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How we use water

World Water Day 2024

Every year on the 22nd of March, World Water Day is observed internationally. It is a UN observance day, with the aim to highlight the importance of freshwater.

Our lives have been tied to water since the very beginning

It is no coincidence that cities like London, Paris and New York straddle vast rivers. We depend on water for our survival. For millions of years, our ancestors chased after this precious resource, but a few thousand years ago modern humans started to tame it.

The major technological advancement that changed our relationship with water was agriculture. From around 10,000 BCE humans gradually stopped hunting and gathering, and began cultivating crops and keeping livestock. Pioneering farmers in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia dug drains and channels to regulate water flow to their fields, and in Ancient China, the Yangtze river basin was adapted to create paddy fields for growing rice.

This infrastructure paved the way for the expansion of local settlements, and as water communities worked together to handle periods of flood and drought, they transformed arid landscapes into productive oases. The ability to develop the land and to grow food to meet or even exceed demand, has been one of the keystones in the development of the modern world. To this day, agriculture is still the single largest use of freshwater on the planet, accounting for almost three quarters of the water we use each day.

Water is also used for transport and exploration, and carried our ancestors and their belongings to all corners of the Earth. This facilitated a global trade of objects and ideas, paving the way for the development of new technologies, like the water wheel. First used to move water from one place to another, water wheels were later harnessed to perform work. The Ancient Greeks were some of the first to capture their power to grind grain more than 2,000 years ago. By 1880, this technology had been adapted to produce electricity to power lights and today we have transformed the old-fashioned water wheel into modern hydroelectric turbines.

The invention of the water wheel led to the development of pumps and valves, and when the first reliable steam engine was built in 1775, it drove the Industrial Revolution and changed the world forever.

Today, around 20 per cent of the water used every day on this planet is consumed by industry, playing a vital role in the generation of power and in the manufacture of goods. Only a small amount of water is used in the home — much of this for cleaning and sanitation — and amazingly, just fractions of a per cent of our daily freshwater is actually used for drinking.

Source: The science collection

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