In “The Wealth of Nations” from 1776, Adam Smith wrote, “nothing is more useful than water.” As much as the father of modern economics believed in a free market, that invisible hand occasionally reached for a glass of water like any other.
Adam Smith wrote the line above to describe the diamond-water paradox, explaining the difference in price and value between products. More than 225 years later, considering a monetary price for water does not justify the true value of water for each and every one of us. Like air, water is one of the few tangible things on earth that are truly priceless, yet people do not treat it as such.
Water resources is an environmental issue. As with all environmental issues, people will unfortunately continue to prioritize their everyday activities and ignore future problems. The thought of possibly apocalyptic changes from future environmental problems can put a damper on anybody’s day, so many choose to hope rather than plan. Nevertheless, water conservation is a manageable problem if simple concepts like taking five-minute showers and decreasing recreational water use move beyond a catchy Earth Day campaign.
Water scarcity may have been viewed as a problem to address in the future, but it can’t be viewed as such anymore. According to researchers at MIT, more than half of the world population will live in water-stressed areas by 2050.
South African officials predict that Cape Town will become the first major city to run out of water, turning off the valves for about a million homes in April of this year. City officials are preparing for Day Zero, the day when the city’s six-dam reservoir system will reach below 13.5 percent capacity. Some scientists point to climate change for the exacerbated water shortages, but what matters now is what we can do today to directly improve water management.
Water is a finite resource, yet some believe humans can just increase the potable water supply through desalination plants. Desalination, the process of removing salt from seawater, seems like a grand idea to solve the world’s water crisis, and South Africa is scrambling to finish three plants before Day Zero comes. However, water desalination has some drawbacks. Water supply will diminish to the point where the costs and energy necessary for desalination become feasible, but water drinkers of the world must also think of the treatment of water itself.
As much credit as people may want to give engineers, they can’t feasibility treat everything under the sun. In South Africa, researchers warn about the level of contamination in seawater from treated wastewater dumped into the ocean. Unlike the Safe Water Drinking Standards of the United States, other countries like South Africa require minimal, if any, treatment to wastewater before it is discharged. South Africa’s national water standards don’t go much further than the removal of sizable objects like diapers. Once South Africa turns on their desalination plants, city officials may be doing nothing more than giving their citizens a choice of dehydration or E. coli.
In a time when the nightmare of running out of water might become reality, experts still think the best solution to preventing Cape Town’s Day Zero lies with what most of us learned in elementary school. Ian Neilson, civil engineer and deputy mayor of Cape Town, estimates that decreasing daily water consumption by 25 percent will keep the water supply at a functional level until the rainy season starts in May. No matter how far technology develops or how much money investors pour into new ideas, simply conserving water was, is and always will be the most effective solution.
Some argue that humans insignificantly impact their environment. Some may even argue that climate change is just a scientific hoax. But, no one can argue the importance of water to all life. Water needs to be accurately treated to its value. If not, we will have to start planning for the realistic scenario where we turn a faucet handle and nothing comes out.
Joshua Udvary is a UF environmental engineering junior. His columns focus on science.