World Water Day: Why it matters

In this photo taken Wednesday, March 20, 2013, a girl transfers water to containers after fetching it from a lake in Dala Township, 9 miles south of Yangon, Myanmar. AP Photo

With much of the Earth's surface covered in water, 70 percent to be exact, it's hard to imagine that there could ever be a problem with water shortages, much less such scarcity that a global security issue has been shaped.

According to the United Nations, 783 million people do not have access to clean water, almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation, and 6 to 8 million people die annually from the consequences of disasters and water-related disease.

The murky status of fresh water

This is not a new concern. In 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development recommended an international day to bring attention to the threat to freshwater, and to promote sustainable management of the many freshwater resources. By the next year, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 22, 1993 as the first ever World Water Day.

Twenty years later, on Friday's World Water Day 2013, the threat to the world's water supply is still grim, so much so, that the United Nations called 2013 the International Year of Water Cooperation. The goal is to understand that water sources cut through political boundaries and country lines making it vital that people work together to create a plan, and around 450 agreements on international water rights were signed between 1820 and 2007.

In a 2012 report by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it was predicted that in the next ten years, water problems will influence the stability of countries that impact the national security of the United Sates of America.

They believe that while water shortages alone will not lead to major issues, when combined with "poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions," water scarcity can "contribute to social disruptions that can result in state failure."

"Between now and 2040, fresh water availability will not keep up with demand absent more effective management of water resources," the report said. "Water problems will hinder the ability of key countries to produce food and generate energy, posing a risk to global food markets and hobbling economic growth."

They suggested that the best way to prevent more damage to the world's water supply was to help create ways to reduce the amount of water needed for agriculture production. That industry consumes 70 percent of the fresh water resources.

There is also a gender gap in the struggle to provide fresh drinking water to remote areas in need. In most developing countries the burden of finding clean water for both consumption and daily domestic chores falls on the shoulders of the female members of the family unit.

This fact was made evident in a 2010 report from the Joint Monitoring Program for Water Supper and Sanitation:

"For families without a drinking-water source on the premises, it is usually women who go to the source to collect drinking water. Surveys from 45 developing countries show that this is the case in almost two thirds of households, while in almost a quarter of households it is men who usually collect the water. In 12 percent of households, however, children carry the main responsibility for collecting water, with girls under 15 years of age being twice as likely to carry this responsibility as boys under the age of 15 years."

What about ocean water?

On Monday, government contractor Lockheed Martin announced that they have come up with a way to bring down the amount of energy needed to make salt water drinkable. This new process would make it much cheaper to generate filtered ocean water. About 97 percent of the water on the Earth is salt water, so this project would be crucial in helping the world's population have access to drinking water.

The company was awarded the patent for Perforene, which is their molecular filtration solution used to clean up sea water.

"Access to clean drinking water is going to become more critical as the global population continues to grow, and we believe that this simple and affordable solution will be a game-changer for the industry," said Dr. Ray O. Johnson, senior vice president and chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin in a statement.

The material works by removing sodium, chlorine and other ions from sea water and other sources. It was developed by puncturing a graphene membrane. The holes were so small -- one nanometer or less -- that they are tiny enough to trap the toxins, but big enough to improve the flow of water molecules.

The graphene itself, is only one atom thick, but is able to be created at a small portion of the cost of industry standard systems.

Nuts and bolts of better behavior

There are many things that everyone, not just large companies can do to help.

"One idea could be rethinking how you use cleaning products and how some chemicals you are using in your household that go down the drain are affecting your waterways, environmental advocate Philippe Cousteau Jr. told CBS News in an email.

Cousteau is the founder of EarthEcho International and created the non-profit organization with his mother and sister in honor of his father, Philippe Cousteau Sr., famous son of the legendary explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau.

"Take your morning routine for example: when you get up in the morning and brush your teeth and take a shower, how are you using water and what products are you using? When you walk your dog, how do you dispose of its waste? All this helps keep our water sources clean. You're making a difference in helping keep our water sources clean even before starting your day," Cousteau said.

All these factors put together is your water footprint. Most people recognize that taking a really long shower, or obsessively flushing the toilet can have an impact on our globe's water supply. But, did you know if you drink tea instead of coffee it can make a difference?

Every food we eat, and produce we buy has a water footprint and an impact. Something that you do, such as use a lot of water for your garden, is a direct imprint, and purchasing food which needed a lot of water to produce, is an indirect footprint.

"All of us, when we eat food, wear clothing or drive a car, are linked to rivers around the world where these crops are grown or products manufactured. The water footprint helps us understand that all the products we consume use water and they contribute to the growing problems of water scarcity and water pollution. We each can take steps to improve the health of rivers and local communities by reducing our own water footprint, " said Ruth Mathews, executive director of the Water Footprint Network in an email to CBS News.

Solutions in play

There are many charity organizations like Waves for Water, charity: water and Matt Damon's water.org that provide opportunities to help in areas outside of your community. Charities such as these work to raise money to finance direct help to people in developing countries who need bathrooms and clean drinking water, and to provide funding to create long term solutions. Waves for Water, in particular, an organization started by surfer Jon Rose, takes already existing water filters and brings them into places that need those tools.

Even kids can get involved, many organizations, such as Cousteau's EarthEcho are geared towards teaching young people how to help keep our water clean, so they grow up knowing the impact of their actions.

As the global population grows, an estimated 2-3 billion people over the next 40 years, combined with changing diets, the United Nations predicts an increase of 70 percent in food demand by 2050. In order for the world to meet those demands, activists believe we will need to change the way we utilize our water supplies.

"Our traditional relationship with water has to do with convenience but it comes with a price. Life as we know it depends on water," said Cousteau.

  • Shoshana Davis

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