Water: respect Earth’s materials

Nearly 40% of global croplands have experienced water scarcity, according to a 2022 study published in the AGU journal Earth’s Future. Such scarcity is expected to affect 80% of global croplands during this century, the study states. The UN predicts that there will be a 40% gap between supply and demand for fresh water by 2030, as it also predicts that 75% of the world could face drought by 2050. “Water use has been growing globally at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century,” the UN states. “Since 1970, numbers of freshwater vertebrates, including birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals, have declined by a staggering 83% through the extraction of lake water, pollution, invasive species and disease,” Antonia Law, Lecturer in Physical Geography at Keele University, states.

“Water is at the centre of the economy, health and climate,” Prof. Mariana Mazzucato states. “Yet, our society severely undervalues it because we equate value with price and marginalise invaluable assets like water into simple externalities.”

“Why is water practically absent from the global policy stage?” the Dutch Foreign Ministry asks. “The world relies on it for food, our cities, industry and our health.” We don’t respect Earth’s materials. The things most precious for life are taken for granted. We must change. We must respect Earth’s materials.

Many of the materials and chemicals in e-waste will never disappear but will over time degrade and break up into smaller and smaller particles. These particles leech and bleed, poisoning the ground and water. The burning of e-waste in open pits that is so common in poor countries spreads into the atmosphere, with some settling on the soil and water. We know so little about the long-term impacts of e-waste.

Electric vehicles require four times the minerals that traditional vehicles require, which means four times the mining. The Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers are three of the longest undammed rivers in North America. “Salmon from these rivers have supported indigenous communities for millennia, generate tens of millions of dollars in economic activity annually and provide a dependable source of food for organisms ranging from insects to brown bears,” Christopher Sergeant and Julian D. Olden wrote for The Conversation in 2020. “We calculate that 19% of the total drainage area of these three rivers is staked with mineral mining claims or leases. This includes 59% of the Unuk River watershed, along with the entire Iskut River corridor, the largest tributary to the Stikine River.”

While electronics only make up 2% of the garbage in landfills by volume, they account for 70% of landfill toxicity. Over time, metals and forever chemicals in smart devices will break down into micro-particles. They will bleed into the ground, poisoning drinking water. The heavy metals in this e-waste will migrate into plankton, from there to fish and from there to humans who eat this fish. You cannot throw e-waste “away”. As part of another form, it can return in a year or perhaps 10,000 years. Studies have shown that tuna being sold in Spanish markets had high concentrations of mercury. The tuna had been caught in African waters. Africa, a continent where Europe gets cheap rare minerals to build its electronics and the place where it often dumps its e-waste. Eva Garcia-Vazqueza, who co-authored the research on the seafood contamination, described it as “oceanic karma”.

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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