An international water perspective

Water, as we all know it, is life. No other substance is more essential to our existence. In the coming decades, water will become the defining crisis of the 21st century. You may have heard it said that “water is the new oil.” However, here in the United States, how we currently value water does not support that statement.

When we turn on our faucets here in America, water rushes out freely and immensely. In the span of just a few generations, Americans have become accustomed to having access to healthy, purified, nearly free water at the turn of a handle. While the water straight out of our tap is protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and through comprehensive codes and standards that have been stringently implemented, few Americans are even aware of these requirements and how they impact their lives. Compounded by the fact that our massive water and waste water infrastructures are for the most part buried and hidden from our view, our “water entitlement” has made it very difficult for us to understand the intricacies of this valuable resource. 

This is not the case in countries such as India, where people have had to conserve and protect water their whole lives. Their industry and infrastructure may be “developing,” but in many ways they are miles ahead of many developed nations when it comes to valuing water conservation. While it’s true that we have much to offer countries like India as they work to provide access to safe water to their citizens, perhaps even more importantly, we can learn a lot from them.

Water conservation, in regard to policies, technologies, and behaviors, differs greatly from country to country. Because it is so strongly intertwined with religion and culture, each country and its inhabitants have a unique way of caring for and conserving water. For centuries, people in India have had to make use of what little water is available to them. This practice has resulted in the early adoption of techniques like rainwater harvesting: something that has recently become an emerging conservation practice here in the U.S., but is already an old tradition in India. Rainwater harvesting is required by government mandate in many states across India. However, through a recent informal poll of my peers here in the U.S., I found only two out of five people know what the term means.

The value and usage of water from country to country is invariably tied to its availability and to management of available resources. According to “The Atlas of Water,” 282 liters of water a day are used per person domestically in Australia, compared to just 13 liters in Ethiopia. Americans average far worse at more than 600 liters per day.

The interesting international perspective here is that, when it comes to progressing in water policy, a two-way street exists between countries like the U.S. and India. Clearly, the U.S. has a great deal to learn from India in terms of how we value water through our behaviors and concepts. India also has a lot to learn from us with regard to how they can utilize the experts within their country to better manage their water supply and ensure that the water delivered is safe. With this, the plumbing industry can be champions of water conservation both at home and abroad.

As we look toward the future and the undeniable scarcity of fresh water on this planet, we need to take a much closer look at our role in how we see water, and how we in the plumbing industry, as deliverers of safe water, can make a major impact. The implementation of proper codes and standards in developing countries is just as crucial as it is defining the industry itself.

Currently, the word ‘plumber’ has little resonance in India. A plumber is simply a laborer who holds a wrench with no formal training. However, that’s beginning to change.  To date, thousands of trainees have benefitted from IAPMO’s educational initiatives in India, and the landscape is beginning to be filled with trained and certified plumbers. The Indian government has also begun to set aside funds to train skilled plumbers through sector skill councils. There will be a major upswing within the plumbing industry in the coming decade, as the leaders in this field within these countries take charge to ensure that the beauty of water value and behavior is coupled with technology and practices that are on par with the global community. The end result will be a proud workforce that understands the important role they play in their country’s future.

There are many ways that plumbing industry experts can continue to make a major impact on the management of the water supply. The World Summit on Sustainable Development has established a goal to provide clean water to at least half of the billion people who currently lack it by 2015. As author Fred Pearce points out in the book, “When the Rivers Run Dry,” that would require making new water connections for 125,000 people every day. To make sure the water is there, and continues to be there for these connections to work, proper water management and skilled trades people are of the utmost importance.

In the short few years that I’ve traveled and worked in India, I have been made profoundly aware of the important role the plumbing industry will play in managing and sustaining our supplies of fresh water, the world’s most amazing gift. It has also occurred to me that while we are supplying India with desperately needed technical skills and information, I have learned an amazing lesson about the real value of water simply by being among the wonderful Indian people. And I ask myself: Who is really learning the more important lesson?

Megan Lehtonen is the director of business development for The IAPMO Group, currently overseeing the India and Australia offices. IAPMO continues to lead the effort in water and energy conservation practices on a global level, while protecting health and safety through effective plumbing codes and standards. Prior to joining IAPMO, Megan served as president of management company Onni Inc. for 10 years, including the formation of GreenPlumbers USA in 2007. She was presented with an outstanding achievement award by the Environmental Protection Agency in March 2009 for GreenPlumbers’ contribution to environmental education.

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