Action speaks louder than words on World Water Day

Rational and ethical arguments for water conservation need to be supplemented with grassroots initiatives, say the Emirates Wildlife Society.

A man waters ( water ) city grass in Abu Dhabi.
( Ryan Carter / The National )

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Tomorrow, many organisations around the UAE will be commemorating World Water Day, using it as an opportunity to raise awareness on water issues, both globally and locally. Globally, the issues associated with water are scarcity, quality and equity. More than one billion people around the world do not have access to clean water for their basic needs. Each year, 1.8 million children die from water-borne diseases. In Africa, more than 40 billion hours are spent each year in a gruelling plight to find and collect water. In the Palestinian territories, there is less water per capita available for its inhabitants than anywhere on the planet.

Locally, the issue of water is very much one of energy and waste. The major source of water for household and commercial needs, including drinking water, is desalination. The process is an essential but grossly energy-intensive process that pollutes the environment and is costly. In fact it costs more to produce one litre of water in the UAE than oil. Furthermore, in the UAE we consume more than three times the global average, making us one of the largest water consumers per capita in the world. Much of this consumption is wasted because of choices such as washing your car daily with a hose instead of using a bucket (wastes 180 litres per wash); landscaping with thirsty plants instead of a drought-tolerant species; watering plants when the sun is high and thus wasting up to 50 per cent of it due to evaporation; and leaving your taps running while you are brushing your teeth, washing your vegetables and shaving, which together waste more than 34 litres of water a day.

All this waste adds up and as a nation we have become huge wasters. In the context of more than 1.1 billion people with no access to water, as well as the UAE facing a water shortage in the near future, there is a rational and ethical need to reduce our wastage. But are the rational and ethical arguments enough of an impetus to act? At the Emirates Wildlife Society-WWF, we believe that the rational and ethical arguments need to be supplemented with grassroots community-based initiatives. Changing behaviours does not only occur by raising awareness. Rather, it occurs through a complex interplay between access to knowledge and information, incentives for better behaviour, leadership by example and spreading this news by word of mouth.

Currently, it seems that conserving water is a marginal activity and that wasting is the norm, where it is OK to hose down cars every day, or to leave leaking pipes and sprinklers gushing water on pavements. What needs to happen is to turn the norm on its head - where wasteful behaviour is marginalised and water conservation becomes the new norm. We want to see a UAE where everyone uses a bucket and a sponge instead of a hose to wash their car, where taps are turned off when not in use and where water is seen as a precious resource that is not to be wasted.

The success factor for this change lies in the hands of the community. As more people conserve water and spread the word, the more it will inspire their neighbours, colleagues, friends and family to replicate action in their own homes. Action is influenced by the norm, and if the norm is wastage and apathy, it spreads. However, if the norm is elevated to undergoing simple action to conserve water, then this is what the community will adopt. And this is the imperative: to focus on simple tasks, act by doing and let other people know.

To become part of this community movement, join