Cross-posted from Green Life – Blue Water, a personal blog from wH2O Board of Advisor, Pam Lazos. Pam talks about her experience at the 8th annual Global Water Alliance Conference held on March 26, 2015 at the University of Pennsylvania.
On my way to the 8th Annual Global Water Alliance (GWA) conference in Philadelphia on March 26, 2015, I took a shortcut across the University of Penn’s campus and, given that I am navigationally challenged, overshot my destination (which sounds better than saying I got lost). As usually happens when I take a wrong turn, something magical occurred. I ended on the 37th Street Walkway also known as Benjamin Franklin’s Way. The walkway, a cut-through between lecture halls, stretching from Walnut to Spruce Street, was a 45th reunion gift from the class of 1962 and boasts a series of pavers with many of Franklin’s often pithy, always wise advice. My favorite, “when the well’s dry, we know the worth of water,” was apropos advice given that I was on my way to a water conference.
In 1815, the Fairmont Water Works, “the nations’s first major urban water supply system,” was completed. Built in the Classical Revival style, the Water Works was a true marvel of engineering and design, attracting tourists who were drawn to its beauty, novel technology, and riverfront location. The Water Works continued operating as a water supply system for Philadelphia until 1909 when the city moved to a sand purification system and the Water Works became the home of the Philadelphia Aquarium. In 1962, it became the John B. Kelly pool for competitive swimmers, and a decade later, because of its dilapidated condition, the Jr. League of Philadelphia launched a restoration and fundraising campaign (love the League!). Today, the Water Works is not only a Historic Landmark Site, but a teaching tool for anyone interested in both Philadelphia’s water history and future. The Water Works was originally built to address the problem of raw sewage in the streets and lack of access to clean water. It continued because once people have access to clean water, they never want to be without it.
In the late 80’s, I studied abroad for a summer at the University of Athens, Greece, taking comparative civil and criminal procedure classes. While the classes were interesting, it was more of an opportunity to travel and the program, sponsored by Temple University, accommodated that desire. Most school weeks were only four days long, leaving long, three-day weekends to get to know the terrain. I remember one such weekend and a three-minute shower in a youth hostel, maybe on the island of Mykonos, maybe another island, the details are fuzzy. What I do remember though, is shampoo running down my face as the timer for the water ran out. It cost a couple hundred drachma for a few minutes of warmish water. If you wanted a few more, you had to add more drachma to the box, and you needed coins. (Drachma was the currency used in Greece before the Euro – it was about 150 drachma to a dollar in the 80’s, if memory serves.) I had gotten pretty good at timing my shower so I’m not sure what happened; maybe I was lost in a daydream. All I know is that one minute I was listening to the interminable tick, tick, tick of the timer, and the next, silence: no timer, no water, nothing. It didn’t matter that I had money. My time was up. I needed a certain kind of money — coins — and without them, I was just a head full of shampoo, looking for a water source, which is probably what many people in the world feel like who lack access to water, minus the shampoo.
Access to clean water means political stability. This was one of the takeaway messages from GWA conference. Not one, but several speakers noted how the countries with political strife are those that don’t have steady access to clean water. Admittedly, I had never thought of water in these terms before, living, as I do, in a water-rich area that usually has uninterrupted access to water. What I had thought of was how little we as Americans think about the worth of water, how it runs right from the tap into our glasses and how we don’t question whether it’s safe to drink, bathe in or cook with because we have laws that make sure of that.
Oh, but look to history for its lessons or be destined to make the same mistakes again — another takeaway from the conference. It’s unclear whether we as Americans are doing that. On April 1, 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown proclaimed a continued state of emergency and issued a mandatory 25% statewide reduction of water usage. California is four years into what scientists are calling a mega-drought which is a drought with a potential to last 20 years. In that length of time with little to no water coming in, California is certain to become a desert. So what’s a state’s citizenry to do but comply? Similarly, the reservoir that services Sao Paolo, Brazil, a city of 20 million people, is operating at approximately 6-13% capacity. The entire city risks being without access to water in the next three months so rationing is not just a suggestion, but a necessity.
Yet it’s hard. Where would your 25% come from? Would you skip a shower? Not give your kid a bath? Stop watering your tomato plants? In developing countries, people manage to live on a few liters of water a day because of the lack of access to water. A liter is the size of one of those giant coke bottles. Imagine if that was your entire day’s water supply. What would your water allocation look like? How would you choose what to water and what to let die? When the well is dry, would you know the worth of water?