This week explores the exploitation of Earth’s water resources through the irresponsible management of freshwater and water pollution. The material presented has communicated the failure of humans to control and manage the health and sustainability of our precious water ecosystems. Though we have a responsibility to repair the damage which has already been done on our water resources, the most important thing we can do for the future of our world is to establish large-scale preventive measures to decrease the overuse and pollution of our aquatic ecosystems.
Chapter 13 emphasizes our failure in managing Earth’s freshwater supplies. The textbook asserts that “Despite its importance, freshwater is one of our most poorly managed resources. We waste it, pollute it, and do not value it highly enough” (Miller 2019, 301). The presence of freshwater is absolutely essential to the lives of humans and many other species on Earth. Water is a key player in our health, economies, and climate management, and without healthy aquatic systems, our environment will inevitably collapse. However, the use of freshwater is increasing significantly with the rise in population, increased consumption practices in affluent communities, and irresponsible water usage in industry and agriculture. As someone who actively watches their water usage and eats a vegetarian diet, my projected water footprint is about 578 cubic meters. This means that people who generally don’t watch their water usage have much higher water footprints, which is frightening, as 578 cubic meters is a ridiculously large amount of water. This is dangerous, because we are depleting a resource which is nonrenewable on a human time scale.
Simultaneously, however, the inability to access safe drinking water a severe human crisis. The textbook asserts that “more than 3.4 million die from waterborne infectious diseases—an average of 9,300 deaths each day because they lack access to safe drinking water” (Miller 2019, 301). This shows the divide that has occurred between the populations who exploit water resources, and those that cannot even manage to fulfill their human right to clean drinking water. Additionally, competition for freshwater resources has led to increasing tensions within and between countries, demonstrating that the lack of freshwater not only has health and environmental repercussions, but human rights and political repercussions as well.
An example of a lack of reliable drinking water and its societal implications is the water war in Cochabamba, Bolivia. In Spanish class last year, we were required to view the film “También la Lluvia,” which emphasized the parallels between water shortages, classism, and colonialism. In the film, Spanish directors go to a small Bolivian town and hire local indigenous people to play the indigenous characters in a film about Christopher Columbus. However, during the filming of the movie, the actors participate in local riots and protests due to their lack of clean and reliable drinking water in their village. The film emphasizes the idea that “water is life” and that freshwater is not something to take for granted. The riots seen in the film took place in Bolivia in 2000 in “response to the privatization of the city’s municipal water supply company” (Cochabamba 2020). This film and historical event show clearly that the maltreatment of freshwater resources is an activity of immense privilege, and has huge implications for the lives of oppressed people and their environments.
Fig. 1, Cochabamba Water War Protest.
Another pressing issue regarding the state of our water systems is our failure to manage the presence and harmful effects of water pollution. The textbook defines water pollution as “any change in water quality that can harm living organisms or make the water unfit for human uses such as drinking, irrigation, and recreation” (Miller 2019, 501). Water pollution can be point source, which includes discharge pollutants which seep into water via specific locations (through sewage pipes etc.); nonpoint source, in which pollutants are diffused and are swept into bodies of water via rainfall or snow; or pollution from widespread plastic products. Water pollutants have a plethora of harmful effects on aquatic ecosystems. These include diseases, excessive plant nutrients (overgrowth of algae, etc.), oxygen depletion, organic and inorganic chemicals (add toxins to ecosystems), disruptive sediments, harmful heavy metals (could be carcinogenic), and excessive thermal energy (can make animals susceptible to disease) (Miller 2019, 508). These extremely damaging pollutants exist in our water sources in incredible excess, demonstrating the irresponsibility of people and emphasizing the ill management of aquatic ecosystems.
An example of pollution’s harmful effects on aquatic systems is the case of the Albatross. The Albatross video and photos by Chris Jordan depict the horrific effects of water pollution on the albatross, an aquatic bird species. Pollution from plastic products is particularly emphasized here, as plastic overwhelms the albatross ecosystems and is often consumed by the creatures. Not only does the consumption of such waste do horrors to the digestive systems of the birds (not to mention the illness, choking hazards, and pain that it causes), but the excessive presence of plastic pollutants also poses external bacterial and toxic threats to the birds as well as their ecosystem. The Albatross video explains these issues alongside gruesome imagery of dead, plastic filled albatross. The photos by Chris Jordan depict the mangled bodies of the birds, filled with the plastic products that led to their demise. I watched this video for an earlier chapter, but something about seeing the images by themselves really got to me. The sight of piled plastic litter in the corpses of innocent birds is incredibly haunting and provocative. This case serves as a warning sign and a wake up call to the reality of the damage we are inflicting on our precious water resources.
Fig. 3, 4 & 5: Plastic-filled Albatros Corpses.
However, finding sustainable solutions to the issues of freshwater depletion and water pollution is a difficult feat, as most developments present significant drawbacks in addition to their benefits. For example, pumping freshwater from deep aquifers could produce “enough freshwater to support billions of people for centuries” (Miller 2019, 311). However, this does not resolve the fact that water is technically nonrenewable on a human timescale. Additionally, the geological consequences of such an endeavor are unknown, and the cost of the process would be extensive. Dams are another mentionable “solution,” with the intends to “capture and store the surface runoff from a river’s watershed, and release it as needed to control floods, to generate electricity (hydropower), and to supply freshwater for irrigation and for towns and cities” (Miller 2019, 312). This sounds ideal, however the construction and use of dams can severely disrupt surrounding ecosystem services and river flow. Desalinization is another method to increase freshwater supplies which is often suggested. This process entails “removing dissolved salts from ocean water or from brackish (slightly salty) water in aquifers or lakes” (Miller 2019, 313). However, desalinization is currently impractical on a large scale because of its high cost, and the process produces a large amount of wastewater which, if disposed of incorrectly, can be incredibly damaging to the environment. In the case of water pollution, clean up jobs are generally difficult to do thoroughly because of its scale (how do we “dispose” of waste without it becoming pollution in one way or another?) and the fact that a lot of the destructive aspects of pollution, like the toxic chemicals that are exuded from solid waste, sewage, and nonpoint sources like fertilizers, are invisible to the eye. All of these are just some of the reasons why finding solutions to problems regarding aquatic resource damage.
Evidently, our irresponsible handling of freshwater resources and water pollution demonstrate the disproportionate effects of environmental damage and emphasize the necessity of before-the-fact preventative measures regarding aquatic ecosystems. The difficulties in finding effective after-the-fact solutions emphasizes the need for large scale preventative measures to limit the overuse of water and the pollution-enabling practices before they worsen the problems we already have. Yes, we need to solve the crisis at hand, but unless we learn to limit our wasteful water usage and decrease the amount of waste we produce, matters will only become worse.
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Question: How can college campuses work to improve their water footprints? How can students get involved?
“Cochabamba Water War.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, November 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochabamba_Water_War.
Jordan, Chris. Albatross. Accessed November 16, 2020. https://www.albatrossthefilm.com/.
Jordan, Chris. “Midway: Message from the Gyre.” Chris Jordan Photography, February 2011. http://www.chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/.
Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Living in the Environment. Stamford, CT: Cengage
Water Footprint Network. “Personal Water Footprint.” Waterfootprint. Accessed November 17, 2020. https://www.waterfootprint.org/en/water-footprint/personal-water-footprint/.