By: Juliana Hinton, Communications Coordinator
Water is an essential ingredient to life on this planet. We rely on fresh water in so many aspects of our lives that it may seem menial or, in many cases, be taken for granted. The truth of the matter is, water is finite, which is why advocacy such as World Water Day on Wednesday, March 22, is so important. World Water Day is used as a platform for awareness coordinated by the United Nations.
“World Water Day, on March 22 every year, is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water.” (www.worldwaterday.org/)
This year’s theme is focusing on the topic of water waste and how water waste can be reclaimed. It’s important to not only reflect on how water is wasted, but also why this matters, and how to change this course for a better future. Did you know that the industry that consumes the most water is agriculture? And even more so, the livestock industry. According to the USDA, 80% of U.S. water consumption can be attributed to agriculture. That number goes even high into 90% the further west in the country you go, or reaching desert regions.
Before going further into this idea, it’s important to know where this water is coming from, in the case of agriculture, water is accessed via groundwater and surface water. Surface water being water sources that are above ground, visible, like lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Groundwater is another precious resource but with it comes complications of depletion because of the difficulty to access it in the first place. In the mid-south western states, groundwater is being depleted which comes with trickling negative impacts such as:
- Lowering of the water table
- Increased costs for the user- leads to lowering pumps and increase in energy use to access water
- Reduction of water in streams and lakes
- Land subsidence (soil collapses, compacts, and drops)
- Deterioration of water quality- saltwater intrusion, it is estimated that some 30% of the world’s irrigated areas suffer from salinity problems and remediation is seen to be very costly)
Ironically, the industry that uses the most water somehow forgets to provide fresh water, where it really matters, for the people who work behind the scenes and make everything possible. Farmworkers are the backbone of U.S. agriculture, not only supporting the economy but they also put food on everyone’s tables. Yet in a study published on NCBI by Am J of Public Health, “Migrant farmworkers represent a particularly vulnerable population within the US for diseases resulting from unsafe drinking water, in conjunction with other environmental and occupational hazards.” A large aspect of what makes this drinking water so unsafe is the run-off from fields. A by-product of the dependency on pesticides in agriculture is water and ecosystems laden with pesticides.
This is alarming for many reasons, one of which being that it is a basic human right to have access to clean drinking water. You might wonder, why is it the responsibility of the agriculture sector or the grower to provide farmworkers or their communities with access to safe drinking water? Because like every other industry, the ability of their job is completely reliant on their health. But is it even more so for such physically demanding labor, where taking sick days does not exist. The vast majority of farmworkers are underpaid, without health insurance, and have little or complicated access to health care due to geographical locations or the need to constantly migrate in search of work.
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH) 78% of farmworkers were foreign born. In many instances people have come to the U.S. in search of work, the American dream, or to escape unsafe situations in their home country. However, for farmworkers in many cases, the reality is completely different from what they’ve been told. The living conditions in migrant camps can sometimes be sub-standard, questionable living for any standards. The study by Am J of Public Health concluded that, “Water supplied to farmworker camps often does not comply with current standards and poses a great risk to the physical health of farmworkers and surrounding communities.” Not only is the health of farmworkers at risk but their families and others are as well. Access to clean water should be a given right but unfortunately, in many cases it has been bought up and made into a profitable privilege.
Antoine Frérot, head of the water division of Veolia Environment, notes that, “As much as 70% of water used by farmers never gets to crops, perhaps lost through leaky irrigation channels or by draining into rivers or groundwater. Investment in drip irrigation, or simply repairing the worst leaks, could bring huge savings.” The main causes for unsustainable usage are:
- leaky irrigation systems
- wasteful field application methods
- cultivation of thirsty crops not suited to the environment.
For now, the cost of desalination has kept such a method of finding new “fresh water” from being used more often. Moving forward, agronomists are beginning to devise tools to help monitor the efficiency of water use. Some have designed algorithms that use satellite data on surface temperatures to calculate the rate at which plants are absorbing and transpiring water. That allows governments and development agencies to concentrate their efforts on the most prodigal areas. Fresh water consumption is consumption that cannot be reversed. It is at the expense of farmworkers health, that water is so easily thrown away by the agriculture sector. Although it may not be purposeful, it is still extremely negligent. Industries should consider the future of water, as a finite resource, industries that waste such a vital resource should not go unnoticed.