“Get out of the shower!” your little brother shouts as he bangs on the washroom door. “You’ve been in there for twenty minutes!”
During the 20 minutes you spend in the shower, you use up approximately 400 liters of water (Environment Canada, Quick Facts). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) performed the ghusl, a complete bath, with one saa` of water — that’s just 2.03 liters.
Abu Ja`far narrated: While I and my father were with Jabir bin `Abdullah, some people asked him about taking a bath. He replied, “A saa` of water is sufficient for you.” A man said, “A saa` is not sufficient for me.” Jabir said, “A saa` was sufficient for one who had more hair than you and was better than you [meaning the Prophet].” (Al-Bukhari).
You may ask, “How is that possible? Taking a shower in six cups of water? The times sure have changed.” You’re right. Times have changed. The problem of water scarcity is worse today than during the time of the Prophet.
We have come to passively accept the luxurious North American lifestyle. While the average Canadian uses 335 liters of water per day, the average sub-Saharan African uses 10-20 liters per day (Environment Canada, “How Do We Use It?”).
It may seem impossible for us in North America to conceive, but in today’s world, the level of conservation practiced by the Prophet has become a necessity. These statistics may explain why:
- Less than 0.5% of all water on Earth is freshwater suitable for human use. The rest is seawater or frozen in the polar ice caps (Barlow).
- 1.4 billion people, that is 20% of the world’s population, lack access to an adequate supply of clean drinking water (Ward).
- Global water consumption is doubling every 20 years, at more than twice the rate of human population growth (Barlow).
- 31 countries currently face water scarcity (Barlow).
- More than half the world’s major rivers are either polluted or drying (Ward).
- In developing countries, water causes 80% of illnesses. Each year three to four million people die of waterborne diseases (Environment Canada, Quickfacts).
- By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in conditions of water shortage and one-third will live in absolute water scarcity (Barlow).
“What we call man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument.” (C.S. Lewis).
The problem isn’t the amount of water. The amount of water on Earth remains constant — it doesn’t increase or decrease — and there is enough to meet everyone’s needs. The problem is unequal access and use.
Different regions of the world naturally hold different amounts of freshwater. India, for example, holds 20% of the world’s population but only 4% of its water (Ward).
This natural division of water is easy for governments to overcome with the right technology. The problem of water scarcity arises when limited water is coupled with social inequalities and political agendas. Who gets access to a region’s water and how they use it is usually determined by who has power and money.
Capitalism is increasingly privatizing water by large transnational corporations who own it and sell it like a commodity. Hungry for profit, these corporations drive the price of water out of reach of poor people and deliver it to those wealthy individuals and industries that can pay for it.
Only the wealthy who can install plumbing systems receive subsidized municipal water, leaving the poorest in developing countries to pay the highest price for water. In Lima, Peru, poor people pay private vendors up to US$3 per cubic meter for water that is supplied in buckets and isn’t even potable.
At the same time, the affluent pay US$0.30 per cubic meter for treated water that pours out of taps in their homes (Barlow). In India, some households spend 25% of their income on water (Barlow). During droughts, governments often reserve water for the elite who can pay for it.
Industries, also hungry for profit, require vast amounts of water. It takes 215,000 liters of water to produce one metric ton of steel (Environment Canada, Quickfacts). Industries purchase access to a region’s water at subsidized rates from the government.
Most of the world’s freshwater is naturally stored under the ground. Industries pump this groundwater faster than it can replenish itself, causing the land to collapse and thus permanently destroying its ability to store water.
In the Arabian Peninsula, groundwater use is three times as great as recharge. At current rates of extraction, Saudi Arabia will reach total depletion in 50 years (Barlow).
In developing countries, industries dump 75% of their untreated wastes into local water bodies (Barlow). When the environment is sufficiently damaged and water disappears, industries move elsewhere, leaving a region’s residents in scarcity.
The politics of power and money also determine which countries can secure water. Since most rivers and groundwater aquifers cross national boundaries, many experts believe that future conflicts in the world will likely involve water.
In the early 1970s, Syria and Iraq almost went to war over the waters of the Euphrates when Syria built a dam at Tabaq, blocking a quarter of the river’s flow to Iraq (Ward).
Ten African countries share the waters of the Nile and each wants a share of the river. To protect its Nile water supply, Egypt in the past has threatened to use its size, wealth, and power go to war against Ethiopia, a country where water flows abundantly but millions starve to death each year (Ward).
In 1978, for example, Egypt’s then president Anwar Sadat stated, “any action that would endanger the water of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war” (Kendie).
Where Do We Fit In?
The problem of water scarcity isn’t confined to the developing world. Its roots are connected to us and the way we live in North America. North Americans are the worst hoarders of water.
While millions go without water, North Americans use 1,280m³ of water per person every year; Europeans use 694; Asians use 535; South Americans use 311; and Africans use 186 (Barlow).
While North Americans can boast large water supplies — Canada contains one quarter of the world’s freshwater — our extravagant habits won’t save us from danger for long. Water levels in the Great Lakes reached record lows in recent years (Barlow).
USA depletes the Ogallala groundwater aquifer in the US High Plains eight times as fast as nature can replenish it, causing the land to drop at least a meter each year (Barlow). Americans have dammed, diverted, and polluted the Colorado River until little or no water reaches its destination at sea (Barlow).
The extravagances of our North American lifestyle — lawn sprinklers, frequent car washes, sprawling golf courses, abundant swimming pools, dripping taps, and toilets that consume 18 liters of water per flush — fool us into believing we are safe (Barlow).
They help us ignore the world’s water crisis or accept it with a shrug. The principle of “We have so let’s use it now and think about the future later” prevails in most North American minds.
