Waterless World

A Global Water Crisis Forum


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It’s Time to Focus on “Local Water”

Beyond the need to invest significant capital in municipal water infrastructure improvement projects, towns both big and small can contribute to their water well-being by embracing the concept of local water outlined by Brian Young, Sustainable Infrastructure product manager at Autodesk,  in this recent article featured in the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In a world increasingly dry or flooded – depending on the circumstances –, city leaders and infrastructure experts are quick to advocate mega-projects to tap, convey or treat our most precious of natural resources: water.

California spends 5% of its electricity just conveying and treating water, and is in the midst of building a US$1bn desalination plant. China’s South-North Water Diversion Project plans to reroute enough water each year to submerge the United Kingdom 18 cm deep, over a distance between London and Barcelona.

Yet these Herculean efforts – both in terms of cost and engineering – fail to acknowledge a basic efficiency principle: use water where it falls. “Local water”, which exists even in arid regions, provides more benefit than adding new mega-projects, in three major ways:

Financially: Desalinating water can cost twice as much as recycling and four times as much as conservation. Furthermore, desalination plants become stranded assets once the rains return.

In contrast, local sources of water – the under-tapped streams of stormwater, wastewater, leaks, and conservation – can shrink the supply and demand gap at a fraction of the cost of desalination. In fact, a study last year found that simple conservation, reuse, and stormwater capture could save as much water every year as all of California’s cities require annually.

The city of Philadelphia is using code to convert stormwater into a resource, requiring developers to install green infrastructure like rain gardens and cisterns to capture rainfall that once drained away. Melbourne uses leak detection and metering technologies to reduce their water losses, which in some cities reach 40%. Parts of Virginia and California opted to recycle wastewater for use in irrigation and cooling, rather than create more water demand. These local alternatives enable cities to find more water without placing all their chips on one big bet that may become a very expensive matter.

Environmentally: Capturing rainfall, reusing wastewater and plugging leaks reintroduces lost water back into the system, offsetting the need to draw water from fragile ecosystems or convey it from other regions. And recycling it requires less than half the energy of desalinating saltwater.

Capturing and reusing water also keeps runoff and sewage overflows from contaminating nearby rivers and oceans, one of the leading causes of surface water pollution, while also acting as air and heat “filters”. Even in a place as arid as Arizona, a government study recently found that “green infrastructure” to capture and retain stormwater would generate a significant return on investment by reducing heat stress mortality and air pollution.

Socially: The “buy local” food movement (food production and distribution that is geographically localised, rather than national or international) educates shoppers as to where their food comes from, leading them to value it more. Governments and water utilities have done a good job of making water infrastructure invisible (i.e. below ground or behind walls), so much so that consumers don’t use water wisely, nor do they see the need to pay for infrastructure upgrades.

This wasteful type of behaviour is starkly different from communities that rely upon wells or stormwater, where water is considered precious. Local and visible solutions around rainwater capture, water recycling and conservation will help consumers appreciate the value of water more, and create a virtuous circle in their willingness to pay to protect it.

Cities aiming to solve their water scarcity problems should begin their search within their own municipal boundaries. With today’s technologies, water that was once lost to leaks, discharges, and wasteful use can now be found. And unlike the freshwater sources from afar, this rediscovered “local” water carries lasting financial, environmental, and social benefit.


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Hydro-Diplomacy Enters the Lexicon

The international community must gear up for a new era of “hydro-diplomacy” as the threat of water scarcity risks plunging the world into a period of geopolitical tension and stunted development, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson told delegates gathered at the General Assembly today.

“Water is one of the highest priorities for development and lives in dignity, as well as a serious factor in maintaining peace and security,” the Deputy Secretary-General said in remarks to open the High-Level Interactive Dialogue on the International Decade for Action ‘Water for Life,’ 2005-2015.

