Consider the Ganges and Brahmaputra, both now fed by ever-faster melting glaciers. The two rivers in turn pour into the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean, an ocean that has now begun to rise. That higher sea in turn acts as a kind of fluid dam, forcing the rivers to spread out in a devastating flood. By mid-century, according to some estimates, much of Bangladesh will be underwater. Raising the planet’s temperature, in fact, will disrupt almost everything aquatic on earth. The salient scientific fact is that warm air holds more water vapor than cold. Thus in arid areas, one can expect more evaporation: Computer models show that virgin flows along the Colorado River, for example, may drop by half as the century proceeds. That’s bad news for a West that already strains that river to slake its thirst. But if humanity seems to always ignore problems until they reach crisis proportions, so too does it have the capacity, once mobilized, to bring vast amounts of energy and ingenuity to solve those problems. And so it is good news that we’ve at least begun early experiments in water-saving agriculture, such as new, less-thirsty varieties of plants, drip irrigation and water recycling. In the United States, 35 years of the Clean Water Act have meant that we can swim in and drink from far more of our lakes and rivers in the first years of the 21st century than the last years of the 20th. But will our solutions be efficient and sweeping enough to deal with what is now a rapidly expanding world-wide water crisis? Can our experiments spread fast enough to keep up with the pace of expanding consumer life, a life that, by its very nature, uses more and more water? Perhaps the only real hope is a change in mind-set toward valuing clean, fresh water at its true worth. Some of that new valuation will be, for lack of a better word, spiritual — learning to once again see water not as a commodity, in infinite supply, but as something precious, to be preserved and not taken for granted. The most spiritual human moments involve water, whether it is baptism in the Christian church or the ritual bathing by Hindus in the Mother Ganges. Pious Muslims wash before prayer; pious Jews before marriage. Water has always cleaned us — cleaned us literally, cleaned us of our sins, cleaned our minds and hearts. Now we must learn how to return the favor, to wash water itself free of the thousand stains we’ve inflicted on it in our heedless rush toward prosperity. — Bill McKibben The United Nations estimates that half the hospital beds in the world are occupied by people with easily preventable water-related diseases. Here a young boy with malaria lies in a hospital bed in Sierra Leone. Worldwide, nearly 5,000 children die every day from water-related illnesses. Brent Stirton, Getty Images
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Home to more than 10 million people, metropolitan Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The world’s population has increased by 150 percent in the last 50 years, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to more than 6 billion in 2000. The good news: national birthrates actually decrease as countries, like the Philippines, become more affluent.
Multiplication Problem Overpopulation is the root of most, if not all, of the challenges facing mankind today,
including global warming, food shortages, air pollution, loss of plant and animal habitat, ocean contamination and of course, water shortage. The statistics are all too clear. During the 2 million years that human beings have been on the planet, we amounted to less than a quarter of a million individuals. Worldwide population didn’t hit the 1 billion mark until the early 1800s. But human growth has been exponential: We reached 2 billion in 1930, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1975, 5 billion in 1987 and 6 billion in 1999. Today population experts believe there are now 6.5 billion of us, with another hungry and thirsty 80 million mouths being added this year. We no longer simply inhabit the planet, we overwhelm the planet. And there’s no end in sight. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, “Our collective exploitation of the world’s resources has already reached a level that could only be sustained on a planet 25 percent larger than our own.” Ironically, the biggest problem is that we’ve become too good at prolonging our own lives. Major advances in science, technology, hygiene and medicine have doubled our life expectancies and dramatically lowered our mortality rates. Today, around the globe, six babies are born per second and three people die per second. At the same time that more of us are living longer, we are also reproducing more. More people living longer lives means exponential population growth, since each person has the ability to produce numerous offspring, and each offspring can birth many more. The United Nations projects that by the year 2050 there will be somewhere between 8 billion and 10 billion humans — an increase of roughly 50 percent over today’s world population. Resources like fresh water are already at a straining point in many countries around the world. What do we do when there are 50 percent more of us vying for the same dwindling resource?
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Poisoning the Well 53
Cape Town, South Africa, has grown rapidly since the end of apartheid in 1994, and it embodies a demographic sea change: Soon a majority of the world’s population will live in cities for the first time in history. Worldwide, population has tripled in the last century while water use has grown sixfold.
