When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

The title above is a quote from Benjamin Franklin which speaks volumes. Water is a very dear resource and we truly do not know its ultimate value until it is gone or our access to it is limited. I recently completed one of the best history books I have ever read “Water – the Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization” by Steven Solomon. Solomon has written for the New York Times, Business Week, The Economist, Forbes and Esquire among other places and is the author of “The Confidence Game,” so the book has an investigative storytelling bent which makes history come alive. Yet, it is not just a history book as he brings us to today’s times and provides us with cautions to heed as we move forward.

In short, the book shows the ability for great civilizations to rise, thrive and fall based on their ability to control water resources for drinking, farming, manufacturing, sewage and transportation. Through this we learn the vital role that bringing water into an area for use and then using it to sweep away sewage from that same area can have in enhancing or debilitating our lives. To paint an ugly picture, London in the mid-1800’s had a terrible period, as did other major cities, where cholera, dysentery and other diseases were prominent. The period was called “The Big Stink” as sewage was not be adequately washed away and was actually being dumped into the same drinking water sources. After years of postponement (sounds like our debt crisis) of dealing with it, the smell became so grotesque that Parliament had to act within 18 days to set in motion a plan to resolve it.

I use this example rather than others as it shows how basic the needs water fills and our inability to use it wisely can be truly catastrophic. Rome was known for its aqueducts and how it flourished with the baths it created. The baths which improved hygiene became so popular, they were the social meeting places where people of all strata kept themselves clean and healthy. It is not ironic that Rome flourished during this time and fell when many of these aqueducts were destroyed by invaders from the North.

To use a more recent example, Teddy Roosevelt is probably the greatest water president in US history. Before his time, the greatest US water accomplishment was the building of the Erie Canal which reduced the cost of goods transport immensely connecting ports. Roosevelt had three major contributions – the building of the Panama Canal, the development of planned water rights and retrieval in the west to help irrigate dry areas for crops and sustenance, and the protection of water sheds via the vast number of parks he created. His inspiration and force of will also led to the building of the Hoover Dam which occurred later and whose success was copied many times over by his cousin, Franklin when he was in the White House.

It is arguable that these water initiatives by Teddy Roosevelt are key reasons the US is as powerful today. I recognize that downplays the roles of many others, but the US leveraged its access to both coasts through the building of the Panama Canal. Plus, it helped the can-do psyche of Americans after earlier attempts by France to build the canal failed. Successful major construction can be uplifting just as failures can be crushing as China saw with the huge failure of a major dam project completed just four years ago.

I wanted to provide a little varied context from the book, as we look at problems of today and the near and longer term future. I had incorrectly given credit for this quote to Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, but a key chapter title in the book is called “Water: The New Oil.” We have growing concerns in the US, especially in drier parts of the country, but even other areas which are not known for being dry. More on these later. While we have these concerns, we are still referenced as being more water rich than other places on the planet. What this book highlights is the insatiable desire for water in water poor countries is causing the misuse or  unplanned use of water at too fast a pace so that it cannot be replenished. What will bring the Middle East to its knees will be the ever worsening shortage of water. As rich a country as Saudi Arabia is through oil, it is water poor and will very soon be using up its water supply. Other countries are even in more dire straits in that region.

If you move into the African continent you can look to Ethiopia to where the Nile begins, but most of the water is used in Egypt. Issues have erupted around the sharing of water and will continue to be of concern. The building of the Aswan Dam was in some respects a success, but in others a failure as it was built in the wrong place. Much of the water created from the dam evaporates before it is used. The book points out to these kinds of issues as we plan ahead and we must. This issue becomes even more critical in water and economically poor countries. So, globally we need concerted planning on we should use our water resources. This problem will only become worse if we grow unfettered increasing the number of people on our planet and the impact of global warming continues to affect our supply.

