Waterworld

lakesuperior_autumn_mer_fr_orbit29095_20070923_orWhat happens if/when the world runs out of oil and the economy (civilization) that we’ve spent the last 150 years or so building sputters to a lurching stop? Well, it all sputters to a stop and we figure something else out. It’s not as if we can’t live without the wonder of petroleum products, we just don’t want to. But unless your an accomplished yogi, you’ve got four days to live without water. Four days until your kidneys shut down and you die – what i imagine to be – an excruciating death. Excruciating death is not, however, reserved for being deprived of water; dirty water is more than capable of that.

In 2003, the Pentagon released forecasts that provoked more than a few “I told you so’s” from environmentalists.  They looked into a future dominated by resource wars and the national security challenges of climate change.  Fresh water was one of the resources that they concentrated on, and unlike some of the DoD’s other bogeymen, there is some rationality to the fear that people will kill each other over drinking water.  Though water does not find its way into most analyses, it is central to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Even in the United States, water has provoked conflict – albeit unarmed – between residents and farmers over who gets it first and who gets the most.  Worries about the Colorado River basin, aquifers in California, and drought in multiple places crop up regularly.  For the most part, these worries focus on water that we can see: surface water and the water that falls from the sky.  The former is limited and often dependent on the latter, which can fluctuate greatly from year to year.  Underground aquifers get less attention than surface water, but they probably hold more potential for conflict.  Until recently there was no single resource for researchers and governments that detailed the state of the world’s underground aquifers.

UNESCO has produced an amazing map that details not only the world’s aquifers, but also their recharge rates.  Knowledge is power.  UNESCO hopes that governments will use the knowledge provided by this map to address water usage before it becomes problematic and to develop water sharing regimes between nations that access the same aquifer.  Unfortunately, the map reveals rather grim news.  The most plentiful aquifers appear to be related to surface water structures or mountain/glacial runoff, which suggests that they are susceptible to climate change and pollutants.  And several areas of high (and growing) population density have few aquifers with slow recharge rates.

According to the USGS, per capita water withdrawal for the US in 2000 was 1,430 gallons per day.  This number is a simple average, starting with total withdrawals for all uses (including hydroelectric, industrial, irrigation, and personal use) divided by the population.  Various sources put residential use at roughly 70 gal/day/capita for indoor usage; inclusion of outdoor usage pushes the number as high as 170 gal/day/capita.  And the UN Environmental Program maps US usage at 800-1700 cubic meters per capita.  Any way which way you stack the data, we use a lot of water.  And, for the most part, we take it for granted.

During the drought that hit the Southeast a few years ago, there were stories of towns being limited to a few hours of running water each day.  Though such a situation is common in many parts of the world, it was described as a great tribulation for Americans.  One mayor commented that when he opened the water tower tap, he could hear every dishwasher and washing machine in town turn on.  Even faced with serious shortages, the average American apparently considers convenience a right.  This attitude has led to several officials publicly eyeing the great bounty pictured above.

Here’s the rub.  I put up with six plus months of winter to live on the shores of that lake.  I treasure her beauty and her bounty.  And while i do not claim ownership in any sense of the word, i will not see her drained for golf courses and profligate water use elsewhere.

No, i don’t want to watch my fellow Americans die of kidney failure while i water my lawn.  But many of my fellow Americans have chosen to live in places without large reserves of water while expecting to maintain a life style dependent on abundent fresh water.  The UNESCO map should be an awakening that provokes serious thought and leads to action before an avertable tragedy pits us against each other over a limited resource.

Toilets account for between 20 and 40% of residential water usage.  The most efficient toilets use 1.6 gallons of water per flush while many consume up to 2.5 gallons for each flush.  Can you think of a good reason why that much drinking water should be used to dilute your bodily waste?  There are simple ways to reduce toilet water usage, from putting a brick in the tank to following the hippie motto: if it’s yellow let it mellow, but if it’s brown flush it down.  Grey water can also be used, either recycled from sinks or collected from gutters.  But the best option, by far, is the installation of a composting toilet.  Close the circle.  Turn waste into a useable resource and stop using the most valuable resource on the planet for bathing your shit.

Once black water is no longer part of the equation, we can turn our attention to grey water.  Though you may have to skirt local building codes, a simple system can be put together for as little as $30 and some basic plumbing knowledge.  We currently consider the water we shower with to be just as dirty as the water that contains our feces, and we waste the shower water by mixing it with the aforementioned feces…which then makes it just as dirty as the toilet water.  But at a shower per day, i cannot imagine that the average American is as dirty as a pile of shit.  In fact, the products we use to clean ourselves probably contaminate water more than the dirt we remove.  I’m not suggesting that that we drink the water that we bathe in, though it would be possible and cleaner than the water that much of the world currently drinks.  But our grey water could, at least, be used to water the yard.

Rain water catchment (though currently being challenged as illegal in Utah) should be standard in new construction.  If George W. Bush is smart enough to do it, the rest of us have no excuse.  That water can be used for yard irrigation, bath water, or toilet water if you just can’t bring yourself to compost.  Having installed such a system myself, i can tell you that it is not complicated or difficult.

Here’s an opportunity for Joe the Plumber to make a real difference, or a basis for some of the “green jobs” that we hear so much about.  All three of the above possibilities are retrofittable and not terribly expensive.  If i owned the house that i live in, all three would be implemented here…even though i’m only a block from the largest body of fresh water (by surface area) on the planet.

This is not a problem that will go away if we just ignore it.  In fact, it will only get worse.  And, yes, we will have to address agricultural and industrial water usage too, but the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.  Procrastinating the first step will only make the journey take that much longer, and when push comes to shove, we’ve only got four days before kidney failure.

*Image credit: European Space Agency, Earthnet Online

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~ by Lex on November 15, 2008.

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