Water is essential to life, but is also used heavily in many parts of our modern civilization - for irrigating food, cooling power plants, and in manufacturing, as well as directly for drinking. With increasing standards of life, much of this water also requires treatment - either before drinking or after use. Procuring, distributing, and treating water is critical, but much easier in some areas of the world than others. In areas such as the northeastern United States, plentiful precipitation and large rivers create a water surplus and problems with flooding. In areas such as the southwestern United States, winter snowpack in the mountains provides a limited supply of water which is carefully captured, allocated, and monitored as a limits to future growth. And in many less-developed regions of the world, carrying water (regardless of sanitation status) consumes hours of time even for basic quanities, and can limit how much food can be produced.
Water is full of binaries: surface or ground, fresh or salty, a focus on quality (how polluted it is) vs. quantity (how much there is), and whether usage is measured by withdrawals - water removed from a given source such as a river or aquifer - or consumption, the water which is not quickly returned to that source. For such a simple chemical compound - H2O - its weight, ability to dissolve many other compounds, and unequal distribution across the planet make it a very complicated, very regional issue.
Why Water Matters for Sustainability
Because water is critical for life, and for much of modern civilization, reasonable access to reliable and clean supplies of it are core to a sustainable world. Because water is distributed very unequally, provision of it is a matter of social sustainability as well - whether through imports of crops with high water requirements, or direct supplies. And because there is only a finite amount of it, careful and efficient use of it is a key design challenge, particularly for more advanced nations that currently have very high per-capita water consumption. Add in ecosystem requirements for both quantity and quality (i.e. for clean, flowing salmon rivers), and the problems and solutions both become more complex.
Traditionally, our civilizations have been built around water supplies - river valleys, city and lake-side cities, farming only where irrigation water was available, etc. In the future, we may need to refocus where we live around where the water supplies are (or spend a lot of resources transporting the water), and certainly think about how we use and treat the water that we use.
How Water Connects to Other Topics
- Most sources of electricity, and Energy in general, require large amounts of water for cooling.
- Water access has driven population centers, and Climate Change may well rewrite that access in many places.
- Growing Food often requires water for irrigation, and is the largest consumer of water anywhere.
- Water management systems in Cities are a key, complex, and often aging infrastructure challenge.
- Water is itself another Resource, and many supplies are non-renewable.
- Many Ecosystems require a certain level and/or quality of water to survive.
- Water infrastructure requires lots of Money to build, and more - often unplanned for - to maintain.
- World on the Edge, by Lester Brown, has a chapter which shows many of the interactions between water, climate, food, and geopolitics at the global level.
- Not on the web, but Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner is a full overview and history of the development and ongoing issues of water in the US southwest.
- A search for 'water' followed by your town, region, or state is hard to link but important to read.
- Beyond this, these resources include books, movies, and more which discuss water.
For ESW projects which focus on water issues, have a look here.