Sunday, August 15, 2010


(Image credit: National Academy of Sciences)

As longtime readers know, I've blogged a bit about food, agriculture, and sustainability. We've had posts on bees and pollination, organic milk, vanilla, salt and about sustainable agriculture in general. We've heard from Thelma Lee about live markets and may yet hear from Seanan about collaborative efforts for humane and organic farms. (She's been busy finishing a book!) But in order to grow things, you have to water them. While our planet is faced with growing threats, including climate problems, the increasing spread of tropical diseases, hunger and pollution, perhaps the greatest threat of all is lack of fresh water (which is further complicated by climate change). Without drinking water, pure water, nothing will grow and virtually nothing will survive. Do you take your access to water for granted? I know I do and I've been reading about water and so should be more mindful of it.

Water Insecurity

Of course I wish I were in school. I want to learn to read and write… But how can I? My mother needs me to get water.
Yeni Bazan, age 10, El Alto, Bolivia

In Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisisa long but fascinating report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), readers can learn of the social justice impacts of lack of access to clean water in much of the world, including how it impacts the education of women, a topic of much passion on this blog. What is water insecurity? Not knowing where your next drink is coming from. Or wondering if you'll have water to cook your rice or lentils, or water to clean yourself and your clothes so that you can find work.

The minimum threshold for consumption and/or usage of water is considered to be about 20 L of water a day. However most of the planet subsists on 5 L a day, one tenth of the amount consumed by most Westerners merely flushing their toilets. While Europeans may consume around 300 L of water a day, Americans are estimated to consume around 400 L of water a day. When a European or American flushes a toilet or takes a five minute shower they are using more water in that simple action than is available to hundreds of millions of people on this planet. Do you leave the water running while you brush your teeth? That's wasted, potable water. Do you run your dishwasher half-empty? Wash that tiny load in a washing machine instead of washing the few items by hand? Do you water your lawn and just turn a blind eye to that sprinkler head that broke off, opening a little geyser that spills on your driveway and evaporates? Does the bathroom faucet drip steadily or the toilet keep running?

Millions of women spend a good fraction of their day acquiring what they hope will be safe drinking water. For drinking, for cooking, for cleaning. Yet half the world's population suffers from problems originating from contaminated water or poor sanitation. In the West we just turn on the tap and rarely have even a moment's thought about whether our water will make us ill or not be there tomorrow.

The US National Academy of Science has a great flash presentation, Safe Drinking Water Is Essential. You can read about the effects of climate change on alpine glaciers and fresh water in the Peruvian Andes. Or about water treatment options for well water that is contaminated. And contamination with things like arsenic, lead and other minerals and even organic agents,  is a serious problem in much of the world.

I've had quite a few people try to tell me, naively, that reverse osmosis of sea water will solve all our drinking water problems. Reverse osmosis is very costly, both energetically (high pressure pumps are required and that takes energy) and water-wise. Even with large-scale  and very well-maintained operations, only about 50% of the water is recoverable, while on a modest scale for household use, that amount falls to an astonishingly low 5-15%. And that's if you can stand drink that 5-15%. If you've ever had water from a reverse osmosis filtration system, you know much depends on your start product, its pre-treatment and then of course, in the real world you need to disinfect it as well. It is a long and costly process. But gone are the days when you could count on getting water from a river or stream. Our freshwater supply is likely just as unpotable as sea water.

Even if reverse osmosis as a process is improved as to efficiency, what we do with that processed water is an open question. Are we, as a planet, drinking it, cooking with it, cleaning with it? Not necessarily. Water is used for so many industrial processes. And of course, when you're talking equipment or chemical processes (like making paper for instance) you have to have clean water to prevent corrosion of equipment or spoiling of the manufactured goods. And that's why it's heartbreaking to read some of the comments from people quoted in that UNDP report. You see things like this:

They [the factories] use so much water while we barely have enough for our basic needs, let alone to water our crops.
Gopal Gujur, farmer, Rajasthan, India

Imagine how difficult it must be difficult to see factory use of water that you yourself cannot use to drink, to clean yourself, to cook your meals, to wash your clothes and water your crops. And of course all those factories are likely selling their products to people who have plenty of water. One person in the UNDP report says that when you have no water you are always dirty and no one wants to hire or trust someone who is dirty. Being poor just reinforces your lack of water and having little water guarantees you are and will be poor. Water is, of course, cheap where people can afford it and expensive where they cannot. It's a seller's market. We have plenty of water here in the US, so it's cheap, just like many of the cheap goods manufactured in places where clean water is a precious commodity.

But will you have that water for long? Looking at the UN projections of where the world's water will be in 2050 is a seriously sobering issue. Because climate change isn't about just about where it gets hotter. It's all about water. As precipitation and spring thaw patterns change and glacial ice flows melt age-old fresh water ice into saltwater ocean setting up a cycle of melting, this is what the UNDP's projection is for 2050:

Source: UNDP's Beyond Scarcity

Those areas in black have significantly (more than 20%) decreased precipitation and water run-off and hence reduced water availability. (We won't even get into the issue regions in blue that may end up with flooding and saline intrusion...) They will become drier and so will their people. In addition to the dramatic changes predicted in Europe, the southern portion of Africa, much of the Middle East, Brazil and northern portions of Latin American, I hope my  American readers take a good long look at the USA. Scary stuff. Because those black regions are largely in agricultural areas. Sure we have plenty of water right now. But we will surely have less of it in much of the US. And how will we adapt to having to conserve significantly when we are so unused to it at present? The US is the single largest consumer of water in the world, with Australia fairly far behind in second.

Source: UNDP's Beyond Scarcity


For many years I considered myself a Buddhist. Not really in the religious sense, but in the philosophical sense. Perhaps I still do. There's a lot to be said about some of the practice, although it's quite the challenge to maintain in everyday life. But anyone can benefit from some of the basic goals, irrespective of one's belief (or non-belief) system. Number 7 on the Eightfold Path is Right Mindfulness. Mindfulness, or sati, is intricately connected to Sampajañña a concept that permeates some of the earliest Buddhist writings. Sampajañña is generally translated as 'clear comprehension' but is also "constant thorough understanding of impermanence," "fully alert" or "full awareness," as well as "attention, consideration, discrimination, comprehension, circumspection."

I'm making the practice of Sampajañña with respect to water consumption my personal goal. And I want to advocate for it with respect to what we do to our land and water supply, and our energy sourcing. (My readers will remember Gasland, Josh Fox's frightening documentary showing what unregulated "frac-ing" or hydraulic fracturing of shale throughout the USA has done to the drinking water in many communities. I've still got Josh's video over there on the right side panel.) Energy, climate and water are bound into a tighter and tighter cycle these days. Reverse osmosis with sea water is even harder with oil in the water, and it's harder to conserve water on a hotter planet which we get from burning fossil fuels. To make our corner of the planet cooler we use more energy. Or course, when we're hot we consume more water.

It's pouring here, so my outside plants are happy. I don't use my sprinklers anymore. I've tried to xeriscape. But I'm thinking of stashing a rain barrel on the side of the house. I already take short showers but now a bath seems like it would be such an indulgence. And I look at my fancy fizzy water from Whole Foods in its plastic, petroleum-origin bottle and think, what irony there is in that. 

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


  1. What does the white areas mean?

    I intend to post longer-I have quite a bit to say on the issue of water-but need to think about it a bit.

    Things are actually worse than Gasland portrays. As a geologist working for a state environmental regulatory agency, I have seen sites with up to 9+ feet of gasoline on top of groundwater- from leaking underground gas tanks. And there are countless sites even worse.

    Without water, there is no life.

  2. Jen, I think it's from lack of consensus on Arnell's models' predictions. You can read Arnell's 2004 paper here at the University of Chicago. At least... I think you can. If you have trouble accessing it (I think it's a public link) let me know:

    And I see a guest blog post in the making my dear...