To the novelist D. H. Lawrence, water was mysterious. It is “hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing, that makes it water and nobody knows what that is.”
To the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, water was supernatural: “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”
And to the ancient Greek poet Pindar, water was quite simply “the best of all things.”
But for millions of people in the developing world – especially women and girls – water means a daily struggle to trek to a source, carry fifty pounds of it home, and then hope against hope that drinking it won’t make a family member sick or die.
For millions of poor farmers, water means the difference between hunger and a full belly, and between a well-nourished child and one stunted from malnutrition. Without a way to access irrigation water or store enough rainwater in the soil, the long dry season is often a trying time of one meal a day.
For river people around the world, who rely on fish for protein and income, water is home to the aquatic life that sustains them, day in and day out.
Water is essential to all of life, and to all of our lives. And so it is fitting that once a year, on March 22, the world takes a moment to celebrate and contemplate this magical, mysterious, essential, life-giving compound called H2O.
The idea for an International World Water Day crystallized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the next year, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated March 22, 1993 as the first World Water Day.
Every year since then the UN has selected a different water theme for the day. Past themes have focused on water and cities, culture, sanitation, pollution, disasters and trans-boundary cooperation. This year’s theme is water and food security, with the tag line: “the world is thirsty because we are hungry.”
Demographers project that the world will add another one billion people by 2025. That means, between now and then, an additional 210,000 people will join the global dinner table every night. At the same time, many millions will achieve incomes sufficient to add more meat to their diets. Because it takes water to grow the grain to feed the cows, pigs and chickens, this means the water footprint of that global dinner table could rise considerably faster than population growth.
I ran some numbers. Under some quite conservative assumptions, it could take an additional1,314 billion cubic meters of water per year – equal to the annual flow of 73 Colorado rivers – to meet the world’s dietary needs in 2025.
That’s a disheartening prospect. Where in the world can we find affordable farm water equivalent to 73 Colorado Rivers without hastening the depletion of rivers, lakes and aquifers?
But maybe that’s not the right question. If the goal is to meet the world’s food needs sustainably, the question we should ask is, how do we provide healthy diets for eight billion people without going deeper into water debt?