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Running Out of Water
The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve our Most Precious Resource
By Peter Rogers, Susan Leal
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Peter Rogers and Susan Leal
All rights reserved.
TURN ON THE TAP AND OUT COMES THE WATER
Water or oil: which is more essential in powering our society? From brushing our teeth to greening our lawns, from raising cattle to generating energy, our society is critically dependent upon water. In the United States, we're lucky: we turn on the tap and out it comes, clean, quick, and clear, and it's relatively inexpensive. But, whether you know it or not, there is an impending water crisis that will affect every aspect of your life and the lives of your descendants.
You may have heard about some parts of the United States, or farflung corners of the world, that have recently endured a drought that was more serious than the occasional dry spell. You may have read that a river—perhaps even the source of your own drinking water—was heavily contaminated by runoff from an upstream farm or factory. Yet we tend to take our access to clean water for granted. When we turn on the tap, when we flush the toilet or take a shower, or when we buy groceries, eat a hamburger, or drink a glass of milk, it never occurs to us that we are in fact using an immensely precious resource, water, of which there is a finite quantity on our planet. Running out of water will spell disaster for everyone and everything.
In fact, there is an ever-widening gap between water demand and supply. Between 1900 and 2000, the world's population grew threefold, but our water use has increased sixfold. And, while oil consumption has also outpaced population growth, there is a big difference between water and oil. We have begun to find substitutes for oil; but there is no substitute for water.
This book is not meant to overwhelm you with scenarios of doom. What's needed is not fear but understanding and community action. Our goal is to offer some hope by supplying possible solutions. Our remedies will highlight some extraordinary efforts and even radical solutions being initiated by forward-thinking governments, businesses, and individuals in the United States and around the world. We will give you a sense of the solutions that are readily available and feasible to take on this problem.
OUR WATER "FOOTPRINT"
It is not surprising that few people understand there is an impending water crisis or know what to do about it. After all, it's unlikely that the tap will be dry when you turn it on tomorrow. But the impending crisis is real and will affect more than the green quality of our lawns. As we discuss in the following case studies, the problem involves both the quantity and the quality of the water on Earth. If we don't change how we use, reuse, and dispose of water, our way of life will be profoundly affected, perhaps most noticeably in the cost or availability of food.
How badly do we need water? How much do we really use? The answers may surprise you. Yes, we need water for such everyday household functions as drinking, bathing, and sanitation. In the United States, we each use an average of about 100 gallons per day for basic household functions. These 100 gallons, however, represent only a small portion of our actual water "footprint"; most of the water we use is spent in producing the food we eat, whether vegetables, grain, or meat. In the United States, our total water footprint is 1,800 gallons per person per day; this is 1.5 times the figure for the developed world, and twice the world average.
It takes 53 gallons of water to produce one glass of milk. It takes 634 gallons of water to produce an 8-ounce steak. When you add up our total water footprint in the United States, it is close to 1,800 gallons per person per day.
Developed nations in particular use an enormous amount of water. Before we look at how we use such large quantities, let's take a look at where water comes from and how much is available.
As this diagram shows, the volume of water on our planet stays constant. It observes a water cycle of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation, changing form but never total volume. According to Earth's water cycle, less than 1 percent of total water is accessible as fresh water. Close to 97 percent of the water is in the oceans and 3 percent is fresh water, but most of the fresh water is inaccessible because it is locked up in ice and glaciers.
As the water cycle illustrates, water is finite. The good news is that water is renewable—it can be reused over and over—but the bad news is that most of us normally use and dispose of water in a nonrenewable and unsustainable fashion. And if we don't change the way we are using water, it will become the "oil" of the twenty-first century. The predicament concerning water is even more critical than that of petroleum. Without water, life cannot be sustained.
Although more than 70 percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, only 3 percent of all water is fresh water, and less than 1 percent is actually accessible to us. The total volume of water on earth never changes—only the form (rain, snow, ice, and so on).
A FINITE WATER SUPPLY STRESSED BY POPULATION GROWTH AND AFFLUENCE
We have a tiny amount of fresh water—less than 1 percent of all that's available on the planet—to share with the other 6.7 billion inhabitants of our planet. While the volume of water never changes—it hasn't changed since prehistoric times—the number of people who need it is constantly growing. The world's population is expected to grow to 7 billion by 2012 and to more than 8 billion by 2025. By then the population of the United States alone is expected to increase from the current 304 million to 357 million.
