Over the past weeks, we have covered the basics of water, the impact of diet and weather, and the impressive negative impact of humans on water purity, justice and equity for our planet and its lifeforms. In our final session, we’ll concentrate on “The Future of Water.”
To get ourselves in the right frame of mind, let’s celebrate success. What state in our 50 states has the most water? The answer is Alaska. Within the boundaries of its 94,743 square miles, water covers 14% of the space. There are 3 million lakes over 5 acres in size, and 12,000 rivers. In sea water, surface and ground water, ice glaciers, and abundant precipitation, water is seemingly everywhere. And yet, like our lower 49, the many issues of water, and the disruption of planetary boundaries remains front and center in Alaska, and across the United States.
One Planetary Boundary, ozone in the atmosphere, is our top environmental success story. In fact the Anthropocene Work Group, in its color graphic outlining risk levels in all nine measures, gives Ozone an unequivocal green light. The UN proudly and rightly touts human performance in limiting ozone levels and preserving our atmosphere intact as a major accomplishment. Much of the credit, as we’ve seen, goes to Paul Crutzan and his meteorologic associates who figured out the connection between human release of chlorofluorocarbons and the depletion of the protective ozone layer in our atmosphere.
In the 1970s, CFC ’s were a $500 million slice of the chemical industry. They were in wide use in refrigeration, air conditioning and aerosol spray cans. Ultimately, these chemicals were banned worldwide as part of the Montreal Protocol. But it took awhile to get there. As scientific journals explained:
“From an environmental standpoint, ozone is a confusing molecule. In the troposphere, the region of the atmosphere from Earth’s surface up to about 6 miles, ozone is a pollutant that is a component of photochemical smog. But in the stratosphere, the region of the atmosphere from 6 to 31 miles, ozone absorbs potentially damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation.”
“As the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences put it in its announcement of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry: ‘Even though ozone occurs in such small quantities, it plays an exceptionally fundamental part in life on earth. This is because ozone, together with ordinary molecular oxygen (O2), is able to absorb the major part of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and therefore prevent this dangerous radiation from reaching the surface. Without a protective ozone layer in the atmosphere, animals and plants could not exist, at least not upon land.’”
“The Antarctic ozone hole, as it came to be known, made depletion of the ozone layer a real and present danger to lawmakers and the public at large. Predictions of significant increases in the incidence of skin cancer resulting from continued use of CFCs spurred international action. In 1987, 56 countries agreed under what became known as the Montreal Protocol to cut CFC production and use in half. In subsequent years, the protocol was strengthened to require an eventual worldwide phaseout of the production of CFCs and other ozone depleting chemicals.”
So we have now touched on 7 of the 9 Planetary Boundaries including Climate Change, Ozone, Freshwater Supply, Ocean Temperature and Acidity, Undeveloped Land, Nitrogen/Phosphorous Cycles, and Atmospheric Particulates. We have said little about #6 Atmospheric Particulates, but it has certainly been in the news as New York skies turned orange in response to air borne particulates flowing south from historic Canadian wild fires this past summer. Those fires were spawned by historic drought conditions and fierce winds made worse as an offspring of global warming. Concerning as well was recent research which revealed that particles less the diameter of a human hair carried not only allergens but also bacteria and viruses capable of inhalation. Larger organisms, like migratory birds, were carried along on the winds, helping explain the presence of flamings in Ohio and Wisconsin in September, 2023, after Hurricane Italia.
That leaves only two measures, both of which are viewed as currently in the danger zone. The worse of the two is Novel Chemical Toxins defined by the Anthropocene Work Group as “all toxic and long-lived substances that humans release into the environment — from heavy metals and radioactive waste, to industrial chemicals and pesticides, even novel living organisms— which can threaten the stability of the Earth system.” It is worth noting that humans have invented more than 140,000 synthetic chemicals and we produce them in vast quantities: around 2.3 billion tons annually. Yet, only a few thousand have been tested for their toxicity to humans or other organisms. That leaves humanity essentially flying blindly to potential chemical interactions and impacts.
What we do know is that chemical disasters are not uncommon and extremely costly in terms of environmental damage and loss of life. As a result, the events and their names live on in infamy. To name a few: Love Canal at Niagara Falls in 1984 – Dioxin. The Union Carbide Plant in Bhopal, India in 1984 – Methyl isocyanate. Michigan Water Authority, Flint, Michigan in 2014 – Lead Poisoning from drinking water.
