Throughout not only human history but all life on earth, there are but a few substances which are as integral and as important as water. This simple molecular structure, literally only three atoms at its most basic level, may be the one molecule that without nearly no life on the planet (with the exception of some extremophiles) could realistically be expected to survive. Even within the confines of human experience and recorded history, there is no doubt that the struggle for water, and in more modern times the struggle for clean water, has been the focus of a number of different conflicts and sources of inequality. Water is used for so much in our daily lives (and albeit to some degree, used in an unsustainable way) that losing access to a secure and renewable source would spell disaster.
For these reasons and many more, we are celebrating World Water Day on March 22, 2022. While perhaps there is an oversaturation of somewhat meaningless days of recognition (e.g. “Lima Bean Respect Day”, New York City’s Phish Day, etc.), World Water Day is an annual United Nations Observance. Akin to World Soil Day, this day is a coordination of both UN-Water and multiple members and partners from different parts of the world.
World Water Day was recognized in 1993 and focuses on the importance of water. The day also looks to raise awareness of the estimated 2 billion people who live everyday without access to clean and safe water. Through this focus on achieving clean water for nearly 25% of the world which does not have access, World Water Day helps to draw attention to Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030. On March 22 every year, in coincidence with World Water Day, the UN World Water Development Report is made available to the public. This report shares the same annual theme as World Water Day and is largely focused on policy direction recommendation to global key decision makers.
Each year, World Water Day has a different theme or focus. Some past themes include Wastewater, Climate Change, Better Water, Better Jobs and other water-related topics. The topic for World Water Day 2022 is Groundwater—making the invisible visible. While many of us may not think about the groundwater on a daily basis plus its inability to be seen directly (hence, the figurative and literal invisibility), the impact of groundwater is visible everywhere. While in Indiana and Monroe County there are many different sources of water, in some of the driest and most arid areas of the world, groundwater may be the only source of water available. In fact, most of the water we use on a daily basis all over the planet is taken from the ground, including drinking water, sanitation systems, agriculture, and more.
The UN is choosing to focus on groundwater for many different reasons, primarily due to its overuse in many areas of the world. Groundwater is technically being overused when more water is taken from the ground than is refilled by precipitation (mainly rain and snow). In some areas, there is no way to know how much groundwater can be found in the aquifer, meaning that reckless use could totally deplete the resource.
There is also a focus on the pollution of groundwater and the costs it has to society. An externality arises when there is a situation where the social cost of a good outweighs the private costs. Negative externalities are a result of incomplete property rights, which results in the full cost of an action or good not being accurately reflected in the price of that action or good. Pollution is labeled an externality because there is a specific good or action—in the case of groundwater, those goods and actions include the run-off of gasoline, oil, road salt into the soil as well as the waste from mining sites, including coal—where the selling price does not include the social cost of that pollution. Because these costs are displaced is why an externality constitutes a market failure and a major incentive for government involvement. Government involvement in environmental pollution and harmful risks to human health are usually justified through the existence of pollution externalities.
Not only is pollution intrinsically a negative externality, it is incredibly tedious and expensive to remove from our groundwater once infiltrated. The necessity to filter and clean groundwater drives up the cost of processing and producing drinking water. There are many different potential sources of groundwater contamination which are not restricted to certain parts of the world or to developing countries. Many of these areas are found in our own backyard, and may include storage tanks, septic systems, landfills, chemical fertilizer and road salt run-off. In fact, due to the nature of the water cycle and water’s transformation from liquid to solid to gas, groundwater may even be contaminated through different pollutants in the air and atmosphere. The US Geological Survey has a complete list of specific contaminants to groundwater as well as likely sources of those contaminants you can check out here. Some of the notable contaminants of groundwater which cause serious problems include lead, arsenic, nitrate, thallium, pesticides, and a number of different bacteria which may cause a variety of diseases, such as polio, dysentery, and infectious hepatitis. Sometimes, if an area is polluted enough, it completely prevents the possibility of harvesting groundwater altogether.
All of these different pollutants of groundwater hold important consequences for many different aspects of human life, including drinking water, sanitation systems, and most importantly: food production. The UN estimates that more than one fourth of all energy used globally is for food production and that agriculture by far utilizes more freshwater than any other human activity.
It is undeniable that access to clean and uncontaminated water is a human right in which all persons should be included. However, this is far from the case and a percentage far too large is currently without reliable access to clean water for drinking, bathing, or other necessary uses of water. However, as we understand more about different aspects of water, and in particular, groundwater, we will be able to use water in a way which is sustainable. Beyond only our use, it is important to note that we, particularly in developed countries in the West, must focus on other forms of groundwater contamination, particularly run-off from roads and agriculture. Please visit www.worldwaterday.org to get involved and stand up for water equality and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6: water and sanitation for all by 2030.
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