Water Worries

Currently, I’m in a class called “Water for the World,” which highlights water scarcity and disparity around the world. Although some parts of the world have an abundance of water (ex. Canada), others do not (looking at you, California). Some places that may have water may not have poor water quality and cannot be consumed by humans. The class additionally introduces water quality treatment methods. Since the professor was away one class, we got to watch a documentary called “Last Call at the Oasis,” a documentary about water that is split into three parts: Water availability, water quality and human health, and water policies and water wars.

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Image from http://cdn2-b.examiner.com

Some parts of the film are not new to me. For instance, the water use relationship between farmers and cities. Agriculture worldwide consumes 70% of fresh water consumed. This is due largely in part to inefficient irrigation practices, especially flood irrigation. In some places, the amount of water available to consumers is declining, forcing cities and farmers to enter into a discussion of how farmers can adopt less wasteful techniques and cities to consume the water that would have been wasted. The movie highlights how high tensions can get, since it featured a discussion between water resources experts and farmers, where the water resources experts stated the best direction to save water would be for farmers to cease all agricultural activities. You can imagine that didn’t go over well.

An image used from the film depicting a sign in a farm in the California Valley. Image from spiritualityandpractice.com

Other parts of the film were more illuminating to me. Since becoming more and more interested in water resources, I have learned that often times, pharmaceuticals are not filtered out in water quality treatment processes. For example, a human consumes an antibiotic, which is ultimately flushed out of the system (as urine). Through water quality treatment processes, the waste water is ultimately refined and safe for human consumption except for the fact that the antibiotic has not been filtered out. (Usually heavy metals and bacteria are filtered out.) As a result, nature that comes into contact with the treated waste water is impacted as well as human health. It’s not just the water you drink, but the water you bathe in, too, that can result in detrimental effects on human health. Once professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes, studies frogs and the impact fertilizers, which are also not always completely filtered out, have on frogs. Due to the chemicals in the fertilizers, the frogs he was studying became hermaphrodites. Another figure featured in the film, Erin Brockovich, was working with a small town in Texas riddled with skyrocketing cancer rates to address the water quality issues coming from their very own drinking water.

LAST CALL AT THE OASIS, biologist Tyrone Hayes, 2011. ©ATO Pictures
Biologist Tyrone Hayes, 2011. ©ATO Pictures
Erin Brockovich lending her expertise to a town in West Virginia, faced with water quality issues after a chemical spill. Image from dailymail.co.uk.

Before realizing how pharmaceuticals and fertilizers can impact our water quality and inadvertently human health, I was under the impression that water quality issues have largely to do with bacteria, such as fecal coliform, and that many of the water treatment processes in developed countries had successfully removed contaminants to be concerned about. I knew how runoff from agricultural farms and animal feedlots can severely impact water quality, but I had no idea that we could and should still be concerned about our water. Understandably, this documentary is supposed to shock audiences and prompt discussions and searches for solutions. Needless to say, I felt utterly shocked upon learning about water quality issues in developed countries. This film was released a few years ago, and certainly regulations have changed. However, I find more and more importance on being a concerned citizen, in that I question how things work and what can be done to result in change. In the words of my Global Sustainability professor, “Think globally, act locally.” On a local scale, where do you get your water from? Are you facing water scarcity issues? What is treated in your water? What isn’t? Are you happy with the answers? How can you change them? Start asking questions. You could find yourself amazed at what you discover.

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