Water at the Center of it All

In ITP, Networked Sensors for Development

Water related issues have always attracted me. Water is the single most important thing needed for human existence, in addition to being tightly coupled with the majority of environmental issues we face today. The shear scale of problems around this invaluable primary resource captures my attention mainly through a deep concern of where we are headed. That concern is focused more around the environmental aspects of water problems simply because that’s what I have found a passion for. However, many could argue that access to clean water in developing countries is a much more pressing issue directly tied to peoples’ livelihoods. Talking about the implications of how we treat our planet seems trivial to someone who is struggling to survive because they don’t have access to clean water.


To briefly push further on water issues related to human health, there is already some fantastic work being done in the technology space. Our professor Benedetta Piantella alone has been involved with two great projects directly tied to water access (Quench) and water quality (Water Canary) for the developing world. There are also huge organizations like Charity Water and Water.org, which seem to be surprisingly effective relative to the benchmark of operational efficacy for most NGOs and charities. The reason I bring this up is because these respective projects have been founded on a deep understanding of the various problems communities and people face with regards to water. This understanding comes from rigorous academic research, user testing, and field research among other things. Therefore, I will not be focusing human health related issues, even though those are more obviously related to developing countries, and will spend the rest of this post talking about the environmental issue of consumer and private sector water waste.


The reason water waste at the individual level is such in powerful idea for me is because it looks at human behaviors and habits at the most granular level. If you can manage to change a person’s outlook on their personal footprint within the domestic setting, than that perspective will most likely translate into their private sector role (as an employee) and their public role (as a voter). The ultimate goal would be that a mindful approach to consumption and conservation would carry from an individual identity to a national identity. As fantastic as that sounds, it’s a bit naive and counter-intuitive to the mindset that has defined America in recent decades. The American dream had always been tied to hyper-consumption and a certain life-style. Hyper-consumption is part of the American fabric and fueled by the capitalist idea that consumption is good for business. It wasn’t until the financial crisis of 2007-2008 that this idea of excess was put into question. While it was absolutely terrible that millions of people lost their jobs and hard earned savings, I believe that it forced a healthy realignment in the way a good deal of Americans thought about excess. There was finally a stigma attached to it. There are still a lot of issues that exist but I think that period was particularly meaningful for the younger generations which faced the sobering events at an early age. Maybe the American dream doesn’t need to be littered with hyper-consumption, excess and waste. I’m hoping that this new attitude will continue to gain momentum and actually result in some changed behaviors when it comes to how people use water in all facets of their lives.


Before I jump into some potential ideas and products that could facilitate more mindful water use, I think it’s important to show that the bottom up approach is not enough. It needs to be coupled with a top-down approach (policy) to help catalyze a change in behaviors from the most indifferent people on the issue to people that are on the fence and simply need a push in the right direction. The perfect case study to examine this is what’s happening in California. The title itself from the NY Times that I’ll be referencing, “California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth“,  sums up the idea of balance between prosperity and excess nicely.


“The 25 percent cut in water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown raises fundamental questions about what life in California will be like in the years ahead, and even whether this state faces the prospect of people leaving for wetter climates — assuming, as Mr. Brown and other state leaders do, that this marks a permanent change in the climate, rather than a particularly severe cyclical drought.” – (New York Times)


It’s a very scary idea that a place like California, which is familiar to so many through it’s agriculture, technology and entertainment, is in the midst of what could be a permanent shift in how people live their lives there. Yet, amidst the gravity of the situation, there are still people clinging to the idea that they’ve earned the American Dream, and therefore, have earned the right to be irresponsible with their resources.


“This disconnect, as it were, can be seen in places like Palm Springs, in the middle of the desert, where daily per capita water use is 201 gallons — more than double the state average. A recent drive through the community offered a drought-defying tableau of burbling fountains, flowers, lush lawns, golf courses and trees. The smell of mowed lawn was in the air.” – (New York Times)


Clearly, this catastrophic drought is lost on some and you need policy to force a change in behavior.


“But the drought is now forcing change in a place that long identified itself as “America’s desert oasis.” Palm Springs has ordered 50 percent cuts in water use by city agencies, and plans to replace the lawns and annual flowers around city buildings with native landscapes. It is digging up the grassy median into town that unfurled before visitors like a carpet at a Hollywood premiere. It is paying residents to replace their lawns with rocks and desert plants, and offering rebates to people who install low-flow toilets.”  – (New York Times)


Many officials throughout the piece are quoted as simply saying that this will be the new norm and people will just have to adapt to a new way of life in California. Take a look at how some Californians are adapting in this other piece from the NY times How to Save Water: The Californian Way.”  I personally really like Governor Jerry Brown, however, there is a key part missing in his water reduction plan. Farmers account for 80% of water consumption in the state and they are except from this current order.


“Brown said farmers aren’t using water frivolously on their lawns or taking long showers. ‘They’re providing most of the fruits and vegetables of America to a significant part of the world,’ he said.”  – (Washington Post)


Brown is clearly responsible to his constituents and to the economic performance of his state as the 7th largest economy in the world, however, it’s necessary that they make appropriate cuts concerning agricultural consumption of water. Touching on my post from last week, it may be necessary that they look at a new agricultural model that requires less water. Water intensive activities like beef production should be highly taxed for example and growing methods that have proven to increase water waste (monocropping) should be reprimanded as well. But I digress.


It’s really interesting to see how California, and most importantly, Californians have behaved throughout this crisis. We need to stop thinking water will always flow once we turn on the tap. States need to seriously evaluate what’s going on in California and ask themselves if they want to be proactive in instilling sustainable behaviors or wait until people and industry start suffering in their state before they act. It seems a bit idealistic, but I would say, the status quo seems just a ludicrous me. Hopefully, there will be more state and federal legislation to provide the much needed top-down pressure and encourage mindful consumption of what is a finite resource.


Lastly, to finish off, I wanted to touch on how I think people can start being more mindful on an individual level. Part of the problem for me is that I have no clue how much water I use so it becomes very difficult to have a benchmark to work off of. I think an easy first step is quantifying how much water people use so they can see if that’s a number they are comfortable with. In knowing your actual footprint, you become accountable to what you’ve used. You could still not care about how much you have used, but at least you realize what your impact is and can no longer hide behind the fact that you don’t know. Quantifying consumption immediately reinforces the idea that water is valuable, finite and to be respected. Let’s treat water with some respect ;). Now, here’s my shameless plug for the networked water quantification system I made last semester.






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