Protecting our most precious resources

by Peter Phelps

It’s hard to argue with Leonardo da Vinci’s assertion that “water is the driving force of all nature”. Water lubricates the cells of all living things, from unicellular bacteria to large mammals, from microscopic phytoplankton to giant trees. It covers 70 per cent of the surface of the planet and it even makes up to 60 per cent of our own bodies. There are living things that do not require oxygen, but none that can survive without water.

At first glimpse, there seems to be plenty of water on earth. Photos from space show ours to be an astonishingly blue planet. But appearances can be deceptive. The survival of many living things, including humans, depends on freshwater, which comprises only two and a half per cent of the total. Most of this freshwater is locked up in icecaps and glaciers, mainly in Greenland and Antarctica, and as icecaps melt and merge with seawater much of it will be lost forever. The remaining freshwater is mostly deep underground or exists as moisture in the soil, meaning only something like one per cent of the planet’s fresh water is accessible to us. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s mariner laments, “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.

Of course, the lucky third of us who live in wet or snowy climates have much greater access to freshwater than those living in arid regions. Regrettably, its local abundance has led us to squander it on our profligate lifestyles, particularly producing food we don’t need. The International Water Management Institute calculates that agriculture accounts for 90% of freshwater used globally, of which more than half is wasted. According to a UN report in 2020, the world remains in the grip of a deteriorating food crisis, with 142 million people across 40 countries facing extreme food scarcity, and yet a shocking one third of the food produced globally goes to waste. Wastage occurs all along the supply chain: on farms, in factories, during storage and distribution, at point of sale and in the home. Recent parliamentary data showed that nine and a half million tonnes of food was wasted in the UK in 2018, 70 per cent of it by households. The UK charity Waterwise says such waste equates to 243 litres of freshwater use per person per day, approximately one and a half times the daily average household use.

According to a UN report in 2020, the world remains in the grip of a deteriorating food crisis, with 142 million people across 40 countries facing extreme food scarcity, and yet a shocking one third of the food produced globally goes to waste

There’s no single remedy to the freshwater shortage that affects the other two thirds of the world’s population, but curbing food waste is one way we can all make an impact. Water wasted on excess food imports could instead provide drinking water or replenish aquifers. But it’s not all down to consumers; a complete farm-to-fork remodelling of the food chain is required: more efficient irrigation, and growing crops that are less water-intensive and better suited to their environments. The hydrological cycle is perhaps the most complex aspect of the whole earth system, and our freshwater usage is only a part of the picture. It is inextricably linked with ocean pollution, overfishing and, of course, the whale in the room that is the climate crisis. The water challenges we face are not without a central irony – as freshwater becomes scarcer, sea levels are rising, swamping our cities. As we grapple with these complex challenges, we must be prepared to invest vast sums to protect water in all its forms. It is our most precious resource, fundamental to our societies and economies, and the continued existence of the whole natural world depends on it. As Alexandra Cousteau (granddaughter of the legendary Jacques-Yves Cousteau), the co-founder of the Oceans 2050 initiative aimed at global ocean restoration, has said: “Simply put, water is life”.

If water is our most precious natural resource, then surely children are our most precious human resource. So the government’s decision to ignore its own Education Recovery Commissioner’s advice and provide only a fraction of the funding required to help children catch up on lost learning will have long-term calamitous consequences. But Gavin Williamson is not the only minister who appears unfit for the major role he’s played in our children’s lives. As we go to print, the man once responsible for decisions affecting
their health, Matt Hancock, has been forced to resign. Dishing out contracts to cronies and lying to his colleagues wasn’t enough to secure his downfall, but an affair with a close friend he’d personally appointed as a colleague (and a massively hypocritical breach of his own guidelines) did the trick. The new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, is a political heavyweight whose slate is relatively clean. Let’s hope he can survive longer than the six months he spent as Boris Johnson’s chancellor. With the Prime Minister’s own authority so compromised, there is a need in Cabinet for those who can help overcome the impression that the government is more interested in directing money towards feathering the nests of Tory donors than fighting for our children’s future.

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