"The Big Thirst" (The Future of Fresh Water)
One of Many Great Songs with a Water Theme
The Blessing (and curse) of Easy Water
One of the greatest blessings of life in the modern world is easy access to fresh, drinkable water. Instead of going through the hard labor of gathering water from a well, river, or lake, all that we have to do is turn a faucet. But because it is so easy to access, and the delivery systems in a city are so invisible, we rarely think about the processes by which the water is brought to us. This creates the illusion that water is both cheap and unlimited, and those invisible pipes that bring it to us will continue to function indefinitely.
A couple of days ago, I was listening to a podcast of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” The guest was Charles Fishman, and he just wrote a book called “The Big Thirst.” (See link for transcript at the end of this article.) His basic argument is that the golden age of fresh water is coming to an end, and the time has come for modern society to take some serious steps toward managing this precious resource that we rarely think about. I have heard many people talking about this issue over the years. I knew about the incredible waste involved in the bottled water industry, the degree to which massive amounts of cheap water flow to agribusiness, and the many foolish ways – long showers, constant car washing, sprinklers running amok, golf courses, etc. – that we urbanites squander large amounts of H2O.
But he pointed out some other facts about water usage that I did not realize. In order to process water and make it drinkable, about 1/6 of the water is lost through runoff. This is why it makes no sense for the processed, drinkable water produced for our homes to be also used to water lawns and to wash cars. Apparently, the biggest user of water in The United States is the energy sector, as enormous amounts of water are used in coal-fired, natural gas-fired, and nuclear power plants. He also pointed out that massive amounts of water are used during space shuttle launches, and ultra-pure, heavily processed water is used to make microchips possible. Without the magical resource of water, countless industries would cease to exist. So as population continues to grow, and many parts of the United States have experienced major drought in recent years, the system as it currently stands may be unsustainable. And when you consider the fact that most of the municipal water systems in our country are decades (or even more than a century) old, major investments must be made to keep that water flowing. But in this age of budget deficits and hostility toward taxation, we hear few people talking about investing into water projects or increasing water usage fees in order to finance them.
Possible Solutions (Las Vegas as a role model?)
I am often tempted to stay away from these types of topics. It all just seems so damn depressing, and I cannot help but feel guilty about my contribution to the problem. I start to feel bad about flushing the toilet, running the washing machine, forgetting to turn off the computer, or watering my lawn. It is so much easier to just enjoy the conveniences of the modern world and not think about how they are made possible or the impact of my behavior.
The podcast, however, was not entirely depressing. He also gives examples of places and businesses in the United States that have made significant gains in using water more efficiently, and the most surprising example for me was the “city of sin”: Las Vegas. If any city seems like the epitome of the insane use of water, it has to be Vegas. It is the driest major metropolitan area in the country, getting only four inches of rain per year, and yet the The Strip is filled with giant fountains, aquariums, and huge swimming pools. If combined with the same inefficiencies found in other urban areas, this oasis in the desert would be unsustainable. But thirty years ago, a local government official named Patricia Mulroy initiated a series of reforms that utilized a combination of financial incentives, landscaping rules, water recycling, and other regulations that reduced significantly water usage per person in that crazy desert city. And over time, out of obvious necessity, individual citizens, golf courses, and giant casinos have come to accept rules that people would consider onerous in other areas. Las Vegas still makes little environmental sense, but it has demonstrated some of what is possible, and sooner rather than later, cities where the problem is not so obvious need to do the same. Government regulation, it turns out, is not always all bad.
Rethinking National Security
For the last week or so, many Americans have been celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. After ten years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending, some see this as a sign that the money has not been spent in vain and the world may be safer. I suspect, however, that the biggest threat to our national security may not be foreign terrorists. For as so many of us stay fixated on outside threats, the basic infrastructure that makes our lives possible may be deteriorating around us. Water pipes breaking, bridges crumbling, dams bursting, or natural gas lines exploding may be a more likely threat to our security than spectacular terrorist attacks. Of course, these types of problems come on slowly, and to most of us, they are generally invisible. Infrastructure seems as much a part of the natural environment as trees, sun, and wind. But if these manmade wonders are not given adequate care, and if we continue to squander precious resources by using outdated and inefficient techniques, then all of that military and security spending will do little to protect us.
Water is arguably the most precious asset that we have. It makes up 70% of our body, and we can’t live for long without it. And contrary to how it seems, it is not free. Whether we like it or not, we will increasingly be forced to face up to this fact. As I have heard many commentators argue, the 21st century may become the era of water wars. In a world of almost seven billion people, a world in which roughly a billion have no access to drinkable water, increasing conflict over this most precious resource seems inevitable. In addition, wealthier nations may turn to drastic actions to acquire fresh water, including efforts to take it from poorer, weaker countries. But as Fishman argues in his book, peaceful, less expensive options are available. Brute force is not the only path to security.
Link to Fresh Air Episode
- The Worldwide \'Thirst\' For Clean Drinking Water : NPR
Investigative reporter Charles Fishman says the past 100 years have been the golden age of water in the developed world but now that's about to change. He profiles communities grappling with water shortages and details the efforts to conserve water