The lists of individual chemical disasters is endless. More disturbing are two generalized global issues. The first is the disposal of a range of therapeutic or embedded pharmacologically active “forever chemicals” that find their way into ground water or sewage systems whose water is destined for municipal water purification plants. These chemicals are expensive and sometimes impossible to remove. The only truly effective ways to prevent the problem are to limit their use, or avoid casual dangerous disposal of them.
A second, and potentially greater problem is plastics. As experts warn, “The chemicals industry is currently the third-largest global CO2 emitter, and this $5 trillion industry is predicted to double by 2030. ‘The fossil fuel sector is the petrochemicals sector — it’s just the same mammoth — and they’re shifting basically all that investment from gasoline to materials, which is plastics.’”
Sherri Mason PhD a chemicals expert at Penn State goes farther writing, “Plastics are second only to climate change with regard to the threat to our ability as a species to survive on this planet.” Plastics clearly are a massive trash disposal problem, as well as a macro-disrupter of species on land and sea. But they break down and emit micro plastics that are pervasive on the planet, and can be found literally high and low, from the ocean’s bottom at the Mariana Trench to the upper slopes of Mount Everest.
Considerable work is underway on this planetary disrupter. In general this includes regulatory activism and innovation. Activities, through treaties and regulation seek to induce a high degree of circularity in the supply system, disposal, recovery and reuse of the materials. Multiple governing bodies are pursuing caps in plastic production and use. Finally, discussions are underway to cap greenhouse emissions on plastic manufacturing. These activities fit under the umbrella effort , ReAcH, “Registration/Evaluation/Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals.”
Consumer education and activation is growing rapidly including a range of inclusive steps that can reduce plastic at home and in the workplace. Finally entrepreneurs and innovators, seeing profit around the corner, are working on a range of new solutions including safe and sustainable chemicals, new material and product redesign, and improved recycling.
This leaves one final planetary boundary to cover – Biosphere Integrity and Diversity. It too currently lies in the red danger zone, a fact that is tied to historic levels of species extinctions in compromised and stressed environments around the planet. Humans are clearly altering the rules of natural selection and survival of the fittest at an alarming rate. Technically, this planetary boundary is defined by the Anthropocene Work Group as “The planetary functioning of the biosphere ultimately rests on its genetic diversity, inherited from natural selection not only during its dynamic history of coevolution with the geosphere but also on its functional role in regulating the state of Earth system.”
“The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) estimates that about 77% of the land and 87% of the ocean have been altered by humans…” The estimate of what has been lost over the past Holocene Epoch is 83% of the former mammal biomass and 50% of the former plant biomass. Current estimates are that we have only identified roughly 1/5 of the plant and animal species on Earth. Of the 8 million species we have identified, currently 1 million are at risk of extinction.
Much of the focus on preservation of species revolves around preservation of natural habitats and ready access to food, clean water, and energy both at land and on sea. In all of these efforts, water access plays a central and critical role. Biological diversity defines human and animal species capacity to adapt and adjust to an ever changing planet. from a science standpoint, diversity offers a range of options when faced with changing conditions. Water loss in general has a devastating effect on species survival.
Whether humans will survive is critically tied to our effective global management of the 9 planetary boundaries we have reviewed. They are all inter-related, and at their center is water access, critically challenged by human instigated global warming. A starting point then must begin by adaptations that are under our human control. To begin with, consider population growth and urbanization, mostly along coastal plains.
Trend lines since 1900 are revealing. Global population growth in the past century has increased 280%. This is minor compared to the centralization of human populations in city hubs or urbanization, up 2180%. Water consumption overall has risen 840%, primarily from agriculture. Finally, the numbers of global citizens living in water scarce areas has risen 500%. Translated, this means 2 billion humans lack adequate dinking water for their growth and safety.
Why do people congregate to cities? National Geographic recently summarized the issue. They say:
“Urbanization spurs a unique set of issues to both humans and animals. The promise of jobs and prosperity, among other factors, pulls people to cities. Half of the global population already lives in cities, and by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s people are expected to live in urban areas. But in cities two of the most pressing problems facing the world today also come together: poverty and environmental degradation.”
There are now 512 cities around the world that have more than 1 million residents. The problems such human density creates include “poor air and water quality, insufficient water availability, waste-disposal problems, and high energy consumption.” Building a city requires a great deal of planning, problem-solving talent, and financial and human resources.
