How Water Scarcity Became A Worldwide Problem
Author Judith Schwartz offers solutions for global water-shortages.
Water scarcity is a major environmental issue affecting many regions of the world. Journalist Judith Schwartz takes an in-depth look at the problem in her recently published book, Water in Plain Sight, which leads the reader on a global journey to learn about the root causes of water scarcity, and offers some solutions towards alleviate this perplexing problem. Schwartz recently visited with [email protected] to talk about her book.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows:
[email protected]: In your writing, you say that human beings are the greatest defenders of making this planet better and less thirsty. Can you explain?
Judith Schwartz: We have many challenges with water. It seems like every time you turn around, somewhere there’s a drought, there’s a flood, there are wildfires, which have to do with dehydration of landscapes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. A lot has to do with how we think about water, and I think that we can broaden out our water literacy. When we think about water as a kind of static resource — there’s this amount of water, and you get some and I get some — that kind of leaves us stuck. But once we understand how water moves across our landscapes and through the atmosphere, then we see that there are many opportunities to make better use of the water.
[email protected]: You mentioned that in some parts of the world, water ends up being something that people fight over. It becomes a physical confrontation at times.
Schwartz: Yes. Again, I would reiterate that it doesn’t have to be this way. I talk to people, experts on water, about the prospect of water wars. What they said is that the lack of water often creates more opportunities for people to work together. But the important thing for us to recognize here, and I don’t think that we do this enough, is the connection between water and our landscapes. We’re continually focused on water that comes down from the sky. Our eyes are fixed to the rain gauge when we’re thinking about how much water we have and whether we get enough. But equally, if not more important, is what happens to that water when it hits the ground and whether we’re able to hold it in the landscape.
Once we understand how water moves across our landscapes and through the atmosphere, we see there are many opportunities to make better use of the water.
You mentioned water conflicts. It’s really important to know that most conflict areas around the world are in what we could call seasonal drylands. Understanding how to work better with those landscapes is really key. The unspoken word here that I think we could talk about more is “desertification,” which is basically the loss of land function. We can see that on the West Coast, too. The California drought goes in the news, goes out of the news continually these days. But what we don’t talk about is land degradation. That’s a really big part of what we’re dealing with in California.
[email protected]: California has been the poster child of not using water properly over the last decade, maybe decade and a half. What are some of the things in California that are being missed and handled improperly?
Schwartz: One thing is cities. When we built cities, the way that we looked at water was as a nuisance. So, our built environments, our cities and suburbs are built so that water sluices away. We get rid of water as quickly as possible. But that’s problematic on many levels. For one, you’re losing that resource. Also, when you get rain in a city like Los Angeles, the water sluices away and carries pollutants along with it.
Finding ways to hold on to the water — there are many ways to do that. One is through water harvesting, and there are lots of different models. There’s a fellow who’s one of the experts in this. His name is Brad Lancaster. He has created a veritable oasis in Tucson, Arizona, and he has written about different approaches to water harvesting.
But another way to look at it, and this is what is very exciting to me, is to ask the question, “When these landscapes were functioning, what were the different factors?” We would never think of Los Angeles as a wetland area with deltas. But that’s how it was. In some areas, they are bringing back vegetation at the coast. Certainly, one project that’s going on now is the L.A. River, which is a concrete channel. What they’re doing is creating a linear park. In certain areas, it’s many miles long, so it’s a huge project. They’re adding vegetation and restoring the banks so that it’s beautiful, available for recreation and retains water.
[email protected]: What really stirred your want to do a book about this topic?
Schwartz: Just before this, I wrote a book about soil. There were two things that kind of hit me and made me feel like I wasn’t able to let this material go. One was that land has been missing in our discussions about water. The other thing is that in a chapter I wrote called, “The Return of Lost Water,” I spoke with these interesting Eastern Europeans who have written a book called Water for the Recovery of the Climate, and the connection between water and the climate totally blew me away. When we hear about the connection, it always goes in one direction. It’s always that climate change will put added stress on water sources throughout the world, and of course this is true and very concerning. But what we don’t talk about is the effect that water has on climate. This also opens up tremendous opportunities once we start to understand this.
[email protected]: You use the term water footprint, which is similar to the term carbon footprint, correct?
Schwartz: Yes, and I think that the water footprint concept is a really good educational tool to encourage people to think about the water that is being used for the food that they buy, the clothes that they buy and wear and the energy that they use, depending on your energy sources and your locality. I think it’s very useful, but it can be deceptive, and I’ll tell you why. One of the factoids in the water footprint library of data is that a hamburger uses some extraordinary number of gallons of water to produce. You look at that and think, “Oh my gosh, I’ve used this up.” But what is not included in that discussion is the way that the meat was sourced. So, you actually could eat meat that is restoring the planet, restoring soil and therefore holding more water. I make it a point to do this whenever I can.
[email protected]: What’s the difference between the two?
Schwartz: In our industrial meat industry, water is wasted. You’re using water to grow the grain. You’re giving water to animals that are often being kept at the end of their lives in these feedlots, and these feedlots are creating methane. Because the animals