Water: Is the glass half empty or half full? | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: Water: Is the glass half empty or half full?

Water is our most precious resource, but we waste it, just as we waste other resources, including oil and gas. (Credit: Steve via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Editorial and Communications Specialist Ian Hanington.

We can't live without water. We need it to stay hydrated and grow food. We use it to generate electricity. Water is in us and all around us. It makes up about 65 per cent of our bodies. Thanks to the hydrologic cycle, it circulates constantly, as liquid, gas, and solid, evaporating from oceans and fresh water, moving through air, raining onto Earth, flowing through plants and animals, into the ground, and back to the oceans through rivers, streams, and sewage outflows.

Water covers 70 per cent of the Earth's surface, but 97.5 per cent is saltwater. Of the 2.5 per cent that's fresh, 68.7 per cent is locked in the ice and snow of the Arctic, Antarctic, and mountains, leaving about one per cent for our use. More than a billion people lack adequate access to clean water.

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Just as human activity is upsetting Earth's carbon cycle, our actions are altering the water cycle. Water is our most precious resource, but we waste it, just as we waste other resources, including oil and gas. When we use so much that the system can't renew itself, we create shortages and drought. When we pollute it, we make matters worse.

More than a billion people in the world survive on just five litres a day, less than the amount of a typical North American toilet flush. The average Canadian uses 335 litres a day, more than double the average for similar industrialized countries. In fact, we use more in Canada than in any country except the U.S.

As individuals, we can reduce consumption and find ways to use water more efficiently. We also have to look at industrial use. Energy generation, including what's required to extract fuels, is straining water resources more every day. According to a report on the EcoWatch website, "fracking" is particularly worrisome. This process involves injecting massive amounts of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture underground shale and release gas deposits.

Each frack can use up to 30-million litres of water, and a well can be "fracked" as many as 18 times. According to EcoWatch, "The water, usually drawn from natural resources such as lakes and rivers, is unrecoverable once it's blasted into the earth, and out of the water cycle for good."

With record high temperatures and widespread drought in the U.S., oil and gas drillers and the energy industry have to compete with farmers for scarce water. There, the fastest-growing use of fresh water is by coal, nuclear, and natural gas power plants, according to a report by the River Network. Our reliance on fossil fuels is also contributing to global warming, making water even more scarce, as glaciers melt, rivers dry up, and droughts become increasingly common.

Beyond reducing individual use, one of our top priorities must be to move from fossil fuels to energy that has fewer detrimental effects on water supplies and fewer environmental impacts overall.

We can also get creative. A study in the journal Science (referenced in the EcoWatch article), "Taking the 'Waste' Out of 'Wastewater' for Human Water Security and Ecosystem Sustainability", concludes that we can employ substitution, regeneration, and reduction to conserve water.

Substitution involves using low-quality water instead of high-quality for many activities, such as sprinkling a garden with collected rainwater rather than drinkable tap water. In Hong Kong, most residents use seawater for toilets. Regeneration means treating low-quality water to make it usable rather than flushing it away. Using a waste-stabilization pond, some households could transform sewage into water for irrigation. Wastewater can also be treated and recycled for large-scale uses. People can reduce usage in many ways, from installing low-flow plumbing to repairing leaks in infrastructure.

We can also keep water clean and plentiful by protecting and preserving our valuable natural capital, often for less money! Instead of spending $8 billion for a water-treatment plant, New York City officials spent $1 billion to buy land and protect habitat that filters and stores water.

In Canada, we often take water for granted. With increasing pressure on the availability and cleanliness of our water, we have to start paying closer attention to what we do with it.

For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online.

August 30, 2012

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Mar 29, 2013
8:55 AM

You seem to use many vague word in your posts are you trying to instill fear in people? Fear mongering and the many vague terms you use will discredit your ability to bring people into serious debate. I am scepticle about your motives,is it so you can get more funding? The water uses that you suggest for “fracking a well” are so distorted it might be called crazy talk. Here is a statement to counter, ” be prepared people of the world as, there might be evidence to suggest we are in for a bout of record rain falls that could flood dams this may fully replenish all water tables beyond their ability to obsorb, this super saturating of the ground would most likely cause all of the polution on the surface to disipate thru the earths crust filtering it as it goes.” You see I did the same as you, I created a religion, science is fact. When it takes a faith to believe on the part of a reader that has no fact or exagerated truths , it becomes religion.

Sep 05, 2012
7:40 AM

In general, I find your articles very much worth reading. However, I have to point out that were some errors in the article “Is peat moss an eco-friendly option for my yard and garden?” Also, certain recommendations about peat were likely made in haste without a comprehensive analysis of how the product is used.


In Canada, it’s a total of 54 000 acres and not 270 millions acres that are used for peat harvesting. Restoration techniques developed with the support of the peat moss industry permitted to recover the ecological functions in a 20-year horizon. In practice, it would be impossible to replace all the peat used for horticultural purposes with alternative products. There are two main reasons for this fact: lack of availability of alternative products and significant variability in their quality. Your suggested alternatives (coconut fibre and compost) involve a number of environmental and social impacts (coconut fibre wash water, working conditions, etc.) that were not considered. A product cannot be considered best for the environment and the society without a complete criteria analysis, like a Life cycle analysis.

It would be appropriate to express few facts about horticultural peat produced in Canada:

• Canadian peat producers are governed by a number of laws and regulations that protect the environment (water quality, air quality, endangered and vulnerable species, biodiversity, etc.) and workers (workplace health and safety, equity, anti-discrimination, etc.). • The industry has committed itself to continually improve its products and processes through the Veriflora ® Responsible Peatland Management certification process (http://tourbehorticole.com/en/responsible-production/index.php). There is therefore an eco-label for peat-based substrates. The Veriflora label guarantees that a purchased product meets specific and rigorous sustainable development standards. • The peat industry voluntarily funds an Environmental Life Cycle Analysis (eLCA) that supports and guides its decisions to ensure minimal environmental impact (http://tourbehorticole.com/en/responsible-production/analysis.php). • Peat moss industry is conducting in 2011-2012 an Social Assessment leaded by a third party to have a transparent way of documenting their social performance with their employees and the communities.

Do the above-mentioned measures exist for businesses that produce alternative products?

In conclusion, I would like to offer one more comment related to the article published on your blog about water conservation: using peat in horticultural substrates is an excellent way to save water when growing plants, whether in greenhouse or on the field!

Aug 31, 2012
7:17 PM

THis is a well-intended, but entirely misleading post. The implication is that those of us who live in areas that have abundant fresh water should use less water to help those who live in places where water is scarce. This is a silly notion. Water is scarce in places like the southwest of America because it is a desert. Reducing water use in Canada or New England will not lead ro greater rainfall in Arizona. Water supplies and shortages are regional, global action has no effect. JR

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