Along with the planet's growing population, there has been a simultaneous, widespread rise in the standard of living, which increases water consumption. Affluence drives up consumption, and the United States has been leading the way with the largest water footprint. As the better-educated and higher-paid populations of China and India ascend into the middle class, they are increasing their water footprint, too. China, for example, has increased its consumption of beef—a water-intensive food—by 38 percent from 2001 to 2006.
Even at our current population levels, we are facing shortages in our water supply. Across the globe, water problems range in severity: some experience intermittent shortages—36 states in the United States have some water supply problems; in some parts of the world, there is little or no access to safe drinking water; and in many countries, women and girls spend several hours a day traveling for miles to gather water for their families.
You may be thinking there's a simple solution: we can just desalinate ocean water. But it's not quite that easy. Desalination uses a lot of fossil fuel energy and is very expensive. Farmers in California normally pay less than $50 per acre-foot for water; desalinated seawater may cost $700 or more per acre-foot. At those prices, we will pay a lot more for our food. Aside from the production costs, there have been environmental problems—in particular, problems with disposal of brine—experienced with desalination. So, this seemingly obvious remedy offers only a partial solution to the quantity of water available.
IT'S QUALITY AS WELL AS QUANTITY
Our finite amount of water is also stressed by increasing household and industrial contamination. Every time we use water, we also have to dispose of it as wastewater; most often, we deposit that wastewater into an ocean or return it to a lake or river. And the more we use, the more we dispose of. An important consideration is ensuring that the water we use is properly treated and cleaned before being disposed of. In some cases, which we will discuss in depth later, we have gone beyond a simple act of treating and disposing of water—by filtering it, cleaning it to a higher quality, we can use it again and again.
In developing countries, overstressed or nonexistent wastewater disposal systems create public and environmental health hazards. Around the globe, there have been efforts to improve supplies of safe drinking water, but they often must contend with contamination from sewage. The second leading cause of preventable deaths in children throughout the world is a lack of access to safe drinking water, or exposure to contaminated water, most often rendered impure by the scarcity of proper human waste disposal systems. In India, for example, in the slums in several big cities, there is a constant struggle to eliminate the contamination of water that is caused by human waste dumped in the streets.
Developed countries are not immune, either. In April 1993, failure to properly treat water that had been contaminated by animal wastes from Wisconsin's famed dairy farms resulted in 400,000 people in Milwaukee becoming ill (half the population served by its water system, with 4,000 hospitalized and 54 deaths). These cases show us that unless we are vigilant in monitoring how we dispose of our wastewater and treat our drinking water, we can easily poison ourselves and the surrounding animal habitat.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE CONNECTION BETWEEN WATER AND ENERGY
Climate change adds another layer of complication by weakening our freshwater supplies and impacting the operations of our wastewater systems. The gradual rise in global temperature is threatening to reduce the water supply in California, one of the largest food-producing regions of the United States, by 25 percent. On the East Coast, the nation's largest water utility, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is feeling the effects of climate change. Past climate variability and extreme weather events presented challenges to the DEP's water supply and wastewater systems and have guided their initial understanding of the need for climate change adaptation strategies. "The timing and extent of climate change is uncertain and modifying large-scale infrastructure systems is expensive and takes time, but the DEP is committed to minimizing the risks and understanding the challenges of these effects on our water systems," said Angela Licata, Deputy Commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection. Around the world, recent weather patterns appear to be increasingly unpredictable, with more severe storms, spring flooding, and longer periods of drought. Even if we can't be sure of the time frame or the severity of the effects of climate change, we can be sure that it will be a real wild card in planning for our future water sources.
