Sustainable Habitats and their Effect on our Waters

The right to adequate shelter is a basic human right. Still, this right should not compromise our environment, especially our water. Home accessibility and affordability should go hand-in-hand with sustainability.

Reducing Plastic Pollution Through Sustainable Habitats

It’s hard to imagine what the modern world would be like without plastics. They’ve become an integral part of our daily life. Sadly, we’ve become too dependent on single-use or disposable plastics. This may lead to severe environmental effects. Approximately one million plastic drinking bottles are purchased every minute all around the world. Most of these plastic bottles wouldn’t be disposed of properly. Plastic pollution has become so rampant that they’ve become ubiquitous in the natural environment. Some experts even suggested that plastic waste could serve as a geological indicator of the Anthropocene era.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 but it wasn’t until the 1950s that plastic increased in popularity. Since then, an estimated 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced. About 60% of this plastic ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. Recently, we are experiencing some worrying trends. The rate of plastic production has risen exponentially since the 1950s. Aside from that, plastic manufacturers are shifting towards producing single-use plastics.

Another worrying fact about plastic production is that they are produced from chemicals derived from oil, natural gas, and coal. All of these are non-renewable resources that could produce harmful byproducts. Plastic production utilizes a significant amount of oil products. Based on current trends, it has been projected that the plastic industry could account for 20% of the world’s total oil consumption by 2050.

Polyethylene terephthalate or PET is a type of plastic that is used in the production of water bottles, dispensing containers, and biscuit trays. High-density polyethylene or HDPE is another type of plastic that is used in the production of shampoo bottles, milk bottles, freezer bags, and ice cream containers. These are just some of the different types of single-use plastics that are being produced all over the world.

The way we handle plastics is very problematic. Studies reveal that 12% of plastic waste are incinerated, this could lead to air pollution and dioxin emissions. Only 9% of them are actually recycled. 79% of plastic wastes are accumulated in landfills, dumps or the natural environment. Plastic bottles including their caps, along with grocery bags, drink lids, straws and stirrers are the second most common plastic waste. Our attitude towards plastics is the main reason why their wastes are scattered about. Most of us use these products without thinking about how their improper disposal would negatively affect the environment.

There are many ways that plastic wastes can be distributed. However, it is through rivers that plastic wastes would end up in the ocean. In fact, about 8 million tonnes of plastic are deposited into our world’s oceans each year and it is mostly through the rivers that the plastics end up there.

The following are the top 10 rivers that carry plastic wastes into the ocean. They are responsible for carrying at least 90% of the plastic waste from land to sea.

Number 10. Mekong - 33,431 tons

Number 9. Niger - 35,196 tons

Number 8. Amur - 38,267 tons

Number 7. Zhujiang - 52,958 tons

Number 6. Meghna, Brahmaputra, Ganges - 72,845 tons

Number 5. Nile - 84,792 tons

Number 4. Hai He - 91,858 tons

Number 3. Yellow River - 124,249 tons

Number 2. Indus - 164,332 tons

Number 1. Yangtze River - 1,469,481 tons

Regardless of where plastic wastes are deposited, they may remain in the environment for centuries. The reason why plastic can persist in the environment for a long time has to do with the fact that they were designed to be durable and resistant to degradation. Due to this, they are almost impervious to natural degradation processes. Microplastics are formed because of plastic’s durability. When exposed to the elements, plastics don’t degrade easily but would get broken into smaller pieces instead. The plastics will continue to break up into tiny pieces until they are no longer visible to the naked eye. These minute plastic particles are what is referred to as microplastics. Animals, especially fishes, may ingest these microplastics. When we consume the meat of these animals, there is a huge possibility that we would ingest the microplastics as well. What’s even more troubling is that microplastics have been detected in a majority of the world’s tap water. Plastic wastes could also clog sewers which could provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests. In fact, some experts have demonstrated that the severity of plastic pollution has a direct relationship to the rate at which vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, are transmitted.

Since eliminating plastics is almost impossible, the way we use plastic and how we handle plastic wastes should be improved as soon as possible. If not, it is estimated that by 2050 there would be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

Improving plastic usage and plastic wastes handling is not as difficult as completely eliminating plastics. At the very least, recycling keeps plastic waste away from the environment for an extended duration. Fortunately, government and non-governmental organizations are working to spread awareness about plastic pollution, encourage recycling, and do other activities that could help against plastic pollution.

