Because There Is No Substitute For Water

This blog was originally written for Zócalo Public Square.

Seattle water  conservation sign | © Sam Teigen

Seattle, Washington has been a leader in water conservation by reducing water usage, while increasing their population | © Sam Teigen

It is doubtful that the sorts of technological advances that have deferred or mitigated (but not resolved) world shortages of food and oil will do the same for water. Innovations aimed at increasing supply, such as desalinization, can help in particular locales, but they are expensive and often produce damaging environmental side effects. Improved exploration and extraction techniques can help find and exploit new groundwater sources, but in much of the world we are already draining aquifers at an unsustainable pace.

Traditional approaches to securing supplies of surface water—dams and reservoirs—have a role to play in storing water so it is available when needed, but their construction and operation can have catastrophic environmental, social, and economic impacts on river systems and local communities.

Shortages of many resources can be addressed by switching to an alternative or engineering a new one: natural gas for oil; high yield, pest-resistant varieties for traditional crops. This is not the case with water. We cannot replace it with something else. We cannot manufacture a substitute or a “new and improved” version. Water is the indispensable resource.

The good news is that conservation and efficiency can make available new and inexpensive water supply. That is what is happening in Seattle, Washington where, since 1990, water use has fallen 30 percent even as the population has increased 15 percent. It is what is happening across Africa and Asia, as new techniques for growing rice are boosting yields with a fraction of the water used in traditional rice paddies.

Water reuse; efficient, leak-free water delivery systems; improvements in agricultural, industrial, and domestic water-use efficiency; and protection of source water areas such as forests and wetlands are all strategies for conserving water resources to satisfy growing demands. As climate change and burgeoning populations exert ever more pressure on water resources, the answers lie in better management of the water we already have.