EnvironDesign Notebook: H2O: The Next Big Green Issue is Blue

Sept. 9, 2009

The statistics may surprise you but awareness is the first step toward finding solutions; and we all have a role in conserving that most precious of natural resources: water.

Maps and globes show blue bodies of water, clearly larger in mass than brown land. Climate change melts polar ice, releasing captive water and adding what would appear to be extra “blue.”

For those who live on islands and coastlines, an excess of water will certainly become a survival issue, but the biggest green challenge we face in the future is a shortage of water—clean, accessible water. Water in the right place at the right time. Water we take for granted when we turn on the faucet. Water that provides services to us we don’t even recognize (or pay for).

Climate change and energy get more attention these days, but clean water is no less important. Americans who live in the Southeastern United States already know something of this issue since droughts have decreased their water supplies in recent years.

Even in those droughts, citizens still turned on the faucet for clean water and didn’t worry about contracting a waterborne disease like dysentery. Currently, 2.8 billion people live in places with some degree of water scarcity, and it is predicted that 75 percent of the world’s population will by 20251. Will future wars be fought for water?


  1. Bergkamp, Ger & Sadoff, Claudia W. Water in a Sustainable Economy, State of the World 2008: Innovations for a Sustainable Economy, Worldwatch Institute.
  2. United States Geological Survey, Water Science for Schools, http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu.
  3. Morrison, J. et al. Climate Change and the Global Water Crisis: What Businesses Need to Know and Do. Pacific Institute and United Nations Global Compact. May 2009.
  4. Makower, Joel, and editors of GreenBiz.com. State of Green Business 2009. Greener World Media, February, 2009.
  5. Youth, Howard. Wetlands Drying Up, Vital Signs 2005, Worldwatch Institute.
  6. Gies, Erica. Water Wars: Is Water a Human Right or a Commodity? World Watch V22, #2: March/April 2009.
BLUE IN MOTION You probably learned in school that the water in your drinking fountain may have been in a glacier a million years ago, or in another person last month! It’s true that water is on the move and that there is a set amount of it. It moves through a continuous loop—the hydrological cycle—evaporating from the surfaces of bodies of water, soil, plants, and glaciers—making clouds, and raining or snowing back to Earth. What hits the ground soaks in and becomes groundwater, moving horizontally, very slowly until it eventually reappears in surface water, continuing its cycle (except when humans disrupt it).

That cycle happens to 332.5 million cubic miles of water. That sounds like a lot but 96 percent to 97 percent of it is saline. Of the remaining 3 percent fresh (non-saline) water, nearly 70 percent of it is glacial ice, 30 percent is groundwater, and less than 1 percent makes up our rivers, lakes, and swamps2. Worldwide, water usage has increased six-fold over the last century, twice the rate of our population growth; and the world’s population is expected to grow from 6.5 to 9 billion by 20501.

The Pacific Institute, recognized for its research in global water issues, and the United Nations Global Compact, categorize the climate change impacts on water as affecting:

  • water scarcity; such as more water shortages due to changes in precipitation patterns and intensity, especially in the poorest regions of the world, and impairment of transportation on inland waterways due to flooding and droughts
  • water quality; such as increased pollutants and toxins transported with soils to waterways by increased precipitation and salt water intrusion into fresh water supplies due to rising sea levels
  • water demand; such as increased need for irrigation and livestock water due to drought and temperature increases3

As uninformed policymakers move to create legislation in response to climate change, they often have a negative impact on water issues as an unplanned side effect.


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally proactive organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research institute that works to advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity. They envision a world where the basic needs of all people are met, where resources are managed sustainably (with the natural world protected), and where conflicts over resources are resolved in a peaceful and democratic fashion. The Pacific Institute is known for independent, innovative thinking that cuts across traditional areas of study and brings opposing groups together to forge effective, real-world solutions. Visit www.pacinst.org to learn more.THE SCOPE OF OUR BLUE DILEMMA If you were to list how water adds value to our lives, you would include drinking, eating, bathing, growing food, and washing our laundry. What about transporting our bodily wastes from our houses to a wastewater treatment plant? Or manufacturing your computer’s chip (which uses a lot of water)? Or making hamburgers? Here are more additions to our blue value list:
    Energy is a water issue? Energy is required for us to use water. A considerable amount of energy runs pumps and motors that move water (it’s heavy!) from its sources to water treatment plants, to homes, to wastewater treatment plants, and back to sources (plus heating it in homes). The longer the distance water is transported, the more energy is consumed. The water and wastewater treatment processes themselves are energy intensive; add to that the treatment and movement of water for agriculture and manufacturing.

    Water is required for us to use energy. Water is needed to extract and refine the coal and oil used to produce energy, to process materials for biofuels, to manufacture solar collectors and wind turbines, and to cool power plants. These processes contaminate the water being used, requiring more energy to remove the pollutants.
    On average, 70 percent of withdrawn water is used for agricultural food and fiber production. People, on average, drink more than two liters of water per day, but it takes approximately 3,000 liters per day to produce our average daily food intake (and it’s even more for those in wealthy countries). A single hamburger can require more than 10,000 liters of water when counting the amount needed to grow corn for cows1. A cup of coffee requires 140 liters (37 gallons) of water to grow, produce, package, and ship the beans4. Meat production, which uses much more water than crop production, has quadrupled since 1961, and often contaminates streams with manure runoff from animal confinement areas. Fishing has increased eight-fold since 1961, but ocean contamination, 80 percent of which is from land, threatens quality. Fertilizer runoff from Midwestern corn production for animal feed runs off into rivers and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, creating a dead zone the size of New Jersey5.
    All manufacturing requires water. Besides being incorporated into products (such as soft drinks), water is used for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, and transporting. Industrial water use is predicted to increase from 752 km3/year in 1995 to 1170 km3/year in 2025, with the largest users making food, paper, chemicals, refined petroleum, and primary metals2. According to the Sierra Club, three liters of water are required just to produce one liter of bottled water (not counting what goes into making the plastic bottle).
    Unlike many parts of the world, our sanitation systems keep our (and our animals’) wastes separate from our food and drinking water, so we rarely get the diseases that kill 2.2 million people in poorer countries every year6. The irony here is that Americans pay to treat all our water supplies to meet drinking water standards (an expensive process), then use it to flush away our wastes.
    Not many people would know to list ecosystem services, but wetlands support fisheries, clean and maintain water quality, and buffer coastlines from storms, among other services. We’ve lost half of the world’s wetlands since 1900 (the United States has lost more than 1 million hectares between 1986 and 19975). Groundwater provides much of our water supplies, but it is being withdrawn faster than it can replenish, causing most of the land subsidence worldwide and saltwater intrusion into coastal area water supplies. Our pavement and buildings block the normal water cycle and cause runoff, requiring expensive water-handling procedures.

Some interesting experiments in policy and technology are taking place around the world. Communities are building watershed protection programs that cross boundaries of states and nations, as water does. Many industries, aware that their future profits depend on clean water, make their conservation programs part of their bottom line. World organizations, such as the United Nations, are exploring broad spectrum innovations, assisting the world’s poorest while promoting corporate stewardship.

Let me leave you with a new list … one for solving our blue dilemma. Consciously conserve water in all your daily activities. Become active in your community’s water decisions. Insist that new pavement be made using water permeable materials. Choose “Water Sense” labeled toilets and faucets. Shift your landscaping to native plants that don’t need watering or pesticides. Eat less meat. Wash your car less often.

Don’t hesitate. Wade right in. The water’s fine—or, with your help, it can be!

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel’s stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!