Reflections on a Thirsty Planet for World Water Day

The Mahanadi River in Orissa, India, ebbs to a trickle during the dry season. Photo credit: James P. Blair


Water, I have learned, means different things to different people.

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.”

For me, this year’s theme is the 800-pound gorilla of water challenges.  Agriculture accounts for the lion’s share of global water consumption.  We “eat” at least a thousand times more water than we drink. The thirsty business of growing crops – in the ways and places that we do to meet the demands of seven billion people – is the primary reason earth’s rivers are running dry, aquifers are being depleted, and lakes are shrinking before our eyes.

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 additional 1,314 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?

Now that’s a horse of a different color.  And that’s the challenge I address in my five-point plan of action for World Water Day 2012:

  • First, provide incentives to farmers to double water productivity – that is, to get more crop per drop.  A host of measures – from more efficient irrigation systems to conserving soil moisture to growing crops more appropriate to the local climate – can help do this.
  • Second, motivate the top billion consumers to eat less meat. We’re now feeding 35 percent of the global grain harvest to livestock.  Instead of three meat servings a day, maybe try one a day.
  • Third, restore degraded rangelands through managed intensive grazing, which can increase both carbon and water storage in soils.  Move from grain-fed to grass-fed beef, saving croplands to feed people and using rangelands for sustainable meat production.
  • Fourth, expand access to affordable, small-scale irrigation in the hunger zones of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.  Along with harvesting local rainwater and storing moisture in the soil, affordable irrigation systems designed for the dollar-a-day farmer can boost food security and incomes among the poorest farm families.
  • And fifth, reduce food waste.  From farm fields to dinner plates, about one-third of the global food supply is wasted – which means the water consumed to produce that food is wasted, too.

Taken together, I believe these actions could feed eight billion people sustainably in 2025.

So let’s get started.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and lead water expert for National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative.  She is the author of several acclaimed books, including the award-winning Last Oasis, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and the Environment, and one of the “Scientific American 50.”

To learn more:

Calculate your own water footprint.

Try our interactive map on the water footprint of U.S. consumption.

See how much water it takes to make everyday products.

Take the World Water Day Blue Lunchbox Challenge.

Check out which National Geographic Explorers are working with water.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project and author of Replenish: The Virtuous Cycle of Water and Prosperity. From 2009-2015, she served as Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society. Sandra is also co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands. The recipient of several honorary degrees, she works to bridge science, policy, and practice to promote innovative ways of securing water to meet both human and ecosystem needs.
  • Karen Pottruff

    Think of Niagara Falls and the abundance of water that is produced every day and harnessed for the people of Ontario and northern N.Y. state.

  • luis

    Hi Sandra:
    What do you think about the water hyasinth eichhornia crassipes for water tratment?

  • […] big focus area is global health and all of the myriad things that touches on, including water issues and […]

  • […] Click here to read “Reflections on a Thirsty Planet for World Water Day” […]

  • Provoked

    Moving to “grass fed” will do nothing to help water issues regarding livestock as it will take twice as long to fatten the cattle and they still have to drink while growing/finishing.

    Author of Comfortably Unaware Dr. Richard Oppenlander explains why only a plant based diet is the solution to water and land depletion. http://blip.tv/community-media-center-of-marin-cmcm/conscious-eating-conference-your-role-in-global-depletion-6011372

  • Max

    I read this same stuff in 1961.
    There is more water than man thinks. Where did the Noah flood water go? Research “anomalies beneath the ocean floor”

  • […] Reflections on a Thirsty Planet for… Mar. 22, 2012 (9) News Watch » […]

  • Jennifer

    Anyone claiming that we have more water than we need has not traveled and seen what climate change does. I have lived in a developing country as well as a developed country and as long as you have water running from your taps 24hrs a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for your whole life, you are disconnected from reality.

  • […] Reflections on a Thirsty Planet for… Mar. 22, 2012 (11) News Watch » […]

  • […] Reflections on a Thirsty Planet for World Water DaySandra Postel, National Geographic …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.” […]

  • Sabbatius Emericus Strigoniensis Pummershein

    Many people don`t thinking about the sweet water is not a beautiful waterfall, but the sweet water is the life is for the animals, the plants, and people. And the situation is that the sweet water in the rivers on the Earth in great per cent are full of chemical toxic and undrinkable. The sweet water if stay the things sames like now will be not enough for us not only for the people and what will be then. Wars for drink water, die for thirsty. And we do nothing.

  • Squirrel

    Its a good idea to conserve our water better

  • Deeksha Sharma

    it happens more often in daily life in India i see daily ….

  • Kimberly Steele

    Thank you for addressing the meat-eating issue and its extreme impact on the world’s water supply. Research is constantly revealing that humans don’t need meat at all to survive, in fact, meat is an unhealthy addiction that shortens and diminishes the quality of life. Then we have the water-saving aspects of avoiding meat: a meat eater could avoid bathing and showering for an entire year and not save the amount of water a vegan does in two weeks. Forget driving a hybrid car — one person going vegan saves more fuel and resources than a whole neighborhood of people converting to Priuses. I urge environmentalists to take the vegan issue seriously. Eating meat, dairy, and eggs is not sustainable for 9 billion people no matter how the animals are raised. So we can either keep our old habits, cross our fingers, and hope a plague takes out 50 percent of the population (what an awful thing to hope for!) or we can adapt by eating the most delicious, abundant, water-conserving foods on Earth: vegetables.

  • […] The world is thirsty because we are hungry […]

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