Now and Future Water

Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

The home for most life on our planet is in water. It is a soupy, form-shifting medium where food can be chased, nibbled, or just plucked as it floats by. Plants and animals that don’t actually live in water require it anyway. All plants need to absorb moisture. Terrestrial animals manage their days around water holes, ponds, lakes, creeks, and rivers. Mammals come regularly along familiar trails to drink. Snakes carve the surface with rhythmic sensuousness. In fresh water and the ocean alike, turtles waddle in and out, birds dive under.

Water is essential to our lives as well, but it’s not at the center of our consciousness. Whatever the reason, this disregard is beginning to change. With six billion thirsty people now in the world, continually expanded use of water as a means to dissolve and carry wastes, and changing rainfall patterns due to global weather changes, the fundamental liquid of life is getting in shorter supply. Potable drinking water is disappearing fastest. It has become a crisis and even catastrophe in areas such as east Africa. In more prosperous regions people are shifting to purifiers and bottled water. (Recognizing a greater demand from impending scarcity, major French water companies recently bought up dozens of spring and mineral water brands throughout the world.) We will witness an increasing number of territorial conflicts over possession and rights to water sources.

Bahia has been obsessed with water for generations. The piped variety is a luxury. In rare cases it is pumped up from wells. Many buildings have cisterns to catch rain. This is the dry season so those are starting to see the year’s lowest level. Most running water is from connections to the mains which means it is sporadically unavailable and needs to be boiled before drinking. A few dwellings have all three kinds – a well, cistern and hook up – but still occasionally run out.

Many people don’t have tap water. They have it brought to houses by trucks, three-wheeled carts, burros, or hand-carried. Everyone is entitled to pull up slightly brackish water from the city’s riverside wells.

This makes for high water consciousness. I don’t see many faucets running while people go to another room. Fire hydrants aren’t allowed to spill out endlessly into the street. Showers are short. It may seem implausible, but local people don’t seem to drink as much water as norteamericanos when we are doing sweaty field work together.

Where I live now, there is no running water. It comes from a waist-high tank in the kitchen that is filled from a hose once a week. Bodies are washed and the toilet flushed by dipping a pail into the tank. Teeth are brushed with only a cup of pure water from a plastic jug bought at a store. Fifty liter jugs of agua pura are common in houses here. Jacob Santos graciously permits me to shower at his B & B where I acknowledge the low cistern problem by turning the water off to soap up and using it only to rinse.

Bahia’s situation is no different than most parts of the world. In fact, it’s superior to many of them. With this understood, having pure water coming from the faucet of every home someday is still a dream worth pursuing, especially if this can be done in a sustainable way befitting an ecological city. That would mean no major dams or river diversions to seriously threaten native ecosystems which have adapted to the natural flux of wet and dry seasons.

Meanwhile, the present experience here is instructive about the future prospect of scarcer water planet-wide. Pure water will always be a precious commodity. Because of population pressure and pollution, it has become less abundant naturally. Making it clean by boiling or electrolysis involves energy costs. Pure water should be measured by the cupful. Drinking and cooking are reasonable uses. So are washing dishes, clothes and ourselves. Absolutely clean water is too extravagant for purposes like flushing toilets. That’s like upending a bottle of Evian into the toilet! It isn’t needed for watering a lawn either. Or washing down the sidewalk. Or a hundred other inappropriate and wasteful uses.

What could be the source for less perfect water? Lightly used bath and shower water is a close-at-hand starting point. There should be dual water systems such as in ships where one set of pipes carries sea water and another fresh water. In the case of buildings and homes, once-used gray water can be in separate pipes. This isn’t really difficult for most residences, requiring only a filter, tank, pump, and some additional plumbing. Municipalities should also use water twice, but they will be slower in making the city-wide changes that are required. Planners will eventually be forced to meet growing demands and should start making plans for re-using water in as many ways as possible.

Rapid changes are impacting humankind’s relationship with the biosphere, and water needs to become part of the social response for recycling and re-use.

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