Anna Hazare demonstrates the power of the individual. A former army truck driver, he was a self-described brawler before he decided to change his life, and his village, Ralegan Siddhi. As a result of Hazare’s efforts, his village has become a model of rural economic development in India. He advocated the building of dams and canals, which enabled villagers to grow new crops. Trees were planted and slopes terraced to help retain rainwater. After 20 years of such efforts, the village now has water all year round. Hazare, strongly influenced by the teachings of Gandhi, says, “It is impossible to change the village without transforming the individual. Similarly, it is impossible to transform the country without changing its villages.”
Residue from antidepressants, birth control pills and antibiotics are found in 80 percent of U.S. waterways and groundwater, according to the EPA.
The United Nations has recognized 1,400 wetland areas around the world that are being protected from development, a collective area the size of southern Europe.
Water supplied by the public utility in the Brittany region of France has become unsuitable for human consumption due to contamination from pesticides and intensive livestock farming. Today nitrates, toxins, heavy metals and harmful microorganisms are found in groundwater in nearly every European country and the former Soviet republics. Johann Rousselot, Oeil Public
Green algae is growing almost everywhere off the Florida Keys, even on an underwater statue known as “Christ of the Abyss.” Divers often scrub the statue with wire brushes but have a hard time keeping it clear of the algae. Sewage and water runoff that contains fertilizers feed the growth of algae and bacteria, which in turn consume huge amounts of oxygen, choking plant and animal life, including 220 miles of Florida coral. And every day, about 1 billion gallons of sewage is pumped into the sea or into aquifers that leak into the ocean.
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Stephen Frink Collection, Alamy
Poisoning the Well 57
Beneath the frozen ice of the Ural River in Russia, affected by waste from Lenin Steelworks, fish have become too contaminated for local fishermen to eat. Instead, they send their catch to distant markets. The Ural River is not an isolated case either. Many water sources have become so polluted and overfished that 1 in every 5 of the world’s freshwater species have become extinct, threatened or endangered in recent decades.
One quart of untreated wastewater pollutes 8 quarts of fresh water.
In Varanasi, India, untreated sewage flows directly into the
U.S. cities began chlorinating water 100 years ago, saving thousands from diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis.
Many residents of Queens, New York, say they won’t drink from
Ganges River, the source of drinking, bathing and irrigation water for 500
the tap anymore after officials in May 2007 found higher-than-normal levels of
million people. Despite the government’s best efforts, including $130 million
tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, which is often used by dry cleaners and in auto
for the river’s cleanup, millions of gallons of raw sewage are dumped into
repair shops. Chronic exposure to elevated levels can lead to dizziness, confusion
the Ganges every day. Worldwide, 2 million tons of human, industrial and
and nausea, and the Environmental Protection Agency says it is a probable
agricultural waste are discharged into rivers and lakes every day.
carcinogen. Fire hydrants are flushed to draw new water into the system, diluting
Amit Bhargava, Corbis
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any chemicals that might linger.
Uli Seit, The New York Times, Redux
Poisoning the Well 61
Half of the world’s 500 major rivers are seriously depleted or polluted by industrial, agriculture and human waste.
Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, infamous for catching fire in 1969, has been subsequently removed from the EPA’s National Priority List due to collaborative cleanup efforts.
Industrial pollution, garbage and human waste have fouled the Congo River, yet those who live near its shores have no choice but to use it for their most basic needs — hydration, sanitation and transportation. In the poorest parts of Kinshasa, residents wind their way through mounds of garbage to obtain enough water to bathe and cook.
Per-Anders Pettersson, Getty Images
Money contributed by the leading industrial nations of the world has helped preserve the natural lifestyles of Indians living on their ancestral homelands in the Amazon. Concerned about the destruction of the rainforest, G8 countries set up a program that allowed 160 tribes in the region to mark and preserve their own territories. Non-indigenous people are required to have special permits to be in the area. Here, a Waipi family takes advantage of the fresh running water of the Amazon.
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Ecuadorian special forces stand in riot gear as hundreds march on the Superior Court of Justice in the Amazonian town of Lago Agrio, Ecuador, on Oct. 21, 2003. It was the first day of court proceedings in a lawsuit filed by indigenous people seeking environmental cleanup costs from Chevron.