Countries like Africa and the Dominican Republic have adopted promising solutions to plastic pollution. Africa adopted a total ban on the production and use of plastic bags. The Dominican Republic has developed a way to convert plastic waste into plastic bricks which would be used as a construction material. Housing projects that use these plastic bricks were quite successful. It is said that the blocks are strong enough to withstand earthquakes. The Dominican Republic’s efforts to convert plastics to bricks demonstrates that sustainable habitats can have a positive impact on our water resource.

Sustainable Habitats and Water Conservation

The one thing that makes life possible on Earth is water. For humans, water is something more than just for drinking. We use water for municipal purposes like in sewage treatment, industrial, like when water is used as a coolant, and agricultural, mostly irrigation. 65 per cent of our freshwater is used for agricultural purposes.

Water is a limited resource. It may appear that water is abundant but most of it is not fit for use because it is saltwater. Of the 1.386 billion cubic kilometres of water that is present on planet Earth, only about 2.5% of it, about 34 million cubic kilometres, is freshwater. This is far from what is actually available for human consumption because some freshwater is trapped in ice or are unfit for any kind of use. In reality, only 0.01% of the Earth’s water is readily available for human use. As small as it may seem, it is enough to meet each person’s need if only they were evenly distributed. Unfortunately, water is not evenly distributed and water that is accessible is not always safe. One-third of the population in most developing countries may have access to water but they are not safe. In India, 350 people share every million cubic metres of water, in Israel, 4,000 people share the same amount of water.

More and more countries will soon be in trouble as their water availability would also drop. For instance, population growth in Latin America from 1950 to 2000 resulted in a 75% drop in water resources. Nowadays, a huge portion of our population, about 230 million people, live in water-insecure areas where only less than 1,000 cubic meters of water is available per person each year.

Other countries with sufficient water reserves shouldn’t get too comfortable. Beijing’s underground water reserves are dropping by about 2 metres every year. Bangkok’s water reserves fell by 25 metres since the 1950s. In the United States, the vast Ogallala aquifer which supplies underground water for a total of eight states is decreasing by approximately 1 metre a year.

Water pollution exacerbates the problem of inadequate water supply. About 450 cubic kilometres of wastewater is released into various surface waters every year rendering them unsafe.

Good surface water quality and quantity encourages peace and stability in some parts of the world. Several freshwater systems are shared by a significant number of countries. When a water system is abused by one country other countries downstream may not take kindly to this and lead to instability in the area.

All in all, everyone should do their part in preventing water wastage. Common methods for doing so include conserving supplies, using reservoirs and small dams to catch runoff, recharging aquifers, protecting watersheds and recycling wastewater in agriculture and industry. Water conservation could extend into sustainable habitats by promoting the adage that a sustainable home is one that conserves water. This is exactly what was done in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, by the Habitat for Humanity of Broward. This group helped homeowners in the area save up to 15,000 gallons of water annually by helping them install low-flow toilets and showerheads in their bathrooms.

Water Quality - Water Quantity Connection

A study conducted in Biliuhe Reservoir, Liaoning, China, revealed that continuous low water level processes had a significant impact on water quality. Observations on the effects of low water levels on water quality were conducted between April 2014 to June 2015. Within 14 months of data collection, the researchers were able to estimate that the Biliuhe reservoir exhibited a water level periodicity of 13 years. A close look during days of low water levels, the Biliuhe reservoir exhibited lower than usual Total Nitrogen and Iron. However, their pH, Total Phosphorus, and Ammonia Nitrogen were higher than usual and showed seasonal fluctuations. During days of low water levels, the reservoir’s Dissolved Oxygen and Total Phosphorus was mainly influenced by the atmospheric deposition and production and domestic sewage. Non-point source pollution had a huge impact on pH, Iron, and Permanganate Index. Sediment pollution drastically changed the Ammonia Nitrogen and affected the Iron and Permanganate Index. All of these findings point to the fact that water level had a significant impact on several water quality parameters.

Managing water-level fluctuations could be a viable method for mitigating harmful cyanobacterial blooms according to a 2016 scientific journal published in Aquatic Ecology. This scientific journal explored several case studies to assess the viability of the method. Researchers of this study recommended that water bodies be given enough macrophytes to compete for nutrients with the cyanobacteria during days of low water levels to reduce the likelihood of cyanobacteria blooms. Another strategy for reducing the likelihood of cyanobacteria bloom is to completely dry out the body of water. However, this strategy may only be applicable in shallow lakes or reservoirs. Managing water-level fluctuations is a complex process because there are a lot of factors to consider including local conditions, lake or reservoir depth and morphometry, sediment type, water retention time, quality of inlet water, presence of submerged vegetation or propagules thereof, the abundance of benthivorous and planktivorous fish, and climate zone.

