How is Population Growth Connected to Sustaining Water Systems?

Water is essential to life everywhere. Despite the necessity of water, the natural systems that allow water to be cleaned, maintained, and distributed are fragile and sensitive to changes. These natural systems are being disrupted due to human activity and overuse. Many parts of the world are already experiencing the stress of limited water resources coupled with poor or inadequate infrastructure to protect water. As the global population continues to grow the need for clean water will increase.

How does population growth factor in and relate to these issues? Read on for six connections between water systems and population growth, and links to articles for further exploration.

Agricultural Pollution

Runoff from agricultural processes can be toxic to water due to chemicals from pesticides used to treat crops. Another source of pollution is animal waste from livestock farms which finds its way into water ways either by seeping into the soil or via runoff. Both of these pollutants negatively impact the health of water and waterways. In fact, there are parts of the country in which water has too little oxygen in it to sustain life. These areas are known as dead zones and are the result of a process called eutrophication. Agricultural pollution is a challenge that requires immediate and intentional care because, not only will there be more people to feed in the coming decades, but annually meat consumption is also increasing. This is a result of both population growth and increased affluence globally. What parts of the agricultural process can be altered in order to prevent pollution to water ways? What can individuals do to effect change?

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Aquifer Depletion

Over 2 billion of the world’s people get their fresh water from aquifers, and as the population grows, so does the demand for fresh water. We use fresh water for drinking, watering crops, and even in industrial processes such as energy production. Currently the world’s aquifers are severely stressed meaning that they do not have the opportunity to replenish. When aquifer water levels are low they become more susceptible to contamination from both pollutants and saltwater, streams and rivers lose a key replenishing source, and soil deteriorates in quality and structure. As affluence continues to spread globally more people have access to electricity which will require more energy production and water is essential in this process. How can we use water more efficiently in large-scale processes such as farming and energy production? What can an individual do about their water consumption?

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Sanitation Infrastructure

Proper sanitation infrastructure is essential to keeping water clean from human waste. The lack of adequate sanitation infrastructure such as hand washing stations and latrines is a public health concern in addition to threatening water resources. Many of the places that have inadequate sanitation infrastructure also have high population density where disease can spread quickly through contaminated water. People in developing countries, where population is expected to grow the most in coming years, are some of the most susceptible populations to the dangers of no or inadequate sanitation infrastructure. As water resource become increasingly stressed it is crucial to manage what we have with great care. How can areas with high population density protect their water from human waste?

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Waste Disposal

Water resources are at risk of pollution from waste disposal both at the industrial and community level. Globally, affluence is increasing and as a result consumption patterns are changing. For example, electronics are becoming more and more disposable, with people upgrading their cell phones on an annual basis. Electronic waste is harmful because it is difficult to process and when it ends up in a landfill it can leach harmful substances into the ground which can eventually end up in groundwater or in other waterways through runoff. Litter is a problem in less developed and developed countries alike. Trash that doesn’t make it to a bin can often end up entering waterways and causing harm to marine ecosystems in addition to our drinking water. At the industrial level water is threatened by large spills from coal ash (a waste product of burning coal), contaminated waste water from hydro-fracking, and even large oil spills from drilling. How can we prevent waste from entering waterways? Is there anything you can do as an individual through the consumption choices you make?

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Modifying Waterways

The ability to actually modify the natural course of waterways has allowed humans to create energy, accumulate fresh water, and even build in areas where it would otherwise be impossible. However, the effects of modifying waterways through dams or levees are often irreversible and leave the natural landscape permanently altered. For example, consider the implications of diverting a river’s water on the fish and other wildlife that call the river habitat home. These modifications can also impact human communities who live in close proximity to modified waterways by making them more susceptible to flooding, or disrupting rivers’ natural and critical filtration process that helps restore contaminated waterways to a healthy state. All living things need water to thrive and survive so by altering the natural flow of water we endanger a resource that is necessary to all life. What alternatives do we have to modifying waterways?

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Safe Drinking Water

Every living thing requires clean water to thrive and survive. Globally, hundreds of millions of people lack access to this basic need, and more than 2 billion people rely on water sources that are contaminated with human waste. The natural systems that provide us with drinking water, such as aquifers, are being depleted and are threatened by pollution. It is estimated that in the next 10 years half of the global population will rely on stressed sources of drinking water. It is a human right to have access to safe drinking water. Fresh water is necessary in processes such as energy production and agriculture, yet some of these processes can harm or compromise the drinkability of water. It is essential that we consider the impacts of our actions on our limited water resources. What policies or regulations can help protect our drinking water and how can we adapt how fresh water is used to protect it from harm?

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Connecting Population to Water in Your Video

Hopefully this post has helped broaden your thinking on ways our human numbers impact water systems as you consider your video entry for the World of 7 Billion student contest. As you explore these topics, think about how these issues affect your own community, city, country, or another place that interests you. What population changes are happening there? What problems do growing populations have, or might they have? How can you create a sustainable solution? We look forward to seeing your ideas and videos!