Blog Action Day 2010: Water Is Life #water

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.  

  1. 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.
  2. Encourage cities to use swales and ponds to retain water and collect it slowly rather than move it fast to piped systems.
  3. 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.
  4. Think of potable and gray water differently.Separately pipe gray water from clothes washing, sinks, tubs, and rainwater and use for irrigation.
  5. Plant drought resistant landscaping and crops. Only irrigate from stored rainwater.
  6. 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; 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.


How Water Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Floating Cities, Wave Power, Coastal Protection


Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities. I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first segment included The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Regions. This article covers three ideas involving water and cities.

Dry Mouths, Wet Feet
Water makes a claim on people and cities that is both undeniable and paradoxical. Both people and the planet are largely composed of water, and while we need it to survive, we tend to either be dehydrated or flooded, sometimes simultaneously. In fact, 900 million people are without clean drinking water today with estimates that 1.8 billion will suffer by 2025 and 2/3rds of us will be under severe water stress. Water scarcity threatens not only the developing world but also parts of the United States in California and in the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins. Last year, Atlanta was on the brink of disaster. Furthermore, in the US, residential water costs have doubled in the past ten years, even as streets are flooding. It defies common sense.

A brilliant civil engineer told me that if you took the peak waterfall in an area, say 6-12 inches in a day which is an extraordinary amount of rain, and managed to hold it in place for a 24 hour period, you could solve the problems of urban flooding. Imagine a holding place on your property that could handle that run-off, use it for landscape or gray water, and you’ll save your city tremendous problems and lower your water bills as well.

For buildings, we are concerned with conservation and net zero water buildings (from the excellent Living Building Challenge). For cities the problem is more complex. Water is part of the infrastructure for both water in (to drink, irrigate, etc), and water out in the form of sanitary sewers and storm water systems, including many cities which unfortunately combine the two. Where ground water is depleted, subsidence affects many cities dramatically with sink holes increasingly common. Flooding and drought represent two other forms of disaster, witness the devastation of New Orleans and last month found Sydney in a red dust storm.

In short, we have over-engineered and misunderstood the magnitude and significance of water. With dryer, hotter climates and more people, sustainable water management needs to be built into our lives. To nourish 9 billion people, we will be modifying cities and learning new habits. Three exciting ideas may come into play: floating buildings, wave energy, and barriers to rising oceans.

1. Floating Structures
While floating houses have been common for decades if not longer, the thought of floating cities has intrigued designers with few successful installations. The Citadel floats on a polder which is part of the natural tidal plain of the Netherlands. New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH), a mega-structure city, houses a population of 30,000 people on a pyramid-like form. The Lilypad by Vincent Callebaut is specifically planned for climate change disasters and would shelter 50,000 refugees. Smaller scale temporary architecture offers immediate inspiration with this elegant wooden hotel in Helsinki. Far-thinking visions of mid-century architects such as Bucky Fuller and Paolo Soleri are revived in these floating designs.

2. Wave Power
Wave farms could hug the coasts of major cities and supply energy for the massive populations. Numerous proposals consider how to harness tidal waves into electrical power; some are visually elegant. Last year, Portugal opened the first wave farm but it has already been closed. The Sea Snake is an invention of Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power. Biowave power is under consideration for the bay of San Francisco.

3. Protecting Coastal Cities
In coming decades, cities will grapple with rising oceans, threats of flooding, and increased storm events. Beyond emergency planning for storm events, cities must prepare for chronic high water. Change should occur gradually (not like those crazy disaster films) unless the city sits truly below sea level as is the case of New Orleans, which places a city at risk of levee failure. Options include raising the ground elevation, allowing submergence by waterproofing such as a pool or submarine, abandoning facilities, floating as in item 1, or barricading between sea and city. Most would prefer the last option because it represents maintaining normal life except at the perimeter. Consequently, an era of expensive, elaborate sea walls, dykes, levees, seagates, and so on is coming. The Rising Tide competition to save San Francisco from higher oceans illustrates the need for adaptation, invention, and resiliency. For Chicago, UrbanLab invented the eco-boulevard to grow water resources in a closed loop system.

Looking Ahead
Water represents so many possibilities and problems as we aim to use it, but not drowned in it, and leave it for next generations. We have seen water problems emerging since the Great Depression and they continue to spread and multiply. Amazing inventions have accomplished huge steps forward yet we have not solved anything entirely. Sustainable water management and net zero water exist today; therefore I placed them in my descriptions of the present conditions, not in the future. Yet most places have not adopted these practices and we remain at the mercy of poor, aging infrastructure.

As it’s said: the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. (William Gibson)

Next I focus on two high tech areas that will shape 21st century cities: robotics and geo-engineering.