Oil and Water

Scenic Hancock, Maryland

 Scenic Hancock, Maryland

Gasoline in our region is running about $4.25/gallon at the moment. Every day the Post is filled with stories about rising oil prices and the resulting affect on all kinds of things: food; UPS and FedEx and the shipping business; the hospitality industry and dwindling numbers of travelers; the failing airlines; and a million other twitches. The notion that we have reached peak oil production, that we must now conserve, buy smaller cars, use public transit, ride a bike to work – all of these are becoming widely understood as required changes to our lives. Economic pressures are seeing to that.

Good. Really, really late, but good. As non-car people, we here root for rising prices every day, since apparently it is only this that spurs us to action. Wait until the price of gasoline doubles – this will force even more sweeping realizations, and I hope actions to change our lives, and our cities.

So as we think about the infrastructure we need in order to make these changes, rising gas prices suggest that we build many fewer roads, much less parking, much more transit, no more strip shopping centers. Much of this has been widely discussed here.

But many scientists agree that there is one precious resource that will require even greater changes in our cities and our lives as it becomes more and more scarce, a resource that most of us take for granted, and waste, every day. Water.

The Nile in Cairo

The Nile, in Cairo.

As I have been thinking about infrastructure for the next city, I have repeatedly bumped up against scientific evidence about the massive water problems that we earthlings now face, and will increasingly struggle with in the next several decades. Some of the research comes to some pretty terrifying conclusions.  As the National Geographic reminded us 15 years ago, “All the water that will ever be is, right now.”

Consider a few facts:

  • it takes 4,800 gallons of water to make a pound of coffee
  • it takes 2,500 gallons of water to make a hamburger
  • the average American bathtub holds about 90 gallons of water
  • in the last century, as the earth’s population has tripled, water useage has risen sixfold
  • by 2025, 75% of the earth’s population will face some degree of water scarcity (scarcity = water use exceeding sustainable limits)
  • 2.8 billion people – 40% of the world population – live today in water sheds or basins with some scarcity

This, and much more, I have gleaned from the Worldwatch Institute’s “State of the World 2008” report, which I suggest you go out and find today, along with Lester Brown’s (he founded Worldwatch, and now heads the Earth Policy Institute) “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization.”

There are lots of technologies, lots of ways to conserve and recycle water, and more are being developed every day. So there are techniques, things that we can do in conserving water and treating waste, that could really help in agriculture (70% of world water usage), industry (20% of world water usage, and domestic consumption (10% of world water usage).

Will we fight wars over water as we have fought wars over oil? Water rights have already started wars, and it seems likely this will continue, or escalate, before the infrastructure is in place to equitably distribute and treat water resources. Here is a good quote from “The State of the World 2008”:

“Managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable use, and of encouraging conservation and protection of water resources.”

The real question that has been bugging me is this: what will it take to get us to address water issues as we are just now beginning to seriously tackle oil issues? Would it help if your shower tomorrow morning cost $4.00 a gallon? Would you want to find some of those conservation and treatment options right away, and revise the infrastructure of the next city? Seems like a sure thing.

At sea

At sea.

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