Sustainability

Water is the No. 1 resource

Engineers and scientists should do everything possible to keep freshwater sources available to everyone.
By Amara Rozgus October 9, 2018

When I was in my teens, the phrase “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” never really made sense to me as I listened to a bad song with those lyrics sung over and over. Why wouldn’t you know what you have?

I also never realized that I didn’t consider my own freshwater source. I grew up next to a Great Lake. To this day, my city water isn’t metered. I could leave the tap running for days, and the price would never hit my pocketbook.

But then I traveled to a place where water was so scarce that 2 mouthfuls of it felt like a luxury every time I brushed my teeth. I was finally witnessing what most of the world struggles with every day: water rationing. Many people have to carry their water for miles just to cook or keep their animals alive. Others, like the area I visited, captured every drop of water that fell from the sky. I showered with water from a rain cistern. When the water ran out, the shower was over.

A lot of people believe the next war will be fought over land or religion or some other age-old argument. I believe the next war will be fought over water. When there isn’t enough of this invaluable resource to support basic human necessities, tensions will flare and fights will break out.

Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s available fresh water drawn from aquifers. These crops feed humans worldwide; the need for sufficient agricultural water is clear. But to what end? Are underground aquifers going to be pumped till they’re dry? Will rivers be dammed and diverted to meet landowners’ needs for watering plants or cattle? This battle is raging right now in the American Southwest, for example. Rivers are running dry, landowners’ wells pump up sand and silt rather than water, and dust storms and erosion are becoming more commonplace.

According to 2012 data from the Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey, large buildings, and the humans in them, use up 2.3% of water for lavatories and HVAC systems and a host of other needs. One leaky bathroom faucet per floor in a 10-story hospital—the most water-intensive building type—can add up to thousands of gallons lost each year. Unmetered water systems in a convention center’s food service area can lead to millions of gallons of “lost” water, paid for by the owner who doesn’t really know where it’s going.

Cape Town, South Africa, nearly ran out of water in 2017. City officials publicly notified its citizens that they needed to ration—and ration they did. Instead of running out of water on “day zero” as originally thought, the city with the concerted efforts of its residents has extended that date to 2019.

When I turn on the tap or flush the toilet each time, I know exactly what I’ve got. Fresh, clean water that I shouldn’t squander. Life isn’t possible without water. Building owners and managers, engineers, water and hydrology specialists, and the general public should do everything possible to ensure we don’t have to find out what to do when the water is gone.


Amara Rozgus
Author Bio: Amara is the Editor-in-Chief/Content Strategy Leader for Consulting-Specifying Engineer.