Lou Dematteis, Redux
The People vs. Chevron THE DAY THAT crude oil began to flow from Texaco’s wells in the
area around Lago Agrio in the Ecuadorian Amazon in 1972, was the day that hundreds of square miles of surrounding rainforest began its transformation into a toxic waste dump. Today, Chevron (which acquired Texaco in 2001) is in a multi-year legal battle with “Los Afectados,” 30,000 Amazonian settlers and indigenous people who contend that Chevron should be held responsible for the pollution and toxic compounds spread over 1,700 square miles of rainforest that have contaminated the Amazon watershed. Chevron presents itself as the victim and is spending millions of dollars a year on a high-priced team of lawyers, claiming that it is being extorted for problems it didn’t create. Interestingly, “Los Afectados” aren’t asking for money for themselves; they are asking for Chevron to accept responsibility for its actions and to invest the money needed to fix the mess so future generations are spared the health problems that currently plague the region. Even if the local inhabitants win, the cleanup could take decades and cost upward of $6 billion — meaning this might represent a landmark as the largest environmental lawsuit in history. In the May 7, 2007, issue of Vanity Fair, writer William Langewiesche commented on Chevron’s response to the lawsuit: “Chevron denies that it contaminated the forest, denies that there is a link between the drinking water and high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, and skin disease and denies that it bears responsibility for any environmental damage that might after all be found to exist. If Chevron can convince the court of the validity of even a few of those points, it will win the case and leave town. Worldwide the oil industry is watching.”
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Unlined waste pits filled with crude oil are a sad legacy of Texaco’s 28 years of drilling in Ecuador. It could cost as much as $6 billion to ignore the waste oil left behind, but who will pay for it and how the oil will be cleaned up are still at issue.
Lou Dematteis, Redux
Texaco sprayed crude oil on dirt
Angel Toala Marin’s home is near an oil well in Shushufindi, Ecuador, where waste has been dumped into local water supplies. When
roads to keep dust down while it operated in the
Angel contracted stomach cancer, doctors who diagnosed him blamed the contaminated drinking water. “I don’t think the oil company worried if
Ecuadorian Amazon from 1964 through 1992.
they contaminated the water,” Angel’s wife, Luz Maria Marin, said the day after her husband died. “We knew the water was bad for our health, but
The practice still continues today in the town of
what could we do? There wasn’t water anywhere else.”
Lou Dematteis, Redux
Lou Dematteis, Redux Poisoning the Well 67
Secoya indigenous leader Humberto Piaguaje (in red) speaks at a demonstration after emerging from Chevron’s annual shareholder
meeting in San Ramon, California, on April 25, 2007. He announces, “Our struggle is not for money. We want you to repair the damage so our children do not have to continue suffering.”
A technician wearing a hazardous materials suit checks for life-threatening carcinogens in soil samples gathered in 2004 in the Ecuadorian forest near the town of Sacha.
Lou Dematteis, Redux
Lou Dematteis, Redux
The case against Chevron has been going on for four years, and it may take many more to decide. Soldiers stand guard at one of the company’s wells in 2004 as evidence is gathered for the case.
Lou Dematteis, Redux
Chevron Vice President Ricardo Reis Veiga holds a news conference after the first day of hearings in Ecuador in 2004. The company denies that it contaminated the region and that the forest is polluted. It also dismisses the link between the water in the region and the high rates of cancer, leukemia, birth defects and skin disease.
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Lou Dematteis, Redux Poisoning the Well 69
Indigenous group members use their bodies to spell out the message “Long live Yasuni” on July 5, 2007. The demonstration was part of a larger public awareness effort to protect Yasuni National Park, home to some of the most biodiverse habitat in the world. To avoid repeating the environmental disaster in the northern Amazon, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has reached out to the international community for compensation to protect the rainforest.
Pablo Fajardo is the lead Ecuadorian lawyer representing indigenous people in their landmark environmental case against ChevronTexaco. In many ways he personifies the David vs. Goliath quality of the case. Fajardo, who was born into extreme poverty, earned his college diploma at night and then completed his law degree in correspondence school. With only a year of law practice, he took over the case against the oil giant, squaring off against some of the most prominent U.S. corporate attorneys. But Fajardo says he is not intimidated. He attributes his confidence to the years he spent working in the oil fields of the rainforest, where he learned about the problems of pollution firsthand. Lou Dematteis, Redux
Lou Dematteis, Redux
The world grows twice as much food as it did a generation ago, but it uses three times as much water to grow it.