Bringing the issue back to the US,  we are water rich, but could be better personal, industrial and governmental stewards of our water. Americans use far more water than others on the planet. We are seeing droughts and water fights between Georgia, Alabama and Florida and Texas has numerous places where the water table has dried up, e.g. The global warming impact will continue to hit the driest places on the planet the most and it is one of the factors there has been the onset of forest fires which we are seeing here and in Australia and Russia.

So, we need to act now to plan ahead with better water usage strategies and not wait for the “big stink” to occur using that as a metaphor for all water problems. And, we need to continue to offer and help other countries develop strategies and execute them at the regional and local levels. One of the ironies is in parts of rural India where the British water management back in the early 1900’s did not reach, they still maintain water councils who provide stewardship over water use. India has grown so rapidly in major cities, that the infrastructure needs updating, but these smaller water council areas continue to be judicious users of water because they had to be that way. We all need to be judicious.

So, what can we do? At the individual level, conservation is key. Three of the greatest water uses are in flushing toilets, washing clothes and washing dishes. If we each can strive for more the more energy-efficient wash cycles and lower water use toilets that could be an enormous savings. There are recycling examples for water where toilets can draw from shower water and rainwater collections can be used for watering plants. We Americans need to cut back on the lawn sprinklers as well as we abuse this privilege. We can do this through use, but also by planting more indigenous grasses and plants. I am also reminded of my Dad’s navy shower restrictions on ship – 25 seconds of water. You used five to wet your body. Then you soaped up and turned back on the spigot for the last twenty seconds of water to rinse off. I am not advocating navy shower limits per se, but we do not need to be like my children either and lounge around in the shower.

Yet, I think we need to be aware and advocate that we should address our problems. There are some very good things going on in our country that can be done elsewhere. Setting aside the Big Stink example, Orange County in CA has successfully reused sewage water as drinking water and for irrigation. As scary as this sounds, they use multiple filtering and cleaning techniques that have proven to work.  There is continued exploration of desalinization techniques with ocean water, but they tend to be very expensive and the issue of what to do with the salt is an issue. Plus, there are some neat things going on in industry to use recycled water for various uses.

On the flip side, we have continued to be poor stewards in other areas and have been slow to act in rectifying these issues. In “Living Downstream,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber has noted we continue to pollute our waters with petro-chemicals which wreak havoc. In Canada, they have outlawed ornamental pesticides for home use due to the air and water poisoning. And, one of the big reasons I am against fracking is, in addition to the toxic issues it causes for air and water, it uses an exorbitant amount of water, 2 – 5 million gallons per fracking well. Fracking did not cause the drought in Texas, but it sure is not helping it now. We need a strong EPA, not a weakened one.

Finally, this is a major issue that affects every resource issue, so it needs to be stated. I am going to ask everyone to set aside their religious beliefs for these next few statements. The earth cannot support the unfettered increase in population.  We are in the neighborhood of 8 million people. If we all consume as Rwandans do, the earth may be able to support 15 million. If we consume the way Americans do, the earth could only support less than 2 million. Please reread these two sentences. So, if we do not have planned birth control, we will run out of food and water. Even if you set aside global warming and its impact which is here and will get worse, we cannot support an unfettered increase in our population. So, when I hear how evil Planned Parenthood and its global partners around the world are by our more evangelical global citizens, my reaction is we desperately need family planning and birth control or we are sentencing ourselves and our children to die or to a much different kind of life. In my bible, God told us to be good stewards of the earth. We all need to step up to the plate now and heed his wishes or we will witness Benjamin Franklin’s caution noted above.

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3 thoughts on “When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water

  1. You know I like this! The problem of human population growth is THE problem at the root of all others in my view, even the Big Stink problem! But we also need to be better stewards of the earth, as you say. I expect there will be an attempt to convert salt water for human use — in growing crops or even possibly for drinking. But even if these efforts succeed, exploding numbers of humans on the planet will inevitably lead to catastrophe. Great blog!!

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