Water Conservation 101: Strategies for Improvement

Cultivating the Best Medicine for Drought

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American water usage has tripled in the last 50 years. That’s in part because our population has doubled, but it’s also because the United States is just flat out using far more water than it once did.[1] (Good going, us.)

Here comes the especially scary part, though: 40 U.S. states are expecting water shortages by 2024.

Sometimes a person to take their access to good drinking water for granted, but in much of the developing world, water quality is not a given. This is in part simply because freshwater itself is relatively scarce. Though the world might be 70 percent water, only 2.5 percent of that water is freshwater. Meanwhile a whopping 68.7 percent of that freshwater is frozen in the polar ice caps.[2] Of what remains, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of that freshwater usage. Considering numbers like that, it’s easy to wonder how any water is available for our taps at all. Those are the numbers before factoring in any droughts or climate change or water lost to the water table thanks to pollution. (And true, the polar ice caps are rapidly melting, but who would argue that’s an ideal way to increase the supply of freshwater?)9.3% of Earth's fresh water is available to drink.

Drinking Water and Drought

So, how can these shortages be postponed or outright prevented? The key to staving off a global water crisis might just be in accepting we live in drier times and shifting to different strategies. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to environmental flu prevention 101: world water conservation. If we think of the increasing (and worldwide) instances of drought as a sort of environmental flu, the many methods of water conservation are a little like the environmental equivalent of preventative measures that target the spread of flu viruses.

Many authorities point toward desalination as a simple solution to dwindling freshwater supplies, but unfortunately, there’s nothing actually simple about the desalination process.

Desalination requires significant electricity, making it costly. And to top it off, the process is slow. While more companies like Coca Cola have adopted it in the short term for providing their beverages in drier countries, even their executives don’t see desalination of sea water as a viable long-term solution.[3]

Nonetheless, companies are racing to develop technologies to desalinate seawater. One such option available is using a graphene sieve, which tests have shown can effectively filter out larger salt particles.[4] The drawback with this method, though, is that creating a single layer of graphene is costly and may make using graphene on a larger scale cost prohibitive.

Luckily, many more water-strapped countries and cities have already been thinking about water conservation for some time now, and several have implemented new innovations to great success. Australia, which has faced drought for much of the last 20 years, implemented restrictions that cut usage by both businesses and residences in half by charging for water and treating it “as a tradable commodity,” as economist Richard Damania explained to the BBC.[3] Middle eastern countries have also been at the forefront of conservation. For example, Israel has the world’s highest water reuse rate at 86 percent. Tel Aviv supplies its sewage water for reuse in agricultural irrigation, and even its sludge is sent to an “anaerobic digestion plant” where the methane it produces is used to generate renewable energy.[3]

Dubai water plant.

Reverse Osmosis water treatment plant in Dubai for desalinization.

Some water conservation efforts are being pioneered in the United States, as well.

One group of farmers in Colorado actually decided to tax themselves in order to conserve water. And it worked! Paying more for water (perhaps in this case, paying the real worth of water) helped them conserve and use 30 percent less water.

Prior to the adoption of this system, farmers in the San Luis Valley in Colorado had been looking at the real possibility of a water crisis and a shortage of freshwater.[5]

Even technology companies are getting into the water conservation game and turning to previously overlooked sources for water. One company, Waterseer, is developing a device that even harvests water droplets from the air — which could be a real boon, especially for humid areas.[6]

Medicine for Droughts

On a larger scale, communities are looking to create greater drought resilience, largely through better water management techniques.[7] The EPA explains that “for water utilities, drought resilience is the ability to respond to immediate water supply threats, withstand drought impacts and recover quickly.”[8] Part of developing that resilience means taking a long look at our water infrastructure and management practices.

As much as 80 percent of water in developing countries is lost to leakage and poor infrastructure, and in the United States there are areas where aging infrastructure loses 50 percent of the water it’s transporting.[6]

Companies and municipalities are looking to, essentially, plug those gaps. Some of the strategies being considered include pre-paying for water — similar to the model used by those farmers in the San Luis Valley — to make consumers more aware of how much they’re using, and monitoring of usage that alerts the system to sudden spikes (which likely indicate a leak).[6]

But what can we as individuals and as a collective do to lessen this global water crisis? Some communities are taking cues from Israel’s methods and encouraging water recycling through the collection of storm water and reuse of greywater (which is the water that goes down the drains in our homes).

In addition to reuse methods, simply using less water can help make an impact. Turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth or wash dishes (rather than letting it run continuously) helps conservation efforts, as does installing a low flush toilet. (And for one promising number — a low flush toilet can reduce water usage by as much as 50 percent!)[9] Plant drought resistant vegetation outside the home instead of grass. Use soaps and detergents free of polluting chemicals. They’re not only healthier for individuals, but they won’t contaminate water when it goes down the drain. Last, use a water filter at home. As freshwater becomes more scarce, the concentration of contaminants in our freshwater is only going to increase and a water filter can help protect people from waterborne diseases.

Think of these conservation actions simply as the preventive measures that stop the spread of the flu every year. Using less water might be the drought prevention version of taking vitamins or getting a flu shot. It doesn’t just help in the immediate; it ripples out to the entire community in longer term benefits.


[1] https://www.epa.gov/greeningepa/water-conservation-epa

[2] https://thewaterproject.org/water_conservation

[3] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170412-is-the-world-running-out-of-fresh-water

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-39482342

[5] https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/11/18/562912732/to-save-their-water-supply-colorado-farmers-taxed-themselves

[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/business-42626790

[7] https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/science-and-impacts/impacts/causes-of-drought-climate-change-connection.html#.WlzefN-nHIU

[8] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-10/documents/drought_guide_final_508compliant_october2017.pdf

[9] https://thewaterproject.org/water_conservation_tips

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