Drip irrigation reduces water use by 30 to 70 percent compared with traditional flood irrigation or sprinklers.
Foreign workers harvest tomatoes on the edge of Saudi Arabia’s Rub’ al Khali desert, also known as the Empty Quarter. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of all fresh water used every year, far more than industry or domestic uses, and by 2050 farms will have to feed an additional 2.7 billion people.
Center pivot irrigation systems feed alfalfa crops near Wadi Dawasir, Saudi Arabia.
Farming is viable in this desert climate only four months a year, but fields need year-round water to stop salt from building up in the soil. Even outside the Middle East, salination is a growing problem in large-scale irrigated farming. Overhead sprinklers use less water than flood irrigation, but waste far more than ground-level drip tubing.
Third-generation farmer Matthew Procter uses a GPS-wired tractor to plot, seed and lay out drip irrigation for 500 acres near Rocky Ford, Colorado. Water is scarce here, so lowand high-tech solutions come in handy for growers: Concrete-lined irrigation ditches eliminate seepage, and laser-leveled fields prevent runoff. With a computer, Procter can even set the water flow for his crops on any given day. 72 Blue Planet Run
Sergio Ballivian Poisoning the Well 73
Four quarts of oil discarded during an average oil change can contaminate up to 1 million gallons of water.
Outside Shanghai, the village of Dongjin is known as “Cancer Village” for its polluted waters and resultant illnesses. Farmers say the Julong Chemical Co. plant’s wastewater poisoned the water supply, contaminated the region’s crops and contributed to dozens of cancer-related deaths. Residents are now trying to shut down the plant and restore the river to health.
The children standing next to these outhouses in the Niger River Delta
symbolize a paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty. Despite the fact that multinational oil companies have pumped more than $400 billion of wealth out of the world’s thirdlargest wetland, local residents have little to show for it. Pollution has affected the air quality, soil fertility, waterways and wildlife, and it has even resulted in acid rain. As a result, fishing and agriculture are no longer productive enough to sustain the area. Ed Kashi, Aurora Photos
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Americans now consume more than 28 gallons of bottled water per person per year. Only about 23 percent of the bottles are recycled.
New water bottles engineered with cornstarch biodegrade in 80 days, compared with traditional plastics, which may take several hundred years.
Mountains of “e-waste” have been shipped to China, where
A worker at a recycling center in Shanghai sifts through the plastic
families who used to work on farms have taken to scavenging among the
bottles that arrive in China by the boatload. Bottled water is now a $100
piles of keyboards, motherboards and discarded computer components in
billion a year industry, second only to soft drinks in the beverage sector.
Chaoyang County in southern Guangdong Province, among other places.
In the United States, the leading consumer followed by Mexico and China,
The e-waste contains hundreds of extremely toxic substances, including
fewer than 25 percent of the bottles are recycled, contributing 2 million tons
lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury and other heavy metals that leach into
per year to landfills.
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More than 1 billion people live in slums around the world, often without access to water, due to utilities refusing connections without a formal property title.
Over the last 30 years, 5,244 patents for water purification have been filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
There are 37 shantytowns in the city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, most of which do not have reliable water services. The city has 2 million inhabitants, a tenfold population increase in the past 30 years. People and animals bathe together in water that is provided by the city but is not fit to drink.
Shaul Schwarz, Getty Images
Dean Kamen is a man full of ideas and enthusiasm. Probably best known for his Segway scooter, he recently turned his attention to the world’s water crisis. He has developed a small refrigerator-sized machine called the Slingshot, which can transform the most polluted water into clean water in just a few seconds. A team of engineers and scientists is working around the clock at his DEKA laboratories to reduce production costs so the device can be made more widely available. A veteran inventor, Kamen already holds more than 440 patents. And as the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), Kamen hopes to instill his excitement for the prospects and promises of technology in the next generation of innovators. Jason Grow
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Poisoning the Well 79
When a crisis seems too big to solve, the real problem may be that we are applying the
Clearly, the strategies have failed. But if national governments and giant international institutions,
regional bureaucrats and community leaders can’t find the answer, who can?
