The trouble with water

In the past, you could drink tap water directly from your faucet. Such is not the case anymore.  More and more people are buying mineral water just to quench their thirst. Plastic bottles of water are being sold in bus terminals and even in sidewalks.

Residents of Davao City, the country’s largest urban center in terms of land area, may soon wake up without water flowing from their faucets.

A recent report from the Davao City Water District showed that the number of their new customers has increased by an average of 2,000 per month.

“Water demand in Davao City is expected to reach 117 million cubic meters three years from now, higher than the 112 million cubic meters’ annual requirement of the city,” the report pointed out.

It may be unthinkable but a study done in 1991 by the Japan International Cooperation Agency identified Davao City as among the nine major cities in the country as “water-critical areas.” The other eight are Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, Baguio, Angeles, Bacolod, Iloilo, Cagayan de Oro and Zamboanga.


“Water isn’t just a commodity.  It is a source of life,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Massachusetts-based Global Water Policy Project.  Ideally, a person should have at least 50 liters of water each day to meet basic needs—for drinking, food preparation, cooking and cleaning up, washing and personal hygiene, laundry, house cleaning.

Postel believes water problems will trail climate change as a threat to the human future.  “Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” she explained.  “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.  But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”

Dr. Mark Rosegrant, lead author of the global water report and senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institution (IFPRI), shared the same view. “Water is not like oil: there is no substitute,” he said. “If we continue to take it for granted, much of the earth is going to run short of water or food—or both.”

In either case, “the poor will suffer most,” he added.

Although water is a renewable resource, it is also a finite one.  Less than 3% of the world’s water is fresh, and more than 75% of this is frozen – mainly at the North and South Poles.  Of the remaining freshwater, 98% lies underground.  People and land-dwelling animals can only access about 0.01% of all the world’s water.

Put in another way, if all the earth’s water were to fit in a gallon jug (4 liters), the available fresh water would be just over one tablespoon.

Water is drawn in two fundamental ways: from wells, tapping underground sources of water called aquifers; or from surface flows – that is, from lakes, rivers, and man-made reservoirs.

“Water is everywhere,” said a statement from United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  “In our bodies, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat and in the countryside around us.  It’s part of our history and our religions.”

That’s why water is so important.  But people seem to ignore it.  “Today, we withdraw water far faster than it can be recharged–unsustainably mining what was once a renewable resource,” deplored Janet Abramovitz, of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute.

“We are consuming water that belongs to future generations,” decried Lester R. Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute, also based in Washington, D.C.


A recent report released by the United Nations and the Stockholm Environment Institute said that by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be affected by water shortages.

As a rule of thumb, hydrologists designate water-stressed countries as those with annual supplies of 1,000 to 2,000 cubic meters per person.

When the figure drops below 1,000 cubic meters (about 725 gallons per person a day), nations are considered water-scarce—that is, lack of water becomes a severe constraint on food production, economic development, and protection of natural systems.

“World demand for water doubles every 21 years, but the volume available is the same as it was in the Roman times,” observed Sir Crispin Tickell, former British ambassador to the United Nations and one of the organizers of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.  “Something has got to give.”

But politicians seem not to bother with the problem of the impending crisis.  “Political leaders are vastly underestimating the influence of water scarcity on food production, natural systems, and regional peace and stability,” said Postel, who wrote “Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity.”

Unknowingly, water shortage results also from man’s eating habits.  In fact, the more people eat meat and rice, the more they are contributing to the water scarcity problem.   It’s lack of water—and not land—that will cause food production to drop.  “The main constraint in agricultural production in many areas in the near future will be the availability of water, not land,” the UN points out.


Water, after all, is most critical in food production.  “The link between water and food is strong,” says Brown.  “We drink, in one form or another, nearly 4 liters of water per day.  But the food we consume each day requires at least 2,000 liters to produce, 500 times as much.”

For instance, to raise a ton of rice, you need a thousand gallons of water, according to the International Rice Research Institute. Some studies show that 89% of Filipinos consume rice on a daily basis.  “Agriculture is where future water shortages will be most acute,” commented Time’s Michael S. Serrill.

In his book, “Food Revolution,” author John Robbins said that 23 gallons of water is needed to produce one pound of lettuce, 23 gallons for one pound of tomatoes, 24 gallons for one pound of potatoes, 25 gallons for one pound of wheat, 33 gallons for one pound of carrots, and 49 gallons for one pound of apples.

Meat production also consumes a lot of water.  Beef, the meat used in most fast food outlets, is by far the most water-intensive of all meats.  “The more than 15,000 liters of water used per kilogram is far more than is required by a number of staple foods, such as eggs (3,300 liters per kilogram), milk (1,000 liters), or potatoes (255 liters),” the book said.

In the Philippines, agriculture has the highest demand of all water use (with 85%) while the other sectors—industry and domestic—have a combined demand of only 15%.  “With the demand for water growing in all three categories, competition among sectors is intensifying, with agriculture almost always losing,” Brown said.


Food production is just one of the many parts of the equation in the water problem; still another is health. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates some nine million people, mostly children, die annually from water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, schistosomiasis, malaria and intestinal worm infections.

“The toll is equal to 75 large airliner crashes daily,” said Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former head of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). “And yet the subject of freshwater is too often crowded off the world media agenda.”

“One in five people living today does not have access to safe drinking water, and half the world’s population does not have adequate sanitation,” read a report released by the Manila-bases Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The signs are clearer now.  Filipinos have to do something before it’s too late.

“Of all the social and natural crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet Earth,” surmised Koichiro Matsuura, former UNESCO director-general. G
























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