The relationship between water and climate change presents a catch–22. The water world is caught in a vicious cycle: Climatic change is reducing our water supply, and the systems we use to deliver clean water and treat wastewater produce the same greenhouse gases that contribute to climatic change. To understand the connection between climate change and water, it is important first to understand that there is a connection between energy and water. In the United States and most of the developed world, water treatment, the process of cleaning the water that comes from lakes and rivers to make it potable (drinkable), takes about 1 to 2 percent of the nation's total energy supply. Wastewater treatment, the process of treating sewage (cleaning water after we use it) so that it can be safely discharged into rivers or lakes, consumes another 1 to 2 percent of our energy use. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that this roughly 3 percent of energy produces 45 million tons of carbon emissions every year. Just supplying water in some regions uses significant amounts of energy. California, for example, uses large quantities of energy to move water from its sources in Northern California to consumers in the southern part of the state. Expenditures of resources and their environmental consequences may not have seemed so large in the early days of lower populations with little concern about greenhouse gases and less expensive energy, but now the costs are considerable and growing.
The relationship between climate change and water extends into hydropower, which generates up to 6 percent of U.S. energy and 20 percent of energy worldwide. Hydropower has long been considered a clean source of power, and is important in reducing greenhouse gases. But, as water supplies diminish or change seasonal attributes due to climate change, less hydropower will be produced. This reduction in energy will, in turn, likely be replaced by other methods of producing energy, such as coal-burning plants, that yield even more greenhouse gases. It's a vicious cycle that can be mended, as we will show in the following chapters.
WHO IS IN CHARGE OF YOUR WATER?
We don't often think about where water comes from, but for water to reach your tap, someone is responsible for getting it there. As we confront interrelated issues of water supply, water pollution, and climate change, who have we designated to deal with these issues?
Someone has to make sure that there is an adequate water source with a well-maintained system of reservoirs, tunnels, and treatment plants—ensuring it is safe to drink—delivering water to people, industries, and agriculture. Someone has to make sure that after water is used, the resulting wastewater is properly treated, not just dumped "raw and dirty" into the nearest lake, river, or ocean (see Figure 1.2 on pages 16–17). For all these efforts and more, there are government-run or -sanctioned water utilities or agencies charged with running well-maintained systems and supplying water for the next twenty to thirty years (and, we hope, for many years beyond that). How well these agencies do their job will have a profound effect on our quality of life.
The people in charge of our water supply and wastewater treatment are often elected or appointed officials who are not visible to the average citizen, and how they get into these positions of power varies by city, state, and country. In New York City, the head of the Department of Environmental Protection is appointed by the mayor. In Orange County, California, the nine-member water board is elected by the voters of Orange County. And, to complicate matters, state legislatures can often pass legislation that may determine how water is to be used. At the federal level, too, there are over twelve federal agencies responsible for one aspect or another of water delivery or sewage treatment. Around the globe, there are a variety of government and private companies, often operating as a concessionaire of the government, that may have a say in how water is provided. In some cases, those in charge have experience in managing water or running government systems, but, unfortunately, there are plenty of instances where the appointment is made solely because of political or personal connections.
One of our aims in this book is to identify some of these decision makers and explain how they can make a difference in protecting this precious resource for generations to come. We will provide suggestions about how you as a consumer can influence them to protect this precious resource.
HOW CAN WE CONFRONT THIS LOOMING CRISIS?
The purpose of this book is to explain the predicament we face and to shed some light on possible remedies. We will not spend time explaining the benefits of taking shorter showers or installing low-flow toilets, although those are good ideas. Instead, we will give you the big-picture solutions, ideas that are currently making an important difference around the globe. Our hope is that people will begin to recognize these solutions as affordable, sustainable practices they can replicate in their own communities.
We will explain the ins and outs because we have been involved with water from both the inside and the outside. One of the authors, Peter Rogers, is a Professor of Environmental Engineering at Harvard University. He has studied water access on many continents, served as adviser to governments and international organizations, and trained water management engineers and economists. The other author, Susan Leal, has seen water management from the inside as head of a large utility providing water to close to 2.5 million people in Northern California. It is our hope that, together, our perspectives will give you a more complete picture of both the water problems facing the world and an array of workable solutions for fixing them.
As a professor and a practitioner, we have expertise in the technology available to take preemptive steps against a water shortage. As we describe some of the solutions, we will explore how politics, science, and economics affect delivery of water in several locations around the globe.
Excerpted from Running Out of Water by Peter Rogers, Susan Leal. Copyright © 2010 Peter Rogers and Susan Leal. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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