The Price You Pay
Did you know that there is a global water shortage? According to this article from the NY Times, one quarter of the earth's population faces a looming global water crisis (1). Many countries in the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, plus parts of China, are under extreme water stress. Right here in the USA, many areas in the southwest, where they get little rain, are facing severe drought situations. Yet, people still talk about the Sunshine retirement belt areas of Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah.
In 2019, after several years of substandard monsoon rains, they faced the dreaded Day Zero. This means that when you turned on your faucet at home, zero water came out. In fact, Chennai had to bring in an emergency supply of water by train (2). Imagine a train transporting tens of thousands of gallons of water to a population of 8 million people, the size of New York City. That task would be daunting, no? In 2020, Chennai still experiences water supply issues but they have emerged from Day Zero thanks to plentiful rains and governmental actions (3).
Cape Town, South Africa
In 2018, Cape Town, a city of four million people, was the first major city I can recall that feared they would face a Day Zero for their water supply. They faced some similar issues as Chennai in the form of lack of rain and found themselves 90 days away from Day Zero. Cape Town was able to avoid Day Zero using a combination of initiatives: regulations, conservation, public messaging, and help from a normal rainy season. As of today, they are still facing a moderate drought but have avoided Day Zero for now (4).
My sister lives in southern Arizona about 30 miles from the Mexican border. When she bought her retirement home there in the early 2000s, development was booming. After a development slowdown about 10 years ago, probably fro
m the economic crisis, their local area is again experiencing strong housing growth. Arizona and Nevada are in the top-ten states that Americans move to for retirement (5). But this entire area is at risk of a reduced water supply because as the groundwater levels drop, wells have to be drilled deeper. That costs more money, delivers lower-quality water, and could lead to serious environmental impacts (6). The southwest needs to take action now to try to avoid a serious water supply issue down the road (7).
The Price of Development
Sometimes the price you pay is too high for things. For example, in India, the government is pushing an aggressive, non-stop economic development plan that results in the development, seemingly everywhere, of apartment buildings, commercial buildings, infrastructure projects, and so on. The development rate seems unsustainable. In 2014, during my first trip to the Mumbai/Pune area, as we were flying out of Mumbai airport, we were chatting with an Indian gentleman in line who was flying to Detroit to visit his son. This man just shook his head and said that this non-stop development in India was not sustainable. He was hoping that his son's work would help start to turn things around. I met many other Indians over the years who expressed this same concern about living sustainably.
The price that the Indian people are paying for economic success is very high. Noise pollution is everywhere. Water shortages are pervasive. Roads, sidewalks, and other infrastructure are stressed to the breaking point. Somehow things still keep working, but it seems like a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.
In the southwestern US, how long can southern Arizona keep building large retirement villages without really having an answer to the prospective buyer's question - what about our water supply? That's the first question I would ask if I were considering spending a huge chunk of money on a home there. I wonder what answer the developers are giving.
Mother Nature is Resilient
The Covid-19 pandemic brought the planet a nice little respite from the assault that humans have been making on Mother Nature for years on end. The ocean area near Mumbai, India enjoyed a huge increase of flamingos because of the lack of human activity, however, increased sewage also was a factor (8). Air quality returned to clean levels in cities like Beijing, Delhi, and Los Angeles because of the drop in transportation and carbon emissions. However, history shows that once countries start to return to the new norm with power plants running, cars driving, and planes flying, emission levels will likely return to where they were with probably a negligible environmental improvement. (9)
Conclusion - Need for a Global Plan
Water is the single most essential element required for life on this planet. There is a finite amount of potable water, which means that there is theoretically a finite number of human beings and animals who can live sustainably on this planet. It seems to me that we need to come up with a global plan for water. How can the human race rationalize having a town like Las Vegas that uses hundreds of millions of gallons of water a day, while being in the middle of the desert, just to mostly serve people who visit to gamble and seek entertainment? While towns like Chennai, Cape Town, and many others are fighting for an adequate, minimum potable water supply every day? How can we rationalize this behavior from a human viewpoint?
The environmental price we are paying for economic gain seems just too high. We must develop a new system where we can have economic prosperity at the same time as environmental sustainability. If we cannot achieve that, I fear that it is only a matter of time before we see more Day Zeroes and potential global battles over potable water.
1. NY Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/06/climate/world-water-stress.html
2. India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/chennai-special-water-train-to-reach-on-friday-1567271-2019-07-12
3. Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/respite-from-water-woes-in-chennai/story-kpnzvg4pt6tB2TDyMjWUDO.html#:~:text=The%20unprecedented%20water%20crisis%20that,at%205.3%20metres%20is%201.
4. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-12/looking-back-on-cape-town-s-drought-and-day-zero
5. Top Retirements. https://www.topretirements.com/blog/great-towns/10-states-that-attract-the-most-retirees-voting-with-their-feet.html/
6. Tucson. https://tucson.com/news/local/ancient-aquifers-are-dropping-as-tucsons-suburbs-pump-groundwater/article_f7d43ecf-d7e5-586c-ab4a-62524d5a9427.html
7. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/03/this-is-what-a-west-without-water-will-look-like/
8. Time magazine. https://time.com/5831198/flamingos-coronavirus/
9. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200422-how-has-coronavirus-helped-the-environment
- NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/07/18/742688141/the-water-crisis-in-chennai-whos-to-blame-how-do-you-fix-it
- World Resources Institute. https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress