Africa's drought and our need for water

The splash of falling rain on dry ground is one of the most welcome sounds on earth. Water is vital to our existence, and to the existence of all animal and plant life.

This is why the drought in Africa is so serious. More than half the continent is gripped by one of the worst droughts in memory. Millions of people are affected. The world community has responded to cries for help by sending millions of dollars of food to keep people alive.

This aid is appreciated, but it cannot substitute for good rains that will enable seeds to sprout and grow into the crops needed to feed about two dozen drought-stricken countries in Africa.

Water is so important to us that there is scarcely a large inland city anywhere in the world today that is not built on water. Look at, for example, Washington (Potomac River), Paris (Seine) London (Thames), and Vienna (Danube).

Today, unless we live in a very dry or drought-stricken area, we tend to take water for granted. After all, all we have to do is turn on the tap, and out flows the water. Yet if we were to go without water for any length of time we would be in serious trouble. With water we can ease our thirst, wash our face, flush the toilet, take a shower, water the vegetables, wash down cars, and make ice. Vast quantities of water are used in major industries like steelmaking.

Sometimes it takes a drought for people to appreciate water's vital importance and the need to conserve it.

During times of drought in more-developed countries, people are asked to cut off nonessential uses of water, such as the watering of lawns and gardens. They may even be asked to ration water. This could mean that the water in their homes may be cut off for several hours a day so stocks have a chance to build up.

Such water shortages remind us that we use more water than we realize. It is estimated that in Britain - where the western half of the country is experiencing water restrictions because of an unusually severe and prolonged drought - normally each person uses 35 gallons of water a day (the British use the imperial gallon, which is somewhat larger than the American gallon). British water authorities say that 35 gallons breaks down into 12.5 gallons a day for toilet flushing and garbage grinding, another 12.5 gallons for personal washing and bathing, 3.5 gallons for laundry, another 3.5 gallons for dishwashing and cleaning, 1.5 gallons for gardening, 1 gallon for drinking and cooking, and 0.5 gallons for washing cars.

These days people are being asked not only to conserve water but also to take care not to pollute it.

More than a century ago the River Thames, which flows past the British houses of Parliament in London, was so polluted that the smell wafting through Parliament prompted members to press for the first act to combat pollution, in 1856.

But the Thames has remained polluted for so long that it has only been in recent years that a vigorous effort has been made to clean it up. The result today is that more than 100 kinds of fish have been recorded in the river, a clear sign that efforts to curb pollution are working.

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