Sitting inside my concrete cocoon, mid-way between the soaring blue sky and the shaded San Francisco side street, I can see the blue waters of the San Francisco bay. It all looks and feels quite normal. The temperate morning with the occasional waft of chilly air reminds me of my good fortune to live in this beautiful city. I don’t like to think about the eventual big one.
I have just showered. For some, success means being rich, famous, owning fancy cars, or big mansions. As long as I have lived, I have considered long, lazy showers the ultimate luxury. For me, the shower is an allegory of ambition and success. And soon, it might become a reminder of what we might be losing as a society.
I grew up in Delhi before making America my home. My parents were neither rich nor poor. They were somewhere in the vast middle, which had its spectrum of success and ambition, where you sat on that spectrum defined what you had as part of your daily life.
For most of my early life, my family didn’t have things that most take for granted — television, telephone, and even a refrigerator. Eventually, those luxuries would come into our household, some slowly, some very slowly. One of the things we couldn’t take for granted was water. Our family’s water came from a tap — and the water availability was as much an act of divine intervention as it was a heroic act in waking up at odd hours to fill containers of all shapes and sizes.
Whether it was my grandparents, parents, or aunts, it would be someone’s job to either wake up early in the morning or stay up late and make sure we had water. No water collected meant no water to drink, cook, bathe or clean the house. Eventually, I suppose our family would save money to sink a well and draw water from an underground reservoir. Tapping that well changed our life. It didn’t afford me a shower, but it allowed me more than a bucket for a bath.
It was nearly four-and-a-half decades ago, and since then, most of our neighbors have sunk similar wells. And many of those wells are nearly running on empty. My dad wakes up early to fill buckets from the municipal taps to have enough for the family. We have to pump up the weak stream to the water tank on top of the house.
It is as if nothing had changed.
It was earlier today; I was reminded of my childhood and our struggle with acquiring the necessities like water. I read a story about Mendocino, one of my favorite towns in Northern California, running out of water. The town, which depends on underground water, is one of the more picturesque victims of the drought, with California in its grip. Fort Bragg, which used to sell water to Mendocino, a tourism hotspot, won’t sell any more water to their neighbors — they have their water crisis looming. No water means no more tourism, which may eventually lead to diminished prospects for the local economy.
And this only portends a much more grim future, not just for California residents but for the world at large. Some reports estimate that “72% of the global land area is likely to become drier.” Lake Mead at Hoover Dam is at historic lows. That impacts the water needs of various states, but it also starts to impact electricity generation, which impacts the Las Vegas economy.
Most of the conversation around climate change often revolved around melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and significant weather events — but in reality, climate change’s impact is more insidious, silent, and deadly. Mendocino’s water shortage is a rude reminder that climate change is all-pervasive, and that is how communities crumble and whither.
The climate crisis has been a long time coming — building up sight unseen even as we have seen unfettered development across the country (and the planet.)
“The tradeoff between efficiency and resilience can thus be viewed as a tradeoff between short-term and long-term optimization,” Rice University Professor Moshe Vardi wrote in a recent essay. “Nature seems to prefer long-term to short-term optimization, focusing on the survival of species. Indeed, Darwin supposedly said: “It’s not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
How adaptable are we to change as a country and as a society? Whenever I think about climate change and its impact, I often think about what it entails in terms of sacrifice as humans. In the rest of the world, especially in poorer parts of the planet, migration has been a constant reality due to climate events and lack of opportunity. In the US, we are only just starting to wake up to this nightmare.
In a recent article, USA Today pointed to a survey of 2000 Americans: “49% respondents were planning on moving in the next year, blaming extreme temperatures, and the increasing frequency or intensity of natural disasters for a role in their decision to relocate.” Redfin, starting tomorrow, will now add local climate risk data to its site.
Even as a firm believer in technology and science — they are our best hope for coexisting with a changing planet — the thing that often worries me about society is the resiliency of our social fabric. If the pandemic has shown anything, hyper-capitalism has made us even more resistant to change. We are no longer a society capable of doing more with less — after all, what is the reason that buy-now-play-later companies are exploding in popularity. I hope not, but all signs show that we are in for a brutal reality check about things we take for granted, including water.
