Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010

Blog Action Day is an annual event that unites the world's bloggers in posting about an issue of global importance on the same day (Friday, October 15). It is an opportunity to witness the power of participatory journalism marshaled toward a common cause. The aim is to raise awareness and trigger a worldwide discussion. I participated in last year’s event for which the issue was Climate Change. Prior Blog Action Day themes were the Environment in 2007 and Poverty in 2008.

This year's issue is Water. The increasing scarcity of fresh, potable water is soon to achieve Biblical proportions. Many scientists project that half of the world’s population may lack access to safe, potable water by 2025. It’s conceivable that hydro-politics, rather than disputes over oil or religion, will become a primary spark for conflicts between nations.

Planet Earth’s well is running dry:
  • Unsafe drinking water and lack of sanitation kills more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Unclean drinking water can incubate some pretty scary diseases, like E. coli, salmonella, cholera and hepatitis A. Given that bouquet of bacteria, it's no surprise that water, or rather lack thereof, causes 42,000 deaths each week.
  • More people have access to a cell phone than to a toilet. Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to toilets. This means that sewage spills into rivers and streams, contaminating drinking water and causing disease.
  • Every day, women and children in Africa walk a combined total of 109 million hours to get water. They do this while carrying cisterns weighing around 40 pounds when filled in order to gather water that, in many cases, is still polluted. Aside from putting a great deal of strain on their bodies, walking such long distances keeps children out of school and women away from other endeavors that can help improve the quality of life in their communities.
  • It takes 6.3 gallons of water to produce just one hamburger. That 6.3 gallons covers everything from watering the wheat for the bun and providing water for the cow to cooking the patty and baking the bun. And that's just one meal! It would take over 184 billion gallons of water to make just one hamburger for every person in the United States.
  • The average American uses 159 gallons of water every day – more than 15 times the average person in the developing world. From showering and washing our hands to watering our lawns and washing our cars, Americans use a lot of water. To put things into perspective, the average five-minute shower will use about 10 gallons of water. Now imagine using that same amount to bathe, wash your clothes, cook your meals and quench your thirst.
The adverse effects of worldwide water shortages are too often off the radar screen for most of us here in water-rich Oregon.

So what can Oregon architects and designers do to help address this global dilemma?

We can be more aware of the “water footprint” of our projects. Architect magazine blogger Blaine Brownell recently pointed out that the production of many building materials and products utilizes large amounts of water. To date, material-related water use has not been scrutinized at the level that embodied energy and carbon footprint have. He argues that water footprint will be an increasingly important factor in determining the overall environmental cost of the materials we select for buildings.

I fully expect the U.S. Green Building Council to increase the proportion of water efficiency points required to achieve LEED certification as the urgency grows to reduce demands upon the global freshwater supply. It’s my understanding that the USGBC is presently considering modifications to the LEED rating system to better address the embodied energy of materials, their carbon footprint, and life-cycle impacts. I would not be surprised to see the USGBC explicitly factor the water footprint of common construction materials into the LEED equation.

We can also strongly advocate for the continuation and strengthening of Oregon’s compact urban growth policies. Pressures exist to expand the urban growth boundary of many communities (including Eugene and Springfield). However, the greater value of protecting rural and natural areas from sprawl and inefficient use of land, public facilities, and services cannot be overestimated. An unwelcome consequence of sprawl is a proportionately larger demand for potable water than would be the case with compact development, all other factors being equal (i.e. population).

Certainly, we can maximize water efficiency by limiting or eliminating landscape irrigation, specifying appropriate fixtures and appliances (for example dual-flush toilets, waterless urinals, high-efficiency dishwashers), and harvesting rain for non-potable uses (irrigation, flushing of toilets). Many of these water-conserving strategies are already mandated by applicable codes or are necessary to secure desired LEED credits.

I’m struck by the irony of a steady rain drumming on the roof of my house as I write this blog post. It’s too easy for those of us living in Oregon (and particularly here on the soggier side of the Cascade Range) to forget that fresh water is a life-or-death issue in many parts of the world. We cannot do this. Water is a global issue, and it affects all of us. Repeat the old saw, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Consider the health of the entire planet and take action to use water wisely with every project you design.

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