Water, the universal solvent, provides the chemical base from which all life on Earth is derived. It is believed that our primordial soup started in the Earth’s warm oceans three and a half billion years ago. Though the Earth’s surface is over 75% covered with water (which perhaps means we should call our planet Aqua rather than Terra) only 4% of all the water on is Earth is fit for consumption by living things. And most of that free water is bound up as ice at the poles of the planet. We must all share that remaining 1% which can be found in all rivers, lakes and streams.
Water, water, everywhere – nor any drop to drink
I wrote an article that discussed E-waste and related topics last week and as I finished it, I began to ask myself more questions about the technology required to produce computers and the raw materials needed. I realized that it was not just the destruction of those computers that was a waste but that an incredible amount of energy, raw materials and that most vital of resources, water were also wasted in that destruction. This made me think about water and how we take it for granted, forgetting just how important it is in our lives.
The more I read about water and its approaching, and what would appear inevitable scarcity, the more I realized how we may come to battle over water at a future time, the same way we are embroiled over oil. Mind you, I am not saying that we are fighting over oil, per se, but you could certainly spin it that way considering how much oil is required to run the hundreds of millions of cars, trucks and homes here in America. But there is another battle whose front might not be visible to you yet, unless you know where to look.
It will be coming sooner than we care to think about. The opening skirmishes have been in South America, with the attempted privatization of water in Peru and Brazil in 1989. Privatization is taking place all over the world, quietly under our noses. Impending oil shortages will slow civilization; we will have to walk more, heat our homes less, wear unflattering sweaters knitted by beneficent relatives more and enhance our fields with compost instead of manufactured fertilizer. This will have a chilling effect on our economy to be sure, but when water disappears from a civilization as it has in the past, those civilizations die. This is not hyperbole; there are water shortages all over the world right now. If you look at the areas that are experiencing them, you will find those areas are already experiencing strife and social unrest. Water may not be the primary cause, but it is certainly in the top ten of concerns for anyone living there.
Interlude two: Not the news. Not yet, anyway.
The year is 2025. Southern California and northern Mexico are in the throes of a drought whose scale has not been seen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Rioting has occurred for the third straight day in the Los Angeles county area. Three thousand people have died in the rioting and another two thousand were lost to the rampant and uncontrollable fires.
Due to a lack of available water, the Los Angeles county firefighters cannot even attempt to put out the fires cropping up all over the county due to the record temperatures. Even at night, the temperature in the LA county area is still 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Firefighters attempt to slow the path of the fire by creating firebreaks and are forced to evacuate people from the path of the oncoming flames, with no plan as to what to do with them next. The weather is not cooperating and the hot winds of the Santa Anna promote fire anywhere there is available tinder.
It has not rained since 2015 and the local rivers, aquifers, and reservoirs have all but dried up. Importing water from Mexico was never profitable for the county and with recent price gouging on the part of the Mexican government, Los Angeles is hard pressed to keep up payments for water already received. The once mighty Colorado River, whose flow has been depressed by ever rising temperatures in the Midwest, can no longer provide enough water for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson. Residents of the Los Angeles area are no stranger to conservation and reclamation and these days are living with less and less. A mass exodus has begun in the last four or five years as the county’s ability to ensure stable water supplies has become less evident. The price of food has also skyrocketed due to an inability to irrigate the inner California valley requiring food to be trucked in from greater distances.
San Diego has been making just enough water, using their desalinization plants to maintain subsistence level water rationing for the residents of city and county of San Diego. A token gesture from San Diego sends fifty million gallons per day to the city of Los Angeles but this water is barely enough to manage sanitation efforts for this great city.
The mayor of Los Angeles is forced to strike deals with Northern California counties, who can ill afford to lose any of their precious water but with pipelines stretching to Los Angeles proper, and the budget of the Bay Area counties stretched thin, they gladly sell some of their own meager supply of water for exorbitant profits. The governor has requested more troops to quell more rioting. Federal troops are also massing all across the country to deal with civil unrest in regard to dwindling water supplies nationwide. More to follow…
Water and Technological Industries
Water is as vital for technology as it is for living things. It takes:
- 62, 000 gallons of water to produce a ton of steel. (The USS Nimitz weighs 90,000 tons, do the math)
- 39,000 gallons of water to produce a car and its four tires.
- 28,100 gallons of water to turn one ton of sugar cane into processed sugar
- 27,000 gallons of water to produce your average PC. (Environmental Science & Technology, 2004)
- 1850 gallons of water to create one barrel of crude oil.
- 1500 gallons to produce a barrel of beer
- 55 gallons to produce one pound of synthetic rubber
- 24 gallons to produce one pound of plastic
- 13 gallons of water to produce one gallon of paint.
- 5.4 gallons to produce one board foot of lumber
• It has been estimated that over 151,000,000 workstations have been produced this year so far, potentially 4,050,000,000,000, or 4 trillion gallons of water have been spent in the manufacturing process alone!
