When we look back at the water planet—that most famous picture taken by Apollo 8 astronauts from the moon—we see beautiful, pristine blue, with swirling white clouds of vapor and massive caps of ice.
And the first thing we seek when we look to the stars is for other circles of blue like us. A rare planet in the “Goldilocks zone” that has water … and maybe life. Perhaps Proxima Centauri.
But Houston, we have a problem.
A Global, Freshwater Crisis
Marooned and alone on a dry, red planet, Matt Damon as Mark Watney in The Martian had a profound moment of relevancy.
“If I want water, I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately, I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.”
For real-life astronaut Jerry Linenger, who spent five months in orbit around Earth in the space station Mir, each drop of water was precious in his tiny, orbiting ecosystem.
“Looking out the window, I could see the great sources of freshwater on the planet,” he told me. “Lake Baikal. The Great Lakes. The mighty rivers of the world—Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Amazon. But still, when stepping back and looking at the big picture, not so much different from our little orbiting space station. A closed ecosystem, with only so many sources of life-sustaining water. And all the creatures of Earth, just like the three of us circling it, all dependent on water.”
But today, on this small planet—seen whole for the first time almost five decades ago—we have systemic failure. A global freshwater crisis.
The world’s demand for freshwater is growing so fast that water scarcity is disrupting energy production, triggering food shortages, upending economic development and threatening political stability. The impacts are being felt now in the U.S., which lost a full point of gross domestic product in 2012 due to a severe, ongoing drought, as well as in Asia and the Middle East, where recent droughts and floods triggered serious disruptions, political unrest, and epic human migration. The World Economic Forum last year named water crises the top global risk for the planet.
Like Mark Watney on Mars, we need to redesign water’s future. Though unlike Watney, it’s impractical to make our own water.
Small Wins, Big Losses
Right now, we have small wins and big losses.
In India, groundwater pumps run 24 hours a day, seven days a week to irrigate wheat fields that don’t actually need water to grow. We call it mutual assured depletion. In rural areas such as Rajasthan near the Pakistan border, young women walk for hours a day to get water from wells. Some are going dry, and lowest caste families are not allowed to take water from other wells if theirs are empty.
Around the globe, there are ongoing disputes about water rights and allocations.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the 21st century is that as many as 663 million people around the world don’t have access to safe drinking water, and more than 5,000 children die each day from waterborne diseases.
This is such an important drama playing out across the planet that we must connect the dots, ask the big questions, and go big with design.
Fortunately, water is one of the easiest of our global challenges to talk about because it’s the easiest to understand and make personal. You can go without electricity if need be. You can survive for weeks without food. But no one can live more than a few days without water.
The Water Challenge
Most water-related challenges can be solved with hard work. We can break down traditional silos and design more systemically, including the intersections between water, food, energy and climate, and we can develop solutions that reach beyond corporate fences, political boundaries and status quo pitfalls.
When we fix the water challenge, we fix so many other problems.
When we do bring safe water and sanitation to places that need it, we see remarkable improvements. Children are able to go to school because they don’t need to spend hours every day in search of drinking water, which helps break the cycle of poverty and illness. Cities thrive where others collapse. The term wastewater implies “bad,” yet where there’s waste, there’s energy to be captured, new processes and efficiencies to be designed, and water supplies to be re-tapped.
But the water crisis is subtle, not sexy. It is slow to unfold, and, until the taps run dry and the crops wither, it’s not very relevant to those who have the most power to avert it. Until the water issue becomes dire with flames, floods or tumbleweeds, it’s not breaking news.
This critical moment—when the supply-and-demand balance of water, food and energy are colliding—requires a new scale of design thinking: data, connective narratives, collaborative science, social engagement and accelerated solutions.
Designing Water’s Future
The design community is playing a major role in helping to solve water issues. Yet we need to do an even better job telling the big story and integrating it into every facet of our work, from the built environment to the most basic thinking.
The practice of water risk assessment is reaching across sectors, especially manufacturing and consumer products. More and more firms are making their products more resilient to water disruptions, reducing their water use, and playing the role of advocate and educator on water issues within their communities. Indeed, those companies that are moving the needle furthest and fastest on water issues have embraced the risks within their supply chains and turned them into competitive opportunities.
But how do we bring governments into the conversations so they, too, start acting systemically and create a positive regulatory environment? Most governments simply are not prepared for the threats that water issues may pose to law, policy and stability. Designers need to play a role, leading by example and making the solutions—and the risks of inaction—visible.
From orbit, astronaut Jerry Linenger said he could watch the dust storms of Inner Mongolia blow across the steppes toward Beijing and then on to Los Angeles. Water, drought and pollution know no boundaries.
When I went to visit shepherd families where those dust storms began, I found people just like me—people with hopes, dreams and a common value for water. People like Wu Yun, a sheep shepherd’s daughter who was watching China’s coal mines drain their groundwater and wither their grasslands.
Fortunately, China is changing and they are designing a better water future … because they have to. They are driving toward water-efficient renewables because they know they don’t have the water to sustain their energy needs (coal uses a lot of water to mine and to run the power plants). And they know that climate change is already dramatically affecting their water supplies from the Himalayas.
This is breaking news. Since this story affects each one of us, no matter our country, our government or our station in life, this is no longer an abstract narrative. Every person, like Wu Yun, can see themselves in this picture and begin driving the action toward sustainable water design.
More and more, we realize that surviving, even thriving, in a new waterscape requires us to use the right lenses. We look up for inspiration and hints of life far away. And we look to ourselves on our little blue planet to make connections and design cumulative responses. Design and innovation are built upon optimism, and the greatest designs often occur when we face the greatest challenges.
Carl Ganter is co-founder and director of Circle of Blue, the internationally recognized center for original frontline reporting, research, and analysis on resource issues with a focus on the intersection between water, food, and energy. Carl is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on the Environment and recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Award. He was a recent speaker at the Design Futures Council’s Leadership Summit on Sustainable Design.
Photo by NASA.