Water conservation is the use and management of water for the good of all consumers. It is used in agriculture, industry, and the home. Human requirements for agricultural production, flood control, fish and wildlife management, navigation, industrial production, and many other uses have amended natural hydrologic processes.
The hydrosphere refers to that portion of Earth that is made of water, including all oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, glaciers, and underground water. Less than 3% of the water of Earth is freshwater, an amount that includes polar ice caps, glaciers, groundwater, surface water of rivers and freshwater lakes, and even atmospheric water. However, the amount of freshwater useable by people and other members of the biosphere is less than 0.7% of the total (this is water in rivers and lakes, and in the ground). This relatively small amount of available freshwater is recycled and purified by the action of processes within the hydrologic cycle, including evaporation, condensation, precipitation, and percolation through the ground. All life depends on the availability of freshwater.
Of all the freshwater used directly by humans, agricultural irrigation accounts for about 70% of the total. The remainder is used for industrial and domestic purposes. However, these proportions vary widely due to the climatic and economic conditions of the particular locality. Within this century, one-third of the countries situated in areas of water scarcity may encounter severe water shortages. By 2025, two thirds of the world’s population is likely to live in areas of moderate or severe water shortage. The need for more effective conservation of the limited supplies of water that are available for use by people and required by natural ecosystems will intensify as water stress grows.
Available freshwater resources are either ground-water or surface water (rivers and lakes). Water that flows on the surface of the land is surface runoff. The relationship among surface runoff, precipitation, evaporation, and percolation is summarized in the following equation:
Surface runoff = precipitation– (evaporation+ percolation)
When surface runoff resulting from rainfall or snowmelt is confined to a relatively narrow, well-defined channel, it is called a river or stream.
Groundwater is that water that has percolated downward through the soil and is present within porous spaces in soil and bedrock. It has been estimated that the global groundwater resource is equivalent to about 34 times the volume of all surface waters (i.e., rivers and lakes) of the world. This resource is present nearly everywhere and has the additional advantages of typically needing no storage or treatment. Utilization does require the construction of a well, sometimes presenting a problem in the most needy locations.
Water utilization efficiency is measured by the ratio of water withdrawal and its subsequent consumption. Water withdrawal is water pumped from rivers, reservoirs, or groundwater wells, and is then transported for use. Water consumption is water that is withdrawn and actually used for some specific purpose. It is then returned to the environment through evaporation, transpiration, discharge to a river or lake, or in some other way.
Water consumption varies greatly among regions due to differences in economic development. The average municipal use in the United States is about 150 gal (568 l) per person per day, though the rate can be higher than 350 gal (1324 l) in some locations. This includes home use for bathing, waste disposal, and gardening, as well as institutional and commercial usage. Per capita (per person) water usage in Asia is only 22 gal (85 l) per day, and just 12 gal (47 l) in Africa.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations, people have a minimum water requirement of about 5 gal (20 l) per person per day. This is the minimum amount needed for physiological rehydration, cooking, washing, and other subsistence requirements. However, the WHO estimates that nearly two billion people consume contaminated water. This carries a significant risk of developing such water-borne diseases as cholera, dysentery, polio, or typhoid, which kill about 25 million people per year. Both conservation and sanitation are obvious necessities in meeting the huge demand for freshwater.
Because irrigation accounts for 70% of the water used by humans worldwide, achieving a better efficiency of agricultural use is a logical step in advancing water conservation. This can be accomplished by lining water delivery systems with concrete or other impervious materials to minimize loss by leaking during transport, and by using drip-irrigation systems to minimize losses by evaporation. Drip-irrigation systems have been successfully used on fruit trees, certain row-crops, and horticultural plants. Conservation can also be accomplished by improving the efficiency of utilization of water by crops, including the cultivation of plants that are less demanding of moisture.
