Sunday morning.  The sound of vigorous scrubbing filters up from the walkway below the window.  As it happens every morning, the walkways and floors of the apartment building are being washed.  Not ten feet away, on the balconies of the building next door, automatic clothes washers are humming away.  The Sunday clothes washing ritual has begun.  I, too, begin my morning ritual by turning on the water heater (commonly referred to here as a geyser, pronounced “geezer,” not to be confused with the other geezer who is vigorously snoring at this early hour).  Fifteen minutes later, the water is so hot that I will scald myself if I touch the spigot.  I turn on the tap and fill the orange bucket that will first serve as a reservoir for my “shower” and will later become my “washing machine.” 

Lest anyone think that life here is extremely primitive, it is not.  We actually have a shower that we can and sometimes do use.  But water in this city of 5.5 million (the third most populous city in India) water is precious.  The demand for water is 140 percent of the supply, a whopping 225 million liters of water per day above the available amount.  Needless to say, some parts of the city receive water only when it is delivered by tanker truck.  So I feel a responsibility to conserve, knowing at the same time my morning ritual is only a “drop in the bucket,” figuratively speaking, of the bigger problem. 

Like so many resource issues, the issue of global water supply is a classic example of the “Tragedy of the Commons.” This term, first coined in by Garrett Hardin in 1968, refers to the situation where multiple individuals acting independently and using a shared resource will deplete the resource to the detriment of all.  The specific example of this is a group of farmers sharing a grazing area, or Commons.  If a farmer adds an animal to the Commons, then that farmer receives a direct benefit, but the damage to the resource is shared by all.  Unless they cooperate, all farmers ultimately will suffer since overgrazing will ruin the pasture. 

The predictable cycles of nature (rain, snow, floods, and flow) lead us to mistakenly believe that an infinite amount of fresh water is available for us to use.  The reality is that the amount of useable water on this Earth is very limited.  For millennia surplus water has been stored in underground aquifers, percolating in from rain and snowmelt, flowing out through the seeps, springs, and rivers that support our life on Earth.  Just like the old joke, “I can’t be out of money, I still have checks in left in my checkbook,” if we turn on the tap and water trickles out, then we assume everything must be ok.

But because most of the Earth’s water (97 percent) is contained in the oceans, only 2.5 percent of our water is fresh, most of which is contained in glaciers or deep aquifers.  Of the total water supply, less than 1 percent is available for human use!  And access to this premium water is limited.  If the current global consumption patterns continue then 2/3 of the world’s population will live in water stressed conditions by 2025.  This makes water supply a true “Tragedy of the Commons.”  In Bangalore where we are living, not only is water scarce, the tap water is also unsafe to drink.  I count myself lucky to have the jug of filtered water sitting next to the sink and the geyser in the bathroom as a source of scalding water for the final rinse of the dishes. 

It is part of the American psyche to think that we have access to unlimited resources.  For the past 300 years we have cleared, chopped, and chomped our way westward across the North American landscape.   If we ran out of room or resources: not a problem, we simply moved into what we called the “undiscovered” territories, pushed the indigenous peoples onto smaller and smaller parcels of land, and took control.  There was always more to be had beyond the next frontier. 

Relatively speaking, my hometown of Spokane is a newcomer in the western history books.  Modern day Spokane is situated on what was once a gathering area for native Tribes.  The Tribes understand the connection between the environment and resource, the river providing renewable water and the fish that providing sustenance.  Their generational wisdom includes the importance of balance and managing food sources in order to avoid the Tragedy of the Commons. 

Spokane’s landscape changed quickly and dramatically after David Thompson wandered by in 1810 on his search for fur trading routes.  Within 60 years the indigenous peoples were removed to reservations and the water of the river served as the hub of industry.  Now, our growing population relies increasingly on the Spokane Aquifer to provide us with water.  Unfortunately for the aquifer, we can’t directly see what our population of 500,000 is doing to it.  But studies of the aquifer show that the cumulative rate of pumping by the water purveyors is approaching the amount of water available for sustainable supply.  Unless we use this awareness to modify our behaviors now, then our aquifer will begin to be depleted, affecting access, topography, and the ecology of the river. 

Specifically, what does this mean to those of us used to living with what we think is an open checkbook?  Here are some interesting statistics.  While India is the global leader in total amount of freshwater used, the United States is third on the global list, just behind China.  If we normalize this information on a per person basis, the average American uses almost three times more water than someone in India. 

The obvious message here is that each of us has a significant opportunity to evaluate how we use water and to change our own lifestyles.  Amazingly, it is the small things that add up.  For example, if every household in Washington State used low flow showerheads, more than 5 billion gallons of water a year could be saved.  This is the equivalent of $30 billion in avoided water bills and $60 billion on avoided energy costs.  Just imagine what using a bucket can do. 

It doesn’t take much effort to identify other aspects of our lives where water savings can be achieved:

  • Eat a vegetarian meal
  • Landscape with native plants
  • Irrigate with storm water
  • Fix leaks and drips

And the list goes on.

But these are the easy steps.  We also have the opportunity now, before there is a crisis, to rethink how water is used.  Although there is an abundance of water on the planet, there is a limit to the amount of water that is ecologically available (Don’t forget, the term ecology includes humans.).  Should current trends in climate change continue, our state will experience a substantial decrease in the amount of water available during the dry season, water that is used primarily for agriculture.  This suggests the need for a radical change in thinking, a paradigm shift. 

In the second chapter of the book The World’s Water 2008-2009, Meena Palapiappan and Peter Gleick provide some suggestions.  We can meet human needs the way we have been for the past 100 years with more dams, pipelines and infrastructure, or we can enable community discussions about how to address both human and ecological needs.  In this way we will be able to reassess our old ways of thinking about the sources of water (surface and groundwater, reclaimed, storm water) and the appropriate uses for those sources (domestic supply, irrigation, landscaping).  With the power of economics, we can then identify and develop appropriate infrastructure for meeting the demands of the future before it is too late.

I have learned many things since being here.  One of those lessons is that we can live more simply, in ways that will benefit others, and still feel satisfied.  That, of course is easy to say as I sit here at my computer on a quiet Sunday morning with the sun streaming through the kitchen window.  Unlike domestic life back in Spokane, my stay here in Bangalore is very focused with few conflicting demands on my time or attentions.  My real challenge will be to bring this new mindset home and implement it in my own backyard.

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