Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Water, Water, Everywhere

“…Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink…”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

We could find ourselves echoing the words of the Ancient Mariner if we don't pay close attention to our precious water supply. Unlike seabirds, human bodies lack the ability to desalinate sea water, and most of the water on our planet is in the oceans – a whopping 99 percent of it. Only the remaining 1 percent is usable by humans. And that tiny share is in peril.

In his new book "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water" Charles Fishman says that the outlook is much more positive than that. Fishman maintains that great progress in the world of water is possible, if only we would think about this precious resource differently, instead of taking for granted the luxurious abundance that we in the developed world have so enjoyed. In fact, he says that the U.S. uses less water today than it did in 1980, that our water productivity is up more than 100 percent in just 30 years, and that our water habits can and will improve even more over the next 30 years.

That’s the good news. The problem, as Fishman sees it, is that we pay too little for such a precious resource; the water bill for the average U.S. household is around $34.00 per month. If something is that cheap we don’t pay attention to it, we don’t think about it, we use it carelessly.

“What we pay doesn't cover the cost of the water — of finding it and acquiring it in the first place, of treating it and delivering it, of disposing of it. And we don't pay the cost of protecting the environment that provides the water in the first place.” Charles Fishman

The author wrote an article in 2007 about bottled water which eventually led him to spend almost a month in each of three far-flung thirsty locations – Australia, Las Vegas, and India – in order to research this new book.

Australia had to leap to the reinvention of its entire water system after almost running out of water in the last five years. Localised water recycling schemes employ treated wastewater, sewer mining and stormwater harvesting. Sydney Water offers schools and households a rebate for installing a rainwater tank and, by 2015, the country has a national goal of meeting 30 percent of its water needs with recycled water. Recycled water is sewage that has gone through stringent purification processes (toilet to tap). Despite public opposition to the concept, some countries have been using recycled water for decades. Namibians have been drinking recycled water since 1969, with no adverse health effects, and Israel reuses more than 70 percent of its effluent. Numerous states such as California, New Mexico and Virginia are drinking recycled water too.

Las Vegas is similar to Australia in that it is largely desert, but the city seems a mirage, surely a city of sin in this new age of water conservation – after all, even though the region only gets an average of 4 inches of rain per year, a 2-mile stretch here houses 100 sharks and 8 bottlenose dolphins. Yet you can check into any one of the myriad hotel rooms in this city and take a 30 minute shower without feeling too guilty – every drop that runs down the drain is collected, treated, and fed right back to Lake Meade, which supplies the city. Even golf courses here have evolved into places that reflect the environment with desert, ravines and arroyos craftily landscaped between the green holes, where each bush has its own dedicated sprinkler head. What's more, homeowners have been given financial incentives to replace lawns with desert-friendly xeriscaping. In fact, according to Fishman, the size of Las Vegas has increased by 50 percent in the last 10 years but the city uses no more water, due to water conservation measures such as these implemented by local government.

The water picture is very different in India, where many householders represent the estimated one billion people around the world who do not have the luxury of indoor plumbing – some of them have water delivered to their area by tanker, or they must fetch it from a well. The author went to a village not far from Delhi to spend time with the local women who do the twice daily “water walk” in order to supply their homes and families with water, making it difficult for them to do anything else to improve their circumstances. He says of this experience:

“The people in the world who live on $1 a day, and get their water "free," often spend 2 or 3 or 4 hours a day walking to get that water, every single day. And they suffer from terrible health problems because the "free" water is of poor quality. So that water isn't "free" in any real sense — it requires a staggering cost in educational opportunity, work opportunity, disease and shortened life expectancy.”

Fishman believes that the days of an abundant, safe, and free water supply are numbered and that we will be experiencing a water revolution over the next 30 years, much like the telecommunications industry evolved over the last 30 years from the basic telephone to what we have today. As in that case, the charge will be led by private companies like IBM, a company that uses ultra pure water in the manufacture of its computer chips. The water used in this process has to be so pure that it is 12 steps of filtration cleaner than water produced by reverse osmosis. The company has come up with innovative and cost-effective ways to conserve and use the precious resource. It is companies such as this that will be instrumental in coming up with the technology to remove the micro pollutants from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that pass through our bodies and end up in the water supply. Fishman maintains that we must proceed with caution to ensure that we progress successfully without actually ceding our water rights to private enterprise.