For the last 50 years, governments, foundations and other major institutions have tried to tackle
The answer may lie at the nexus of two new powerful technologies: the Internet and online
the global clean water crisis through big, and often hugely expensive, regional water projects.
communities. It just may be possible to harness the creativity and the real-life experiences of
Billions of dollars were spent, dams built, wells dug, rivers diverted.
the millions of people affected by the water crisis — and then tie them with potential funders,
The result? The crisis has only gotten worse. The big
together using the extraordinary collaborative power of the Web.
water projects, while generally successful, also required
In other words, an online community could share best practices, monitor itself and be capable of
enormous funding; Even among more modest projects, it
scaling up to deal with a vast number of unique local water challenges, all at the same time. Such a
is estimated that less than 50 percent of all ventures over the last half-century actually succeeded
scenario would be impossible for even the biggest traditional institution, but it is precisely the kind
in achieving their goals. There were successes, but not enough to keep up with the deteriorating
of challenge solvable by the Web.
The Peer Water Exchange, or PWX, a project of the Blue Planet Run Foundation, is the brainchild
None of this was the result of bad intentions; on the contrary, almost all of these projects, big and
of a former high-tech executive, Rajesh Shah. PWX breaks with the traditional — and failed —
small, were based upon goodwill. Yet cumulatively they still failed to solve — indeed, even make a
models for dealing with the world water crisis. Instead, it recognizes that the only real answer
dent in — the problem.
for the needs of hundreds of millions of people in rural communities will come from thousands
And so, we fall ever further behind. Today, an estimated 1.1 billion people around the world lack clean and safe water. And the crisis, once largely restricted to the rural poor in developing countries, has now spread around the planet. At the beginning of the 21st century, most of
of small projects, implemented and managed by locals and customized for the unique problems of each community. PWX believes that it is these local projects that will ultimately find real, practical and sustainable solutions.
the world’s citizens facing shortages of fresh water were poor. But now millions can be found
The challenge becomes: How do you stay on top of all of these grassroots efforts? There are
everywhere from tiny farms and villages to giant metropolises. They live on every continent except
likely to be more than one million new water project proposals over the next two decades, tens
Antarctica. And right now, their prospects of ever enjoying safe drinking water are slim.
of thousands of them worthy of funding. But how do you manage all of these projects efficiently?
Change is the word of the day in the village of Ralegan Siddhi in the Ahmednagar District of India. With funding from the Blue Planet Run Foundation, the local community has transformed itself into a model of self-sufficiency by repairing ponds to harvest rainwater, planting trees and terracing hillsides to reduce soil erosion. Most recently, the community has installed solar panels and windmills. Atul Loke
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Vietnamese children like Tran Quoc Xu, 11, used to spend a significant portion of their day fetching water. Today a water system funded by the Blue Planet Run Foundation via PWX, in Dong Lam hamlet means villagers no longer have to travel great distances for water nor pay high prices to have it delivered. They previously paid $3.20
Once funded, how do you track their progress? And, finally, how do you disseminate tested principals from those that prove successful?
to have 250 gallons of water delivered by a truck vendor.
Shah readily admits that this kind of undertaking is beyond the ability of any individual organization
Now residents spend just 12 cents for the same amount.
