Thursday, March 22, 2007

World Water Day 2007 - Coping with water scarcity

I thoroughly believed that World Water Day was celebrated on Wednesday March 21st, 2007 (at least in Canada, since there was an event being held here) but now I stand corrected, it was today (Thursday March 22nd, 2007).

Water is an important resource, one that has deserved lots of attention. The 10 year period from 2005 to 2015 has been marked as the International Decade for Action: Water for Life by the United Nations. Recently, UNESCO released the Second UN World Water Development Report: 'Water, a shared responsibility'

I have studied water (especially wastewater treatment, both from the natural sciences and engineering and now more recently, the social sciences) for over 14 years. I am passionate about water. My "baby steps" included collecting and sampling wastewater in several locations in Mexico, in order to test the effectiveness of activated sludge, bench-scale treatment processes. More recently, I became interested in the social aspects of wastewater management and wastewater policy. I have argued that the "scarcity discourse" can only get you so far.

Before I get bombarded with e-mails that criticize me, let me explain what I mean. If you look at the water cycle, there are several points where we can intervene to prevent environmental damages to water bodies. We could, for example:
a) Change our water consumption patterns at the individual level to reduce the amount of water used.
b) Change our processing technologies to reduce the amount of water consumed.
c) Clean up polluted streams through advanced wastewater treatment.

Shouldn't we stop polluting water in the first place? In a conversation with a professor we discussed this topic at length, when I was informed that the city of Victoria (in British Columbia) lacked wastewater treatment plants. I would agree, but the fact is... we are still polluting water, so it should have at least some degree of treatment. The compounding factor is that building wastewater treatment plants (and operating them) can also have detrimental environmental effects (energy consumption, generation of waste). More recently, more natural treatment processes (such as constructed wetlands) have become more popular. My concern with wetlands is that they might require too much area (and with the changing land-use patterns and increased pressures for compact urbanization, I wonder - who will be able to have a constructed wetland in their backyard, when housing is only available in units of 550 square feet?)

So, are we really in a catch-22 situation that we can't escape? I don't think so. I think that, when examining options for adequate water management, we can apply some complex adaptive systems (CAS) thinking. Professor Donella Meadows, who worked for many years trying to create solutions for environmental problems, argued in one of her last publications that there were twelve leverage points where one could intervene and effect change in a system. She argued that the point where the most change could be effected was in paradigm change.

I concur with this notion. If we were able to shift our own consumptive paradigms and transform our behavioral patterns to reduce water pollution (and attempt to find effective and non-harmful ways to treat whatever water we've already polluted) then I would think that we'd be in a better position in regards to water.

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk to a group of youngsters (probably between the ages of 7-11 years old) that I entitled "Saving the planet, one drop at a time". In this lecture I spoke about the fact that only 2% of the world's water was drinking water and that most of it was in glaciers and other non-easily-accessible points. At the end of the talk I asked them to sign a pledge to change their own consumption patterns and to try and change those of their parents, siblings, friends, so that we could stop wasting water. I was thrilled when I heard their voices all in unison repeating the pledge. I think that we might have found another important intervention point - educating young people.

This post follows the pattern of reflections I have engaged in for the past few years, and I think I will continue along this line of work for a while... in the mean time, please think twice when you open the water tap.

Good references I found include an advocacy guide published by the World Health Organization, the website for UN Water, and of course, the very appropriately entitled Human Development Report 2006, "Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the water crisis". One of my very good friends has done a lot of work on energy, poverty reduction and development. My mentor has done excellent work in this field and has strongly advocated to never forget about poverty. And if I had the time, I would go on about the links between water scarcity, pollution and poverty, but I don't... that will be the subject of another posting.

1 comment:

Nomade said...

The National Film Board has a series of movies for World Water Day some of your readers might be interested in seeing: