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Why We Can’t Take Clean, Safe Water for Granted

And what to do in an age of drought and deluge, according to journalist Erica Gies.

Crawford Kilian 6 Feb 2024The Tyee

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

We still like to think of B.C. as a “rainforest,” with more water than we know what to do with. But we’ve seen recurring droughts, and last summer’s affected the whole province. The village of McBride has been drought-stricken since last summer, with barely enough drinking water. In January, much of B.C. was in drought conditions ranging from moderate to severe to extreme.

By spring, we may be seeing the kind of hot, dry weather that southern South America experienced in the austral spring from October to December — and then the hotter, drier summer that Chile and Argentina are now sweltering under.

Environmental journalist Erica Gies, in her book Water Always Wins, gives us good advice on how to cope with a rapidly changing climate. She takes us on a world tour to meet “water detectives” — people who work to find, preserve and increase local water supplies.

Critical to those supplies is what Gies calls “Slow Water.” We usually want water in a hurry for crops and industry, and then we get rid of it in a hurry. We build a lot of “grey infrastructure” — dams, irrigation systems, levees — to put water where we want it, when we want it.

But grey infrastructure is surprisingly short-lived: dams trap silt that could have fertilized downstream fields, and drought can reduce the electrical power that dams generate. Irrigation systems suck groundwater out of aquifers faster than it can be replaced. Levees can control flooding, for a while, but constricting a river makes it run faster and deeper.

Gies quotes an old “water people” joke: “There are two kinds of levees — those that have failed, and those that are going to fail.”

For solutions, look to the older ways

Grey infrastructure is a very modern attempt at water management, and Gies shows us many earlier human techniques that did it better before and can do so again. She describes Chennai, a sprawling city of 11 million in southeast India that has overrun the wetlands that once made the region a Slow Water sponge.

Now the city swings between drought and flood, and is looking for a solution in the past: preserving the remaining wetlands and expanding them by rebuilding eris (the Tamil word for tanks) — linked ponds that once extended from the Eastern Ghats to the Bay of Bengal.

“British engineers in the 19th century,” Gies writes, “were gobsmacked by the scale of the eris system — reportedly more than 53,000 bodies of water across southern India — and the deep knowledge of topology and hydrology required to build it.”

But the British Raj replaced the system with its own, filling in some eris and allowing others to fill on their own with silt that farmers had once used in nearby fields. The process continued after India gained its independence in the 1940s. The predictable result was a dropping water table, water shortages and floods.

Gies describes how ancient temples all had their own eris. Now those temple tanks are being restored, allowing local water storage that can seep down and recharge groundwater. It’s a patchwork process, communities working together to improve and maintain their local water supplies. It can’t support all the city’s needs, but it will help — and so will protection of water bodies and wetlands all across Chennai.

Chennai is not alone in involving local communities. Gies describes comparable systems in Peru and Kenya, where local villages in the highlands conserve water for their own use and ensure that plenty will run (slowly) downstream to serve lowland farms and cities.

‘Sponge Cities’ soak up floods

Meanwhile, a landscape architect in China, Yu Kongjian, has developed a “sponge city initiative,” a series of projects designed both to help prevent flooding and to infiltrate water underground for the dry season.

“The goal was for 20 per cent of cities with populations of more than one million people to capture 70 per cent of rain on site by 2020. The new target is for 80 per cent of such cities — of which China has 125 — to meet the goal by 2030.”

That goal may go unmet as grey technology projects continue to demand resources, but the sponge city concept has been proven feasible. Other cities from Dhaka to Montreal are looking seriously at it.

Leave it to beavers

The water detectives also include beavers. Gies tells us that North America once had a beaver population of as many as 400 million. “As nature’s original Slow Water engineers,” she writes, “beavers shaped North America with their dams, creating a much wetter continent than the one we know today.”

The fur trade, especially the Hudson’s Bay Company, reduced the beaver population to perhaps 100,000. “The North American landscape became a drier, less ecologically diverse place.”

Now beavers are coming to the rescue. In the United States, ranchers are bringing beavers back to ensure water supplies for their cattle. In Europe, “guerrilla beavers” have been established by local residents who want flood control in wet weather and accessible water in droughts. The beavers provide both.

But beavers aren’t always the answer. A recent article in the Guardian describes how beavers are following the warming climate into both northern Alaska and northern Canada, building dams out of shrubs instead of trees. The resulting ponds are melting the permafrost and releasing methane — a powerful greenhouse gas.

On learning to trust communities more

Apart from showing many examples of effective water management on both local and national levels, Gies’s book gives us a new way to look at water — especially the water we can’t see.

For example, rivers have “hyporheic” (under the flow) components, below and to both sides of the stream bed, where water moves much more slowly than on the surface. Every city has “ghost streams” that have been paved over or channelled into culverts; they could come back, making cities greener and spongier.

Thousands of years ago, melting ice-age glaciers of California’s Sierra Nevada created deep, narrow “paleo valleys,” long since filled in but still carrying water. B.C. likely has similar buried valleys, and they could help us both drain flood water and store the water from our dying glaciers.

B.C. has its own water management policies, which still rely heavily on grey infrastructure like Site C and other dams, and the use of water in fracking is self-defeating. Alberta is just starting discussions on water sharing as its drought continues.

Canadians in general need to stop taking it for granted that clean, safe water will always come out of their taps, and to understand its complex sources. They need to trust the grey-infrastructure engineers less, and local communities more.

That’s especially true when the communities are Indigenous. As with the Tamils and Peruvians and Kenyans, our Indigenous Peoples should be very much involved in future water management. They and the beavers did a pretty good job of it for tens of thousands of years.  [Tyee]

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