In which I hope my arguments hold water
Greetings, fellow Terran!
This is the fourth edition of Greenwhile, a periodical highlighting some of the people, projects and companies concerned with one of the most complex challenges we've ever faced: how to get our shit together before the planet "shakes us off like a bad case of fleas".
A very significant day was celebrated a few weeks ago, on the 22nd of March. Do you know what that was?
Worry not, I’m aware that the pandemic has made date-keeping frustrating – if not pointless. Even Fridays have lost that joyful feeling; the happy hours and weekend plans we used to look forward to now but a distant memory. But hey, at least the folks at Citigroup can TGIF again!
Anyway… March 22 is World Water Day, and has been so since 1993. Whether you observed it by being extra mindful of your water usage or by hosing down your car to the sound of Rose Royce’s 1976 tune, I thought it’d be appropriate to dedicate this edition of Greenwhile to good old H2O.
Read on to learn more about renewable water resources, the value of grey water, how an Italian architect addressed the lack of clean water in remote villages in Ethiopia, and, perhaps more importantly, how you can contribute to improving water security.
Think for a minute and tell me: what’s the country with the most renewable freshwater resources? Is it Russia, home of the mindblowing Lake Baikal? Or maybe the US, with lakes as large as entire countries?
It’s actually Brazil, which isn’t surprising. But the difference between it and the second country on the list, Canada, is incredible: with more than 8,000 cubic kilometres as of 2011, Brazil has twice as much renewable freshwater as the Great White North.
With all that water going around, how come severe scarcity issues plague places as diverse as California and Jordan ? It’s simple: although our planet has had roughly the same amount of H2O for millions of years (i.e.: 1.386 billion cubic kilometres), 96.5% of it is in our oceans. Then there’s 1.76% ‘trapped’ as ice and snow, leaving less than 2% across aquifers, rivers, lakes (including saline lakes), swamps, the atmosphere, etc.
Still, that’s been adequate for all these years, so what’s changed? Well, we have.
We were fruitful and multiplied, reaching a population of 7.8 billion last year. We’ve developed technologies, from agriculture to semiconductors (sometimes side by side), which happen to require a lot of water. We’ve also mismanaged existing resources.
And there’s fecking climate change, of course, increasing the odds of downpours in some places and acute droughts in others. Bizarrely, even the former can make matters worse as floods may cause wastewater to mix with potable water.
Okay, this is sufficiently grim. Let’s talk about solutions.
Have you ever wondered what happens to all that water used when brushing your teeth, showering, shaving, washing your clothes and dishes, etc? Unless you live in a really cool house like this or have a toilet like this, it all goes down the same drain as your wastewater. 💩
Unfortunately most of us can’t afford to redesign our plumbing or retrofit our toilets, but there’s one piece of technology that is cheap and pervasive enough to allow for at least some use of sullage (aka grey water): the humble bucket.
It’s quite easy to leave a pail in your shower while you wait for the water to get hot, for instance. Provided your tap water is safe to drink, your pipes are in good condition, and your bucket is clean, you should have a full kettle or so everyday. With a little bit more effort, you could use the water from your washing machine too. Not for tea, though.
As well as reducing your water footprint, using your sullage can save you some money. Just keep in mind that:
Without treatment, any water mixed with cleaning products, food particles, hair or the like can only be used to flush your toilet and water your plants.
Sullage must be used within 24 hours, otherwise it’ll get smelly.
Depending on where you live, using sullage may require a permit. Make sure to check your local legislation before hitting the DIY shop.
Here’s a quick note: the folks behind the project highlighted below were not fully transparent when seeking funding on Kickstarter back in 2015. However, I believe in what they developed and in the positive change they’ve brought to communities in Ethiopia and Cameroon.
Upon noticing the struggle of villagers in northeast Ethiopia to source potable water, Italian artist and architect Arturo Vittori decided to empower them. There was clearly plenty of water in the region, just not in liquid form. What the locals needed was a way to trap the rain, fog and dew.
“Insects, animals, and plants develop specific strategies to live in a specific environment. Some of them are capable of collecting water from the air and store it to survive in the most hostile environments on Earth”, says Mr. Vittori. So he set out to design a solution that suited “the local meteorological conditions, the geomorphological characteristic of the site, and the local culture”.
Much like their creator, the Warka Towers are a blend of art and architecture. Built with bamboo, hemp rope and polyester, the towers harvest water from the air surrounding them. Depending on the meteorological conditions, they can provide between 40 and 80 litres of potable water per day to the community managing it (according to the nonprofit Warka Water).
Although that may not sound like much, it does make a difference when the alternative is a long trek to the nearest pond – whose water could be contaminated. Mr. Vittori adds that the Warka Tower has one extra benefit: locals can gather under the shade of its canopy, making it a good meeting place.
So, what can you do to be a part of the solution? For starters, you can drop the hose and wash your car with a bucket (while listening to Rose Royce’s Car Wash, obviously).
If you have a dishwasher, use it! Washing dishes by hand consumes more water in comparison, and heating this water has an impact on your carbon footprint too. If you don’t have a dishwasher, fill one of your basins (or a bucket) with cold water and the other with hot water. This way you can soak, scrub and rinse your dishes et al quite efficiently.
I know it’s tough, trust me, but short showers are a must. If your toilet has a two-tier flush, one for solids and one for liquids, make sure to use it. Keeping the tap closed while you brush your teeth, wash your hands or shave is also crucial.
Vote responsibly. Not every country has a regional water authority that’s democratically elected, like the Netherlands, but your vote matters. A lot.
And if you need yet another good reason not to drink sugary drinks, Coca-Cola itself has you covered: “In 2017, we used about 289 billion liters of water to produce approximately 151 billion liters of product (e.g., Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero) that translated into some 166 billion liters of finished product sales to consumers.” 🤯
Above all, what we need to do is value water as the finite resource it is. This involves pricing it accordingly and fairly, so wasteful industries, crops and livestock are driven towards efficiency – and those in need aren’t punished even further.
Water scarcity is a gargantuan and insanely complex issue. Therefore, there’s a lot more to it than I could cover here. Stick around and we’ll discuss it again, but in the meantime you can learn more on the World Water Day website.