I am hard pressed to believe this number. This is enough water to allow the residents of the city of San Francisco to use, at their current daily rate for over 42 years! Even if the numbers were off by a factor of ten, 405 billion gallons of water would still make it twice the amount of water used by Los Angeles and it surrounding counties in 2006. Where does all that waste water wind up when it is finished cleaning computer components? Are we drinking it too? Are companies required to clean up that waste water after it has been involved in manufacturing? Is the cost of that cleanup in the price of the computer I am buying? (Not.)
Water: Interlude three
To help you get a handle on the amount of pure drinkable water available to humanity, imagine all the water on Earth could be placed in a gallon pitcher of water. To find out how much was actually available to us would require us to empty the pitcher and as the last four drops of water left the pitcher, those droplets would be all of the water that is actually fit to drink. The Earth is a closed system, so all the water that is on Earth is likely to have been all the water that has EVER been on Earth, so we are enjoying the same water as our Jurassic cousins did 165 million years ago. (Ewwww.)
After the pursuit of nourishment, there was no more pressing activity to primitive man than his search for water. He was a slave to its need and was tireless in his efforts to find and follow it in its courses. He used water where it flowed and followed it wherever it led, sometimes using the water for transportation. Primitive man learned that everything needed water and because of this he could use bodies of water to hunt.
The various forms of free water provided many resources for early humans. It was a source of food, it helped native plants prosper and later when humanity had gained mastery over the movement of water, its flow irrigated crops from which would ultimately spring civilization. Water was vital to human sanitation both internally and externally. It removed toxins from our bloodstreams and wastes from our habitat. Water drove our early machines, mills and saws, and later water would drive our turbines and cool our reactors for the transformation of kinetic energy into electricity.
A human being is 66% water and our brains are comprised of 75% water. Humans can live for thirty days, give or take without food, but only a week, depending on the circumstances, without water. A little water can quench and satisfy us, water as an extreme can intoxicate us, and far too much can actually kill us by diluting our electrolyte balance causing cardiac arrhythmia.
Repeat after me: repair, reuse, and recycle
These numbers should drive home the idea that computers must experience the three R’s before they are destroyed: repaired, reused, and then recycled. We simply cannot afford to throw them away until they are stone cold dead; no resurrection possible. The average computer lifespan is only three years of productive use, yet they will cost 1.3 times the energy required to produce a refrigerator (which will last for an average of ten years.) The energy and fossil fuels required to create a computer and monitor is 6400 mega-joules and 260 kilograms. The energy required to create a computer is 81% of its total energy profile over the course of its life with only 19% of that being energy consumed AFTER its creation.
A program in the city of Oakland called the Oakland Technology Exchange West, run by Bruce Buckelew, has been extending the lives of computers taken from corporate offices and giving them away to youth in their community. A totally grassroots organization, they perform almost all of their services through the work of volunteers. They have given away more than twenty-five thousand computers so far. Their warehouse is stacked from nearly floor to ceiling with computers awaiting reconstruction. Such a program extends the working lifespan of a computer another three to five years, keeping it out of landfills or exchange programs that send it to foreign soils for toxic destruction.
As mankind has begun to live in and work in technologically advanced or population dense cities, the need for clean water for consumption and the removal of wastes is growing exponentially across the globe. As our population grows, so does our need for water. There is no longer sufficient water anywhere and deficiencies in one place are now affecting neighboring cities, counties, states and now countries. Once mighty rivers like the Yellow River in China have slowed to a trickle, choked with industrial debris and manufacturing runoff. Runoff is a polite way of saying pollution; this material is rarely check for its toxicity or how it may affect people living downstream of the facility.
Water and the State of California
The weather in Northern California is starting to heat up; warm today, warmer tomorrow. Each passing day without significant rainfall ensures that there will be less and less available water, with a greater chance of fire danger. San Francisco alone uses 260 million gallons a day or 94.9 billion gallons per year. The city of Los Angeles and its surrounding area uses a stunning 200 billion gallons of water per year. To add insult to injury, both of these cities have extensive areas around them that is capable of catching fire. Every year there is a drought; there is a greater and greater chance of that happening. What will be the result when one day there is simply no water for firefighting? There are so many questions regarding water it is hard to even know where to begin.
Aging infrastructure: how much will it cost to repair the pipelines, aqueducts, aquifers and reservoirs that are aging faster than they can be repaired? How much water is lost due to infrastructure losses? Water lost in the pipelines, water lost at the pump or at the faucet, lost washing cars as the hose is left on, lost in so many ways, each drop just as precious and no renewal in sight.
Human Conservation: Can we get people interested in protection and conservation of water? How do we make it something participatory rather than using the compulsory method to get people to participate? Water conservation must become a lifestyle, not a fad.