Subsurface irrigation is an emerging technology with high water-utilization efficiency. Subsurface irrigation uses a drip-irrigation tubing buried 6 to 8 in (15 to 20 cm) underground, with a spacing of 12 to 24 in (30 to 60 cm) between parallel lines. The tubing contains drip outlets that deliver water and nutrients within the root zone at a desired rate. In addition to water conservation, subsurface irrigation has other advantages that overhead sprinklers do not: minimal over watering, fewer disease and aeration problems, less runoff and erosion, fewer weeds, and better protection from vandalism. However, this system is relatively expensive to install. In California, subsurface irrigation has been used on fruit trees, field crops, and lawns, and has achieved water-use savings of about 50%. However, this methodology can, in arid environments, lead to the buildup of soil salinity levels, damaging plants and reducing crop yields. Balancing the water needs of the plant with maintenance of soil quality is an important component of water conservation measures. Technologically advanced irrigation systems now incorporate climate-based controls. These systems utilize meteorological information to determine the need for irrigation and modify the length and duration of irrigation to match the plant’s requirements. Though these systems are currently used primarily on large-scale applications, development of economical models for the small-scale user is underway.
Xeriscaping, or the cultivation of plants requiring little water, is an especially suitable horticultural practice for conserving water in regions with a dry, hot climate. For example, over much of the southwestern United States, more than 50% of the domestic water consumption may be used to irrigate lawns and other horticultural plants that are intolerant of drought. Xeriscaping uses plants such as cacti, succulents, and shrubs of semi-desert habitat (such as trailing rosemary Rosemarinus officinale and rock rose Cistus cobariensis ), which are well-adapted to a hot, dry climate and need little water.
Water conservation can also be advanced by improving other domestic uses of water. One simple conservation practice is to install ultra-low-flush (ULF) toilets and low-flow showerheads in homes and other buildings. A ULF toilet uses only 1.6 gal (6.1 l) per flush, compared to 5 to 7 gal by a standard toilet. Replacing a standard toilet with an ULF saves about 30 to 40 gal (114 to 151 l) of water per day, equivalent to 10,000 to 16,000 gal (37,850 to 60,560 l) per year. More recently, advanced toilets and urinals requiring no water have been developed and are beginning to be utilized on a limited basis.
Another way to conserve the freshwater supply is to desalinize seawater. Desalinization is the removal of salts and other impurities from seawater by either distillation or reverse osmosis (RO), and this method is being increasingly used to provide high-quality water for drinking, cooking, and other domestic uses. In 2004, the world production of desalinated water was at least 40 billion gallons per day (150 billion liters), most of which was produced in Saudi Arabia and other nations of the Gulf of Arabia, where energy costs are relatively low (the cost of desalinated water is highly sensitive to the cost of energy). The largest desalination plant in the world (Shoaiba Desalination Plant) is located in Saudi Arabia, and it uses reverse osmosis to produce half of its country’s drinking water. Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water in the world with desalination providing 70% of the country’s drinking water. Desalinization is also practiced in California and Florida, where the cost is about three dollars per thousand gallons, which is four to five times the cost paid for domestic water by typical urban consumers in the United States, and more than 100 times the cost paid by farmers for water for irrigation. The process is also gaining popularity in Spain, Australia, and China.
Widespread recognition of the importance of reusing water has begun to change traditional water use methods. As the value of water increases, users are willing to employ methods that may increase the initial cost of a project, with the hope of regaining those costs through water savings in the future. One of the first of these reuse applications was the irrigation of golf courses and landscaping. In many areas, treated waste-water is diverted from its normal disposal path to be reused in irrigation. This has gained in popularity and is also utilized in small artificial ponds for decorative purposes. Graywater systems capture water that drains from sinks, tubs, laundry, and dishwashers for reuse in irrigation. Graywater systems do not incorporate toilet wastes because of the potential health threat. Dual plumbing is required for such a system and some treatment is required prior to reuse. Though home construction costs are obviously increased by including a graywater system, many have become dedicated believers in the benefits of water reuse, while others question the economic benefit of small-scale systems.
