John Thackara | Essays

The Hidden Costs of Tiger Water

jequitiba tree

This jequitiba tree in Brazil moves hundreds of gallons of water up into its canopy every day. It does so without pumps, without electricity, and without recourse to the concrete reservoirs and sewage treatment plants on which most modern cities depend.

The jequitiba is a joyous marvel to behold, of course – but it would also be an practical inspiration to the world’s designers and city builders, faced with imminent energy descent, if only we were minded to notice.

But we’re not. As with energy, although threats to the security of water supply command a lot of attention, we’ve lost touch with the realities of where it comes from, and how we use it. By the year 2050, as a consequence of this hydro-myopia, as many as two-thirds of the world population will be living in areas subject to water stress.

Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate how alienated we’ve become from water. Imagine emptying 500 litre bottles of water into a huge pot and carrying it 50 miles – every day of the year. That’s the weight and distance of water moved for a US citizen every day once her share of the country’s agriculture, manufacturing, car washes, window cleaning, laundries, ornamental ponds, health clubs, swimming pools and golf courses, are added together. Your white tea shirt? That took 700 gallons of fresh water to make. That pizza? The water footprint of a 25oz (725 gram) pizza margherita is 320 US gallons (1216 litres).

Does moving all that water around sound like hard work? It is hard work. Never mind 500 bottles, try carrying even five for a few miles; you’ll soon appreciate how it can be true that twenty percent of a city’s energy footprint involves moving and treating water.

In New York or London, we don’t think about the energy footprint of water because we don’t have to carry it – and in any case, its flows are invisible.

They also invisible at the new Tiger Woods Golf Course in the desert city of Dubai – even though four million gallons are pumped on to its immaculate grounds every day.

Tiger Woods Golf Course Dubai

This vast quantity of water is needed not just to keep its swathes green, but also to dampen the one billion cubic feet of sand (25m cubic metres) that have been sculpted to create the contours of a links-style course. (If they weren’t dampened, these high-end sand dunes would soon dry out and be blown away). The water for Tiger’s golfing oasis is pumped from vast desalination plants around the Gulf many miles away; there, energy-guzzling plants suck vast volumes of water out of the sea and strip out the salt. Forty four per cent of the cost of desalination are the energy component – and that’s before it’s pumped to the point of use.

It’s small wonder that Tiger water is the most expensive on earth – but what the heck, his clients can afford it. Whether the planet can afford it is another matter.

It’s not that indigenous cultures leave water in its natural state. As I learned from a new book called Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia, Egyptians developed drilling systems in rocks as early as 3000BC. Groundwater exploitation in Cyprus started 7,000 years ago, and is connected with the oldest dug wells in the world. Cities transported water over substantial distances way back then – sometimes 25 miles (40km) or more – but they used gravity rather than electro-mechanical pumps to do so. The history of water management is replete with mind-boggling tunnels, aqueducts, and long galleries, or qanats, that link chains of wells. In Egypt, one extensive qanat built about 500BC irrigated a vast swathe of fertile land west of the Nile. In Iran, even today, 20,000 qanats are still in operation, 3,000 years after they were first developed.

The effort invested in ancient water works was stupendous. Digging a qanat 20 miles (30km) in length, and with a mother well 300 feet deep, took about 40 years – or thousands of manual worker years – to complete. Today, using oil-powered equipment, a system of similar capacity can be built in 20 days. And that’s part of the problem. The availability of cheap energy is one reason why water consumption in the Mediterranean region has doubled over the last 40 years. This cheap energy also enabled the “opening up” of countries to international trade. This, in turn, stimulated the growth of huge global markets for cheap foods – not to mention fibres such as cotton.

The Evolution of Water Supply book is a long (560 pages) collection of research papers. There are many gems to be found; the Aztecs, for example, were fond of soaps, deodorants and dentifrices, but also used urine to dye cloth. But these enthralling technical details made me thirsty for more understanding of how people thought about water before the modern age.

It was my good fortune at this juncture to be pointed to a truly wondrous book called The Water Atlas: Traditional knowledge to combat desertification published in 2001. Its author, Pietro Laureano, an architect and urban planner, is a world expert on arid regions, water management, Islamic civilization and endangered ecosystems. He lived for eight years in the Sahara; engaged in the study and restoration of oases in Algeria; has studied the water systems of Petra, in Jordan; and spent ten years in the Sassi of Matera living in caves and recovering prehistoric systems for the collection of rainwater and methods of passive cooling. He shares the fruits of this extraordinary career in the book which contains a stunning variety of sophisticated, thousand-year-old water harvesting and recycling techniques. A few will be familiar to readers of Design Observer because they are now becoming fashionable again in our own cities.

For Laureano, the water crisis about to engulf us is a cultural one, not an engineering one. We are using the tools of science and engineering in a search for ‘security of supply’ when what’s needed is an holistic, social-technical approach within a new economic framework. Our priority needs to be the long-term vitality of ecosystems, he argues, not the security of supplies for an extractive economy.

Laureano does not advocate a u-turn to pre-modern ways – voluntary or otherwise. He makes the sensible point that we can avoid re-inventing a lot of water wheels by studying traditional local knowledge and techniques that evolved over thousands of years, but also status that these traditional approaches can be enhanced by the judicious introduction of present-day technology (see below).

.The keyword here is ‘judicious’. A bewildering array of global organizations is grappling with the water crisis and what to do about it. There’s a clear understanding that human activities have upset the delicate balance between water resources and environmental sustainability. There’s a consensus, too, that the relation between issues of flooding, water scarcity and ecosystem changes on the one side, and human development on the other side, requires a multidisciplinary perspective. There’s a centre of expertise in the area of water systems and governance, in The Netherlands, for example, where natural and social scientists work together.

The policy world, too, is looking outside its well-drained tent for insight. Many competing forms of water management and governance have been proposed to put things right, but there’s a glimmer of awareness that central or supra-national governments might not be best placed to take care of water ecosystems. Jill Rutter, for example, co-author of Policy Making in the Real World, argues that “civil servants need to see their role not as sitting on top of a delivery chain, but as system stewards. The real world, rather than Westminster, then becomes the arbiter of what works”.

But if I read Laureano correctly, these are changes of degree, not of kind. Most elements of a sustainable world already exist. Some of those elements are technological solutions. Some, like the jequitiba tree, are to be found in the natural world, thanks to millions of years of natural evolution. The majority are social practices – some of them very old ones – learned by other societies and in other times.

We have the means, but lack the motivation. So long as we remain wedded to an energy and resource-intense industrial economy; and so long as we regard it as sane that this extractive economy should grow to infinity; well, then, re-connecting with indigenous knowledge will not save us.

Indigenous practices of water management are shaped by millennia-old knowledge that has grown out of specific climatic and cultural conditions. These practices are informed by completely different notions of water than those that have evolved in an energy-rich cultures with capitalist economies. It’s with these notions, not just the techniques, that we need to reconnect now.

Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia is available from IWA Publishing at £ 115.00 / US$ 207.00 / € 155.25.
The Water Atlas: Traditional knowledge to combat desertification is available as a pdf, online, for free.

Jobs | May 27