Water is essential to life and is involved in pretty much everything we do on this planet, but it can also be harmful and even lethal. It makes up 71% of the earth's surface as well as around 60% of the human body. We know that we need water to drink and keep things clean but not everyone knows the importance of water beyond this in our daily lives. As we face up to a pending global water shortage, here is an overview of the role water plays in human existence.
Water plays a crucial role in regulating our climate. The water cycle is the process of the earth's surface water being heated by the sun, evaporating into clouds and falling back to the earth as water or snow. The vast majority of the earth's water is stored in oceans which absorb most of the sun's radiation and also distribute heat around the globe through the evaporation process. Ocean currents act like a conveyor belt, creating surface winds that transport warm air and water to the colder regions of the planet.
The increase in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, has led to more of the sun's heat being trapped in the oceans. This has warmed sea temperatures which in turn have disrupted the water cycle – leading to more extreme weather events – and raised the global temperature. Warmer ocean temperatures account for around 93% of global warming since the 1950s.
Access to a clean water supply is essential to good health and development. First and foremost, good sanitation prevents the spread of deadly diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and diarrhoea. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contaminated drinking water causes 485,000 deaths through diarrhoea alone in developing countries. The importance of water in preventing the spread of disease has been emphasised this year, with one of the WHO's key messages in curbing the spread of Covid-19 being “wash your hands”.
Beyond disease prevention, our bodies need a regular intake of water to function. As our bodies are made up of 60% water, without it we would dehydrate and eventually die. Water also aids human development. Among its many functions are regulating body temperature, preserving and protecting tissue and joints, assisting with absorbing nutrients, assisting with waste excretion, improving blood oxygen circulation and aiding cognitive function.
What many people probably don't realize is that the vast majority of water use is not due to individual or household human consumption but to the production of agricultural and industrial goods and services. Around 70% of global freshwater use is for agriculture, with industrial use accounting for a further 15%.
Currently it takes around 140 liters of water to make a single cup of coffee, around 910 liters to make one smartphone and as much as 20,000 liters for the production of one pair of jeans or a kilogram of meat. Electricity generation is also water-intensive, with up to 190 liters needed for
1kwh of power. This water is used for purposes such as resource extraction, cleaning, dyeing, cooling equipment and waste disposal.
With these practices using up more than four-fifths of our water supplies, it's vital that we find more sustainable ways of production if we are to avert a future water crisis.
Water is essential to our survival but it can also be detrimental to our health and even cost us our lives. As mentioned above, untreated water supplies contaminated with pathogens can kill. It's estimated that over two-thirds of the global population lack access to improved sanitation. According to statistics, around 6,000 children worldwide die due to water-related diseases.
Extreme weather, which has been exacerbated by global warming, can also ruin livelihoods and cost lives. The WHO estimates that around 55 million people globally are affected by droughts each year which affect crop production, can cause conflicts and in extreme cases lead to death. On the opposite end of the scale, floods can wreak similar damage. Examples of fatal flooding in recent years are the 2015 South Indian floods and the 2020 East Africa floods.
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