Water November 19, 2012Posted by craftlass in politics, Sandy.
Tags: infrastructure, nature, public water system, water
It covers most of our planet. It exists on the moon. It has definitely existed on Mars and might still. We can’t survive without it. It makes up most of our own bodies. Our relationship with water is so strong and important that most of civilization is near a large body of it.
Most of us take it for granted most of the time. In America we have a fairly safe and expansive public water system and a variety of the bottled sort to choose from. The only time we really think about it is when we are thirsty or want to jump into some.
In the past three weeks I have thought more about water than I ever have before.
Obviously, water causes floods, and a flood has been at the top of my mind. Academically I knew that water was a very powerful destructive force. I know how the Grand Canyon was carved, I’ve seen images from floods and tsunamis all over the world, and I’ve heard incredibly scary tales from people who survived various water-induced tragedies. Until I saw water covering my very own street, though, I had never grasped just how powerless it makes you feel. It does not discriminate yet the destruction has a random quality that logic can not process. I would stare out the window at length and just marvel at this invader without a brain or a plan that took away everything humans had created – power, comfort, even the ability to just walk over to the next building like civilized people do. It’s the most humbling experience I’ve ever had and I’m no stranger to humbling experiences. Water is relentless.
One of the basic items everyone knows to get before a storm is enough water for at least three days for however many people will be in your home. We’ve been having 5 gallon jugs of Poland Spring delivered for years and always try to keep an extra jug on hand just in case. Thank goodness, because there have been a few times we’ve really needed it and area stores sell out instantly if there are water issues. So, we were set for drinking water. We filled our bathtub just before Sandy hit so we would have water for other purposes. We were as prepared as could be for losing water service. Somehow, amazingly, we never did lose it this time. It was one of the truly bright spots of Sandy, just not losing water. It doesn’t take much to realize that is our most important utility of all. Water is life.
As our home grew colder the only time I really felt the temperature impact was when I had to use the bathroom. The floor, toilet, faucet handles – all so incredibly cold! They were nothing compared to the water, though. Washing hands was brutal. We were heating up water on the stove for washing dishes and ourselves, but who bothers just for a quick hand wash? It’s one thing to wash your hands in freezing water when there is heat around you but entirely different when there isn’t. You can’t dry them enough, the water clings to your skin, pulling out whatever little bit of warmth had been left after the dip into running water. Water is conductive.
Showering, properly showering, was out of the question, of course. On the second flood-free day our friends got their power back and let us come use their shower. It was one of the best showers of my life. It’s one thing to choose to go a few days or more without a shower because you are doing something fun, like camping or traveling a lot, but when you did not make that choice? Wow. Yeah. It gets you back to a certain sense of normalcy and even confidence. I found myself wanting to just stand under the shower for hours but didn’t want to be rude or waste too much of it. I had no such qualms the next week when we got to our hotel. I took a long bath with a good shower rinsing. I won’t go into too much detail (because ewwww) but let’s just say I really needed an extra-good scrub. The truly amazing thing about a bath, of course, is the way the water really soothes all the little achies that you had been bearing for so long that you couldn’t remember what life was like without them, both of the physical and mental varieties. One of the great perks of most places in Manhattan is you have this unlimited supply of high-pressure hot water that feels like magic after living almost anywhere else. I luxuriated in the hottest water I could stand and enjoyed every second of it, allaying my guilt over using that much of it by reminding myself I’d barely used any for weeks. Water is wonderful!
The other perk of Manhattan is that the tap water is safe and delicious as long as you’re in a building that doesn’t have decrepit pipes. It’s the main thing I miss about living here (even though I love my water cooler). Chlorine has never agreed with me and Hoboken’s water has so much of it that sometimes it smells like a pool is being emptied through my tap. We even had to get a filter for the shower as it was wrecking our skin, causing rashes and other problems. I took the tap water for granted when I lived here so it’s nice to just turn on a tap and drink the free stuff at restaurants with appreciation. Water is luxury.
My life may be crazy right now and full of tension and uncertainty, but I have access to water. Sometimes I might have too much of the wrong kind around me, but even through that period I never lost the ability to drink or wash my hands (no matter how awful it felt) or cook with it. I didn’t walk through the floodwaters full of sewage and who knows what else because I didn’t absolutely have to. That makes me luckier than a very large chunk of the population of this planet. That makes me downright privileged. If you are reading this piece you probably live a similarly privileged existence. The human body can adapt to survive many deprivations but a lack of water is not one of them. 30,000 people die every week simply because they have no access to clean water and/or live in unhygienic conditions. Just spending a couple of weeks with the aftermath of floating sewage is intolerable but millions live with that every day of their lives, with no end in sight. It disproportionately affects women, too, as in many places it is up to them and their children to walk long distances every day to fetch the minimum needed for survival. Children miss out on education even when it is available because water must come first.
Meanwhile, those of us in the developed world have to simultaneously worry about an uptick in flooding as arctic ice melts and drought as global temperatures steadily climb. The western states are hurting and already having political water wars over rivers such as the Colorado, which is responsible for delivering water to far too many people as it is. The eastern states are learning that large-scale infrastructure projects are absolutely necessary to survival as sea levels rise. Simply protecting New York City will cost an estimated $6 billion, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of damage just from Sandy. It’s also something the government has to do and that will mean raising taxes. It’s time for taxpayers to get over themselves and realize that even from a place of selfishness, it’s time to pay up and protect ourselves. Not only do we need to adapt to a changing climate but we need to upgrade and improve our infrastructure for power, fuels, and communications. Old cities mean old infrastructure, outdated and unable to handle the new realities, and difficult to repair since young utility workers are not trained for such old equipment. Bonus: A lot of that money would create jobs and opportunities for businesses of all sizes! Something cutting taxes has never actually accomplished.
Some of what I’ve experienced in the past few weeks would be unthinkable in more progressive countries. Did you know China spends 9% of their economy on infrastructure and it’s a big part of why their economy is booming? European countries average 5%. America spends 2.4%. America is geographically massive and geologically diverse and that gives us a far wider variety of concerns than most nations. We should logically be outspending most of the world when it comes to infrastructure. It would actually save us a lot of money. It would save lives. It would make businesses run more efficiently and therefore help the economy. Very few businesses can survive a week or more of being unable to do any business due to infrastructure issues. Even on a normal day, good infrastructure helps get products and services delivered and makes it possible for employees to get to and do their jobs. How could that be a bad investment?
We will never be able to call ourselves truly civilized until we are actively doing our best to make sure that everyone, from the richest to the poorest, no matter where they live, can have a better relationship with our most precious resource. Water doesn’t care if you’re a billionaire or a celebrity or living in an urban slum or rural community or fancy gated suburban neighborhood, too much or too little of it will take your life.
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Just some of the important sources that you should read:
- Experts: NYC sea barrier could have stopped surge (AP)
- WHO’s Technical Notes on Drinking-Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene in Emergencies (in .pdf)
- 12 Ways to Stop the Next Sandy (Daily Beast)