Water Is the Heart of Sustainable Development | Omega

“Life in us is like the water in a river.” — Henry David Thoreau

Water flows through everything we do as humans. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it, all of us, even if it’s not often enough in the front of our minds. Which is where World Water Day comes in. 

Water Is Key to Sustainable Development

Taking place each year since 1993 on March 22, World Water Day has been used by the United Nations to highlight how water intersects with all aspects of living, energy, international security, heath, and human development. 

Water feeds into sustainable development in many ways. In terms of the Millennium Development Goals, water is specifically mentioned under goal 7, ensuring environmental sustainability. Here water plays a role in reducing decline of natural resources, slowing loss of habitat for animals, and reducing the number of people without access to improved sanitation and a clean water source. 

Today there are still some 2.5 billion people who do not have access to proper sanitation, half of whom live in India and China, often leading to polluted local water supplies, as well as many other impediments to human development. But water figures into sustainability in many more ways than the official UN documents and goals for sustainability really go into. In the coming years and decades our unsustainable use of water, particularly in combination with climate change, will bring hard challenges to many places.

20 Percent of Humanity Faces Severe Shortages

In some places the overall amount of water may not change but how it falls will. In other places climate changes mean that the seasonality of water will shift. Instead of deep snows in winter that melt and release water for spring and summer use, winter rains will upend established ways of managing water. In places like California, where agriculture is dependent on spring melt for the majority of its irrigation water, this could be devastating. The droughts there are just a glimpse of what may be in store for the region.

Other potentially devastating changes could come to South Asia, which is dependent on regular monsoon rains. Here different climate models predict a range of possible things happening: More intense but variable monsoons; monsoon failure; or shifts in where monsoon rains fall. The exact changes remain to be seen, but on the whole the effects of climate change on water availability are not likely to be good. 

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that if global temperatures rise by 2°C the overall effect could be that one-fifth of the world’s population will suffer severe water shortages. 

Climate is far from the only way water and sustainable development come together, though. Unsustainable industrialized agriculture practices cause run off of chemicals that result in increasing numbers of ocean dead zones, at the same time polluting fresh water ways. Production and distribution of fossil fuels, particularly unconventional sources of production such as fracking and tar sands mining, have polluted groundwater and rivers in many places. Aging infrastructure, combined with unmindful habits in our homes mean that water is wasted in shocking amounts. The EPA says the household water leaks alone can waste more than 1 trillion gallons of water each year in the United States. Ten percent of homes have leaks that waste 90 gallons or more, each day. 

Water privatization, too, continues to pose a threat. This issue manifests itself in a variety of guises throughout the world: Sell off of formally public infrastructure to private companies, allowing private corporations to unsustainably extract water to make products or allowing them to do so at preferential rates, and bottled water.  A showdown with the latter occurred here in Hudson Valley. Though it ultimately ended in victory, thanks to public outcry, Niagara Bottling had wanted to extract, bottle, and sell water from the Kingston reservoir, and get a tax break for doing so. 

Beyond the direct impact of privatization, as water activist Maude Barlow says, there’s an insidious knock on effect of corporate control of water. Barlow told Democracy Now!, “It makes people think that what comes out of their tap doesn’t matter. So, you’re not going to be prepared to keep your taxes going for infrastructure repair. And that’s the most important thing, clean, accessible, safe public water.”

The Opportunity for Change in Challenge

As daunting as these external challenges may seem, our internal challenge, both personally and societally, is how can we resist becoming overwhelmed, pessimistic, and simply frightened in all this?

Overly tapping into any of those emotions doesn’t serve us if we want to make good, long-lasting decisions that get to the root of the problem—ones which don’t simply solve a single issue as a crisis, but which instead foster the creation of a holistic regenerative approach to how we interact with the world around us. 

We have the chance here to change the way we relate to water in a deep, creative way. We have the opportunity here to use energy sources that don’t pollute our air and water as fossil fuels do. We have the opportunity to use ecologically sensitive ways to treat our wastewater. Places lacking basic sanitation today are clean slates for this, without the limits of having to work with existing infrastructure. We have the opportunity to transition to regenerative agriculture, rooted in the principles of permaculture, rather than the polluting industrial methods rooted in dominance over nature, so prevalent today. We have the opportunity to examine our food choices, how great a water footprint our diets create, reducing this burden on the landscape.

All of these help create a living planet, while helping further human development at the same time. Through the heart of all of these issues, water flows, as it does in our lives. Through our relationship with water we can create a better relationship between ourselves and the world as a whole.

The creation of this new paradigm, though in hindsight may seem like a quantum leap, is necessarily created in small increments. When it comes to our water use, the first place to start is to look inward. How are you using water in your life, in your home, in your business?

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies