October 15th is blog action day and this year, the topic is water.
In developing countries, water problems are linked to survival. The numbers are staggering. One billion without clean water, 1.4 million children die each year of water born diseases. Their daily lives revolve around water access. Through the efforts of many, their water opportunities are improving, although the work remains still monumental.
On the other hand, developed countries problems are worsening.
In cities, water is almost always poorly managed. Enormous pipe systems and hard pavements move water as fast as possible, causing overflow and failures during huge rains. Meantime water supply pipes bring water right back to the same places. Terribly inefficient.
Water needs to be treated as a cycle from rain to collection to use.
Say you have peak rains of 4 or 6 or even 10 inches. Imagine how you could retain that much rain for 24 hours with rain gardens, ponds, barrels, and tanks.
Encourage cities to use swales and ponds to retain water and collect it slowly rather than move it fast to piped systems.
Paved surfaces need to be minimized and permeable with frequent openings, not the mindless swaths of pavement for parking. That lets the water seep into the ground slowly rather than speed to piped systems.
Think of potable and gray water differently.Separately pipe gray water from clothes washing, sinks, tubs, and rainwater and use for irrigation.
Plant drought resistant landscaping and crops. Only irrigate from stored rainwater.
Conserve water use.
For years, islands have managed to exist with rainwater alone; we all need to learn from them. However, they do not feed the world.
How to think about water
Water is a cycle and in terms of our use and management, it’s a system. When we change our use and collection patterns, it changes entire ecologies including water tables and lake and river levels. That in turn affects crop irrigation, transporting goods, and recreational uses. In other words, nations and regions with adequate rain, temperate climates, and arable soil have a huge competitive advantage. They can feed their people.
Depleted water tables and subsidence are among the worst problems facing cities. I worked on a Houston stormwater management project where they struggle to assess grade elevations because of subsidence, with the land dropping over a foot in areas. We are all familiar with sink holes and busted water mains; it’s a problem that will only get worse with our aging infrastructure and water abuses.
Farmers in trouble
Kansas, my home state, is part of the Ogallala Watershed, as are eight other states. It is the largest and most at-risk watershed in the world. After the infamous Depression-era Dust Bowl of the 1930s, farmers installed massive irrigation systems that fed off the deep layer Ogallala aquifer. They did it for survival. In the 1970s, warnings were dismissed regarding the hazards of continued irrigation.
What were the farmers to do? Sell their farms? Quit farming? They continue to this day to remove water at an unsustainable rate, knowing their future is finite.
The depletion of this aquifer is estimated to begin in the lower reaches – west Texas – in the next decade and continue into Oklahoma, Kansas and eventually the northern states. Consequently, current wheat farms live with a short life line. Their only hope is discovering crops that can live on virtually desert land.
Fighting for every last drop
Every nation moves water through infrastructure, including massive dams that re-configure entire watersheds. Future water wars may take to the sky. Geo-engineering enables changes in precipitation patterns through cloud seeding (primary tech for now, so what’s next?), generating claims of “rain stealing.”
In the western United States, water wars erupted a century ago and continue to threaten neighborliness between states. Countries suffer even greater strains due to fewer shared benefits and dependencies. Passions between Georgia, Alabama, and Florida over the Chattahoochee River basin are not likely to ignite a war; disputes in east Africa between Kenya and Ethiopia might.
Privatized water only worsens the problem, bringing corporations into direct battle with sovereign nations and private citizens.
What is the future?
The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas develops drought tolerant grains that self-seed much like the prairie once did. They offer one of the few glimmers of hope for these farmers and for the global populations that rely on their grains.
When we rebuild or add infrastructure, and when we develop land, we need to stop building massive stormwater systems and huge parking lots. Instead we need to think sustainably. How can we minimize run-off? How can we retain the water? How can we use water where it lands?
Most importantly, how can we use less water?
Water brings all people into a single ecosystem, perhaps the most fragile. Our behaviors in cities are linked directly to the farmers ability to grow crops. Water ignores political boundaries. Rain does not recognize urban versus rural.
The amount of fresh water doesn’t change; only our appreciation of water and behaviors do.
Images: Ogallala Aquifer center-pivot irrigation systems in Water Encyclopedia; Ogallala Watershed Map in theparagraph.com; Land Institute deep root prairie in National Geographic; Grey Water Retention and Use; Water landscape for World Water Day at Wayne State University; Bioswale from EPA Green Infrastructure.