Friday, November 14, 2008

Less Water, More Grandma Underwear

It’s summer in Praia and it’s so hot I can barely keep my clothes on. There are several shirts strewn around the floor, tossed down around 1:00 pm each day when I get home for lunch. Yesterday’s is still soggy.
Today is Saturday and I am back from the beach, sandy and hot. I open the faucet more out of curiosity than hope or expectation. Still nothing. Not even the trickle of the last few days. I peer into the blue plastic barrel that holds our water reserves. The shimmering circles around my reflection are far away, four feet down and maybe a foot up from the bottom. By Monday, it will have been two weeks without water.
I look around the kitchen, prioritizing. The dishes march across our spacious counter. At mealtime, we either eat out, or on chopping boards and Tupperware tops. Still, dish washing is not a priority. The kitchen floor is covered with brown blotches, from the days when there was enough water for it to spill from the sink and mix with the ubiquitous dust. This muck too is not a priority. I have two more pairs of grandma underwear—the kind you almost throw away every few months but for some clairvoyant voice that warns you of it would be rash. Looking nice at work is getting challenging… but laundry is still not a priority.
It’s the murky smelly toilet, the vacuous drinking water filter, and the bathtub—oddly devoid of water droplets--that have to come first. The two of us—my roommate and I, sworn joggers, who easily chug several 1.5-liter-bottles of water a day, who dump copious amounts of it down our long tresses, and who always gut up for mysterious street food only to repent before the porcelain god later that night—use a lot of water. Drinking, Bathing, Sanitation. There they are, our water priorities in descending order.
The reason for our water problem, we learned finally, was a neighbor’s unpaid water bills. But water outages arbitrarily afflict different neighborhoods in Praia on a fairly regular basis. 58% of urban residents are connected to the central network. 88% of the water from the networks comes from desalinization. Desalinization, the process of turning salty seawater into potable drinking water, is the country’s main response to low rainfall and dwindling subsoil resources. It is energy intensive, requiring 2-3 kilowatt hours to produce a cubic meter of water. When Electra, the national electricity and water company, runs out of diesel fuel to power desalinization, water is cut intermittently in different neighborhoods to ration use. Periodic malfunctions in the pipes also provoke cuts. When you’re not in the mood to tackle last night’s dishware, it’s awesome. When you’re fresh out of even the most inelastic of underwear, it’s infuriatingly uncivilized.
Lack of resources, insufficient financing, and poor management are clearly at play here. But there is a greater significance. It’s relative water consumption. My roommate and I--two Americans accustomed to infinite sprinkler systems, bountiful toilets that flush at will, and faucets left running while teeth are brushed-- can’t make a barrel of water last a week. A barrel contains 240 liters, or just under a quarter of a cubic meter. How long could a Cape Verdean family make that barrel last, without ever having to forgo clean dishes, floors, and snugly fitting underwear?
On average, rural Cape Verdeans consume 15-25 liters of water in a day. City dwellers consume roughly 40. It is thanks to residents’ conservative use of water that Cape Verde’s water situation is even tenable.
But what would happen if our Praia neighbors suddenly began to consume like Emily, me and other Americans? Americans consume 200-300 liters per person per day, for domestic use alone. That’s between five and twenty times as much as Cape Verdeans. Such an enormous growth in consumption would overwhelm a system that already struggles to meet current water needs.
Ok, but is it likely that 500,000 Cape Verdean residents suddenly start using 20 times more water? Nope. Electra has registered only modest average growth in demand of 4.4%, per year over the past five years (and actually recorded a 3% drop from 2006-2007). The world financial crisis may serve to slow growth further.
Still, our hypothetical situation is not off the mark for global trends. In quickly developing countries like China and India, more and more people are reaching a point of affluence that allows them to consume like Westerners. In one sense, it’s wonderful to see high standards of living reach previously impoverished countries. On the other hand, the earth can barely support the excessive consumption of one America. How can it support the excessive consumption of many?
In “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” Tom Freidman quantifies the problem. “Not only will the world’s population grow from around three billion in 1955 to a projected 9 billion by 2050, but—much, much more important—we will go from a world population in which maybe one billion people were living an “American” lifestyle to a world in which two or three billion people are living an American lifestyle or aspiring to do so.”
Jeffrey Diamond breaks down the numbers in a fabulous January, 2008 New York Times article. The 1 billions people who live in Japan, Australia, Western Europe and North America consume about 32 times as much water, metals, and oil as most people living in developing countries. So, for example, when Kenya’s population balloons, as it is expected to, it will still take 32 Kenyans to consume as much as one American. That’s grossly unfair, but it means we can worry less about the impact of population growth impact on global resources, right?
Wrong. China and India are catching up quickly. China’s 1.3 billion people, according to Diamond, currently consume at a factor of 21.

“China's catching up alone would roughly double world consumption rates. Oil consumption would increase by 106 percent, for instance, and world metal consumption by 94 percent...If the whole developing world were suddenly to catch up, world rates would increase elevenfold. It would be as if the world population ballooned to 72 billion people (retaining present consumption rates).”

So what to do? How can we eliminate socio-economic inequalities---that leave Kenyans consuming 1/32 of the water we do---without destroying the planet? Moreover, how can we convince developing countries, eager to finally achieve the high living standards we have enjoyed for so long, to pitch in and fight the environmental problems that we created pretty much on our own? Says Freidman: “As an Egyptian cabinet minister remarked to me: ‘It is like the developed world ate all the hors d’ouvres, all the entrees, and all the desserts and then invited the developing world for a little coffee’ and asked us to split the whole bill.”
We Americans can, at the very least, set an example, by reducing the consumption that so many poor countries seek to emulate. As Freidman says, in his book,

“I certainly don’t blame the citizens of Doha or Dalian for aspiring to an American lifestyle or for opting to build it on the same cheap-fossil-fuel foundation that we did….We Americans are in no position to lecture anyone. But we are in the position to know better. We are in a position to set a different example of growth. We are in a position to use our resources and know how to invent the renewable, clean, power sources and energy efficient systems that can make growth greener.”

It is going to be hard. Neither prices nor government legislation have forced us to do it yet. Most Americans today have never had to limit resource use and cannot directly observe the effects of unequal consumption or resource depletion, which could shock us into behavior change.
Emily and I are lucky: each period of forcible grandma underwear use has ingrained in us the preciousness of water, and other resources that are already scarce in parts of the developing world. Will we retain this awareness, when we return to the land of sprinklers and motion sensor toilets? Will we effectively communicate it to other Americans to bring about behavior change? Who knows? But it’s the 9 billion person question.


Blogger nickysam said...

I wasn't supposed to care about writing and cooking and especially about pretty clothes. Maybe I shouldn't have cared, but I did. I liked girl things. I liked the smell of make-up, and I liked the slippery feeling of women's lingerie. The only time I could satisfy my curiosity though was when I handled things while helping mom with the wash. There was always more wash when Grandma came to visit. Instead of jeans and shorts like my mom had become accustomed to wearing, Grandma always wore housedresses and mysterious underwear beneath them. In particular, I had a fascination with the stockings that she wore.

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