or agency. “My knowledge of water issues is intellectual,” Shah admits. “I’ve never dug a well or
Doan Bao Chao
organized a community. So, just because I can fund projects, does that mean they should take my advice, too? No — they are far better off talking to each other.” The answer, Shah believes, is to use the Internet to turn the traditional process upside-down — beginning with how projects are selected and funded, how they are managed and staffed and how their results are reported. This is where Shah’s technology and consulting experience has served him well. He understands that many of the most successful new enterprises in the 21st century are social networks. That is, from MySpace to Wikipedia, to giant online games such as Second Life, the most powerful new business model is one in which traditional top-down, “command and control,” business models are replaced with a radically new one in which the participants themselves build, manage and police the enterprise. As the hundreds of millions of users on these sites have quickly come to appreciate, this new participatory model results in a richer and more customized experience with greater flexibility and responsiveness. These efficiencies are precisely the results Rajesh Shah is looking for with PWX, as it knits the implementers in the field into a collaborative community so unique that the Blue Planet Run Foundation has applied for a patent. What this means in practice is that PWX invites reputable nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to join the community. Periodically, PWX places funds into the program and requests that participating NGOs submit their applications for funding. That in turn sparks PWX’s most important innovation: peer review. Participants are asked to review each other’s proposals. Each proposal is seen by as many as seven participants — a process that not only results in large numbers of proposals being scrutinized quickly, but also ensures that innovative new practices are shared amongst the reviewers themselves. Funding is then awarded based upon these peer reviews. And the process begins again. As the reviewers will be judged by the success of these projects, they are motivated to stay in contact, offer advice and share best practices. All of this creates a transparent experience for everyone involved, Shah believes, a break from the old style of closed meetings held within giant foundations. “The participants are learning from each other; in fact, by having to review each other’s projects, they are forced to.” Expertise and experience can now be administered quickly where it is needed most. “We end up with a distributed volunteer staff that is far more expert than any we might hire,” says Shah.
Water 2.0 83
Chilukwa Primary School provides 400 boys and girls in Malawi, Africa, with a sound education, but until recently the school had no running water or bathrooms. In addition, waterborne illnesses caused many students to miss classes several times a month. To address the problem, a local organization used PWX to apply for funding to build a community tap, latrines and bathing facilities.
The result is a mutually supportive and collaborative community that encourages, in fact requires, sharing and learning. It also enlists those people closest to the problem — the hard-working practitioners in the field — thus recruiting expert hands at extremely low cost and overhead to address the problem. But most important, by enlisting members into the decision-making process, PWX should be able to scale up to almost any size and deal with almost any number of programs on a global basis — all without having to increase its own staffing or overhead. PWX can grow as big as the crisis it is taking on. Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and one of the world’s leading experts on the global water crisis, says of PWX: “I’ve seen nothing else like it, and think it offers serious potential for improving transparency, information availability to the user, and the ability to understand what really works in the real world.” The Blue Planet Run Foundation has a goal of bringing clean and safe water to 200 million people by 2025. To achieve that, PWX is committed to acting as both platform and process to fund more than 200,000 peer-managed water projects around the world efficiently, transparently and effectively. The global water crisis will be one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in this century. But thanks to innovative ideas like PWX, which mix new technologies and organizational models in an explosive combination with the untapped genius of thousands of people, the goal of clean water for everyone no longer seems impossible. We may not have the right answers yet for the world water crisis, but we may now at last be closer to implementing the right solution. To experience the Peer Water Exchange, go online to www.peerwater. org. There you can read the proposals as well as the review comments …and perhaps be inspired to participate. — Michael Malone
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Water 2.0 85
On average, 30 percent of all charitable donations is consumed by administrative overhead.
100 percent of the donations to the Blue Planet Run Foundation goes directly to fund Peer Water Exchange-sponsored programs.
Over the past 30 years the famed “Barefoot College” organization, started by Skoll Foundation Award winner Bunker Roy, has worked with the poorest of the poor — women, dropouts and unemployable youths — in remote villages in 13 Indian states. It has provided them with training through a self-help model that respects local knowledge and capability and promotes local organizations to make community decisions. The college’s heralded programs have been expanded thanks to funds received through PWX.
The Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia
Alfred nysunda has spent the last three years helping to alleviate critical water shortages at the Kisii hospital in Kisumu, Kenya. Rotary International has received funding through the Peer Water Exchange and has broken ground on a system that will provide more than 80,000 gallons of water per day — well above the hospital’s current daily need for 35,000 gallons. The hospital serves a population of 585,000, many of whom suffer from AIDS and malaria.
IN LAS ROCHAS and other rural communities in northern Nicaragua, El Porvenir works closely with residents to install hundreds of wells and thousands of latrines, thanks to financial support from the Blue Planet Run Foundation. In an effort to increase sustainability, the group limits its projects to requests initiated by rural villages. At the same, it encourages residents to elect local committees to oversee the long-term maintenance of the water systems.