City planners must plan for an influx of service-demanding impoverished people, homelessness, and acute need for jobs. Income disparity can rapidly spin out of control creating political unrest. Air and water pollution is magnified, and made worse by inadequate infrastructure to handle waste removal. Transportation and housing requirements require large investments and are often delayed. Green spaces often give way to manufacturing and housing, further complicating environmental integrity and needs for recreation. Automobile and truck exhaust can create a toxic environment with loss of species habitats. As chronic disease burden rises, already inadequate health care services can fail.
Of course, the value of urbanization, well-planned and executed, revolves around strength and manpower. Small and large enterprises are spawned which attract investment and employees. The scale of operations encourages broad investment in infrastructure. Thriving economies are able to attract city management talent, planning out infrastructure, housing, education, public health, transportation, safety and security. As enterprises grow, they spawn suburban environments, now linked by high-speed communications and broader transportation networks. But all this requires money and advanced planning.
City planners must promote job creation and economic development if they are to limit poverty. Community support and involvement is essential and requires active outreach services. Increasingly, clear air and water is a byproduct of wise and early investment in infrastructure and enlightened energy policy. Most of these require strong public-private partnerships that advance equity and inclusion of all citizens in decision-making. Disaster preparedness and expanded green spaces are just two tangible indications of a well run urban enterprise.
Many cities around the globe have had to run just to catch up. This is because most have originated on coastal plains where surface water has simultaneous supported trade, religious traditions, recreation, and raw sewage and toxic waste disposal. A primary example is populations living along the Ganges River in India. Historically one of the most polluted surface waterways in the world, it is also a vital transportation corridor, and a centerpiece of traditional Hindi religious observances. As experts describe, “The Ganges River is a sacred river in Hinduism and is worshiped as a goddess. The river is believed to be the abode of Shiva and also the site of numerous miracles. Hindus believe that bathing in the river will cleanse them of their sins and that drinking its water will bring them salvation. The river is also considered to be the giver of life and is venerated as a symbol of purity.”
As it accepts observant bathers, it continues to accept raw sewage placing humans at great risk. The risk, as outlined by the World Bank is obvious. “The Ganges suffers from extreme pollution levels, which affect the 400 million people who live close to the river…The World Bank estimates that the health costs of water pollution in India equal three per cent of India’s GDP. It has also been suggested that eighty per cent of all illnesses in India and one-third of deaths can be attributed to water-borne diseases. Varanasi, a city of one million people that many pilgrims visit to take a “holy dip” in the Ganges, releases around 200 million litres of untreated human sewage into the river each day, leading to large concentrations of faecal coliform bacteria. According to official standards, water safe for bathing should not contain more than 500 faecal coliforms per 100ml, yet upstream of Varanasi’s ghats the river water already contains 120 times as much, 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml.”
As compromised as conditions can be, especially in cities of developing nations, rural citizens continue to flock to cities as economic hardship, water scarcity, famine and warfare place them on the road seeking safety and stability for their families. Indeed such human pressures originally fueled the massive immigration waves into cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles at the turn of the 20th century. The human crises that ensued forced government to take strong measures to stabilize their economies and human health.
A city like New York in 1900 relied almost solely on horses for transportation, had little indoor plumbing or electric lighting, had no reliable trash removal system, and depended on city manure trucks to clear streets daily of filth and deliver it to “manure blocks” in the outer boroughs. Not surprising then that the city was brought to its knees by repetitive disasters including endless outbreaks of typhus, widespread infant mortality from diphtheria caused mainly by contaminated milk, and danger at every turn. A single catastrophic fire in 1835 wiped out 17 city blocks, in large part because there was not adequate available water to extinguish the flames.
Arguably, New York City would never have grown into the metropolis it is today if they had not solved their water problem. But the pathway to relative stability was complex, and made worse by profiteering around the time that our nation was birthed. Originally settled by the Dutch, they subsisted on the southern tip of Manhattan Island for 175 years using local water from ponds and springs, and an occasional well. The biggest body of surface water was the 48-acre Kalch-Hook (Collect Pond). The first public well, complete with pump, dug when the British took over the island, came in 1667 near Bowling Green by Battery Park.
In those early years, the ground and surface water was soon contaminated by salt water from the Hudson and East Rivers, and sewage in the absense of any organized system for waste disposal. As an alternative, water was hauled in from Brooklyn. Fires frequently burned out of control, and epidemics, like the cholera crisis in 1834 that killed 3,500 people, were constant threats to the ever expanding population.
