Like to eat? Then worry about water

June 7, 2012
Because people like to eat, demands on the global water supply will increase as more water is used for irrigation. If you’re a proponent of bio-fuels, those crops will required a lot of irrigation too.

Last month I had the privilege of being one of the moderators at the Emerging Technology Symposium that’s hosted on a biennial basis by the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials. The ETS was held this year in Bethesda, Md., just outside of Washington. My report on some of the symposium’s highlights appears on page 3 of this issue.

The ETS is designed to be a high-level wonky affair that attracts approximately 200 thought-leaders from the plumbing and water conservation sectors. Attendees included representatives from government, academia, plumbing manufacturers, non-governmental organizations, health experts, and the associations representing contractors, engineers and water utilities.

“Our goal is to minimize the impact of future water scarcity events and to minimize their effects on commerce,” said the event’s host, GP “Russ” Chaney, CEO of IAPMO and chairman of the event co-sponsor, the World Plumbing Council.

The problems revolving around water globally are huge but not intractable. As keynoter Kerri-Ann Jones, an assistant secretary at the U.S. State Department, noted, the problems require political will to solve, a commodity just as in short supply as water.  Eight hundred million people lack access to what would be considered a “protected” supply of water. (Piped water is a protected supply, a puddle is not.) Two to three times that many people lack access to safe water. In India, there are more cell phones than toilets. In many undeveloped regions, women and girls spend up to three hours per day gathering water.

Because people like to eat, demands on the global water supply will increase as more water is used for irrigation. If you’re a proponent of bio-fuels, those crops will required a lot of irrigation too.

We’re not just talking about agriculture in Africa or India here; this affects California too. In a report published on May 25, Time magazine reported that the drought in the Southwestern United States is becoming dire.

“But what's really scary is what long-term changes in water availability and water use could mean for our ability to feed ourselves,” Time’s Bryan Walsh reported. “That's the subject of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in which researchers from the University of Texas and the U.S. Geological Survey looked at the level of groundwater depletion in the Central Valley and in the High Plains of the Midwest, home to the country's breadbasket. They found that during a recent intense drought between 2007 and 2009, farmers in the southern half of California's Central Valley depleted enough groundwater to fill all of Lake Mead — a rate of depletion that is utterly unsustainable.”

You can read the complete story here

It’s possible to take steps now that can ameliorate future water shortages, the State Department’s Jones said. The State Department is working across the globe to help other countries build institutional capacity at the local and regional levels to manage water issues. They’re working to mobilize financial support, since water infrastructure can’t be built without money. They are sharing science and technology to solve water problems, much like IAPMO is doing in India to show them how to purify and transport water. And, finally, the State Department is working to get all the parties, such as governments, industry and non-governmental organizations talking to each other.

Ignoring water infrastructure will cost money, in the pay me now or pay me later sense. Jones says the State Department is telling finance ministers that their nations will suffer a GDP penalty if they ignore water issues that just keep getting bigger.

And those water issues will keep getting bigger, whether it’s in Phoenix or Las Vegas or Lagos or New Delhi. There are seven billion people on the planet now and they all like to eat.

On page 5 of this issue we mention that well-known and well-respected industry journalist John Mesenbrink is joining us as Editor at Large. John has deep and longstanding ties with many people in this industry and we’re looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with him. Look for John’s byline in print and online and look for John himself at industry events in the months and years to come. Welcome aboard, John!

About the Author

Robert P. Mader

Bob Mader is the Editorial Director for Penton's mechanical systems brands, including CONTRACTOR magazine, Contracting Business and HPAC Engineering, all of which are part of Penton’s Energy and Buildings Group. He has been  with CONTRACTOR since 1984 and with Penton since 2001. His passions are helping contractors improve their businesses, saving energy and the issue of safeguarding our drinking water. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with an A.B. in American Studies with a Communications Concentration.

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