Let’s Change our Water Story

A view of the Potomac River from Great Falls. Photo: Willard Culver/National Geographic Creative

Our human story has always been a water story.

The earliest civilizations developed and grew along rivers – from the Tigris and Euphrates in the Middle East, to the Nile in Egypt, to the Yellow River in China. Rivers have been the lifelines for the growth and evolution of societies, providing the essentials of food, trade, and culture.

Today, the daily news reminds us that global water trends are not good. Rivers are running dry, groundwater is being depleted, droughts are deepening, and competition for limited supplies is heating up.

This year, for the first time, the Geneva-based World Economic Forum declared “water crises” to be the top global risk in terms of impact – bigger than fiscal crises, weapons of mass destruction, or the spread of infectious diseases.

Some 750 million people – more than one in ten – do not have access to safe drinking water. As a result, instead of starting small businesses and studying for school, women and girls spend hours each day fetching water for their families.

Meanwhile, freshwater ecosystems are in decline from dams, diversions, and pollution. In North America, the rate of extinction of freshwater fish, mussels, amphibians and other faunal groups is 1000 times greater than natural background rates.

It’s easy to feel despairing. But since each of these trends is of our own making, it is within our power to turn them around.

So as we celebrate this World Water Day, let’s also pledge to act – to do something in our own lives that can make a difference to our local – or even global – water sources.  For sure, we need policies that promote more sustainable use and management of water.  But we can also build a water stewardship movement from the ground up.

Here are three easy actions, which, if taken by many of us, could save a lot of water, freeing up more to share with the natural world.

First, let’s waste less food. It takes a lot of water to grow and produce the foods we eat. In fact, our diets account for about half of our daily water footprint. Every day we “eat” about a thousand times more water than we drink.

So wasting food wastes a lot of water. Each cup of coffee poured down the drain indirectly sends some 34 gallons (129 liters) of water down the drain, too – the water needed to grow the beans and produce the coffee. So taking only the food and drink we’ll actually consume is an easy way to save a great deal of water.

(You can calculate your own water footprint using National Geographic’s popular tool.)

Second, although our home water use is not a big part of our water footprint, conserving water at home can make a big difference to our local rivers and aquifers. Upgrading toilets and washing machines to efficient models, for example, can reduce our indoor water use by 36%. Outdoors, planting climate-appropriate grasses and shrubs, and irrigating them only when necessary, can cut outdoor water use by 20-100%.

Third, let’s buy a little less stuff. Study after study has shown that higher material consumption doesn’t make us happier, but it does expand the size of our water footprint. A simple cotton T-shirt can take 700 gallons (2,650 liters) of water to make. If 1 billion consumers each bought two fewer new cotton shirts a year, the water saved could feed 4.6 million people for a year.

I’ve chosen examples that don’t involve much sacrifice, but that can make a big difference – especially if a lot of us take these actions together. It’s not about feeling guilty, but about feeling empowered to make a difference.

And here’s one last thing you can do: join the more than 100,000 people from all fifty states and 100-plus countries who have pledged to conserve and become a part of our Change the Course water stewardship movement.   Spearheaded by the National Geographic Society, the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, and Participant Media, Change the Course promises that for every pledge to conserve, we’ll restore 1,000 gallons of water to the depleted Colorado River Basin.

What better way to celebrate World Water Day than to help return 1,000 gallons to one of the most iconic, yet highly stressed rivers in North America?

So please join us (it’s free). And let’s change our water story for good.

Sandra Postel is director of the Global Water Policy Project, Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society, and author of several books and numerous articles on global water issues.  She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national freshwater conservation and restoration campaign being piloted in the Colorado River Basin.



Meet the Author
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.