Waste Waste Waste
Consider Las Vegas, a city that receives 3.8 inches of rainfall in an average year — comparable to dry areas of Saudi Arabia and the Western Sahara. This desert city sparkles and splashes with the idea that water is limitless.
The Hotel Luxor in Las Vegas boasts five-story waterfalls, shark tanks, a 1.3-million gallon dolphin pool, and a miniature Nile River with a boat ride.
A full-sized pirate ship sinks again and again into a man-made river that circles the Treasure Island Hotel. The Hotel Bellagio stands beside an 8-acre artificial lake with hundreds of fountains spitting 200 feet into the air.
The city flaunts colossal fountains, golf courses, manmade lakes, swimming pools, and even a sailing club. According to Las Vegas Water Commissioner, Patricia Mulroy, each acre-foot of “decorative water” in the city generates US$30 million. Hence the saying, “Water flows uphill to money” (Ward).
How Do We Respond?
“We live in the world’s most technically sophisticated society, yet we are now right back where we were three thousand years ago, praying for rain.” (Garrett Ward). Every person on the planet has a right to adequate water.
The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Muslims have a common share in three (things): grass, water, and fire.” (Abu Dawud).
Jabir bin ‘Abdullah narrated: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade the sale of excess water. (Muslim).
Ideally, basic water needed for survival should be free, equally available to everyone, and legally protected from waste and contamination. Current global practices and policies are obviously unjust.
We are also responsible for such injustices we see around us, as the Qur’an outlines: [Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity.] (Surat Aal `Imran 3:104).
Yet, as individuals we have little control over international water politics and policies. How then should we respond to the global water crisis?
Ways to Begin With
- Don’t lose hope. Although the situation looks bleak, don’t let it depress you. The Qur’an tells us that [Allah is the Creator of all things, and He is Guardian over all things.] (Surat Az-Zumar 39:62).
You and I are only responsible for making an effort. Allah takes care of the results. He knows what’s best for us and He is the Most Just, whether that justice comes in this life or in the next.
- Be grateful. Allah granted North Americans an abundant supply of fresh, clean water without any effort from us. Allah asks us in the Qur’an, [Have you considered the water which you drink? Is it you that send it down from the clouds, or are We the senders? If We pleased, We would have made it salty; why do you not then give thanks?] (Surat Al-Waqi`ah 56:68-70).
And has also said in the Qur’an, [Say: Have ye thought: If (all) your water were to disappear into the earth, who then could bring you gushing water?] (Surat Al-Mulk 67:30).
Water isn’t simply “there” and it doesn’t “fall by itself.” As we read in numerous verses of the Qur’an, Allah “sends down water from the sky.” Allah is the only one who can continue our supply of water and if He wishes, He can remove it any time.
- Raise awareness among your friends and family. Participate in efforts, such as letter-writing campaigns to lobby the government over its international water-related decisions. Join conservation groups in your area that protect local water resources. Many organizations look for volunteers to clean up river banks, monitor water quality, or educate school groups.
- Change your habits. Although we can’t always control the actions of governments, we can control our own use of water. Allah rewards us for every step we take towards change. Resist the North American habit to overuse and waste water. The Qur’an tells us: [And render to the kindred their due rights, as (also) to those in want, and to the wayfarer: But squander not (your wealth) in the manner of a spendthrift. Verily spendthrifts are brothers of the Evil Ones; and the Evil One is to his Lord (himself) ungrateful.] (Surat Al-Israa’ 17:26-27).
The holy Qur’an also tells us, [Eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters.] (Surat Al-A`raf 7:31).
Just because we have abundant water, that doesn’t mean we should use it. Begin to fulfill your trust and responsibility towards Allah by conserving the water you use at home.
10 Ways to Conserve Water
- Don’t use your toilet as a wastebasket or flush it unnecessarily. Toilets consume a quarter of our municipal water supply and use 40% more water than needed (Environment Canada, Quickfacts).
- Turn off the tap when you brush your teeth or soap dishes.
- Keep a bottle of drinking water in the fridge. Don’t run your tap for cold water.
- Run your dishwasher and washing machine only when they are full.
- Check pipes and faucets for leaks and fix them. Many homes lose more water from leaking taps than they need for cooking and drinking (Environment Canada, Quickfacts).
- Install low-flow shower heads and flow-restrictors on faucets. A 5-minute shower with a standard shower head uses 100 liters of water while a low-flow shower head uses 35 liters of water (Environment Canada, Quickfacts).
- Water your lawn every third day and water during the cool times of the day.
- Sweep patios and sidewalks, don’t hose them.
- Limit pesticides on your lawn to prevent them from reaching our water supply.
- Drive less! It takes approximately 10 liters of water to produce a liter of gasoline (Environment Canada, Quickfacts).
[He it is Who hath placed you as viceroys of the earth and hath exalted some of you in rank above others, that He may try you by (the test of) that which He hath given you. Lo! Thy Lord is swift in prosecution, and Lo! He verily is Forgiving, Merciful.] (Surat Al-An`am 6:165).
This article is from Science’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.
- Barlow, Maude. Blue Gold. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 2002.
- Environment Canada. “Quickfacts.” Freshwater Website. Accessed 15 Mar. 2006.
- Environment Canada. “How Do We Use It?” Freshwater Website: Did You Know? (Water – Domestic Use). Accessed 15 Mar. 2006.
- Kendie, Daniel. “Egypt and the Hydro-Politics of the Blue Nile River.” Northeast African Studies 6.1-2 (1999): 141-169.
- Ward, Diane R. Water Wars. New York: Riverhead Books, 2002.