Tim Wagner Water 2.0 87
A salmon counter at the Bonneville Dam in Oregon counts fish
as they swim upstream in the Columbia river. There are 45,000 large dams around the world that generate almost 25 percent of the world’s power. But dams are far from a perfect alternative to burning fossil fuels for energy production. They have a dramatic impact on the environment and have displaced millions of people from their homes.
When used properly, nothing drives growth and eliminates
The result is both predictable and staggering. Half the hospital beds on Earth are occupied by people with easily
poverty more effectively than water.
preventable waterborne diseases. In just the past decade, more children have died from diarrhea than all the people
Clean water has done more for the health of humanity than any medicine or scientific achievement. In developed countries, diseases that were responsible for the great majority of deaths in human history — cholera, typhoid and malaria, for example — have been washed away by clean water. Often, all it took was a working sewer system. Good water has not only prevented illness, it has also produced the healthy crops that improve our nutrition. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for more than two-thirds of all water use. Sophisticated systems and giant water projects have helped produce an ever-increasing yield of food to satisfy the surging population of the Earth. Nearly
who have been killed in armed conflicts since World War II. If we did nothing other than provide access to clean water, without any other medical intervention, we could save 2 million lives each year. The tragedy is not just one of illness, it’s also the devastating loss of human productivity. Across vast stretches of the developing world, there is a daily routine that has hardly changed throughout the course of human history. Every day, for millions of women, the first duty is to forage for water. And as rivers run dry, sometimes along with the aquifers beneath them, the women have to keep going farther to find that water.
a quarter of all electricity is powered by hydroelectric turbines. Our products and services, the building blocks of
In parts of India and Africa, these women walk an average of 3.7 miles simply to collect potable water and bring it back
our cities and towns, our ability to forge steel and build spaceships, water plays a role in everything we do.
to their families — a long march home with 44 pounds of water balanced precariously on their heads (more than most
Sadly, in most countries water is not used effectively or governed well or intelligently controlled. Nearly half the people on Earth fail to receive the level of water services available 2,000 years ago to the citizens of ancient Rome. 90 Blue Planet Run
airlines allow for luggage). Heavy as the burden may be, though, it is almost never enough. Back in the slums and huts that half the planet’s population considers home, each person will need 1.3 gallons just to make it through the day, roughly the amount of water used in a single flush of a standard American toilet. We're All Downstream 91
Oil spills from legal oil extraction as well as smuggling operations have destroyed much of the natural environment and fishing grounds in the Niger Delta. Although international oil companies have extracted billions of dollars in oil from the impoverished region, little of the oil wealth is distributed to residents by the Nigerian government, routinely rated one of the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International. As a result, most inhabitants live without clean drinking water or electricity. Michael Kamber
Chronic pollution, promiscuous use, overcrowding and human waste have turned water into one of our most
When there are bountiful reservoirs and little threat of drought, nations thrive. But in the all too many places where
profoundly endangered assets. Two thousand years ago, there were 300 million people on the planet. Within the next
water policy amounts to little more than a distant dream and praying for rain, prosperity remains an empty promise.
50 years, demographers expect the number to grow to at least 8 billion — the great majority of whom will live in
We don’t think or even worry very much about water in the United States because here we have a per capita average
developing countries — yet the amount of water we all share and depend upon remains a constant.
of 6,000 cubic meters of reservoir water capacity, the world’s largest. Middle-income countries such as Morocco have
Without enough water, no country can achieve even modest economic goals. Irrigation helps communities overcome poverty. When water is plentiful more children go to school, they are healthier, and their parents work more.
about 500 cubic meters, and the poorest countries — Ethiopia, for example — have less than 50. Without adequate storage, entire nations become hostage to the frequently violent whims of nature.
Yet, throughout the Middle East and south Asia and much of Africa, water is growing scarcer by the month. Since
The number of illnesses caused by lack of water is hard to fathom. More than 3 million people — most of them
reservoirs aren’t sufficient, and many rivers have turned into junkyards or fetid swamps, millions have turned to digging
under age 5 — die each year of malaria and diarrhea alone. To put that another way, according to the World Health
wells to suck the groundwater from their land. But dig too deep and you’ll eventually hit arsenic, a deadly poison that
Organization, nearly 10,000 people die every day from easily preventable water-related diseases. Simply providing
pollutes all the water above it. In Delhi there are fewer than 30 days of rain each year, so people simply force tubes
access to clean water, without any other medical intervention, could save 2 million of those lives each year. And
into deeper and deeper holes and take what they can get away with. But when that water is gone, it is gone forever.
the solution is devastatingly simple: Studies show that access to piped water and sewers can, in many places, nearly
The city and its 15 million residents already suffer; when the water disappears from the wells it will get infinitely worse.
eliminate waterborne disease at a cost of less than $1,000 per death averted.
