Water Efficiency Series: Part 3- Water Scarcity, Awareness and Rainwater Harvesting
When looking at a map it appears that we have more than enough water to sustain all of the earth’s inhabitants with plenty of clean water. However, less than 1% of this water can meet human’s freshwater needs. (Source: Sherwood Institute Blog “All the Water in the World”, Aug. 25 2010). At present there are water wars in countries around the globe because of the scarcity of the valuable resource. Meanwhile, in many countries (such as the U.S.) we are over-using water without even thinking about it.
My best friend lives in St. Thomas. When I visited her last year, I was amazed that ALL of the water she used was rainwater from a rooftop catchment system. I was there for 10 days and in that time quickly adapted to “West Indian Showers” (turning on the water only for a few seconds at and the beginning and end of your showering process), using the absolute minimum amount of water for dishwashing, and learned the phrase “in this land of fun and sun, we don’t flush for number one!”
Although the island life takes a little getting used to, when I returned home I was SO conscious of just how much we, as a society, waste water. My roommate would defrost chicken by running cold water over it- for hours! Despite my complaints and explanations of why it was wasteful, she couldn’t understand that water is a precious resource.
Compared with other developed countries, the United States has some of the lowest water/wastewater costs as a percentage of household income. I know that when I became responsible for paying gas and electricity bills, our thermostat turned down and I became much more conscious of conserving energy. As a renter, I have still never had a water bill in my name, as is the same for most young people. Water seems free, and even for my landlord who is footing the bill; it is a very low cost utility.
At present, the cost of water does not reflect the value of the resource. Water infrastructure is aging and revenue generated from the sale of water is needed to improve water services. Increasing the price of water will not only generate revenue to improve the infrastructure but should also help to make the public understand that water is a valuable and precious resource.
In the United States, we are lucky to have infrastructure for delivering water conveniently and cheaply to our faucets. However, it takes a huge amount of energy to transport and treat water. Rainwater is an under-utilized resource that can be used as potable water without extensive pumping and treatment.
In many areas of the world, rainwater is used for everything: showering, drinking, dishwashing, irrigation and toilet flushing. However, in developed countries, which do have advanced water infrastructure, rainwater is generally used only for non-potable uses such as irrigation, toilet flushing, laundering, emergency water supplies, fire prevention use and process water uses.
Rainwater harvesting is a very scalable technology that can be as simple as catching rainwater from the roof and delivering it to storage tanks for irrigation or can be as complex as a large cistern with treatment processes for indoor use. It is important to match the rainwater use to the level of treatment provided. Water used for irrigation does not need to be treated to potable water standards, as that would be a waste of time, energy and money. However, if the water will be used indoors, it is important to insure that it is adequately treated to mitigate health concerns.
There are so many benefits of rainwater harvesting! These include (but are not limited to): minimizing stress on municipal systems (supports supply and reduces infrastructure maintenance costs); reducing energy required for treatment and pumping of centralized systems (thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions); providing independent water security especially in times of natural disaster; often providing cost savings over time; decreasing municipal stormwater intake (thus reducing flooding, lessening quantity of stormwater needing treatment, and minimizing sewer overflow); and offering community benefits such as open green areas, public water awareness and self sufficiency.
Although using rainwater can be very beneficial, it is important that the catchment systems are designed well and with caution. Most concerns are related to health concerns from biological or chemical contamination. However, in good designs most of these worries are minimized. It is important that municipalities recognize the benefits of rainwater harvesting and create guidance to encourage safe catchment system design. Equally important is for citizens to use these regulations when building a system. Lastly, it is important that systems are inspected regularly to insure against contamination and to ensure that the water stays at a healthy pH level.
In conclusion, it is important to grow awareness in many developed countries about the scarcity of water. One way of doing this is by raising water prices to full-cost pricing. Once people become more conscious that we need to look at other water sources, hopefully rainwater harvesting will become more popular. Rainwater catchment systems are very scalable and have many benefits, but most be designed cautiously to ensure the rainwater remains safe. Hopefully, systems will become more prevalent to reduce the impact on current infrastructure and to ensure security to our water systems.
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