In short, he says that the solution lies in first supplying the basic amount of water that each person needs, then charging appropriately for usage above that. This would force private and business interests to pay closer attention to water and its role in our lives. He says of course that we all need to be mindful of our water usage and that he has changed his own personal water habits in small ways that by now we probably all practise to a certain extent – from reusable water bottles, to a step-down valve to reduce water pressure to his house, to never pouring the left over water in a glass down the drain but rather into a pot plant or the dog’s dish.

The thing that fascinated me most in this book of water facts and figures was something that I had never really thought about before - the fact that the water that we have now is the same water that we’ve always had. From the very beginning, the amount of water on this planet has neither increased nor decreased. Water cannot be used up - our water has and will be infinitely recycled. The very water we drink today could have passed through a dinosaur’s body aeons ago.

From my perspective, the author has achieved his stated goal - his presentation of the facts certainly changes the way I think about water. I would not mind paying a premium if I used water carelessly, and "Toilet to Tap" doesn't sound so bad anymore. Though I didn't think I'd ever say this, I would rather drink purified sewage than have it pumped into our fragile oceans to add to that 99 percent of water that we cannot easily use.


  1. A friend just mentioned this book yesterday, so now I must read it! Lots of interesting concepts here - the bit about Las Vegas being so water-conscious was a surprise.

    And of course the point about water being so inexpensive, relatively, in the US is well taken. People will squander it if it is cheap - one hopes we learn sooner than later how valuable it really is.

  2. Dear Carol-Ann,
    thank you for those fascinating informations! Here Husband smiles a bit about me because I "save" a lot of water when going to the kitchen or taking a shower: there runs such a lot of water through the tap until it is finally hot - I catch the water until it gets hot for our balcony (facing South) - though at the moment we have rain enough. It is not the expenses (here the whole house has to pay divided per person - whether you use a lot or not). But my father spent 26 days in a life saving boat with only the water they got from the dew at night - three men died drinking salt-water and going insane - until they reached Madagascar in the War - I think I never forgot that tale.
    And I am deeply grateful that we are so rich to have abundant clear water here!

  3. WOS - I'm sure you'll enjoy the book!

    Britta - Thank you for that amazing story about your father. It made me think that I would love to read a blog post or article of yours recounting his experience and the lessons you learned from it in more detail.
    It's no wonder you began your own water conservation habits long before most of the rest of us did.

  4. Ah, the politics of water, a very hot topic.I hadn't quite seen that we had gone through a water revolution but it takes the eyes of others to point it out.
    Here we have always had household tanks, they are a part of childhood memories for people my age and feature large in our 'mythology'.
    Here on the property I live on, we don't have mains water and live solely by the water we collect off the roofs, we also have a bore (well)which is used for watering my birds only.I don't water the garden even in the hottest most droughty Summer, what survives survives and it is mostly lavenders,geraniums, succulents,Pride of Madeira, daisies, honeyseckles, some annuals like marigolds, poppies and iris do well.
    We have a composting toilet for outside use and the inside toilet is flushed with bore water so as to conserve drinking water.We take these things as a matter of course, as we do not wasting water and recycling where we can.For instance I keep potplants, mainly herbs by back and front doors to receive any cooking water or soaking water.They get no other water and thrive.
    We have a septic tank which feeds the trees. We pay no water rates and a completely self-sufficient in water.We are by no means unique or unusual in any way.

  5. You've done a wonderful, enticing job, of marshalling interesting observations and insights from this book. I, too, was startled to read that Las Vegas, of all places, has exhibited water conservation consciousness. Both Britta's and Von's comments are fascinating additions to this informative post.

  6. RA - I agree, the comments are so interesting - glad you enjoyed the post.

    Von - If we all treated water the way you in your area do, then this kind of book would be redundant. Your water usage makes the author's personal water habits look positively indulgent!

  7. In Canada we take our water for granted. But we know that the clock is ticking on massive changes on how we pay for it and think about it. This book sounds like a thought provoking read - just added it to my wish list.


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