Delhi isn’t alone: Many other great urban centers are suffering the same fate. The water table under Beijing has fallen
A thousand dollars. What is a life worth? It’s not a small sum, but we live in an era when it is possible to participate in
by 200 feet in just the past two decades. Mexico City was built on the edge of a lake that no longer exists.
video conferences that link New York with China, or Tokyo with Tibet. There are people who earn millions of dollars
The Salton Sea is California’s largest lake and one of its biggest environmental dilemmas. Early in the 20th century, water from the Colorado River was mistakenly diverted into the Salton Sink, a prehistoric lake bed. Seeing an opportunity, developers dreamed of creating a resort oasis, but the idea never took hold, and the lake properties have since fallen into neglect. Now, the lake water is saltier than the ocean, and only tilapia can live in it. Still, migratory birds have made the area a rest stop on the Pacific Flyway, and more than 400 species visit the area.
of interest income every day. What would it take to convince the rich world to spend enough so that African children
years ago,” he said. “It’s a shocker. People don’t believe it, but it’s true. We have changed the nature of our economy,
no longer die of illnesses that some of us don’t even realize still exist?
and we have become more efficient at doing what we want to do.”
In 2000, the United Nations established a series of urgent targets, called the Millennium Development Goals, aimed
It turns out that the biggest potential new source of water, not just in Delhi or Dar es Salaam but in Tokyo and San
at eliminating the world’s most desperate poverty. One of the goals seeks, over the next decade, to cut by half the
Francisco as well, is us. By conserving water and pricing it more realistically, we can dramatically reduce our needs.
proportion of people without access to clean drinking water. Another sets a similar target for improving sanitation
Agriculture will always require more water than any other human endeavor, but that doesn’t mean it has to be wasted.
services. The United Nations, which has designated this the “Decade of Water for Life,” estimates that if both goals
Until the 1960s, none of the vineyards in California used drip irrigation, which applies minimal amounts of water
are met, “only” 30 million to 70 million people would die in the next 15 years from preventable water-related diseases.
directly to the roots of crops. Today, 70 percent of them do, using less water to produce the same yield.
Yes, you read that right: “only” 30 million to 70 million.
Some farmers have begun to level their fields with lasers, making irrigation even more precise. And although genetically
Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, argues that
modified crops remain controversial, researchers have produced several strains of rice that require only a fraction of
management failures and political myopia are at least as responsible for water problems as shortages and population
the water most farmers use today.
growth. “Providing enough water to grow food for the planet is and will continue to be a challenge,” he said. “So is limiting the damage pollution has caused. Still, how can any government that cares for its people let them die of something so simple as a lack of clean water? But they do, in numbers that are staggering. This problem is so fundamental and so widespread, yet it’s not like curing AIDS or eradicating malaria. It is not scientifically challenging. It’s just a matter of whether or not we care about the most vulnerable people on our planet.” While Gleick can cite dreary statistics, evidence of governmental inaction, and worrisome trends with great rhetorical force, his central message, which is often ignored by both planners and environmentalists, is surprisingly hopeful. “It is a little-known fact that the United States today uses far less water per person, and less water in total, than we did 25
“I would argue that almost everything we do on Earth we could do with less water,” Gleick told me. “This is really good news, you know. Because it means we can do better. We don’t need to run out of water. We just need to think more seriously about how we can avoid using it.” Try to think about that the next time you water the lawn with federally funded filtered water, which is safe enough to drink. Or brush your teeth. Or when we leave the shower running for a few minutes to answer the phone. Every drop of water we casually waste is literally a drop of life taken from the mouth of someone else we will likely never meet, but whose fate we will most certainly determine. — Michael Specter
Published on Aug 21, 2008
From the creators of the highly acclaimed New York Times best-selling Day in the Life and America 24/7 series, Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwi...