The Water Malthusians

I grew up in a family with eight kids.  We never had a lot of money but I don’t recall thinking we were poor.  We did have water restrictions however.  We bathed once a week in 3 to 4 inches of shared water, and just urinating in the single toilet was not sufficient rationale to flush.  The driver for some of these family rules were not water scarcity –  it was a captive sewage system that had grossly inadequate absorptive capacity especially in our frozen Alberta winters.  Water consumption, however, was never an articulated concern in my growing up years; we added ice cubes and tea bags and instant coffee as often as we wished, and the hoses ran freely when flooding the community hockey rink.  In our local Mennonite church, water was a symbol of everlasting life and the medium of baptism.

Well, that was fifty years ago; now I enjoy my daily showers; I have graduated to double espressos and I no longer play ice hockey but I must confess that concerns about excessive flushing are still in my psyche.  In terms of its psycho-metaphorical value, water thoughts seem to generate more feelings of guilt than grace.

The water messages these days are not encouraging.  So many dire predictions from the water Malthusians.   Water tables are dropping.  The world is running out of fresh water.  We’ve got a time bomb.  Our water is getting more and more polluted with agricultural pesticide and herbicide run off, and industrial complexes still flush without abandon.  The next wars will allegedly be fought over access to water, and every double espresso I consume uses up 140 litres of water.  Eating beef is even worse – one kilo is like consuming 16,000 litres of water – enough water to fill the pool we no longer own.  I am part of the fortunate middle class world which owns a completely unsustainable water footprint – 2500 cubic meters per person per year.  One could drown in the statistics (and in the empty water bottles), and to change metaphors, all of this gives me a headache; I wish it was just the consequence of dehydration on a hot day.

My first water career was with Trojan Technologies, winner of the 2009 World Water Week Industry Award for its global leadership in the development of large scale ultraviolet water disinfection systems.  Our concerns were about safe (chlorine-free) drinking water, about safe discharges of waste water back into the environment, the removal and destruction of industrial contaminants in the ground water and river systems.  I was based in Europe; the EU Water Frameworks look at water from a river basis perspective.  The Rhine is used for agriculture, fisheries, industry, transportation, recreation and tourism and using its water must accommodate the interests of all.

My second water career is with IDE.  We encourage the productive use of water; in our experience irrigation is one of the best leverage opportunities available for smallplot dollar-a-day farmers.  We offer affordable technologies to pump/lift water, store water and distribute water.  The trouble with irrigation, however, is that is uses water – on average 6 litres per sq meter per day in irrigation season.   Some days this feels perverse; in a water stressed world, we are promoting the use of more of it.   We are not likely to be able to wean ourselves off food and water, however, so our focus, especially in agriculture, which uses 70% of available fresh water supplies will increasing promote the more careful stewardship of this resource.

Some 200 years ago, Malthus predicted that exponential increases in population would outstrip arithmetic increases in food supply, and that dire consequences would occur.  So far, he has been wrong, and to some extent, our ability with technology and innovation to grow more food has been a big part of the solution.  To some extent, these problem solving successes cause us to want to underestimate the challenges emerging.

For some water organizations, this emerging water stress is the imperative and rationale for fundraising.  “One billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, specifically a toilet.  But there is good news – by giving $20 you can provide one person with clean water for 20 years.”  

A less trite approach is found in the recently published IWMI report “Water for Food, Water for Life.”  While acknowledging the challenge faced, the report argues “The hope lies in closing the gap in agricultural productivity in many parts of the world … and in realizing the unexplored potential that lies in better water management along with non-miraculous changes in policy and production techniques. The world has enough freshwater to produce food for all its people over the next half century. But world leaders must take action now—before the opportunities to do so are lost.”

At IDE we will continue to pursue innovative approaches to more responsible use of productive water.  We want to use statistics responsibly.  So far it is not yet easily possible to destroy matter as so many of the water Malthusians seem to imply.  On the other hand, we will deepen our inquiries about falling water tables.

And I will continue to be conscious of my flushing habits.


About Al Doerksen

I'm sort of a vocational tramp; my working career divides about evenly between non-profit and the business worlds. I have lived in Mexico, India, Germany and Canada, and now USA. I've had the good fortune to travel to 90 countries of which at least half are developing countries. The last 25 years of my "career" have involved significant (and enjoyable) international management challenges: travel industry, furniture manufacturing, food (aid) programming and ultraviolet water treatment among others. I'm now leading a development enterprise called IDE.
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1 Response to The Water Malthusians

  1. lori matties says:

    Not only not enough water, but in some places, way too much water. In Manitoba, where I live, the water table is so high that some farmers never were able to seed, or lost their crops to rot. In Guatemala, where I visited, there was so much rain that massive mudslides covered and destroyed homes and farms, causing much more destruction and loss than in Manitoba, where at least we have a government that provides relief. Would that we had long vision and the will to use our earth wisely and with compassion.

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