“The lack of water causes individual tragedies,” he continued. “And it also, growingly, constitutes a threat to international peace and security. There is a need for ‘hydro-diplomacy’ – making scarce water a reason for cooperation, rather than a reason for conflict.”

Mr. Eliasson warned that in a period of “intensifying disasters, both man-made and natural,” social and economic stresses related to water supply would increasingly flare up, spawning tensions between communities and nations.

The dire straits facing the world’s water situation was recently amplified in the UN’s 2015 World Water Development report, released by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and in time for last week’s World Water Day.

According to the report, the planet will face a 40 per cent shortfall in water supply in 2030 unless the international community “dramatically” improves water supply management. Demand for water is slated to skyrocket 55 per cent by 2050 while 20 per cent of global groundwater is already overexploited.

On average, nearly 1,000 children die every day from diarrheal disease linked to unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, or poor hygiene. In three countries in particular – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique and Papua New Guinea – more than half the population does not have improved drinking water.

“The impact of water on human health as well as economic well-being is better understood than a decade ago, including water’s critical importance for households, industries, agriculture, cities, energy production and transportation,” President of the General Assembly, Sam Kutesa, stated in a message to the meeting delivered by the Permanent Representative of Iceland to the United Nations, Einar Gunnarsson.

He observed that despite the considerable accomplishments made under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some 800 million people continue to live without access to an improved water source while many more remain without a safe and sustainable water supply.


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Nestlé Sells You Back Your Water at a Profit

In a fight that we are bound to see repeated in myriad ways the world over, a movement in Sacramento, California is tilting at the global corporate windmill by challenging Nestle’s right to take public water and resell it as bottled water at prices higher than gasoline. From Mint Press News:

The city of Sacramento is in the fourth year of a record drought – yet the Nestlé Corporation continues to bottle city water to sell back to the public at a big profit, local activists charge.

The Nestlé Water Bottling Plant in Sacramento is the target of a major press conference on Tuesday, March 17, by a water coalition that claims the company is draining up to 80 million gallons of water a year from Sacramento aquifers during the drought.

The coalition, the crunchnestle alliance, says that City Hall has made this use of the water supply possible through a “corporate welfare giveaway,” according to a press advisory.

“The coalition is protesting Nestlé’s virtually unlimited use of water – up to 80 million gallons a year drawn from local aquifers – while Sacramentans (like other Californians) who use a mere 7 to 10 percent of total water used in the State of California, have had severe restrictions and limitations forced upon them,” according to the coalition.

“Nestlé pays only 65 cents for each 470 gallons it pumps out of the ground – the same rate as an average residential water user. But the company can turn the area’s water around, and sell it back to Sacramento at mammoth profits,” the coalition said.

Activists say that Sacramento officials have refused attempts to obtain details of Nestlé’s water used. Coalition members have addressed the Sacramento City Council and requested that Nestle’ either pay a commercial rate under a two tier level, or pay a tax on their profit.

In October, the coalition released a “White Paper” highlighting predatory water profiteering actions taken by Nestle’ Water Bottling Company in various cities, counties, states and countries.  Most of those great “deals” yielded mega profits for Nestle’ at the expense of citizens and taxpayers.  Additionally, the environmental impact on many of those areas yielded disastrous results.


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One Year (and Counting)

From the Los Angeles Times this past Thursday, Jay Famiglietti, the senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Caltech and a professor of Earth system science at UC Irvine, sounds the alarm that, while much of the country has experienced a wet winter, California just burrowed deeper into it’s existing water crisis.

Op-Ed: California has about one year of water left. Will you ration now?

Given the historic low temperatures and snowfalls that pummeled the eastern U.S. this winter, it might be easy to overlook how devastating California’s winter was as well.

As our “wet” season draws to a close, it is clear that the paltry rain and snowfall have done almost nothing to alleviate epic drought conditions. January was the driest in California since record-keeping began in 1895. Groundwater and snowpack levels are at all-time lows. We’re not just up a creek without a paddle in California, we’re losing the creek too.

