When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water – a revisit to an old post

The following post was written nine years ago. Since that time the global water crisis has annually been noted as the number one or two long term concern by the World Economic Forum. Plus, we have had crises like the one in Cape Town, South Africa where they came perilously close to running out of water and Flint, Michigan where a lead pipe system caused health issues for disenfranchised populations. Caution, this is a little longer than my current posts, which I have tried to shorten.

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.

My tribe is America, my race is human and my home is Earth

Tribal politics will bring down America’s democracy if we let it. It has already caused one of its two major parties to become adrift, untethered to truth and lawfulness. While I can disagree with Democrats on various policies, Republicans are just not often in the same ballpark as the facts and seemingly do not care. We need them to care or step aside and let a new party form. A party cannot vilify its truth tellers and aggrandize its liars and be credible. Both parties lie, but what I see as an Independent is a tipped scale to the right.

My tribe is America, my race is human and my home is Earth. Each of those are important. If we do not give each of these elements proper footing, then we increase our chances of our demise. Those apocalyptic films use a desert like Earth that became that way due to nuclear holocaust. We are destined to be that way, but it will be due to insufficient water and food resources for the population.

There are more autocratic governments who are cleverly aiding and abetting the demise of democracy. With social media and conspiracy minded zealots, it is like shooting fish in a barrel to wind up America (or British) toy soldiers and point them at each other. We should never forget this is what Vladimir Putin was trained to do in the KBG – disinformation tactics. He had no idea at the time how much easier his skill set could be deployed.

Democracy requires an informed public. Even before the rise of the last president, the most untruthful person to ever inhabit the White House, there has been an orchestrated attack on mainstream media and institutions. These groups are not perfect, but they have been painted with broad and narrow brushes to mask their effectiveness. Fear sells. Facts are boring. Competence is boring. As Putin and Hitler knew, people can be made to believe just about anything. Or, at the very least, be taught to doubt it.

So, we Americans and other citizens, must do our part and become more informed. We must use multiple sources of information and avoid getting news from social media. I try to be accurate, but what I write is not news, so please verify everything you read here. Over time I have learned there are sources that have more veracity than others, but we must do our part to be informed. I grow tired of party leaders telling me something did not happen that just happened or whitewashing history.

We have infrastructure needs in America that are ten years over due. Yet, the last president is attempting to not have an infrastructure bill passed because it will make the other party look good. The fact he passed on doing something on infrastructure after campaign promises seems to get overlooked. America needs these improvement and Americans support the effort in the majority. Our tribe needs to see this happen before the next train derails or automobile bridge collapses.

Yet, our human race is critical. We all bleed red. We all want safety and security. Most of us want some form of community, either friends and family. But, if we do not take care of our planet, it will have a harder time taking care of us. All of us. Climate change has already reared its ugly head and we are seeing the cost of worsening conditions in money, health and lives. Many of our ocean fish have particles of plastic in their bodies which we, in turn, will digest. Chemicals have been tainting and poisoning our water supplies and air for some time.

For elected officials to do nothing or as little as possible to remedy these issues. is beyond poor stewardship. In my view, it is malfeasance. The story (captured in the movie “Dark Waters”) of Dupont poisoning its workers, their families and other citizens surrounding a plant that made Teflon is bad enough. This was proven in court with the largest data trove ever assembled. What unnerved me the most is they knew it long before per memos and reports in their own files. And, when they lost the arbitration based on this mountain of “causal data” they reneged on the deal and had to be sued one case at a time before settling all claims after losing the first three.

Tribe – America. Race – human. Home – Earth. Let’s stop the BS and start solving our real problems. As the old Fram oil filter commercial used to say, “You can pay me now, our pay me later.” Let’s install those oil filters now in this old car or it will stop working and we won’t be able to get anywhere in it.

A Few Earth Day Observations (from eight years ago)

The following post has been briefly edited from its origin eight years ago. It remains pertinent today. Progress has been made, but some progress has been waylaid. We need to move more rapidly than before.

Today is a good day to reflect on what more we can do to protect our planet and make it a life-sustaining environment for eons to come. Below are a few odds and ends for your review as well.

It is all about water and air

These are our dearest resources. We must be vigilant on how we use and impact these resources. I have written recently about “water is the new oil.” We can not only avoid polluting our precious resource, we have to be very thoughtful about its overall supply. Do not let anyone tell you this is not a major issue.

On the air side, we must guard against the emissions that come from the mining, collection, use and disposal of fossils fuels and petro-chemicals. For those who want to protect our kids from future debt problems, this will impact their health and the debt in far greater way, with the high cost of fixing problems and tending to those impacted mentally and physically.

