Water

I’m awake. Why am I awake? It’s still dark outside – must be early. I look at the alarm clock beside my bed. It’s 5:30 in the morning; why am I awake?! Hang on, what’s that sound… It sounds like the shower is running. What’s going on? My husband is still in bed beside me. Did someone break into our house to have a shower??

I’m still half asleep and not thinking straight, but I stumble out of bed to go investigate. Opening the bathroom door I see water spurting out of a pipe beneath the hand-basin and a rapidly growing pool of water on the floor. Well fuck. My husband races outside to turn off the water at the mains. Then, with the immediate crisis under wraps, I call our landlord to ask for a plumber to fix the burst pipe, and we set to work mopping up all the water that has flooded the bathroom and surrounding rooms.

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Water is a topical issue in New Zealand at the moment. Water quality in our lakes and rivers has been in decline for many years now. Dairy farming is the main culprit, but other factors also contribute, like overfishing and mismanagement of wastewater.

After years of scientists, environmental groups and opposition parties complaining about the poor quality of freshwater in our country, the government finally set out to do something about it. Unfortunately, that ‘something‘ amounts to weakening water quality standards so that more rivers and lakes can qualify as ‘swimmable’ without the government or dairy farmers having to actually improve water quality. Under the old standards, a river that was considered swimmable would cause illness in no more than 1 in 100 people who swam in it. The new standards allow for up to 1 in 20 people to catch a nasty bug like E. coli – a disturbingly high risk.

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In the last couple of weeks, heavy rains have  caused massive flooding in many parts of the country. First, reports filtered through of flooding at friends’ baches (holiday homes) in the Coromandel, with lawns turning into lakes and road closures cutting off access to several seaside communities. Then the rains arrived in earnest in Auckland, with West Auckland suburbs being particularly hard hit – think waist-high flash flooding, sinkholes opening up and sewage overflows. A colleague of mine saw it as a kind of karmic retribution for letting our rivers and lakes become so polluted.

One consequence of the flash flooding and slips that accompanied the stormy weather was a lot of unsettled silt in the dams that supply half of Auckland’s water. As a result, the treatment plant is having to work harder than normal to clean the water, and Aucklanders have been asked to reduce our water usage by 20 litres each day or risk having our water supply topped up with partially-treated water that may not be safe to drink.

With Aucklanders using on average 160 litres of water per person per day, this water reduction request isn’t particularly onerous and we’ve so far managed to stick to it. But the possibility of not having drinkable tap water seems a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to in urban New Zealand (last year’s drinking water contamination scandal in Havelock North notwithstanding).

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This Wednesday 22 March is World Water Day. Oxfam are running Taps Off Day, a challenge that aims to raise awareness about the many communities around the world who don’t have access to clean water, and to make us consider how we would manage in the event of an emergency that cuts off access to our regular water supply.

I’ve already experienced the frustrations of going without tap water recently. After the pipe burst in my bathroom earlier this year, my husband and I had several hours at home with the water turned off while waiting for a plumber to arrive. Having no access to running water made our usual morning tasks – like bathing, washing our hands, having a cup of tea with breakfast, rinsing our dishes – much more challenging. If we didn’t already have a 10-litre container of water left over from a camping trip then we wouldn’t have had access to any clean water for drinking or washing. (Yes, I’ve heard the old trick about using water from your toilet cistern, but having seen the inside of our cistern I’d rather not go there!) This experience made me appreciate just how lucky we are to have clean, running water. Running water makes simple things like washing your hands so much easier. And instant access to drinkable water is a privilege we shouldn’t take for granted – and essential for reducing the waste associated with bottled water.

It seems fitting that Taps Off Day is happening now. The events of the last few weeks highlight how vulnerable our water and wastewater systems are to extreme weather events, which are predicted to become more common as climate change progresses. Can you imagine a life without clean tap water? What would you do if your water supply was cut off for a few hours, a day, a week or longer? And how do we make our water systems more resilient in the face of an increasingly unpredictable future?

Peak Living

Peak oil is a term used to describe the point at which the rate of oil extraction/production reaches a maximum. After peak oil, the availability of cheap abundant energy will decline unless sufficient alternative energy sources are already in place. (Building resilience to a post-peak oil future is one of the motivations for the Transition Town movement).

As depletion of existing oil sources pushes up the price of oil, the extraction of unconventional sources becomes economically viable. This process will delay peak oil, but it cannot continue indefinitely because a finite planet must contain a finite supply of fossil fuels.

And although the discussion around peak oil typically focuses on the availability (or economic viability) of conventional oil and alternative energy sources, it’s important to emphasise that we cannot burn all of the known fossil fuel reserves without committing to catastrophic climate change. If we burn [the fossil fuels], we burn [the planet].

Much of our current lifestyle relies heavily on the abundance of cheap fossil fuels, so a decline in the availability or usability of conventional oil is clearly a concern. But the concept of peak supply doesn’t just apply to oil. Any resource that is available in a finite quantity on Earth will reach peak production — and if we continue with our reckless use of the earth’s resources, this includes recyclable or naturally regenerating resources like metals, freshwater or soil.

Global prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria may mean we’ve also reached “peak antibiotics”. The increasingly common occurrence of antimicrobial resistance means that common infections will become untreatable. Many New Zealand scientists have provided suggestions for action to delay the move towards a post-antibiotic world, including judicious use of the antibiotics that still work (e.g. not using antibiotics for infections that are likely to be viral), avoiding everyday household products that contain antimicrobial chemicals such as triclosan and triclorban, and eliminating antibiotics in animal feed.

Reading about the threat of antibiotic resistance got me thinking: Have we in the modern western world reached Peak Standard-of-Living? The past century has been characterised by an abundance of cheap fossil fuel-based energy and considerable advances in medical science and healthcare, leading to explosive economic and population growth. In a future without the same access to cheap energy it seems impossible for us to maintain a standard of living that relies so heavily on consuming energy and materials. And in a future without effective antibiotics, death rates from previously treatable infections are likely to skyrocket.

I’m not entirely pessimistic though. In a future where economic growth is constrained by the high cost of scarce energy and materials, we cannot afford to work so hard and we’ll have more time to spend with family and friends, doing things we enjoy and find satisfying. We may experience a decrease in standard of living, but we have the opportunity to increase our quality of life, and that, I suspect, is far more valuable to our perception and enjoyment of life.