The Future of Freshwater: Toxic Waste, Collapse, and What We Can Do about It

Fallen trees over creek

Water is the stuff of life itself. It makes up 60% of the adult human body; it covers 70% of Earth’s surface; it makes up 95% of some plant species. Yet it’s critically undervalued by society and frequently treated as nothing more than a receptacle for our toxic waste.

While this is inexcusable for any kind of water, this is especially inexcusable for our precious reserves of freshwater, which constitute less than 5% of water on Earth. Out of this meager amount, only about 1% is accessible to humans. And it’s this 1% of water that makes our survival as a species possible.

On this basis, you would think that society would be shifting in the direction of greater freshwater conservation and efficiency. And while it may be true to a limited extent in some nations, it is decidedly not the case on a global scale. In fact, quite the opposite.

As such, I would like to explore some of the most wasteful and dangerous misuses of freshwater in society and what we can do about them in the future. This won’t be exhaustive, but I do hope it will help you to see how desperately we need to make a change and the consequences if we don’t.


While global industry only consumes an estimated 20% of freshwater used by society, this percentage is increasing by the day and will most likely double before the middle of the century. Furthermore, because of the ways in which freshwater is poisoned in the industrial production cycle, this water becomes unsuitable for human consumption without prohibitive treatment, which may cost many times more than the water’s actual market value.

In particular, fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is one of the most pernicious forms of industrial freshwater use. It’s not uncommon for a single horizontal natural gas well (one of the most common forms of fracking) to exceed a million gallons of water in its initial phase. In some cases, this quantity can even skyrocket to 5.1 million gallons of water, or enough water to fill 250 swimming pools. When you consider that there are over 1.7 million fracking sites in the United States alone, this quantity of freshwater becomes truly titanic.

Fracking infographic displaying water usage

Finally it’s worth noting that the water used in fracking is fundamentally irretrievable due to the exigencies of the production cycle, during which the water is locked within shale deposits deep in the Earth’s crust. Beyond that, even if there were some way to retrieve the water without producing catastrophic seismic instability (up to and including earthquakes of potentially devastating magnitude), the water would be so dangerously poisoned with heavy metals and carcinogens that it would be almost impossible to treat.

In short, the freshwater that’s used for industry should be considered lost for all time.


It should come as no surprise that global agriculture consumes the vast majority of freshwater in society at roughly 70%. This is a truly staggering percentage, but it should be remembered that a significant proportion of agricultural consumption results in waste water that can be treated and recycled with a minimum of cost. For all intents and purposes, it remains a viable part of the hydrological cycle.

Factory farming of pigs

The real concern within the realm of agriculture is the use of our precious reserves of freshwater to produce large monocultures or in factory farms. These are by far the worst offenders, as they poison our freshwater with antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, insecticides, and destructive chemicals of every stripe. The waste water that results from these sites is a danger to the surrounding communities and should be considered a form of toxic waste.


About 10% of freshwater in society goes to municipalities, who deliver the water to consumers for bathing, washing, drinking, and cleaning. These uses are fairly benign for the most part, especially in comparison to the uses of fracking and factory farming.

However there is cause for concern when you consider that human overpopulation is still skyrocketing and has now reached an unprecedented 7.7 billion people: 100% more than the number in 1976, 300% more than the number in 1927, and 700% more than the number in 1804. This rate of growth can no longer be characterized as linear or even cubic but exponential.

Illustration of human overpopulation

As a result, we are now facing the very real threat of a global collapse in the supply of food and freshwater in the immediate future. Of course drought and famine have been persistent threats to human survival since the dawn of civilization, but they are now a greater threat than ever because of dwindling supplies of freshwater and skyrocketing human overpopulation.

Sadly there is no quick fix to the crisis we face. Nor is there a silver bullet that we can apply blindly to all situations irrespective of their specific challenges. Rather, if there is to be anything remotely resembling a solution to this crisis, it will have to be a myriad of responses that we employ as communities based on local challenges and opportunities.

Nonetheless I would like to highlight a few possibilities:

Abolish Fracking

Starting or joining a movement that is intent on the wholesale abolition of fracking (and all forms of fossil fuel extraction for that matter) is one of the best ways to ensure that our precious reserves of freshwater are not being poisoned with heavy metals and carcinogens or being injected deep in the Earth’s crust where it will be, quite literally, lost for all time.

Abolish Factory Farming

Another action that should be pursued and implemented is one targeting monocultures/factory farms. These industrial operations — which have almost nothing in common with the kind of farming done by small local producers — are exploitative of workers, destructive to the environment, and wasteful of our precious reserves of freshwater.

If you really want to find a good way to contribute to the cause, start or join a movement seeking to abolish factory farming.

Support Contraceptive Freedom

While I’m not interested in turning this blog post into a flame war on the issue of abortion, there is absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone with a reasonably functional brain that all of us should be using contraceptives and encouraging others to do the same.

There is absolutely no excuse in a society where condoms can be purchased on nearly every street corner for men — and, yes, let’s face it, men are the ones primarily responsible here — not to be taking the most basic steps to put an end to human overpopulation and its devastating effect on our precious reserves of freshwater.

Support Community Involvement

We can’t even begin to grapple with this crisis unless we first and foremost organize and mobilize our communities.

If the only concern that crosses most people’s minds on a daily basis is the next paycheck, the next vacation, or the next snap from a potential love interest, then of course this is never going to happen. So in order for us to begin to work together as communities, we first have to put down our phones, get outside, and meet people in the real world to create community and protect our planet.

And that’s good not only for our water but for each and every one of us.

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