Sixty-six percent: a water story.
[This post is part of Blog Action Day's "Blog for the Environment" campaign.]
Earlier this week, a construction crew working on a main thoroughfare in Daytona Beach broke open a water main, resulting in the city issuing the standard "boil water" notice. Luckily I live one town south, so my home water wasn't affected. I do, however, work in the greater Daytona area, and we couldn't use our water fountains, get some fountain drinks or coffee, and were generally advised to avoid ingesting any tap water without boiling it for at least three minutes beforehand. It wasn't a big deal for me since I usually only use tap water to make hot tea and I rarely drink sodas, fountain or otherwise.
The boil water alert was active for nearly two days, a bit longer than usual. I was better prepared the next day and brought a container of water from home. When I entered our little "dining" area, where the microwave, coffee maker, etc. are located, I encountered another employee fumbling with the coffee maker and seeming rather more agitated than usual; he's normally quite calm and low-key. Turns out, he was desperately trying to figure out how to work the coffee maker (using bottled water), because he couldn't buy his usual cup of coffee (made with tap water) anywhere on campus.
At first I was surprised that this man, an adult with a family and clearly a coffee drinker, didn't seem to have a clue how to operate a relatively simple household appliance. I then pondered why he didn't just bring coffee from home or from a coffee shop near where he lived, as his city wasn't subject to the boil water alert either.
And then I had another thought, one somewhat more troubling: if the guy was this helpless at the threat of facing a day without his morning coffee due to a temporary, barely inconvenient water restriction, how would he be able to handle the long-term water shortages of the future?
It's been said that future wars will be fought not over oil, or land, or religion, or race, but over water. And in fact, military uses and abuses of water supplies are hardly new phenomenons; they go back millennia. The human body can survive about a month - possibly more - without food, but only about a week without water, so it makes sense from a military perspective to cut off or poison an enemy's water supply to encourage a quicker surrender. But what can civilization expect to face when we're fighting not so much for control of an abundant, safe supply of water, but rather over the last few drops of drinkable water that remain at all?
Tragedies have occurred when water is forced to do something outside the scope of its natural design. Consider the Johnstown flood, the Teton Dam collapse, and the New Orleans levee failures. It also seems frighteningly clear that our ever-advancing technology doesn't seem to hold water, as it were, such as in the case of the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993. Water is an incredibly powerful force that does not always react as desired when humans challenge its authority.
Residents of the developed world tend to view water as a "free" resource. True, most of us pay a monthly water bill, but we generally feel that grants us access to as much or as little water as we need or want. And seriously, when something flows as freely as water (no pun intended), we're far more likely to use more than less. Imagine, instead, if we were sent a bill every single time we turned on a faucet in our homes. Just the thought of tracking and paying all those bills might give us pause to reflect on the fact that fresh, clean water is a vital resource and a limited one at that.
Water is, without a doubt, one of the most useful and essential resources to which we are lucky enough to have access. It's a refreshment, a cleaning component, an energy generator, a food provider, a hobby, an employer, a focus of meditation. The sound of rushing, flowing, trickling water is a music all its own and soothes the souls of animal and man. Perhaps this is because our own bodies are 66% water, roughly the same percentage as water is to the surface of the Earth. Is it any wonder, then, that water is so essential to our very existence, and is it any wonder that the more the Earth's water becomes undrinkable and inaccessible, the more we suffer? It's often easy for thoughtless people to suggest that if someone doesn't want to drown, they should move away from flood-prone areas. But when you consider all that water does for our bodies, minds, and spirits, not to mention that throughout history, it has usually been advantageous for wandering peoples to settle near water bodies and for civilizations to prosper near them, "just moving away" isn't exactly a viable option.
The amount of water we waste is incredible. We leave our water running when we wash our hands, shave, brush our teeth. We take long soothing showers. We think nothing of throwing old ice cubes down the drain instead of onto our lawns or plants. We drink from water fountains which are so poorly designed that most of the water doesn't even enter our mouths. I've seen people throw nearly full bottles of water into a trash can because they thought the water "went bad" after sitting in a hot car for a few days, and I've seen people who let their automatic sprinklers run in a rainstorm. Should we really be shocked, then, when we learn that Atlanta has a three-month supply of water, and Lake Okeechobee's water level reached record lows earlier this year?
Our industrialized, production-oriented society, coupled with consumer demand, is just as guilty. For example, it takes 39,090 gallons of water to build a car, 1,851 gallons to process a barrel of crude oil, and 28,100 gallons to process one ton of cane sugar into white, refined sugar. So many of our modern conveniences simply could not be produced without water. And so far, no one has been able to manufacture water.
In essence, while we haven't yet achieved man-made water, we certainly aren't lacking in man-made water crises.
But back to the story that started these musings. The water restriction was lifted after two days, my co-worker got his coffee, and all was once again right with the world, at least for the time being. But someday, it may take longer for a water restriction to be lifted. And there may even come a day when the restriction is permanent, when there is so little water available that it's reserved for the highest bidder, or it's so badly tainted as to be unusable. What will soothe, support, sustain us then?
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Metro Atlanta's need for water: three months from a mudhole
CNN.com. Milwaukee learned its water lesson, but many other cities haven't
Environmental Protection Agency. Water trivia facts
National Geographic News. New Orleans flooded in wake of Hurricane Katrina
Pacific Institute. Water conflict chronology
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. New federal plan would keep Lake O's water levels lower than normal
Teton Dam Project
[Crossposted to Daily Kos.]