The city’s formal attempt to “manage the problem of water” began on April 2, 1799 with the creation of the Manhattan Company Charter under the direction of Aaron Burr. They created the Manhattan Water Works Reservoir near Chamber Street with primitive wooden pipes distributing to the major thoroughfares. Burr used the effort in part to enrich himself, justifying the launch of a bank that would become Chase Manhattan.
Disease and contamination remained an issue from waste contamination. As early health pioneer, Dr. William Wood Garhard put it, “Where people lived, not how they lived was at the root of the problem.” So by 1830, the City began to look toward technology for an innovative fix. They took action, seizing control of the Croton River (in what is now Westchester County) and beginning the construction of a 41 mile aqueduct that would carry water south. An engineering marvel, water flowed by gravity the whole way with a 1/4 inch drop every 100 feet. With a great fireworks celebration, they heralded the arrival of 90 millions gallons of water a day with its completion on July 4, 1842.
But by the 1880s, the population of 3 million had outgrown the supply, and the city looked farther north for a reliable supply. In 1905, the State Legislature identified the Catskill region as the chosen primary source.
Today, the City website proudly declares that “The system that delivers NYC Water includes a network 19 reservoirs and three controlled lakes in a 1,972 square-mile watershed that extends across eight New York counties and Fairfield County, Connecticut. It has a total storage capacity of approximately 580 billion gallons.” That includes the 85 mile Delaware Aqueduct, completed in 1944, which is “the longest continuous tunnel in the world.”
With a secure water supply, bolstered by a expansive sanitation system and indoor plumbing, regular waste removal, pasteurization of milk, and a Public Health System with regulatory clout, New York City, along with other major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles grew in leaps and bounds.
The demand for water remains a challenge. In 2021, Mayor Bloomberg opened the spigot to the new Water Tunnel No. 3 which now carries an additional 350 million gallons of water to Manhattan each day. That 50 year project, beginning in 1970 cost $4.7 billion and claimed the lives of 24 workers. It stretches 60 miles and carries water from upstate New York to an ever thirsty city.
If thirst is quenched for now, big city problems remain, primarily from too much, rather than two little water. Changing weather patterns brought on by global warming exposes infrastructure that is clearly inadequate to manage coastal flooding. It’s not all “Happy Trails” for city planners as recent satellite maps revealed. New York City streets and subways systems (requiring constant subterranean pumping) are frequently flooding. And the city itself is literally sinking. Red-lined maps reveal the most compromised sites which dramatically include Runway #3 at LaGuardia Airport.
The waterways surrounding the city these days are a great deal cleaner thanks to The Clean Water Act of 1972. This federal law “introduced the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permit system for regulating point sources of pollution. Point sources include:
Point sources may not discharge pollutants to surface waters without an NPDES permit.”
The law forced New York State and its largest city to act, specifically by upgrading the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant in Manhattan. Until 1986, “150 million gallons per day of untreated sewage was discharged directly into the river.” The legislations also unveiled the presence of PCBs and heavy metals (notably from a GE plant) discharged in earlier times and laying undetected on the river floor.
If the Hudson and East Rivers are today vastly improved, reports on their smaller tributaries are “varied in conditions.” Varnasi, India is not New York, NY, but it is fair to say the establishing access to clean, safe water, and maintaining proper water and sanitation infrastructure has, and always will be expensive and technologically complex, even if we were not dealing with global warming induced risk.
Healthy Water solutions then begin with a general understanding that water is our most precious resource; that water must be shared, often requiring treaties; that access to clean water requires a general focus on all aspects of planetary behavior; that the challenges are complex and varied around the world; and that planning and investment are crucial.
One hopeful aspect is that disputes around sharing of water have usually been resolved peacefully. For example, throughout the Vietnam War, North and South Vietnam continued to honor their sharing agreement on Mekong Delta water. Similarly, the Israeli and Arab nations, through years of war and conflict, halved up to their sharing agreements.
A more recent example is the historic 2023 sharing agreement governing water access from the Colorado River. The headline in the Washington Post, “States near historic deal to protect Colorado River” announced a long sought after potential bargain by California, Arizona and Nevada, which form the river’s Lower Basin, to take actions to save the Colorado River and preserve its value as a source of drinking water for 40 million, hydropower for tens of millions, and recreation most notably on the ever-shrinking Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The deal to conserve 13% (3 million acre feet) of each state’s river allocation over the next three years carries a federal contribution to the states of over $1 billion dollars.
Coming to a deal has meant engaging the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming which use far less of this valuable resource than their Lower Basin counterparts. The 1,450 miles of the river move through the seven states as they meander from the Rocky Mountains to Mexico, traversing dependent farms and cities. Also, the discussions for the first time have allowed 30 Native American tribes in the basin to have a voice at the table.
