Our thirsty world
we’ve got used to water being brought to us, instead of walking to where the water is
Humankind used to be governed by a simple law. If water was not available where people wanted to live, then the choice was simple: move or die. Now we live in the only period in history where water can be moved around in quantity by means other than gravity. Prayer and machinery will not alter this rule, neither will the promises of politicians.
While water is falling from the sky, it’s free; the moment it hits the ground it has a value and that value is directly proportional to the effort required to get it to where it’s needed to sustain life. Large numbers of people function in towns and cities as a single entity because sufficient water can be delivered to them regularly and reliably, and their wastes can be removed on the ‘’flush and forget’’ basis. This may be an obvious observation, but it is one that most people disregard as an irrelevance.
If each of us had to make our own arrangements to collect our daily water needs and dispose of our own wastes, then healthy communal living much above the village level would be impossible. Water is heavy stuff to move around: 1 litre of it weighs 1kg. Try carrying 25 litres 5 miles back from a well to a family of thirsty children and water becomes very precious indeed.
This is energy used to move water, at first hand, with no input other than human muscle. With that kind of work outlay, there’s little time left to build a city. It also explains why pre-industrial towns were little more than large villages by our modern standards.
Ancient Rome supported a million people, but only because slave-built aqueducts delivered clean water, and slave-built sewers flushed wastes away.
We recognize that our developed civilization is energy driven, but to a great extent that energy has been put to use pumping our water systems, clean water in and dirty water out. Our engines have become our slave-army.
We need 2 litres of clean water every day to stay alive, the human body is 70% water, and losing 1% of it brings on acute thirst. A loss of 10% will cause death if it is not replaced quickly. Our digestive systems are adapted to use meat, fish or vegetables for food and we can survive for extended periods of time on reduced quantities of it, but clean water intake is non negotiable.
After many generations of living with constant access to clean water, our bodies no longer carry any resistance to water borne diseases that plagued our forbears.
We have created an alternative lifestyle of cleanliness and food sourcing and safety that needs vast amounts of water. Our modern food delivery and waste systems demand a daily input of 2000 litres of water to supply the food eaten by each of us and dispose of our waste. That’s 500 times more liquid than we take in directly. The modern city is exactly like the human body; it cannot survive without the means to pump clean water in and wastes out. If we can’t find the means to maintain that input-output, then our towns and cities, just like our bodies, will slip back 500 years to a medieval condition: dirty and disease ridden and subject to every unpleasantness that nature can devise.
Every developed nation in the world has locked themselves into the same degree of water dependency, where it must be pumped to remote locations where no other means of water access is possible. Nations less well developed must carry water, usually of poor quality, over great distances. Already these conditions are worsening as more and more people drain depleting aquifers and waterholes.
When there isn’t enough water to dispose of our effluent, disease is inevitable.
Desalination, for those with the energy resources to do it, is a dead end, because ultimately energy resources are unsustainable, and water dries up, despite the consumers being convinced that it will be supplied for ever.
At that point conflict becomes certain, because we are not conditioned to die passively if the means of survival is seen to be available elsewhere.
Our water supply is much more than turning on a tap and drinking the stuff.
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