too expensive for some people in the region.
I guess tourists, no matter where they go, are not exposed to the hardship of water scarcity. It's overwhelmingly the people of the developing world that must face it in day-to-day living. According to this website, almost all of South America, Africa, and the south of Asia faces shortages of some kind. And it's not only drinking water we're talking about. A lack of potable water also means inadequate sanitation, which can be just as deadly as drinking from a contaminated water source.
One scary prospect for the future is the privatization of water. Cochabamba, Bolivia, got a taste of this in 2000, and it wasn't pretty. It came at the behest of the World Bank, which threatened to withhold a $25 million loan from Bolivia--South America's poorest nation--unless it privatized the city's water works. Only one entity placed a bid, a consortium of foreign corporations called Aguas del Tunari, and the Bolivian government signed over all rights to the water in its third-largest city. Rates immediately jumped by 35%, and anyone who couldn't pay had their water shut off. This included a large segment of the impoverished city's population, and unrest grew quickly. After four months of national strikes, marches, and some violent clashes with police, Aguas del Tunari was forced to return control of the water works to Bolivia, and the "Cochabamba Water Wars" were over.
The only scenario worse than this would be an actual water war. In fact, there are some policy experts who feel armed conflicts over water in this century are likely. As the pressures of population growth, climate change, and unequal wealth distribution converge, we may be locked into a global struggle for resources like never before. Countries that share vital river systems--such as the Nile in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia and the Tigris and Euphrates in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq--could be the first to go at it. But any conflict that would deprive the losers of the most necessary of life's substances should concern the entire world.
Obviously, the U.N. has some good reasons for declaring March 22 World Water Day. So in that spirit, here are some facts on water use you might find surprising:
* It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef, 250 for one pound of soy, and 25 for one pound of wheat.
* Agricultural irrigation accounts for 70% of the world's water use.
* In 2000, water use by American power stations, both for generating electricity and cooling equipment, amounted to 195,000,000,000 gallons...per day.
* It takes 300 gallons to water the average lawn.
* 75% of the human brain is water.