Interior Secretary Tea Harland, the first native American to hold the post, took the bull by the horn in an event at the Hoover Dam this summer that made it clear that time was running out with Lake Powell and Lake Mead at 1/4 of their normal levels, and close to forcing closure of the hydroelectric dam production of electricity. As Colorado’s water commissioner bluntly stated to her counterparts, “Are we going to make a choice to do better? If we don’t want the secretary to manage us, can we show we can manage ourselves?” They found compromise was the correct choice.
Secretary Harland carried with her a deep knowledge and instincts grounded in our Native American culture and traditions. As the ancient Chinook blessing well expressed: “We call upon our waters, that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields, and we ask them to teach us and show us the way.” Such respect and grounding remains deeply embedded, and as in this case, helped carry the day.
All that said, wise use of this limited resource is everyone’s job. Let’s consider then the range of strategies, some simple and others technologically complex, to assure success for our planet and all the life forms it supports.
The poster child for good governance of water likely must go to San Antonio, Texas. The city, the second fastest growing in the state, relies on the Edwards Aquifer as its sole source of water. The San Antonio Water System is a public utility that manages 92 wells that pump 204 millions gallons from the Aquifer each day to support the 2.3 million citizens needs.
In managing the Aquifer, the city must negotiate with US Geological Survey, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and US Environmental Protection Agency. In 1993, the city worked with the State Legislature to pass the Edwards Aquifer Authority Act.
The aquifer formed some 70 million years ago along with movement of tectonic plates that formed the Rocky Mountains and deposited sediment across what is now Texas. The main component, known as Edwards limestone, created the porous aquifer that underlies the region. It extends underground across 11 counties and covers 4,350 miles. The material is exceedingly porous, and subdivided by fractures and joints, with water flowing through constantly, dissolving the limestone, and increasing spaces for water storage. Approximately 5% of the total water is believed to be easily accessible through surface based wells.
The Aquifer is a fragile blessing for the region, but easily destroyed. Since the ground is so porous, chemical pollutants that are part and parcel of development, can easily seep into the Aquifer. Once inside, contaminants are exceedingly difficult to extract. Impervious surfaces, like black top roads, decrease water recharge, and undermine the Aquifer as a future resource. This began to appear as a concern 30 years ago . Beginning in 1996, the areas sales of residential property increased by 9% in new divisions. Four of their counties were among the fastest growing in the nation.
In response, the San Antonio Council passed the Edwards Aquifer Protection Plan in 2000. This allows the municipality to put put easements on parcels of land deemed vulnerable in three counties, paying landowners (who preserve ownership) 45% of the land’s value in return for an agreement not to divide or develop the land. Under the law, the city now controls development of 130,000 acres, and the Aquifer remains healthy.
This cooperative effort between citizens and their government is at the core of changing consumption and lifestyles – a core strategy for managing water. Voluntary efforts, often reinforced with public mandates or guidelines can reinforce local water use, recycling of waste water, novel rainwater collecting systems, improved water catchment and harvesting, pollution controls, and careful disposal of plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Local governance and partnerships have a wide range of strategies that have been effective on the local level including managed irrigation systems for agriculture, appropriate pricing of water as the valued resource it is, holistic ecosystem management, repair of distribution leaks, consistent water testing and remediation, and public promotion of conservation.
In many communities, local residents have adjusted home design to capture rainwater, separate green and gray water use with segregated home plumbing, utilize toilet and shower plumbing that limits waste, choosing landscaping that is water friendly, and supporting recycling regimens.
As the old saying goes, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” One expert added, “a more accurate read on water use—and potentially higher prices—could offer households and businesses more incentive to rethink their water usage, invest in water-saving features, and take other measures to use less of this precious resource.”
Rules and regulations on local, state and federal levels come into play with the planning and financing of broader strategies like upgrading infrastructure, decreasing corporate water consumption and carbon footprints, climate change mitigation, and oversight measurement and effective communication.
Some of the challenges, as we have seen, cross over geographic boundaries, and are global in nature. Organizations like the UN, the World Bank, and the Anthropocene Work Group have a broad and comprehensive agenda. Whether local, national, or global, all require human support and cooperation, and are adversely affected by human discord.
Water is an urgent issue that cannot wait. A recent Morgan Stanley analysis showed that the gap between global demand and supply of fresh water would reach 40% by 2030. They further established that the negative impact on the world economy would be a negative 11.5%, according to the World Bank, by 2050.
