Better awareness of water

Why are we so profligate with a precious resource?
10 November 2023

Interview with 

Janez Susnik, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education


Water droplets


Water is arguably one of the most critical molecules we rely on for our existence. It’s not a coincidence that ancient towns, cities and fortifications were all built around sources or access to the stuff. In the modern era, though, technology and pipelines mean we’re often much less aware of the role that water plays, how much we use, and the danger of running out. We need to take this resource much more seriously because, not only does it make life itself possible, it’s involved in almost everything we do, as, speaking with Chris Smith, Janez Susnik, from the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education, explains…

Janez - We have these global resources of water, energy, and food that humans use every day. And, in my opinion, it's water that's central to enabling these systems to work. They link with each other, they depend on each other, but it's really water that's at the heart of making these other resources available to us. So water's used in the energy sector for hydro power and of course it's used in agriculture to water our crops that we then consume as food.

Chris - It's one of those resources which is so ubiquitous and so taken for granted that it's almost invisible to us and we don't notice how important it is until it's not there!

Janez - Yeah, exactly. It's similar to what I wrote about actually in the article, that we don't really notice water until it goes wrong, when it's not there, as you mentioned, so extreme droughts sit situations or when there's extreme floods. Pakistan 2020 is a good example. So is the recent events we've seen in Libya, for example. And there situations when we really notice that water is either there or not, but otherwise it's one of these resources that's very much in the background, and we do indeed quite often I think, take it for granted.

Chris - One thing that struck me, I remember listening to an interview that another science journalist did about 20 years ago and it really brought it home to me because you just don't see the water in everyday industry. When this person said, every time I make a house and I carpet it, it's like filling the house up with, with water several times over just to make the carpets. When I make a car, it's like filling the car hundreds of times in order to make the steel in order to get the coal that powered the iron works. And so there's all this invisible water in everything. Do we know how much water the human race gets through every day?

Janez - It's a lot and you're absolutely correct. Water is - we call it embodied - it's embodied in the resources we use and consume and produce every day. So in the raw energy we extract in terms of coal, gas, powering electrical power stations. So when you turn a light switch on, you're essentially turning a tap on. In terms of how much we get through, we think that approximately, well it's a big number about seven and a half thousand cubic kilometres of water is consumed every year in crop production. It's a massive amount of water. It is about 70% of the water we use in total globally every year is in crop production. So that's where most of our water goes. And then in terms of energy production, about 1,500 to 2000 cubic kilometres of water withdrawn from supplies every year for electricity generation and energy production.

Chris - Is the ubiquity of it, though, and the fact that previously you could just dig a hole in the ground and this stuff came out or you could trap some that was flowing down a river and use that. Has it been taken for granted to the extent that when we develop, when we build things, we just assume the water's going to be there; and now we're beginning to really stress the system, we need to really worry about this, but there isn't really a plan?

Janez - To some degree, yes, but I think it is becoming much more kind of on the radar now that water's not just something that is always there. So people are now realising it changes in terms of where it is in space and some places are dry or wetter than others. It changes when it is in time. So different times of the year are wetter or drier than others. And there's also other things that depend on water as well. So it's not just human activities, of course ecosystems, plant life, animal life also depend on a certain amount of water being available for their consumption, which also support our society as well. So I think people are starting to become more aware of this and realising you can't just tap a hole in the ground or dam a river and just take it.

Chris - If we take a small example, England; some countries are very, very good because they've had the, the fact that there's not enough water foisted on them for a long time. So they've become quite good at coping with that. But if you take England as an example, some parts of the country have seen enormous development of housing, but there haven't been any new reservoirs plumbed in for decades. And now people are, are actually in a position where developers are being told, well, you can't build more houses because there just isn't the water supply. Are we in a position or getting towards a position with water that we were in historically with, with almost like climate change and fossil fuels where we just dug stuff up and burned it because we could and we didn't really have any thoughts of the consequences. But actually now people are beginning to say, well, hang on a minute, we need to do something about this. And when we do build, why is it that we are still seeing houses springing up all over the place and there isn't a water tank in the basement collecting the rain water. We are putting pristine drinking water that you could put down your throat down the toilet. Why have we still got this ridiculous unjoin up policy around what is becoming a precious resource?

Janez - Yeah. Well again, I think it links a bit back to my previous answer that a lot of, a lot of places, even though the idea is still there, but it's becoming scarce and we need to plan better, it's not really in the mainstream yet. And a lot of the policy and the push simply isn't there to build these systems in place. I mean, I completely agree that for a lot of new developments, especially the water stream should be separated out. I mean, you quite rightly say, you know, you shouldn't really be using fresh drinking water supplies for watering your garden or washing your car. You are not just inappropriately using the water. There's also an energy cost associated with that water as well. You've extracted it, moved it to a treatment station, you've treated it, you've then pumped it to your new development, and then people are flushing it down the toilet or washing the cars with the water. I mean, it, it doesn't make much sense. So I think there needs to be better building regulations essentially to, to encourage developers to put in different water streams, collecting rain water, recycling grey water, which is the water that flows from your shower or from your sink. The stuff that goes down the toilet is known as black water. So that's different that should be treated of course. But gray water especially can for non-drinking sort of purposes for your garden, for your car, for to go back into your toilet. I think that should be made use of more efficiently. Countries like Singapore, for example, are very good at this. Also, in the traditional supply networks, just reducing the amount of leaks is also important and just being more efficient with the resources that you have. And yeah, not assuming that it will always be there. And start to have that dialogue occur.


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