Sarah Kozicki is program associate for National Environmental Education Week (EE Week), a program of the National Environmental Education Foundation designed to connect educators with resources to improve K-12 students’ understanding of the environment. An annual event, EE Week will be held this year from April 11-17. For more information and to get involved, visit www.eeweek.org.
Have you had a glass of water to drink today? How much energy do you think went into treating and transporting that water from its source – probably a lake or aquifer – to your kitchen faucet?
In the United States, 13 percent of the total energy produced each year is used to treat, transport, and heat our water. While that sounds like a lot of energy, getting clean water in the United States is as easy as turning on the tap. In some places around the globe, it is not that simple.
In some parts of the world, water is pumped by hand to fill buckets that are carried by women and children from a public source to their homes
Photo Credit: WaterAid/
Water around the World: Carrying Water
In the United States and other developed countries, cleaned and treated fresh water is piped directly into our homes – we can turn on the tap for drinkable water any time. However, in less-developed countries, human energy is a necessary part of daily water use. About two-thirds of the world’s families do not have a water supply in their homes and must fetch water in jugs and buckets from wells, rivers, hand pumps, and other public sources. This water is usually collected and carried by women and children.In Asia and Africa, the average woman walks a total of 3.7 miles to collect and carry fresh water home each day. The average weight of water that a woman in Africa and Asia will carry is about 40 pounds! Water is usually carried on the head, back or hips, which can cause severe health problems. On average, a person living in sub-Saharan Africa uses four gallons of water a day, while someone in the United States uses 82 gallons of water a day or more.
each day to fetch enough water for their families
Photo Credit: WaterAid/Layton Thompson
How many trips would you have to make if you had to carry all the water your family uses in a day?
Water in Extreme Environments: Melting Snow
On the frozen snow and icescapes of Antarctica,scientists are hard at
work monitoring ozone and greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere and
studying the biology of the unique ecosystems on the southernmost
continent. Scientists living in Antarctica have the same basic needs as
people everywhere do, including access to fresh water. But in
Antarctica, turning on the tap isn’t always an option. People living in
research camps have to collect and melt snow to use for drinking,
cooking, and cleaning.
Imagine shoveling snow – by hand – into a snow melter
to get the fresh water you need for daily use
Photo by Heidi Roop (PolarTREC 2009), Courtesy of ARCUS
Melting snow for water isn’t easy. First, scientists and support staff
living in research camps have to gear up for extreme cold and shovel
the snow, either by hand, or by using heavy machinery. They fill a snow
melter and let it go to work, melting down enough snow for the entire
camp to meet its basic water needs. That’s a lot of snow–and energy!
A snow melter is used to obtain fresh water at some
Antarctic research stations
Photo by Gary Wesche (PolarTREC 2009), Courtesy of ARCUS
The energy required to get fresh water in Antarctica – human energy to
shovel snow and electrical energy to power the snow melter – limits the
amount each person can use, so water conservation is an important part
of daily life in a research camp. The snow melters at the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide use 4,000-watt electric immersion
heaters–energy that comes from fuel-powered generators. Fuel is
precious on Antarctica, as it has to be flown in. Because of limited
fuel supply, people at WAIS Divide are limited to one two-minute shower
a week, after which they must shovel snow into a 45-gallon barrel and
dump it into the snow melter so that it’s ready for the next person. It
takes three 45-gallon barrels of snow just to do one load of laundry,
which is done once every two weeks. The water conservation efforts of
those living at WAIS Divide have resulted in an average use of just 5
gallons of water per person per day.
How many barrels of snow would you need to meet your daily water needs?
Water in the Wild West
In the arid west of the United States, many cities are finding it more
and more difficult to supply fresh water to their growing populations.
The search for sufficient sources of water is sending municipal water
suppliers deeper underground and farther from the populations the water
is ultimately meant to serve. Some of the proposed water projects in
Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming include pumping water anywhere from
62 to 300 miles, sometimes up and over mountains. The estimated net
energy use of these projects can reach up to 600,000 megawatt hours per
In the western United States, water is often piped
many hundreds of miles to where it is needed
Photo Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation
Many water projects already in existence move water very long
distances. The Central Arizona Project (CAP) brings Colorado River
water 336 miles from Lake Havasu to counties in the southern part of
Arizona. CAP is the biggest user of electricity in the state of
Arizona. Last year, CAP needed 2.8 million megawatt hours in order to
deliver over 500 billon gallons of fresh water to 80 percent of the
state’s population. That’s a lot of water traveling a long way! But as
demand for water increases and sources become scarcer, energy use will
increase as well.
Water Conservation = Energy Conservation
Energy consumption is an integral part of water use. Energy is used at
every step of the process – to treat, transport, and heat our water.
When we conserve water, we conserve energy. Increasing water
conservation efforts in many parts of the United States, and around the
world, could delay or eliminate the need for new, energy-intensive
water development projects.
Try to imagine carrying, pumping, shoveling, and melting enough water
or snow to meet your daily water demands, and you might find the
motivation to reduce the size of your water-energy footprint. To learn
more about the connections between water and energy, and to get ideas
for how to improve conservation, visit
Sarah Kozicki for EE Week