The 2011 study entitled “Ecological impacts of excessive water level fluctuations in stratified freshwater lakes” suggests that water level fluctuations should be avoided. This is especially true in stratified lakes. Increased water level fluctuations can damage habitat diversity which leads to reduced species richness and abundance in the littoral zones of deep lakes. Extremely low water levels, which usually occurs around mid-summer, can convert monomictic lakes into polymictic ones. Once this happens, full water column mixing events may lead to nutrient excess and cyanobacterial blooms. This study also highlights the need for studies which could provide a deeper understanding of how boundary mixing, resuspension, and other possible mechanisms of internal nutrient cycling affect the nutrient budgets of lakes subjected to water level fluctuations that aren’t caused by natural processes. Despite all the research that has been conducted, the researchers of this study believe that there is not enough scientific literature with regards to the response of aquatic ecosystems, particularly of deep lakes, to water level fluctuations. Aside from that, most of the studies concerning the effects of water level fluctuations on water bodies were conducted in subtropical and temperate zones which means there is a lack of information concerning the same topic for subarctic and arctic lakes.

The Biliuhe Reservoir study, the 2016 study published in Aquatic Ecology, and the 2011 study published in Inland Waters provide enough evidence to support the notion that water quantity has a significant effect on water quality.

How do we conserve water?

A sustainable home or habitat is one that conserves water which is why water conservation should be instilled at home. Moreover, conserving water, a finite resource should start at home. As an added bonus, you can save on your water bill. Here’s how water conservation should be done at home:

Check for leaks.

Water may leak from pipes, hoses, faucets, couplings, and toilets. If these leaks aren’t taken care of promptly, they will waste water 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These leaks could occur both indoors and outdoors. Leaks occurring outside are harder to notice because they rarely cause any inconvenience. Outdoor leaks are potentially more wasteful especially when the leak occurs on the main water line. Indoor leaks usually come in the form of a leaky faucet. Even a small continuous drip could potentially waste 50 or more gallons of water in a single day. Toilets could leak from their tank into the bowl. This is hard to notice so you will have to check your toilet every now and then. Just add food colouring into your toilet tank. If coloured water appears in the bowl then your toilet is leaking and it is wasting about 100 gallons of water in a day.

A smarter way to bathe.

Showers can use up five to ten gallons of water a minute. By reducing the duration of your showers, you can significantly reduce your water consumption. To reduce water consumption further, use shower heads with built-in flow restrictors. This will decrease water use by up to two gallons a minute. Another alternative would be to bathe in a partially filled bathtub.

Using toilets efficiently.

The toilet should only be used to flush human waste. Flushing other things like cigarette butts or tissue paper would waste five to seven gallons of water. Never use your toilet as a wastebasket. You could also save on the amount of water per flush. Take a plastic bottle and fill an inch or two of it with sand or pebbles. Then fill the rest of it with water. Place this plastic bottle inside the tank but away from the operating mechanism. This simple trick could save five gallons or more of water every day without harming the efficiency of the toilet.

Don’t let the faucet run.

When you are washing vegetables, do it using a bowl or sink full of clean water instead of washing them in running water. This should be done for washing the dishes as well. When you brush your teeth, turn off the faucet. Keep water in a glass for gargling instead. Turn off the faucet when you are shaving. Only turn it on if you need to rinse your face. When you are washing your car, use a pail filled with soapy water. Use a hose for rinsing only.

Dishwasher and Washing machine.

The dishwasher uses up 25 gallons of water while the washing machine uses up 30 to 35 gallons. Since that is the case, usage of these household appliances should be minimized. Only use them for full loads.

Being water efficient in your lawn.

Know when to water your lawn. If the grass springs back up after stepping on them then that means that they don’t need any water. If you do have to water the lawn, water them with enough water so that the water can reach down the roots. If you don’t put in enough water then it will just evaporate without doing its purpose which is to provide water for the grass or lawn plants. To avoid evaporation, you should only water during the cool parts of the day. This would also help prevent fungal growth. Only water the areas with grass or plants. Setup the sprinklers so that the water lands in the appropriate areas. Only use plants that are water efficient and are drought-resistant. You could also use mulch to slow down evaporation, place it around trees and plants.

Some extra tips.

Don’t let the tap water run to cool it for drinking. Instead, keep a water container and cool drinking water in the refrigerator. Use a broom instead of a hose to clean your driveways, sidewalks, and steps. Instruct your children not to waste water.