Funding for Water Management: Can we get enough public interest around this concept to mobilize funding for these projects?
Water for agro-businesses and other manufacturing concerns: What is a fair division of the states dwindling water supply? How will we combat the much faster rise in population with the ever diminishing supply of water?
As the world is heating up, rainfall is being affected and rainfall patterns are becoming more difficult to predict. Deserts grow larger, faster than ever. Food producing regions are drying up. Prognostication about the future of water all over the world looks bleak. Water is a lynchpin of life. Water shortages affect living things directly. No water, no life. And to help you with the math at the global level:
- Less than one half of a percent of water on earth is available fresh water. The rest is ocean, or frozen in ice caps.
- More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and more than 2.4 billion people lack adequate sanitation.
- More than five million people, most of them children, die each year from illnesses caused from drinking unsafe water.
- Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth.
- If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for freshwater is expected to rise to 56 percent above the amount that is currently available – which will result in as much as 2/3 of the world population unable to access to clean water.
- The privatization of water industry is already a 400 billion dollar a year business globally – one third larger than global pharmaceuticals.
- In the U.S. alone, private water corporations generate revenues of more than a billion US dollars a year – four times the annual sales of Microsoft.
- Ten corporate giants are vying for control of water – The top three are French companies, a US, German and five of UK origin.
- Four of the top ten water companies are ranked among the 100 largest corporations in the world by the Global Fortune 500.
–Source: AidWatch, 2003
Doing our part, Indoor Conservation Tips
- Run dishwashers only when full
- 2-4.5 gallons per load
- Don’t leave water running while rinsing dishes
- 2.5 gallons per minute
- Turn off water when brushing teeth
- 2 gallons per minute
- Shorten showers
- 2.5 gallons per minute
- Don’t use the toilet as a wastebasket
- 1.6 gallons per flush
- Wash only full loads of clothes
- 15-50 gallons per load
- Fix leaky toilets
- 30-50 gallons per day per toilet
- Fix leaky faucets
- 15-20 gallons per day per leak
- Installing a new high-efficiency clothes washer
- 20-30 gallons per load
- Replace older, high-volume flushing toilets
- 2.2-3.8 gallons per flush
Tips Estimated Savings
- Water between 8 PM & before 8 AM to reduce evaporation
- 20-25 gallons a day
- Don’t over water! Reduce each irrigation cycle by 1-3 minutes, or eliminate one irrigation cycle per week.
- 15-25 gallons per minute
- up to 250 gallons per cycle
- Adjust sprinklers to prevent overspray and runoff
- 15-25 gallons per day
- Repair leaks and broken sprinkler heads.
- 20 gallons per day per leak
- Add 2″ to 3″ of mulch around trees and plants to reduce evaporation.
- 20-30 gallons per day per 1,000 sq. ft.
- Install water-efficient drip irrigation system for trees and shrubs to get water to the plant’s roots more efficiently.
- 20-25 gallons per day
- Upgrade to a “smart irrigation controller” that automatically adjusts watering times for hotter weather, and shuts down the system when it rains.
- 40 gallons per day
- Replace a portion of lawn with beautiful native and California Friendly plants. NOTE: These plants do best when planted after winter rains begin.
- 33-60 gallons per day per 1,000 sq. ft.depending on climate
Take an interest in your local water politics. I am sure you will find them as byzantine as any spy thriller or John Grisham novel. But take the time to learn about them anyway. While it may look like your interests are being served, it is more often than not, that regular people don’t ask questions when the large corporations show up to privatize your water under the guise of expansion projects. By the time you are aware of it, it is a done deal. Find the largest local water district and find out how your water makes it to you and how many hands it has to travel through before it gets there. I guarantee you it is more than you might think. Ask yourself what might happen if you were without water for fifteen to thirty days. Get involved.
Glossary of Water Terminology – http://www.worldatlas.com/h2oterms.htm
(World Atlas) – An extensive, if relatively simplified list of the many terms dealing with water and its use; a good place to start if you want to know more
US Geologic Survey Water Science Glossary – http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/dictionary.html
– A great link to more detailed water glossaries as well as educational information regarding water
US Geologic Survey’s Earth’s Water – http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/mearth.html
– a well developed educational aid that describes in great detail where all of the water on Earth comes from; a great link for kids and adults alike
San Francisco Public Utilities District – http://sfwater.org/home.cfm
– a visually distracting site, significant content, a bit difficult to read
Water Education Foundation – http://www.watereducation.org/doc.asp?id=872#item_1
– interesting site, but much of the data is only for sale.
Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – http://www.watereducation.org/doc.asp?id=872#item_1
– visually satisfying and easy to use, comprehensive data structures
Be Water Wise – http://www.bewaterwise.com/index.html
– sponsored by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – graphically satisfying and information friendly
With apologies to the writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) who wrote in his classic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.