Some skeptics will see the word “mentally” and say that is overblown. Yet, one of the key tenets of Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s books “Living Downstream” and “Raising Elijah” is most environmental models look at the impact of pollution on a 50-year-old man. The models need to look at the impact on children who are of lesser weight, closer to the ground, mouth breathe more, put hand to mouth more, and have developing brains. The data are showing the impact of various chemical pollutants heightens the propensity to certain mental and physical challenges such as autism and its various manifestations, asthma and other breathing disorders and more premature births which creates a vicious cycle for future health issues. Her data are very compelling and her voice needs to be heard.

Global warming will accelerate many bad things

In her books, Dr. Steingraber, who is an ecologist, biologist, and bladder cancer survivor, also notes that a problem we do not talk enough about in the discussion of global warming is its impact on the toxins that are in our air, water and environment. She says it is like a chemical crockpot. As the earth warms, so will these toxins and our ability to reduce them will be challenged. She highlights her bladder cancer as a bellweather cancer, as it is typically caused by environmental issues. She had other relatives nearby who also had bladder cancer – the key is she was adopted, so it was environmental not hereditary.

We are already seeing worse things in the global warming models than forecasted, so as one of the US’s political parties is fiddling, Rome is burning. Last year at this time, I read a report that showed hurricanes will more significantly impact the coastal regions with the higher sea levels. The analogy used is it is easier to dunk a basketball when the court is raised. This was before Hurricane Sandy which many scientists note was heightened by the raised sea levels. In addition to lives, livelihoods, and homes, the cost to fix is at least the $50 billion the federal government provided in January.

The other predictions in the model are heightened forest fire prevalence and intensity, worsened droughts in the drier areas along with more stalled weather systems. So some areas get way too much precipitation, while others get way too little. The human and economic cost of these worsening conditions is huge says Mercer Investment Consulting and major pension trust sponsors around the globe. This study done in 2011 talked of these increasing forest fires, worsening droughts, and intensifying hurricanes, which had already been occurring and are now more prevalent around the globe.

Already too much carbon in the air

People like to talk about global warming as a future event, yet as noted above, it is already impacting our lives. We have too much carbon in the air today and it will only get worse. China is firing up more coal plants and Beijing is coming closer to being an inhabitable city. If you do not believe this, then ask why it is getting harder for companies to get their ex pats to move and stay there.

There are solutions in addition to moving more quickly away from fossil fuels. We need to adopt older ways of grazing cattle that will let the grasslands flourish. We need to plant even more trees than we are doing now and stop taking them down at such an accelerated rate. And, we need to move more food growth and distribution closer to the sale and consumption of food. The greener areas will absorb more carbon at of the atmosphere and coupled with more renewable energy sources, will move us down the right path.

And it is not just humans

Finally, our ability to survive on this planet is not just in human hands. We are seeing the impact of global warming and environmental toxins on animals, fish and insects that matter to us. The honey bee population continues to fall and the culprit is most likely the pesticides sprayed on adjacent crops. These bees cross-pollinate a non-inconsequential percentage of our food and farmers and beekeepers are worried.

Our coral reefs are dying off in greater numbers. The Great Barrier Reef outside of Australia is shrinking for example. This is of vital importance due to the numbers of fish and other species that swim and grow there. And, species we do not eat are eaten by species we do. So, it is a major concern. And, closer to home the populations of cod are much smaller in Cape Cod, so the fishermen have to go further out to sea.  The US Fisheries Department has been tracking the impact of global warming on fish populations for over ten years, while the fiddlers still fiddle.

And, in the animal species, it is not just polar bears who are being impacted. The huge amount of fracking going on in our national parklands is impacting animals there. In Pennsylvania, small animals and birds are impacted by drinking the chemically laden water that cannot be kept out of the water supply. There is a domino effect that will impact us humans at some point, either directly, or through the animals, fish and insects we come in contact with.

Conserve and advocate

Now that I have scared the crap out of you, what can we do? Continue to conserve, compost and reuse. Do small things and big things. I wrote a post on last year’s Earth Day about conservation. But, also advocate. Change the conversation with others and leaders. Write them and be matter of fact. If someone starts a conversation about their doubts over global warming, say “that train has left the station, we need to talk about what to do about it.” If they insist, say “97% of scientists believe it to be so and only 26% of Republican Congresspeople. I choose to believe the 97% of scientists.” My advice is to not to debate the obvious, but discuss what to do about it. It will change the tenor of the conversation to be action-oriented.

And, that is precisely what is needed – action. We really do not have any time or resources to waste. Happy Earth Day.