Reporter and investigative journalist Charles Fishman
, author of the best-selling book, "The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water
," lectured recently at the University of Georgia about water, a resource riddled with challenges yet ripe with potential. He gave a broad overview of current water issues and stressed the urgent need for change in how humans perceive and act in relation to water. Humans pollute and overuse water resources, overburden water infrastructure, and, in the U.S., spend billions of dollars buying bottled water
— meanwhile large segments of the population in countries like India and Fiji either lack access to clean water entirely or walk miles every day to retrieve water from community wells. While U.S. water use is down from its 1980 level, bottled water is second only to bananas as the most frequently purchased item in grocery stores, according to Fishman. He suggested that because water is so cheap in America, people do not think about or value it sufficiently.
, whether in terms of availability or quality, are expanding geographically and increasing in frequency as the climate warms and rainfall patterns change. For example, in the state of Georgia, there have been three droughts in the last seven years, and the “water wars” with Alabama and Florida over use of the Chattahoochee River continue, unresolved, into their third decade. Fishman stressed that there is not a single “global water crisis,” but rather, “10,000 serious water problems around the world” that are unique to their localities. Despite the distinctiveness of each, water issues are so common that they can no longer be ignored. He discussed the impact of climatic changes and drought on water availability, the inequity surrounding access to water, and the extraordinary amounts of money that people are willing to pay for bottled water.
Chattahoochee River, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area
Fishman highlighted some encouraging examples of proactive measures being taken to protect water resources. For example, IBM carried out a project to monitor water use in one of its microchip factories and was able to reduce consumption significantly, saving both money and water while simultaneously increasing production. This led to its decision to engage in water management consulting
. An Australian city created wetlands that help cleanse and store stormwater; the city now sells the water at a profit. Las Vegas, a desert city dependent on water from shrinking Lake Mead, has made great strides in reducing profligate water use through tactics such as paying homeowners to landscape with native desert plants, prohibiting lawns for new homes, employing “water cops” to monitor and enforce the city’s water use policies, and recycling 94 percent of its water. In Georgia, the state’s flagship university has made proactive efforts to decrease its drinking water usage, now 30 percent lower than in 2007.
To ensure a future with sufficient clean water, Fishman believes it is critical to capitalize on the positive emotions that humans have towards water to create behavioral change. He suggests a “water re-imagining” program in schools that would teach students not only the science of water but also water-related policies, communications tactics, and solutions to water issues. Another simple idea he suggested is raising the price of water or creating a “tier pricing” system for water that would charge users higher prices as their consumption increased. Regardless of the specific approaches taken, water as a resource encapsulates a complex and contested relationship between humans and natural resources, and concerted action must be taken to ensure the continued sustainability of this critical resource.
McDonald Falls, Glacier National Park
For more on this subject, listen to this fascinating story
(or read the transcript) about "The Big Thirst" on NPR or read Fishman’s blogs
about water issues for National Geographic.