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Water, water everywhere

And for some not a drop to drink



"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little."

— Franklin Delano Roosevelt

To draw the world's attention to the need to sustainably develop and manage fresh water, the United Nations declared 2003 the International Year of Freshwater. In a terrible irony, the tsunami disaster in south Asia has drawn immeasurably more attention to the desperate importance of fresh drinking water than any man-made campaign ever could.

While the numbers are changing daily, the world community is now looking at trying to supply at least 5 million people – more than 2 million in dire need – affected by this latest disaster with some form of aid. Fresh water and food are at the top of the list.

But at the best of times, one person in five around the world has no access to safe drinking water every day. That’s about a billion people worldwide. An estimated 14,000 to 40,000 people, mostly children and babies and the elderly, die every day from water-related diseases.

One look at a miniature globe with all that blue, especially when your perspective is from a country as water-comfortable as Canada, and it’s easy to be lulled into thinking water, water everywhere. Or one look at the troubling images coming out of Sri Lanka or Sumatra of survivors – so much water in the streets that people are wading through it. But none of it is fit to drink.

The UN Environment Program in 1999 reported that 200 scientists in 50 countries had identified water shortage as one of the two most worrisome problems on the planet. The other was global warming.

Only 2.5 per cent of the world’s water is fresh. Two-thirds of that is locked up in polar ice caps and glaciers. Of all the fresh water use on earth, 70 percent goes to agriculture. By far, meat is the biggest water user. It takes 1,800 litres of water to grow 1 kg of wheat, 2,380 litres for 1 kg of rice; and about 9,700 litres of water to produce 1 kg of beef or 3,680 litres to produce 1 kg of pork. The next big user is industry, at 22 per cent of all fresh water. Domestic use accounts for about 8 per cent.

Broken down by culture, we Canadians are some of the biggest water pigs on earth. We use an average of 638 litres per day, about twice that of the average use of a person in France. British Columbians are even bigger water hogs than the national average, using some 678 litres of fresh water each day, 65 per cent of that in the bathroom. We use only about 10 per cent of it in the kitchen. Consider all that water we wash our cars with, water our gardens and golf courses with, make snow with…