As difficult as it may be to face, the simple fact is that California is running out of water — and the problem started before our current drought. NASA data reveal that total water storage in California has been in steady decline since at least 2002, when satellite-based monitoring began, although groundwater depletion has been going on since the early 20th century.

Right now the state has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and our strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing. California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain.

In short, we have no paddle to navigate this crisis.

Our state’s water management is complex, but the technology and expertise exist to handle this harrowing future. It will require major changes in policy and infrastructure that could take decades to identify and act upon. Today, not tomorrow, is the time to begin.

Finally, the public must take ownership of this issue. This crisis belongs to all of us — not just to a handful of decision-makers. Water is our most important, commonly owned resource, but the public remains detached from discussions and decisions.

This process works just fine when water is in abundance. In times of crisis, however, we must demand that planning for California’s water security be an honest, transparent and forward-looking process. Most important, we must make sure that there is in fact a plan.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’d like to live in a state that has a paddle so that it might also still have a creek.


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America’s Most Endangered Rivers – 2014

From American Rivers

America Most Endangered Rivers

1. San Joaquin River

Outdated water management and excessive diversions leave the river dry in stretches, threatening water quality, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and leaving communities vulnerable in the face of drought.

2. Upper Colorado River

The river’s health, fish and wildlife, agriculture, and recreation are threatened by new proposed diversions and increasing water demands.

3. Middle Mississippi River

A proposed new levee would cut off the river from the floodplains that protects downstream communities from floodwaters and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

4. Gila River

An unnecessary water diversion and pipeline would harm fish and wildlife, river health, and local economics dependent on outdoor recreation and tourism.

5. San Francisquito Creek

The 65-foot Searsville Dam blocks threatened steelhead from reaching habitat upstream, impairs water quality, and poses flooding risks for local communities.

6. South Fork Edisto River

Excessive agriculture withdrawals threaten the river’s health and downstream water users, including other farmers.

7. White River (Colorado)

15,000 proposed new oil and gas wells in the region threaten to ruin clean drinking water and fish and wildlife habitat.

8. White River (Washington)

Salmon, steelhead, and bull trout populations are often killed at the unsafe and outdated Buckley Dam.

9. Haw River

Drinking water and recreation areas for more than one million people are threated by polluted runoff and wastewater.

10. Clearwater/Lochsa Rivers

The Wild and Scenic rivers’ coldwater fisheries, scenery, and whitewater are threatened by industrialization that would bring huge megaloads bound for Canadian tar sands onto narrow roads beside the rivers.


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Global Water Crisis: A Personal Action Plan

Here’s how you can do your part to help manage the global water crisis.


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“Last Call at the Oasis”

The global-catastrophe documentary is a thriving form these days, as the apparent unsustainability of human life has emerged as fertile ground for cinematic journalism. Jessica Yu’s “Last Call at the Oasis, is one of the more recent additions to the canon and the content, combining interviews with experts and video evidence of what is happening to water resources across the globe, brings home the catastrophic potential of global inaction.  Though released in 2012, the film remains relevant in a time of increasing drought, water wars and water pollution.

From the New York Times review of the film:

The calm, knowledgeable voices of the experts make “Last Call at the Oasis” especially scary. Nothing is more unnerving than predictions of an apocalypse delivered by a reasonable person in friendly, conversational tones.

The question is whether anyone is listening, and it is a question that always nips at the heels of documentaries like this one. One way the question is answered — or perhaps finessed — is by the optimistic, encouraging tone that tends to sneak in at the end. 

There is also a measure of hope to be gleaned from Ms. Yu’s interview subjects, though less from what they have to say — which is pretty grim — than from their seriousness and dedication.

However frustrated they may be by political paralysis, corporate trickery or plain human stupidity, none of them seem inclined to give up. When they do, we really will be screwed, and we won’t have or need movies like this to tell us so.

Here is the original trailer for the film.