Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Water Water Everywhere, But Nary a Drop to Drink

Access to potable water in 2005.Image via Wikipedia
Sherif: He is dead.
Lawrence: Yes. WHY?
Sherif: This is my well.
Lawrence: I have drunk from it.
Sherif: You are welcome.
Lawrence: He was my friend.
Sherif: That!
Lawrence: Yes. That.
Sherif: ...You are angry, English. He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasimi may not drink at our wells. He knew that. Sa'lam.
- From Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean, Dir. 1962

            I get a call this weekend from my mother-in-law. Usually they are quotidian affairs dealing with micro-managing our lives with baked goods, baby-sitting options and newspaper articles about violence in children’s cartoons. Not this weekend. Apparently there is an outbreak of Escherichia coli,[1] better known as E. coli, in the water supply. And luck would have it, it’s my neighborhood.
            And for 36 hours no water is potable. I go to the grocery store – no water to be found anywhere, except the pricey kind. Being cheap, I occupy all four burners with boiling water.[2] There’s a nice film of plaque on my teeth because the water is too hot to brush my teeth. Dishes have become a new organism. And it looks like my daughter might have the world’s most expensive bath - in Evian.
            And this is what it’s like to live in a 3rd world country. No access to clean water. That means no drinking water. No washing water. No bathing water. No toilets. No sewage treatment. Although we in the developed world take it for granted, the availability of not just water, but clean, potable water is a luxury that many developing countries have still yet to obtain. According to the United Nations Development Fund (UNDP) 884 million people do not have access to safe, clean water[3] – that’s nearly 1 in 8. And for you toilet flushing types – nearly 2.5 billion don’t have access to reliable sanitation services, including 1.2 billion who don’t have sanitation services at all.
Compare this to the United States and the developed world. Or think about it this way - a person taking a 5 minute shower uses more water than a person in an urban slum uses in a day (developing countries). The developed world uses about 500-800 liters per day per person (about 130-200 gallons per day). And then there are toilets. We Americans LOVE to flush.  Forty percent of a household’s daily water use is used for toilet flushing. This is compared to only 14% for cooking and drinking. And those showers add up.[4]
Why is this a problem? I think one statistic sums it up: Only 1% of water on this planet is usable. 1% of water for the ENTIRE planet. And considering the effects of climate change as well as population growth, that 1% is only going to get smaller. According the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 36 states are in line for water shortages in the near future. As in NOW.[5]
            Less water means more problems- not just for the third world. For children, this means dying from diarrhea, which kills 1 in 5 children each year. For economies, billions of dollars are wasted in lost productivity. For the environment, ecosystems are destroyed. For governments, lack of water security has and will continue to cause regional instability[6]. For food security, less water means less food.
                What to do? Luckily, there are some easy ways to conserve water (and save money!)[7] Use a low-flow shower head. Get a low-pressure toilet (Europe has been using them for quite some time). Run your washing machine or dishwater ONLY WHEN FULL! Repair leaky faucets. Have extra water? Use it for cleaning or watering plants instead of putting it down the drain. And please, please, please don’t flush toxic materials into the toilet. This includes old medications, cleaners, bugs, cigarettes and whatever else was not meant for toilets. Not only do they gum up the sewer works, they take more water to flush out of the system (and prescription drugs still are in the water after that). And for those suburbanites: Forget the grass. Get native plants that are adjusted to the natural weather cycle of your region. Las Vegas was NEVER meant to hold golf tournaments.
            Waterworld was probably one of the worst movies ever made (up there with Ishtar), but remember the peecycler? Well, if we’re not careful, we may peecycling permanently.[8]

Acqua Pazza

             Literally translated as “crazy water,” acqua pazza has been said to be the forerunner bouillabaisse, the famous French seafood stew. If you ask me, this is easier to prepare, and a lot more sustainable. Traditionally it’s made with cod or halibut, but use sustainable substitutes instead (see recipe).You don’t need to use fancy fish, just fresh, firm white fleshed fish. Serve with some rice and a salad, and you have dinner in 30 minutes. That is really some crazy water.  
Acqua Pazza

4 5 oz. filets of barramundi, black sea bass or Pacific Rockfish
1/2 c. water
sea salt
ground pepper
15 cherry tomatoes (or 2 large ripe tomatoes), chopped
2 tbs. of the best quality olive oil you have (extra-virgin)
2 tbs. of drained capers
4 tbs. chopped black olives (kalmata are best)
chopped flat leaf parsley for serving

1.     Lay fish fillets in a single layer in a non-stick pan. Add water on top. Sprinkle fish with a pinch of salt and a couple of grindings of pepper. Top with chopped tomatoes. Drizzle olive oil on top and sprinkle capers and olives on top.
2.      Bring pan to a boil and immediately turn down heat to medium low. Cover pan and simmer gently until the fish is cooked through, about 10-12 minutes (depending on the thickness of your fish). Remove fish to a dish and cover to keep warm.
3.     Simmer sauce in pan until thickened, about 10 minutes. Place sauce over fish and sprinkle with parsley.

[1] Escherichia coli is the name for a rod-shaped bacteria that are normally found inside the intestinal walls of most warm-blooded animals. For the most part, E. Coli is harmless to humans (there have been some studies suggesting that E. Coli colonization prevents infections in the intestinal tract). But the problem is the E. coli that some aren’t so friendly: the pathogenic kind. These are the ones that are responsible for most food-poisoning cases, such as the Jack-in-the Box cases in 1992 (E. coli O157:H7, most commonly found in cattle) and the recent cases in Germany (E. coli O104:H4) were toxin-producing strains.
[2] Most bacteria can be killed off with thorough cooking or boiling. The British never seem to get food-borne illnesses. I suspect it’s because they are boiling any vegetable literally to death…including any pathogens that are lurking about.
[3] United Nations Development Fund. 2006 United Nations Human Development Report-Water: A Shared Responsibility. (click here for full report).
[4] The biggest user of water is agriculture. In the US, 70% of water is used for agricultural irrigation. In Africa and Asia, that number rises to 85-90%. It’s a huge problem, especially in developing or 3rd world countries that can not afford to waste water. Needless to say – a topic to big for this post – but it will be tackled later. Scout’s honor.
[5] If you are the type of person that needs pictures to say a 1000 words, click here to see pictures of the current drought in America’s Southwest. Caution: It’s not pretty.
[6] Water rights issues have been the source of so many diplomatic rifts across Africa and the Middle East, I can’t even count them all. One of the less cited reasons for the continuing conflict in the Gaza is the fight over water rights to the Jordan River.
[7] By some estimates, you can save 30% on your water bill by inserting water-saving devices in your home.
[8] By the way, this week is UN World Water Week. For more information about water, water conservation and public health, please click here.
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