Drip irrigation —A method of irrigation utilizing small, low-flow emitters that are located at or above the plant root zone. Designed to reduce the quantity of water lost to evaporation.
Graywater —Used wash water collected from sinks, laundry, etc. that is reused for irrigation. Graywater does not include toilet wastes.
Per capita usage —The amount used by one person in a given amount of time.
Reverse osmosis —A process for purification of water in which water is forced through a semi-permeable membrane, retaining most ions while transmitting the water.
Tiered pricing —A system of pricing in which unit quantities of a commodity are priced with increasingly higher rates, such that, higher rates of usage result in rapidly increasing costs for the consumer.
The widespread application of graywater systems has, however, been hampered by codes and laws that make such systems illegal in many locations.
As the availability of water becomes more restricted, the costs to both the provider and consumer are increased. In a situation unique to the water supply industry, providers are frequently placed in the position of trying to convince consumers to use less of the commodity that they supply. Most large water providers have departments dedicated to education of the public with regard to conservation. In general, these education efforts have been largely ineffective and conservation of freshwater resources has been best achieved through economic incentives. Water providers frequently provide rebates for those consumers that are willing to change from older technology to newer, such as low-flush toilets and modern washing machines, convert to water efficient landscaping, or otherwise demonstrate lower water usage. Greatest effect has been achieved through tiered pricing. In this pricing structure, users are charged higher rates for each successive unit, or block, of water used. The rate structure penalizes heavy users with greatly increased rates. This technique has been shown to be highly effective in reducing overall usage. In Tucson, Arizona, for example, an increasing tiered price structure resulted in decreased usage of 26% over a three-year period. Additionally, some communities have implemented the use of water conservation monitors and water waste hotlines to penalize those that continue to waste the resource. Many communities currently limit the type and size of landscaping, the time and nature of outdoor water use, and in extreme cases, have completely banned outdoor water use during crisis periods.
Throughout history, the availability of water has been a vital factor in the rise and fall of human cultures. This is largely because water is a limiting factor for the carrying capacity for human activities in any region. It is crucial that humans learn to live within the limits of available natural resources, including the supply of fresh water. Because the supply of usable water is finite, the consumption per person must be reduced in regions that are using this resource excessively.
Editors of I.B. Tauris. A History of Water. London, UK, and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Hancock P.L., and Skinner B.J., eds. The Oxford Companion to the Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Haygarth, P.M., and S.C. Jarvis. Agriculture, Hydrology, and Water Quality. Wallingford, UK, and New York: CABI Publishing, 2002.
Herschy, Reginald, and Rhodes Fairbridge, eds. Encyclopedia of Hydrology and Water Resources. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishing, 1998.
Kandel, Robert S. Water from Heaven: The Story of Water from the Big Bang to the Rise of Civilization and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Lehr, Jay H., ed. Water Encyclopedia. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005.
Lide, D.R., ed. CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics Boca Raton: CRC Press, 2001.
McConnell, Robert, and Daniel Abel. Environmental Issues: Measuring, Analyzing, Evaluating. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.
Oxtoby, David W., et al. The Principles of Modern Chemistry. 5th ed. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 2002.
Vickers, Amy. Handbook of Water Use and Conservation. Amherst, MA: Waterplow Press, 2001.
California Urban Water Conservation Council. “H2OUSE: Water Saver Home” 2006. <http://www.h2ouse.org/> (accessed November 7, 2006).
“Greywater: What It Is, Ways To Treat It, Ways To Use It.” 2000. <http://www.greywater.com/> (accessed November 7, 2006).
International Food Policy Research Institute. “Domestic Water Supply, Hygiene, And Sanitation.” October 2001. <http://www.ifpri.cgiar.org/2020/focus/focus09/focus09_03.htm> (accessed November 7, 2006).
National Wildlife Federation. “Population, Water & Wildlife: Finding a Balance.” 2001. <http://www.nwf.org/nwfWebAdmin/binaryVault/PWWReport.pdf> (accessed November 7, 2006).