Remediation doesn’t come cheap. The world spends an estimated $850 billion a year on “provision and maintenance “ of water. $300 billion of this is for infrastructure. Can we afford such an expenditure. It comes down to priorities. We currently expend three times this amount in support of energy (notably fossil fuels.) The same study suggested, however, that the world is getting the message that investment in water management is now critical. They are projecting that $1.4 trillion will be invested in the next 4 years
Some of that investment will go to research and development of new technologies. Desalination is beginning to approach a cost-effective break even with new nano-membranes that allow rapid throughput. In 2020, desalination provided less than 1% of the global fresh water supply, primarily in the Middle East. But there are more than 150 projects in the pipeline, and recent projections suggest 9% of the global water supply, mostly for domestic rather than agricultural use, will be through desalinization by 2025.
One of those projects is by Lockheed Martin. They have developed a new graphene filter that reduces the energy cost of reverse osmosis by 20%. The filters are only one atom thick and hyper-permeable, improving water flow by 500%. Traditional water conservationists remain cautious. One said, “Desalination should only be used as a last resort. Emphasis should be placed on smart water management, reducing water losses, and increasing the uptake of water-efficient technologies practices. But in regions where there is truly not enough freshwater to meet demand, a cheaper and less energy-intensive desalination method is certainly a good thing.”
In developing nations, farmers using fossil fuel irrigation pumps are being encouraged to move over to solar power, and to sell any excess power back to the electric power grid. Smarter irrigation is the theme for California almond farmers as well, where new data feeds that measure precipitation, wind speed, air temperature, soil temperature, and humidity from 130 stations around the state have allowed them to adjust plants water uptake in real time and decrease consumption by 20%. Wireless data systems are fast replacing radio-based systems, and increasing the reach to remote locations.
In short, there is a great deal that can and should be done. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in March, 2023, committed to “Bringing the water agenda back to life.”
In his words: “Water is humanity’s lifeblood, from the food we eat to the ecosystems and biodiversity that enrich our world to the prosperity that sustains nations, to the economic engines of agriculture, manufacturing and energy generation to our health, hygiene and survival itself… Water is a human right — and a common development denominator to shape a better future. But water is in deep trouble. We are draining humanity’s lifeblood through vampiric overconsumption and unsustainable use and evaporating it through global heating. We’ve broken the water cycle, destroyed ecosystems and contaminated groundwater…Nearly three out of four natural disasters are linked to water. One in four people lives without safely managed water services or clean drinking water. And over 1.7 billion people lack basic sanitation. Half a billion practice open defecation. And millions of women and girls spend hours every day fetching water.”
What should be our top priorities?
One poll of 1200 international water experts listed these 19:
1. Educate to change consumption and lifestyles.
2. Invent new water conservation technologies.
3. Recycle wastewater.
4. Improve irrigation and agricultural practices.
5. Appropriately price water.
6. Develop energy efficient desalination plants.
7. Improve water catchment and harvesting.
8. Look to community-based governance and partnerships.
9. Develop and enact better policies and regulations.
10. Holistically manage ecosystems.
11. Improve distribution infrastructure.
12. Shrink corporate water footprints.
13. Build international frameworks and institutional cooperation.
14. Address pollution.
15. Public common resources / equitable access.
16. R&D / Innovation.
17. Water projects in developing countries / transfer of technology.
18. Climate change mitigation.
19. Population growth control.
All of these are valid, but the U.N. Water Conference in March, 2023, work hard to set more focused priorities. They were guided by Secretary General Antonio Gutierrez who summarized their efforts with these words:
“This conference demonstrated a central truth.
As humanity’s most precious global common good, water unites us all.
And it flows across a number of global challenges.
Water is about health, sanitation, hygiene and disease-prevention.
Water is about peace.
Water is about sustainable development, fighting poverty, supporting food systems and creating jobs and prosperity.
Water is about human rights and gender equality.
That’s why water needs to be at the centre of the global political agenda.”
The United Nations then listed these four major objectives:
- Close the Water Measurement Gap.
- Massively Invest in Water and Sanitation Systems.
- Focus on Resilience – including disaster-resilient pipelines, water-delivery infrastructure, and wastewater treatment plants; climate and biodiversity-smart food systems that reduce methane emissions and water use; and recycling and conservation.
- Address Climate Change.
We close once more with the Chinook Blessing:
“We call upon our waters, that rim the Earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they teach us and show us the way.”