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Environment

Footprints in the Water

Valuing water, photo: Steve Wall/flickr

Yes, water. This seemingly endless resource that covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. A resource that in a profound way forms the very core of who we are and how we live and yet gets little attention and even less press – perhaps precisely because of its ubiquity. Water, we tell ourselves, rains down from the sky and shoots through our kitchen taps; water is everywhere and used for everything. We can’t possibly be leaving any kind of dent in its incessant flow, let alone calculate any ‘footprint’ associated with it?

Yet this omnipresence is profoundly misleading. The water that we can easily use and consume, the fresh water of this world, only makes up about 2,6 percent of total supplies. An increasingly scarce and contested resource particularly in the poorer, more drought-prone parts of this world, fresh water, many experts believe, will become the future frontier of clashes, conflicts and even wars. Papers warning of ‘water wars’ in the Nile river basin or in the Mekong Delta are increasingly common, indicating that the political science community, not just ecologists, is beginning to take note.

Beyond expert circles, however, the issue still struggles to make it to the center of popular consciousness and debate as a key, if not the key challenge of the future. Water and water scarcity are issues that elude most people’s thoughts because in richer countries at least we are rarely faced with its limits. However, nearly half of the world’s population already suffers from some form of water-related distress, either due to lack of access to safe drinking water (an estimated 884 million people) or because of unsafe sanitation practices (for more than 2.5 billion people). An estimated 3.5 million people die every year due to illnesses related to poor water or related hygiene standards. In an important, if still primarily symbolic move, the UN recently declared clean water a human right in an attempt to bring the issue to the forefront of public discussion.