United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How to Conserve Water and Use It Effectively.” March 8, 2006. <http://www.epa.gov/water/you/chap3.html> (accessed November 7, 2006).
United States Environmental Protection Agency. “How We Use Water In These United States.” November 7, 2006. <http://www.epa.gov/water/you/chap1.html> (accessed November 7, 2006).
United States Geological Survey. “Thirsty? How ‘bout a Cool, Refreshing Cup of Seawater?” August 30, 2005. <http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/drinkseawater.html> (accessed November 7, 2006).
"Water Conservation." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/water-conservation-0
"Water Conservation." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/water-conservation-0
Seventy-one percent of the earth's surface is covered by water—an area called the hydrosphere, which makes up all of the oceans and seas of the world. Only 3% of the earth's entire water is freshwater. This includes Arctic and Antarctic ice, groundwater , and all the rivers and freshwater lakes. The amount of usable freshwater is only about 0.003% of the total. To put this small percentage in perspective, if the total water supply is equal to one gallon, the volume of the usable freshwater supply would be less than one drop. This relatively small amount of freshwater is recycled and purified by the hydrologic cycle , which includes evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff , and percolation . Since most of life on earth depends on the availability of freshwater, one can say "water is life."
Worldwide, agricultural irrigation uses about 80% of all freshwater. Cooling water for electrical power plants , domestic consumption, and other industry use the remaining 20%. This figure varies widely from place to place. For example, China uses 87% of its available water for agriculture. The United States uses 40% for agriculture, 40% for electrical cooling, 10% for domestic consumption, and 10% for industrial use.
Water conservation may be accomplished by improving crop water utilization efficiency and by decreasing the use of high-water-demanding crops and industrial products. The table shows the amount of water, in pounds, required to produce one pound of selected crops and industrial products (one gal = 7.8 lb).
Freshwater sources are either surface water (rivers and lakes) or groundwater. Water that flows on the surface of the land is called surface runoff. The relationship between surface runoff, precipitation, evaporation, and percolation is shown in the following equation: Surface runoff = precipitation - (evaporation + percolation): When surface runoff resulting from rainfall or snowmelt is confined to a well-defined channel it is called a river or stream runoff
Groundwater is surface water that has permeated through the soil particles and is trapped among porous soils and rock particles such as sandstone or shale. The upper zone of saturation , where all pores are filled with water, is the water table . It is estimated that the groundwater is equal to 40 times the volume of all earth's freshwater including all the rivers and freshwater lakes of the world.
The movement of groundwater depends on the porosity of the material that holds the water. Most groundwater is held within sedimentary aquifers. Aquifers are underground layers of rock and soil that hold and produce an appreciable amount of water and can be pumped economically.
Water utilization efficiency is measured by water withdrawal and water consumption. Water withdrawal is water that is pumped from rivers, reservoirs, or groundwater wells , and is transported elsewhere for use. Water consumption is water that is withdrawn and returned to its source due to evaporation or transpiration .
Water consumption varies greatly throughout the world. A conservative figure for municipal use in the United States is around 150 gal (568 L) per person per day. This includes home use for bathing, waste disposal, and landscape in addition to commercial and industrial use. The total water demand per person is around 4,500 gal (17,000 L) per person per day when one accounts for the production of food, fiber, and fuel. The consumptive use world wide is considerably less than that for the United States.
According to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), 5 gal (18 L) per person per day is considered a minimum water requirement. The majority of the people in the undeveloped world are unable to obtain the five gallon per day minimum requirement. The WHO estimates that nearly two billion people in the world risk consuming contaminated water. Waterborne diseases such as polio, typhoid, dysentery, and cholera kill nearly 25 million people per year. In order to meet this demand for freshwater, conservation is an obvious necessity.
Since irrigation consumes 80% of the world's usable water, improvements in agricultural use is the logical first step in water conservation. This can be accomplished by lining water delivery systems with concrete or other impervious materials to minimize deep percolation or by using drip irrigation systems to minimize evaporation losses. Drip irrigation systems have been successfully used on fruit trees, shrubs, and landscape plants.