I read somewhere that
a person living in the US per capita household consumes between 80-100 gallons of water per day on average. That is a lot of water. That translates into roughly 40 buckets — a lot more than what we used when I was growing up in Delhi. How long before I have to deal with a future that looks remarkably like my past.
August 3, 2021. San Francisco
10 thoughts on “Out of water”
Gorgeous image, as always my friend.
I’ve been thinking a lot about desalination, and how personal failings of particularly powerful people are harming that access.
Internationally important projects like the green Saudi desalination project through Neom for instance. bin Salman massively set that project back because of the assassination of Khashoggi. That could have really done wonderful things for putting lots of investment behind carbon neutral desalination, and if California were smart, they’d do something similar in Southern California, then use the Central California Water Project to distribute that water backwards. They could dump the excess brine in the Salton Sea, and ironically since desalinated water is LESS BRINY than the Salton Sea, help rehabilitate that environment. They could also use the water produced to mine things like magnesium and other elements important for electric batteries. It’s kinda a no-brainer.
But as you and I talked about before, we also have to learn to live with less…
Two points: First, we have to consume less water and we still don’t realize that desalination is not the answer. We need to learn to live with less. On the second point, I too am definitely in the camp of innovation as a way to solve the crisis. I don’t think it is going to be easy. We are starting to see acidic levels of seawater go up, and that too is a bit of a wrinkle. I am looking to do more work in this area — including find and help founders who are thinking about water deeply.
Thanks for sharing this story. I share that same luxury (great showers), but I’m a white kid from northern NJ who grew up in middle class suburbia. I would never have fathomed to think you’d have to go and “get water” to cook, clean, drink and bath with. We need more stories like this. Maybe with what’s happening in Mendocino, more folks will open their eyes and ears to it.
The shower was my eyes this morning. It really touches me this post.
We are lucky enough to live close to a lake in Magog (Quebec) and take its water for our needs, but this year I cannot overlook that the lake is lower than I’ve seen in many years. It is a lake above all the others in the region, so its unique source is the rain, and it hasn’t rained enough this year. This, as you say, is the new normality I fear.
For some reason when this subject is evoked, it reminds me of Michael Burry, the hedge fund manager, portrayed in The Big Short by Christian Bale, who quit everything in 2009 to focus on his personal investing. In 2013 he reopened his hedge fund to invest in one simple commodity: water.
Way before it was on anyone lips, he was saying the futur is water. “Fresh, clean water cannot be taken for granted. And it is not—water is political, and litigious.”
Thanks for sharing that bit about your childhood. My worry about this water crisis is that a scarcity mentality will spill over into other areas of life in the US.
I’m also an immigrant to the US (from Canada but Indian origin). The California sense of optimism and abundance were an appealing contrast to what Canada felt like in the 90’s.
I’m hoping that this society can stay nimble and figure out how to shift quickly between scarcity or abundance mentalities as needed.
The story of your childhood in Delhi reminded me of pretty much the same that we saw as kids. And I think millions of other kids that grew up in most of the Indian cities in middle class families. While climate change is real, I somewhere in my heart (not backed up by science at all) have a hope that while some places become difficult to live, others which were so far inhabitable become more livable. For example, what if the Sahara cools down and allows Europeans to migrate?. What is Siberia warms up and Asians move across. With sea levels rising the mountains may not be as high as what they are today. I’m not sure if this is cynicism or optimism; just something that keeps me from being scared of the future and also having the faith that humans as Darwin would have hoped would be the most adaptable.
Thanks for the insight, one thought I have on water came from a European friend concerned with the water situation in Italy. His point was that from a larger perspective, the amount of water in the world is finite, and the problems in Europe can be argued are due to the time it takes for the water to go from the alps through the city to the ocean and back to the Alps is increasing, so, these delays are a contributor to the available water. For example when people delay the water in its movement it decreases its supply. Its food for thought
San Francisco has the lowest per capita water usage not just in the state, but the US
Well that is good to know. And a good start. I hope other cities are starting to think about water vulnerability as Mendocino example shows the impact can be quite severe.
Just got around to reading this. Thanks for your perspective.
A couple years ago I went to the see gorillas in Uganda. As amazing as they are to walk among, my biggest take away was the vision of people carrying water up a mountain that I struggled to walk up for an hour. I too love a luxurious shower, and the vision of everyone there needing to get water everyday led to me being a lot more conservative in my water usage.
Thanks again for sharing.
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