Green Guidance

Green Guidance

Cultivating Clean Water

by Mindy Pennybacker


Summer is a thirsty time for us all, but we can't all safely quench our thirst. Worldwide, more than one in five people-1.2 billion in all-does not have a regular supply of clean drinking water, according to the World Health Organization. More than 90 percent of people in the Middle East live in areas of water stress, where fresh water is being consumed more quickly than it can be replenished.

Developed nations, too, are trying to cope with water scarcity and pollution, problems exacerbated by droughts and violent storms possibly due to global warming. "Safe drinking water will almost certainly be the single most limited natural resource worldwide in the twenty-first century," notes Peter Rogers, Ph.D., professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University.

Aside from drowning one's sorrows with some other liquid, what's a consumer to do? The key is to see ourselves as part of the flow. Whether our drinking water trickles from a mountain stream or is pumped from an aquifer, we can take several measures to keep it clean and safe:

8 Conserve water. Moderating use for washing, flushing, and watering saves potable water for drinking and helps prevent pollution caused by overpumping of aquifers. The average faucet delivers more than 11 liters of water per minute, so turn off the tap when brushing your teeth and while soaping in the shower, and you'll save as much as 150 liters. Water your lawn between dusk and dawn to slow evaporation, and use rainwater, drip irrigation systems, and less-thirsty native plants. Reduce runoff by covering outdoor surfaces with plants, bricks, or gravel rather than smooth pavement. Go for water-saving washing machines, showerheads, and toilets.

8 Urge government cleanups of underground storage tanks. In the United States alone, more than 100 million people drink groundwater from areas where underground storage tanks leak toxic substances, including the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), benzene, toluene, and heavy metals, according to the Sierra Club.

8 Protect your watershed from development. Worldwide, watershed areas are being polluted by agriculture and by residential and industrial development. This pollution, plus the diversion of water for these uses, affects stream flow and aquatic ecosystems as well as our drinking water. Urge your representatives to support the purchase of buffer lands around aquifers, as New York City has done to protect its Catskill reservoirs.

8 Buy products from farms that embrace watershed protection. A 1999 U.S. Geological Survey study found that more than 95 percent of U.S. streams contained at least one pesticide. Certified organic farmers and ranchers, however, cannot use toxic synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that seep into water and threaten human and animal health. They must also maintain buffer zones near water bodies, plant cover crops, and till the soil in ways that prevent runoff and erosion. Look for foods and cotton that are certified organic or carry labels (such as Protected Harvest in the United States) granted to farmers who meet stringent environmental growing standards.

8 Buy products of sustainably managed forests. Standing forests serve as filters that help keep streams clean. Choose shade-grown organic coffee and cocoa purchased from fair-trade co-ops that invest in better life conditions, including clean water, in farming areas. The Gayo Organic Coffee Farmers Association in Aceh, Indonesia, used its fair trade funds to produce a potable water system. Look also for the Forest Stewardship Council label on wood products, for post-consumer-waste recycled paper products, and for non-timber forest products such as flowers, plant oils, personal care products, handicrafts, nuts, fruits, and honey.


Mindy Pennybacker is editor of The Green Guide, published by The Green Guide Institute (, which provides the research for this department.