Subsurface irrigation is an emerging technology with extremely high water utilization efficiency. Subsurface irrigation uses a special drip irrigation tubing that is buried 6–8 in (15–20 cm) underground with 12–24 in (26–50 cm) between lines. The tubing contains emitters, or drip outlets, that deliver water and dissolved nutrients at the plant's root zone at a desired rate. In addition to water conservation, subsurface irrigation has several advantages that overhead sprinklers do not: no overwatering, no disease or aeration problems, no runoff or erosion , no weeds, and no vandalism. Subsurface irrigation in California has been used on trees, field crops, and lawns with up to 50% water savings.
Xeriscape, the use of low water consuming plants, is a most suitable landscape to conserve water, especially in dry, hot urban regions such as the Southwestern United States, where approximately 50% of the domestic water consumption is used by lawns and non-drought tolerant landscape. Plants such as cacti and succulents, ceanothus, arctostaphylos, which is related to foothill manzanita, trailing rosemary (Rosemarinus officinale ), and white rock rose (Cistus cobariensis ) adapt well to hot, dry climates and help conserve water.
In addition to improving irrigation techniques, water conservation can be accomplished by improving domestic use of water. Such a conservation practice is the installation of the ultra-low-flush (ULF) toilets in homes and commercial buildings. A standard toilet uses 5–7 gal (19–26 L) of water per flush, while the ultra-low-flush toilet uses 1.5 gal (5.7 L). Research in Santa Monica, California, shows that replacing a standard toilet with an ULF saves 30–40 gal (114–151 L) of water per day, which is equivalent to 10,000–16,000 gal (37,850–60,500 L) per year.
Another way to conserve the freshwater supply is to extract freshwater from sea water by desalinization . Desalinization, the removal of soluble salts and other impurities from seawater by distillation or reverse osmosis (RO), is becoming an increasingly acceptable method to provide high quality pure water for drinking, cooking, and other home uses. It is estimated that the 1993 world production of desalinated water is about 3.5 billion gal (13 billion L) per day. Most desalinated water is produced in Saudi Arabia, Persian Gulf Nations, and, more recently, in California. The cost of desalinated water depends upon the cost of energy. In the United States, it is about three dollars per thousand gallons, which is four to five times the cost paid by urban consumers and over 100 times the cost paid by farmers for irrigation water. The idea of using desalinated water for irrigation is, currently, cost prohibitive.
Water has played a vital role in the rise and fall of human cultures throughout history. The availability of usable water has always been a limiting factor for a region's ecological carrying capacity . It is important that humans learn to live within the limit of available natural resources . Conservation of water alone will not extend the natural carrying capacity for an indefinite period of time. Since the supply of available and usable water is finite, the consumption per person must be reduced. A permanent solution to the water shortage problem can be accomplished by living within the ecosystem carrying capacity or by reducing the number of consumers through effective control of population growth .
[Muthena Naseri ]
Buzzelli, B. How to Get Water Smart: Products and Practices for Saving Water in the Nineties. Santa Barbara: Terra Firma Publishing, 1991.
Clarke, R. Water: The International Crisis. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993.
Yudelman. M., et al. New Vegetative Approaches to Soil and Water Conservation. Washington, DC: World Wildlife Fund, 1990.
Postel, S. "Plug the Leak, Save the City." International Wildlife 23 (January-February 1993): 38–41.
|Crop||Pounds of Water|
|1 lb. cotton||16,000|
|1 lb. beef||6,400|
|1 lb. rice||4,400|
|1 lb. loaf of bread||1,200|
|Industrial product||Pounds of Water|
|1 lb. aluminum||8,000|
|1 lb. paper||800|
|1 gallon gasoline||80|
"Water Conservation." Environmental Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/water-conservation
"Water Conservation." Environmental Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/water-conservation