Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday, 27 March 2017

Think “water” as you sip that cup of coffee

As water becomes a scarce resource, we should be serious about conserving it, protecting watersheds and hill forests, minimising pollution and re-using water.


Do you know how much water is needed to bring you that cup of coffee in the morning?  The answer is 140 litres.

It takes 2,300 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice.  And take note, those who love steak:  a kilo of beef requires 15,500 litres of water to produce it.  That includes the water that goes into feeding and maintaining the cow that eventually ends up on your plate.

These examples of our “water footprint” are worth thinking about to mark World Water Day, which fell on 22 March.

We cannot survive more than a few days three without water.  Yet it is getting harder to obtain, some of it is contaminated and a lot is wasted. Our lifestyle choices – like what we eat and drink – also influence how, and how much, we use up water.

It is imperative that we give the highest priority to conserving and properly using our water resources.

The first problem is that we are destroying the very sources of our water supply.

Recently, there was the shocking news that logging is taking place in the Kedah forest reserve of Ulu Muda, Kedah.  It is a huge water catchment area which supplies most of the water for Kedah, Perlis and Penang and also for Ahning, Pedu and Muda dams.  

Calling for the federal government to stop the logging, the Penang Water Supply Corporation CEO Datuk Jaseni Maidinsa said it threatens the water supply to more than four million people in the three northern states.

The logging has disrupted the forest’s ability to absorb and retain rainwater, and the quality and volume of water flow in Sungai Muda (from where 80% of Penang’s raw water is taken) is affected, according to Jaseni. If anything goes wrong in Ulu Muda, “it will jeopardise the wellbeing of people, businesses and agriculture in the northern states.”

Actually it is unthinkable that logging should be allowed in such an important watershed system.  It is high time that all watersheds in the country should be strictly protected.

There is still little appreciation among some policy makers that chopping trees and hills is the greatest cause of water, soil erosion and climate problems.

Clearing the hill forests means rain can no longer seep through the soils into the underground streams that flow into the reservoirs and dams.  The heavy rains sweep the exposed soil into the engorged rivers, causing landslides, silted rivers and floods downstream including in the towns.  

Moreover, forest clearance in hill areas reduces rainfall, contributing to water shortage.

Deforestation thus paradoxically causes both water shortage and floods.  It is thus imperative that forests, especially in hills and watersheds, be left alone.

“Malaysia stands to gain more economic benefits from keeping its forests intact and biologically diverse than for issuing permits for logging, mining and road construction in forested areas,” says Wong Ee Lynn of the Malaysian Nature Society in a letter to the Star (16.3.17).

“The economic benefits of logging are short-lived and can sustain only one or two generations at most.  If the government wishes to cultivate long-term prosperity, they need to afford greater protection to rainforests, which are worth more alive than dead.”

What happens when there’s not enough water can be seen in the Middle East and North Africa.  This region of 22 countries and 400 million people may soon become uninhabitable as accessible fresh water has fallen by two thirds in the past 40 years, according to Baher Kamel in an IPS article. 

Per capita availability of fresh water in the region is now 10 times less than the world average. Moreover, its fresh water resources could fall over 50 per cent by 2050 and higher temperatures may cut agricultural yields a further 27-55 per cent by the end of this century.

The region’s water scarcity is a huge challenge requiring an “urgent and massive response”, says FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva who is now leading a water scarcity initiative there.

The water crisis is being felt worldwide. Two thirds the world’s population live in areas that experience water scarcity for at least one month a year, according to UN-Water, and 36 countries are already facing extremely high levels of water stress.

Also, 1.8 billion people don’t have access to safe drinking water.  Unsafe water and poor sanitation cause 842,000 deaths each year, according to the UN. 

Pollution is a big problem. In most developing countries there is inadequate or no treatment of human and animal wastes before they are dumped in waterways. This is worsened by toxic pollutants from factories and farms.

For Water Day 2017, the UN chose to focus on the need to reduce wastewater. Only 8 per cent of domestic and industrial wastewater is treated in low-income countries, compared to 70% in high-income countries, according to the UN.   In many regions, water contaminated by bacteria, nitrates, phosphates and solvents is discharged into rivers, ending in the oceans, damaging the environment and health.

In Asia, Africa and Latin America, pathogens from animal and human waste affects almost one third of rivers, endangering the lives of millions. 

What should be done?  First, wastewater should be reduced by tackling pollution at source. Second, contaminants from wastewater flows should be removed.  Third, wastewater can be reclaimed and re-used.

Water that has been used for washing (grey water) can be re-used to water plants or flush toilets.  In Australia, over half the households re-use grey water and in California it has been used for irrigating crops, landscapes, and golf courses.

Once we give water the high priority it deserves, a country can devise policies to preserve water resources, strictly protect watersheds and forests, minimise pollution and re-use water.

Each person can do his and her part.  Remember that cup of coffee?  We can find out how our lifestyles contribute to the wrong uses of water and make some changes.   You can join the movement to reduce your “water footprint.”