Above: One day, the water supply for Cape Town, South Africa might have to be shut off.
How much water do you use every day? Where does it come from?
Many of us don’t know the answers to these questions. These questions might not ever even cross our minds. Does that sound like you? If so, you might live in a community with a reliable source of water. Depending on what type of region you live in, your community’s water supply can include a nearby lake or river, glacial water from the mountains, groundwater, or rainwater.
Communities use water from water supplies for many purposes. Drinking water is one of them. Other purposes include irrigation on farms, construction, manufacturing, and cleaning.
But what happens if you live in a community that doesn’t have enough water? Or a community at risk of losing access to water? This is the case for people in many communities across the world, including in Canada.
The Earth’s surface is covered by 71% of water, so why are people around the world facing water shortages?
Not all of that water is suitable for drinking. Most of the water on Earth is actually saltwater in the oceans and seas. Saltwater isn’t appropriate for drinking or for industrial purposes. Engineers working at desalination plants are able to remove the salt through a process of purifying, boiling, and filtering the water until it is safe for people to drink. But this process is highly expensive and time consuming.
So why not just use freshwater? Well, most of the freshwater on Earth is frozen and locked away in ice caps, permanent snow, and ground ice. The remaining freshwater that is available to people makes up about only 1% of the water left on Earth!
Did you know? Saltwater has a lower freezing point of about -2°C (28.4°F) compared to freshwater being at about 0°C (32°F).
Unfortunately, the available freshwater isn’t evenly spread out across the world. Many places don’t have the resources they need. This lack of resources is one of the factors contributing to the global water crisis. Other factors include deforestation, climate change, population expansion, urbanization, and pollution.
Water shortages at home
In January 2018, a town in northern Manitoba, Swan River, almost ran out of water completely. The entire town was only allowed to use four litres a day per person. The water restriction allowed for two litres of water a day for drinking and two litres for cooking and cleaning. Communities had to set up stations with porta-potties and cases of plastic water bottles. Luckily, the town’s water supply was shortly back to normal a few days later.
Did you know? A study in 2011 found that the average Canadian used 251 litres per day.
Water shortages abroad
Cape Town, South Africa is expected to be the first major city in the world to have its water supply completely shut off. This will happen on what city officials call “Day Zero”. Engineers predicted Day Zero would happen in April 2018. It didn’t. However, the city is facing a long-term drought and currently has no alternative water source. Many people who live there are doing their best to reduce water use.
The local government has also reduced the amount of water allowed to be used by farmers.
Is using less water on farms the answer?
This will help the problem at first. But can you think of some problems this could cause for the town later on?
If the water used on farms is reduced, this would affect the supply of certain foods to the public. Orchards and vineyards would be destroyed, and herds of livestock and their grazing fields would dwindle. This would mean that the price of fruits, vegetables, certain crops, and red meat would go back up. Once the water supply is back to normal, it will take time and money to recover the agricultural spaces fully to be able to supply for the communities.
If “Day Zero” occurs in Cape Town, the city is planning to have water collection stations set up where people can pick up their daily amount. At that time, the daily amount will be 25 litres. These collection sites will be guarded by military and security forces.
Did you know? Teams of scientists and engineers are working on multiple ideas of how to tow an iceberg from Antarctica to provide for countries without enough freshwater supply.
How does this affect me?
If you don’t live in a community with water supply issues, these examples may seem like far away problems. But water shortages are a global issue that could one day affect everyone. Freshwater is a finite resource that is being used much faster than it can be replenished. A finite resource, or non-renewable resource, is a resource that does not renew itself quick enough for sustainable human consumption and will run out eventually.
Remember, although there is a lot of water on Earth, much of it is unusable. That’s why it’s important for all of us to conserve the amount of water we use, no matter where we live.
Here are some simple ways you can eliminate water waste at home:
- Turn off the tap while washing your hands or brushing your teeth.
- Take shorter showers. Or only shower every other day instead of every day.
- If you notice a faucet leaking or the toilet running, remind your parents to get it fixed.
- Only run the dishwasher and washing machine when they’re full.
- If you wash dishes by hand, fill up the sink with water instead of running the tap the entire time.
- If you like to drink cold tap water, keep a pitcher in the fridge instead of running the tap until the water gets cold.
These are simple steps you can take now to reduce the chances of water shortage problems in the
Let’s talk about it
- If you had to limit your water usage to 25L per day:
- what would you use that water for?
- what water-using activities would you do: daily? Weekly? Monthly?
- what activities would you stop doing?
- what activities might you do differently - for example, without water?
- what activities that you do alone or in small groups might you do with larger groups? (For example: cooking, cleaning, other household chores)
- Scientists predicted that Day Zero would come to Cape Town in April 2018. It didn’t. What are some changes Cape Town residents have made? (Tip: You will need to do some additional research to answer this question.)
- Of all the changes you listed in question 1, are there any you would be willing to do even without a water shortage in your area? Which ones would you not do and why?
- Do you think governments should place water restrictions on towns before they are in a water crisis? If so, how far in advance? Explain your answer. If not, why not?
Taking a Closer Look at Global Water Shortage (2016)
Water Scarcity Threats (2018)
Water Conservation Games (Accessed 2018)
Water Use it Wisely
How much water is there on Earth (2016)
Howard Perman, The USGS Water Science School
Can the ocean freeze? (2017)
Northwest Manitoba town facing critical water shortage due to well problems (2018)
The Canadian Press
Swan River water crisis ends after well starts working again (2018)
Residential water use (2017)
Government of Canada
Cape Town delays water cut-off date amid drought (2018)
Geoffrey York, The Globe and Mail
South Africa will deploy military to guard Cape Town’s water once the taps are shut off (2018)
Zoë Schlanger, Quartz Media
How do you fix the water shortage in the UAE? Tow icebergs from Antarctica, one company says (2017)