Sustainable Habitats Saves Forests and Improves Water Quality

The timber industry is a significant contributor to deforestation. According to World Wildlife, logging in violation of national laws accounts for 8-10% of global production and trade in forest products. It also represents 40-50% of all logging in some of the most valuable and threatened forests on earth. This contributes to the 18.7 million acres of forests lost annually. To lessen the demand for timber, preserve our forests, and create sustainable habitats, bamboo can be used as an alternative. Bamboos are cheaper, they grow faster, and they are a recyclable source for building materials. Habitat Nepal is currently working to develop sustainable, affordable, and disaster-resilient housing using bamboo.

Bamboo a better alternative for timber

Several studies have shown that bamboo is a sustainable building material. Using them as a substitute for timber can help with regards to forest preservation.

Compared with any other building material, bamboo has a greater positive impact on the environment when harvested in a sustainable manner. Bamboo can be harvested sustainably by maintaining a regular population of current live stems. This can be done by cutting selectively the 20% of mature stems since they will be replaced annually by an equivalent emergence of young shoots. Bamboo can be harvested earlier than timber. 3 to 4 years after planting to be precise. Harvesting bamboo yearly is actually healthy for the bamboo forest. Since the root system of bamboo is unharmed when they are harvested, they are able to produce more shoots. This allows for sustainable harvesting.

Although bamboo may appear like a tree, it is a type of grass. It grows faster than trees and like grass, they are hollow. Their fast growth rate makes them suitable for afforestation. The only drawback with using bamboo for afforestation is that it may lead to loss of species variety. Aside from that, bamboo may grow slower in low nutrient areas. According to the Ministry of Forestry and Mines, bamboo can be planted for reforestation and soil protection, they can be interplanted with other crops. The leaves from the bamboo can fall onto the ground and provide constant nutrients for the whole vegetation system present in the ground. Deforested areas and flood plains can be restored by planting bamboo. Their usefulness with regards to forest restoration may not be applicable in some areas because the bamboo's ability to adapt to varying environments has limits. Most bamboo species require relatively warm and humid conditions. Specifically, annual temperatures of at least 15 to 20 degrees Celsius and annual precipitation of at least 1000 to 1500 millimetres. There are several bamboo species that are resistant to droughts and are capable of growing in semi-arid regions.

Bamboo can help in solving our carbon dioxide problem. They grow fast and soak up a lot of carbon dioxide as they do. Using bamboo as an alternative to timber is like storing carbon dioxide in houses. The carbon dioxide would remain in the structure until the end of the life of the building. It is important to note that, without treatment, bamboo only lasts for 2 to 3 years. However, if they are treated with chemicals, they could last up to 30 to 40 years. In a 2015 study published in Global Ecology and Conservation, researchers were able to determine that bamboo can sequester carbon at a rate of 6 to 13 megagrams per hectare per year.

Production of traditional building materials such as bricks and cement consumes a lot of energy. On top of that, the process of their production releases a large amount of carbon dioxide. Bamboo can be used as a substitute for these traditional building materials. When used as a substitute building material, bamboo could reduce pressure on forest resources. Since they don’t produce carbon dioxide, using them over traditional building materials leads to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing the amount of bamboo usage in construction could potentially reduce plantation timber usage by up to 70%. A 2006 paper included in “Bamboo for the Environment, Development and Trade” revealed that bamboo could potentially supplement the timber supply by 2 million cubic meters per annum by 2015.

Healthy forests improves water quality

Forests have a positive impact on the quantity and quality of water. However, a significant amount of tree cover in the world’s major watersheds have been lost to the wood or lumber industry. This reduction in tree cover leads to water contamination, fuel floods, and droughts. Using bamboo as an alternative could significantly lessen the rate of deforestation in watersheds. This would ultimately lead to improvements in water quality.

Water Quality

Healthy forests can help reduce erosion. Bamboo could also help prevent erosion because they can efficiently absorb excess water and bind the soil together. With that said, healthy forests are ideal for maintaining good water quality and quantity. They can act as a filter that could keep sediments and other materials that are carried through surface runoff away from bodies of water. They could also reduce the amount of nutrients present in the runoff by absorbing them.

Water Quantity

Forests are an important part of the water cycle. They are capable of regulating precipitation, evaporation, and water flow. The trees and other vegetation present in the forest could also release vapor along with the land surface. A process known as evapotranspiration. Deforestation could negatively affect the water cycle which could lead to significant reductions in water quantity.

Final Thoughts

Providing adequate shelter for all should be a sustainable process that has minimal to zero negative impacts on the environment. Last October 4, the world celebrated World Habitat Day with a theme that focuses on the carbon emissions that are released as a consequence of providing adequate shelter for all. Recalling the research papers that have been mentioned, all of them point to the possibility that adequate shelter for everyone could be realized while maintaining minimal impact to the environment.


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