California’s decision to sharply restrict water usage is the latest reminder that the earth’s water resources are being stretched to their limit, as the world’s population grows and climate change warms the planet.
California’s new rules could be just the beginning in the United States, which uses vast quantities of water on a per person basis compared to less-developed countries, and compared to most developed ones. Arizona could be out of water in six years. Utah’s Lake Powell is at record lows. Parts of Texas have officially been in a drought since 2010.
By some measures, the United States isn’t quite the thirstiest country in the world. According to the United Nations’ Aquastat, US “total water withdrawal” per capita lags behind several low- and medium-income countries, as well as its well-developed neighbor to the north. Aquastat defines this measure as the “annual quantity of water withdrawn for agricultural, industrial and municipal purposes,” including renewable fresh water:
But not being at the top of this list is hardly a reason for praise. Central Asia’s high water usage is thanks to the region’s history as agricultural suppliers to Russia, and its antiquated irrigation systems. The region’s Aral Sea has practically disappeared because water supplies were diverted to farming.
When you look at domestic water use, the US and other developed countries rank high, especially when the amount of water used to grow foods and produce the goods that people use is factored in. Raising beef cattle is a particularly water-intense activity, and Americans are among the biggest consumers of beef in the world.
Here’s a ranking of individuals’ “blue water footprint,” a methodology used by UNESCO, which refers to the surface and ground water used as a result of goods and services consumed per person:
In terms of how much water is used directly per person per day, from taps, showers and toilets and other sources, Americans again rank among the highest in the world, if not the highest. This data is pulled from individual government reports, because there is no globally-compiled ranking. The US figure is the high end of the USGS range:
Americans aren’t showering or bathing more often than most other nations, but they seem to be using more water doing so (and flushing their toilets). That daily use is what California is starting to rein in. Residents were previously asked to voluntarily cut their water use by 20%, now a 25% cut will be mandatory.
California, it turns out, is hardly the worst offender among US states. That title belongs to the fast-growing Rocky Mountains area: