Friday, October 15, 2010

What If There Were No Clean Water?

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Water"

Today is Blog Action Day 2010, when bloggers around the world focus on the massive, poorly understood crisis of insufficient clean drinking water. The goal is to start conversations that will lead to solutions. This video explains what it's all about.

    Blog Action Day 2010: Water from Blog Action Day on Vimeo.

    Globally, almost a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. Every week, 38,000 children die from a lack of clean drinking water and other unsanitary conditions. Meanwhile in the developed world, where we take our showers, brush our teeth and wash our dishes with the simple turn of a faucet, it's easy to pretend the water crisis is someone else's problem. Increasingly it is ours, too.

    In the U.S., average water consumption has declined from a peak of 2,000 gallons a day per person in 1975 to about 1,400 gallons today. But as the Circle of Blue website points out, that's not the trend in states including California and Florida, where rising demand is pushing scarce supplies to the limit. Water shortages have also challenged agriculture in the Colorado basin, and Scientific American reports that the Ogallala Aquifer in the high plains, which supplies water for approximately 20% of the U.S. agricultural harvest, is drying up.

    As I learned last year while working on a project for Pace University's Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Sciences, the problem is also right in my own New York State backyard. Beyond the legacy of chemical, industrial and household pollutants still plaguing this state's rich system of rivers, lakes and watersheds from past abuses, our water supply is being damaged right now by chemicals from gardening supplies, road salt and other unregulated runoff.

    The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Watersheds page leads to disturbing facts like these about the Delaware Watershed, which supplies much of New York City's drinking water: While 53% of the rivers in the Delaware Watershed are in good condition, 54% of the lakes are in poor condition and 45% haven't even been adequately assessed. The Lower Hudson Watershed is in far worse shape, with 55% of lakes and 100% of estuary waters rated in poor condition. The state's lack of a coherent, uniform set of water management regulations makes improving the situation difficult.

    Want to help?
    I came to you one rainless August night.
    You taught me how to live without the rain.
    You are thirst and thirst is all I know.
    You are sand, wind, sun, and burning sky,
    The hottest blue. You blow a breeze and brand
    Your breath into my mouth. You reach—then bend
    Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
    You wrap your name tight around my ribs
    And keep me warm. I was born for you.
    Above, below, by you, by you surrounded.
    I wake to you at dawn. Never break your
    Knot. Reach, rise, blow, Sálvame, mi dios,
    Trágame, mi tierra. Salva, traga, Break me,
    I am bread. I will be the water for your thirst.

    ~ Benjamin Alire Saenz, "To the Desert"


    1. Thank you for this. Water is so important, and so taken for granted. It is as if we think it literally comes from taps.

      I have always respected water.

      I was born in Las Vegas, Nevada—I never lived there, it was the closest hospital to the desert town of Beatty, Nevada where my dad was mapping for the U.S Geological Survey—a desert city that ignores that fact, and is filled with more people and pools than it can support even by draining the Colorado River dry. I grew up in California, another desert that doesn't know it's a desert. As a child, I was bothered by the euphemistic use of the term Golden Hills for the dry, yellow hills parched by late spring or early summer for lack of rain.

      My dad was born in the deep-green Pacific Northwest. My mom grew up in Minnesota—The Land of 10,000 Lakes—and often longed for the green, watered landscapes she left in her 20s. My parents met in Oregon, where it rains all the time.

      When the book Cadillac Desert came out in 1986 my mom read it and could not stop referring to it. The greed surrounding water, the lack of awareness of water as a precious resource, bedeviled her. Over 10 years ago I read an article about water being the next oil. I think we are far from realizing how precious it is; how many don't have it. During one of California's many water shortages in the 70s, my mom put a sign over the sink in our house. It said: Water is Life. Don't Waste it.

    2. Thank you, Katherine. Your mom sounds very wise. The whole idea of converting the desert into a landscape of pools and lawns is truly bizarre. Then again, the Atlantic Ocean beach where I played in the sand as a little girl has been covered up by huge McMansions with lush green landscaping. It's shocking.

      I first became aware of the politically charged, greed-drenched world of water in the West when I saw Chinatown. I think that film opened the eyes of lots of people. What an insanely wasteful people we are.