Water wars, slums coming soon to a planet near you

August 11, 2010

There are several disturbing trends on the horizon that AEC professionals of good conscience should be losing sleep over: resource allocation, spiraling global urbanization, and shortages of drinking water.

Resource allocation. It should come as no surprise that developed nations use a disproportionate share of the world's resources. Consider these statistics (courtesy of James P. Cramer, CEO of Design Futures Council, www.di.net): to maintain a sustainable level of resources, each of the world's 6.3 billion people should consume at most the equivalent production of 1.9 hectares of land (a hectare is 2.47 acres). In fact, we each use about 2.3 hectares. In other words, at current levels, the world is consuming 20% more resources than it should.

Of course, these resources are not being consumed uniformly. Brazil (2.39 hectares) and Korea (2.43 hectares) use slightly more than the world average. The United Kingdom consumes more than double (4.72 hectares). North America gobbles up more than its share (9.57 hectares). I suppose we North Americans should be thankful to India (0.73 hectares) and the rest of the Third World for allowing us to share in their piece of the planet's abundance.

Worldwide urbanization. In China, India, Indonesia, Korea, and Turkey, the rush from rural countryside to urban centers is simply astounding. By 2030, according to Cramer, the world will have 23 new cities of 10 million or more—19 of which will be slums. Picture a hillside in Asia, Latin America, or Africa crammed with tin-roofed shanties, and you get the idea. China, with 25% of the world's economic growth, is trying to head off the inevitable by developing planned, sustainably designed cities. For most of the developing world, however, superfast urbanization will have a horrendous impact on the environment.

Water wars. “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” Coleridge's ancient mariner knew from experience that only 1% of the planet's water is drinkable. The United Nations Environment Program says that 450 million people in 29 countries suffer from a shortage of water, and 20% of the world's population lack access to clean drinking water. By 2025, UNEP predicts, 2.8 billion people will live in areas where access to water, clean or disease-ridden, will be difficult.

The lack of clean water in the Third World is devastating to human health. More than a million African children a year die of diarrhea from drinking filthy water. Eighteen million people suffer from river blindness (onchocerciasis), with another 125 million at risk. Two hundred million are victims of schistosomiosis, a water-borne parasite. You don't want to know what it does to your insides.

“Water will be the next oil,” says Rick Fedrizzi, CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council. Considering that the bottle of water we buy at the 7-11 costs more than the equivalent volume of gasoline (at least in the U.S.), Fedrizzi seems right on track. We may be able to live without oil, but we can't live without water.

There are no easy solutions to these problems, but that doesn't mean we should ignore them. The fate of billions is at stake.


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