Photo: Paul Michael Hughes/Shutterstock

Water: Innovating the Essential Resource

California Sustainability
by Jade Sevelow Dec 10, 2012
Notes from a public forum of the Commonwealth Club of California.

WHAT DO YOU GET when you put a professional mountaineer passionate about water, a former NASA engineer, a renegade professional surfer versed in disaster relief, and a flat-out genius all on stage together to talk about water? (No, this isn’t a joke.)

Well, you get lots of opinions that don’t necessarily jive with each other. Mostly though, you get inspiration.

I recently had the opportunity to join Jake Norton and Challenge21 at a water conference held by the Commonwealth Club of California and Levi’s Jeans. Before I arrived, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than the obvious: Four people passionate about water, ripe with energy and divergent opinions. I wanted answers, though. What exactly is the battle we’re fighting, and how do we solve it?

Clean water is at the heart of the world. Without clean water, a community cannot have adequate medical facilities. Children cannot go to school because they spend hours of their days fetching water for their families. Women cannot work because they spend their time trying to make the water safe by boiling it all day, or taking care of children who are sick due to contaminated water. Crops don’t grow. Animals perish. And 3.4 million people die each year because of water sanitation- and hygiene-related illnesses. But according to each of the men on stage that night, this crisis is manageable — and reversible.

We can help end this crisis.

“This is a completely solvable problem, in our lifetime!”
– Jon Rose, professional surfer and founder of Waves For Water

Part of what I came away with is that, in reality, we’ve got two crises on our hands. The first is the lack of safe drinking water in developing countries, and the second is our over-consumption of water as a finite resource. Each issue is buoyed with layers and layers of complexity. The more they talked about it, the more there was to talk about: Water as a fundamental human right, climate change, privatization, corporate responsibility, sanitation, governmental (in)action, profit, long-term solutions, short-term solutions, red tape, conflicts, dams, our responsibility to our earth and fellow human beings…. It seemed exhausting and overwhelming.

When touching on the issue of water in developing countries, Jake Norton, founder of
Challenge21, and Evan Thomas took the stage. Jake represented Water For People, which models its programs around long-term water solutions, including engaging the community and government. Evan represented Vestergaard Frandsen, the LifeStraw manufacturer, whose model revolves around quick and effective technology, but not necessarily long-term solutions. They had very different ideas on how to create change.

According to Jake, it is imperative to engage and educate the communities involved in the clean-water projects Water For People is undertaking. The only way for this infrastructure to work is to make sure people have a vested interest in the undertaking; whether it’s through community and government financial investments or jobs created by running, caring for, and monitoring these facilities, everyone must take an active role. This way, the community is running their own water solution, not the NGO. Vestergaard’s LifeStraw, on the other hand, is a portable personal water filtration system that greatly reduces the threat of waterborne illnesses like cholera and diarrhea. It’s easily distributable and inexpensive to produce, but doesn’t create a long-term solution. Ultimately, both men agreed there is no perfect answer; there is no one solution that will work across all communities.

Peter Gleick spearheaded the conversation about water as a finite resource and our over-consumption of it. I came away with one message: “Start small and start with yourself.”

With so much talk of the bigger picture, distant countries, and huge water-well projects, it’s easy to lose sight of how our everyday decisions impact the world around us. According to the American Water Works Association, the average US household uses about 350 gallons of water a day (including indoor and outdoor use). And estimates it takes 1,800 gallons of water to produce 1lb of meat from farm to table. To me, these were staggering numbers. Peter went on to explain that via the water cycle, climate change, and our huge appetite for water, we are consuming water faster than the earth can replenish it.

His solutions to this issue are surprisingly simple: Install water-saving toilets and showerheads in our homes. Use a rain-catch system for tasks like watering our gardens. And stop buying bottled water! Then, when we’ve accomplished these changes in our own daily lives, encourage our friends and family to do the same.

Start small and start with yourself.

When asked for his 60-second idea to change the world, MacArthur fellow, founder of the Pacific Institute, and author of The Human Right to Water Peter Gleick’s answer was simply, “Do something!”

The more I listened, the more questions I had. And the more they talked, the more solutions we received. But I came out with hope, inspiration, and a drive to share the information I have. The resources are endless, and every link in this article is a good place to start. You can also check out the podcast from this conference.

Do something.

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