By West Marrin, Ph.D.
Many of the water crises we face today stem from the collective belief that we can manipulate the planetary water cycle so that it conforms to our desires—no matter how contrary to the patterns and rhythms of the natural world. Can we learn to adapt to water’s behaviors and preferences, or will we continue to demand that water adapt to ours?
In our effort to manage water and avert potential crises using the most expedient alternatives, we have often overlooked their long-term consequences. I refer to water crises, rather than to water shortages, because there is no less water on the planet today than there was a thousand years ago. What have changed are the number of people (particularly in regions with limited water resources), the widespread relocation and degradation of water, the recent shifts in global precipitation patterns, and the assumption that technology alone will ultimately solve these crises.
Watersheds or groundwater basins have proven to be the most reliable management units for devising sustainable strategies because they are defined by hydrological, rather than by political, boundaries.
This brief review presents plausible solutions for water with a focus on novel or innovative approaches that are potentially sustainable, energy-efficient, affordable, and expected to generate minimal adverse effects. The selected examples are categorized as management/cultural water solutions.
Software & Sensors. Various software tools have been developed over the last decade to increase people’s awareness of water use patterns, to assess financial implications of water use for businesses, and to provide data for water resource agencies. Software tools range from smart utility meters and water saving apps to hidden water use estimators and shared scientific databases. Management has benefited from advanced monitoring techniques (e.g., automated water quality recorders) that utilize remote sensors and satellite imagery to rapidly collect data, permitting changes in water quality and quantity to be assessed on a real-time basis rather than after-the-fact. Whether on smartphones or satellites, sophisticated sensors and software may be a key to informing us quickly about the changing local hydroscape and how we can best adapt to it.
Footprints & Exchanges. Perhaps the conceptual tools that have most influenced water management during the last two decades are water footprints and virtual water. Water footprints can be calculated for individuals, nations and products to evaluate both direct and indirect uses of water and to identify the types of water involved (e.g., green for precipitation, blue for surface and ground waters, and grey for water required to dilute pollutants). Surprisingly, about 90% of a person’s water footprint is devoted to food, so that dietary changes and a reduction in food waste are often the most effective ways to conserve water. Virtual water is an estimate of the total water required to manufacture products or provide services and is now routinely calculated as a means to track the exchange (importing and exporting) of global water resources among trading partners.
A Different Perception. Beyond the implementation of technological breakthroughs and management schemes are the changes that humans must make in their perception of water as an integral component and mediator of almost every structure and process on this planet. The ancient roots of this perception led to a realization that water is much more than just a commodity or resource and that its behavior in the natural world actually shows us the most successful means of managing it. The practice of emulating water’s natural processes and structures was noted in a previous issue as hydromimicry, which is less likely to spawn technologies or strategies with unanticipated impacts or unsustainable practices than are those thatforce water to adapt to our mandates.
Relevant Education. Educating children on the subject of water has traditionally been performed on a representational basis (from books and traditional viewsof water as a natural resource and financial commodity), where the students have very little or no opportunity to personally interact with water and to “know it” experientially, as well as intellectually. An overdependence on representational learning necessarily leads to the collective acceptance of perceptions that often lack diversity and, perhaps, any real resonance with children’s experience or intuition of water that are developed early in life. At a time when creativity and intellect are essential to developing novel solutions, relying solely on the latter may not be the best tactic.
Right to Water. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt a declaration that water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. Although it was a strong humanitarian statement, it is unlikely to alter the legal, political, sociological or financial hurdles that stand in the way of its becoming a reality. Moreover, the private and public agencies that could grant this “right” do not possess absolute control over water or the hydrologic processes that affect its availability. Throughout most of human history, water has been considered a gift from nature to be appreciated, rather than a right from institutions to be demanded. As such, this declaration reflects as much about our personal disconnect to water as it does about a belief that everyone is entitled to it.
Resource Security. Water has been recognized as a national security issue in the U.S. and other nations because of its potential vulnerability to terrorism (e.g., via attackson infrastructure) and its lack of availability during crises (e.g., following natural disasters). This represents a relatively new way of perceiving water by industry and government. Water’s relationship to security also stems from its essential roles in producing food and energy, preserving human and ecosystem health, limiting conflicts between neighboring states, managing emergency situations, and stabilizing financial markets.
Consumer Choices. Although rarely listed underthe heading of water conservation, practices such as reducing our electricity and gasoline bills, eating more locally grown and organic foods, switching to a diet that includes less meat, building with recycled materials, and using fewer paper products all contribute to the quantity and quality of water available to us. Consumers often fail to realize that almost every product and service they consume requires “hidden” water, and choosing water-efficient ones does impact the availability and condition of both local and globalwater resources.