“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”
Just as the crystal water of the river of life is central to the shining city of New Jerusalem, clean and abundant water is a critical component of economic development and fruitful life in communities around the world. Each week an estimated one million people move into the world’s cities. This places an increased demand on water supplies and infrastructure such as pipes, sewers and treatment plants. Many cities, even cities in our wealthy country, have inadequate water systems: old pipes that can easily break, aging treatment plants that put water quality at risk, and sewer systems that pollute water supplies during heavy rains. Increased demand from new urban dwellers only adds to this problem. The addition of earth’s changing climate, with its floods, droughts, rising seas and melting glaciers, adds another layer of complexity.
To meet the needs of growing populations now and in the future, cities will need to build more sustainable, and more weather resilient water systems.
The large and sprawling city of Los Angeles is facing water infrastructure challenges that are exacerbated by California’slong term drought, now in its third year. L. A. has dramatically reduced water consumption per capita over the last 40 years, with the city using around the same amount of water now as it did then but with a much larger population. Los Angeles uses less water per capita than any other large U.S. city—about 123 gallons per person per day. Recent mandatory restrictions and price increases have reduced water usage 23 percent since 2009.
However, L.A.’s water infrastructure is in need of crucial repairs— a problem it shares with other cities across the U.S. that contributes significantly to wasted water nationwide. With about one million feet of pipes that are a century old, L.A.’s water utility is currently replacing them at a rate of once every 300 years due, in large part, to the high cost and difficulty of replacing underground infrastructure. And L.A. is not an isolated example of aging infrastructure. In 2013 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave our country’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructures “D” grades, noting that without significant investment now, we risk water quality for our communities in the future.
Other cities around the world face similar problems, but may lack the means to tackle them. Lima, Peru is one of the driest world capitals, with a large and growing population and average annual rainfall of less than half an inch. Lacking its own water resources, the city depends on diverse sources that include rain and glacier melt from the mountains and water transfers from the Amazon basin. As a result of climate change, all these water sources are under threat.
But Lima’s water faces other challenges. Once water reaches the city, it is often used in inefficient ways. For example, potable water is routinely used to irrigate green spaces, and only 10% of the city’s treated wastewater is reused for irrigation. The city lacks sufficient infrastructure to serve its population; about a million people don’t have access to running water, while another million residents have their supply cut off periodically. Observers estimate that 30% to 40% of water is lost in the system through leaks and theft. Despite being in a desert, the per capita use of water in Lima is double that of some European capitals in part due to this waste and inefficiency.
If both Los Angeles and Lima are to grow and thrive, they will need to replace and build water systems that not only meet current needs for water, but also ensure a sufficient supply of clean water for future needs. The water system of the future will not just need to deliver water to homes and businesses— it will need to be resilient to a changing climate by better managing wastewater, preventing waste throughout the system, and adopting new technologies to meet and reduce demand.
Meeting these goals comes with a hefty price tag, but in Lima and L.A. leaders are already planning to invest in new systems. Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature announced that they are setting aside $1 billion to tackle the state’s drought-related water problems, including infrastructure challenges like those in L.A. Lima’s water system is planning to spend $2.3 billion in the next five years to replace aging infrastructure and expanding services to residents that don’t have access to running water. As these changes take shape, advocates for low income citizens in both cities will be challenged to ensure that the costs of necessary innovations do not put clean water out of the reach of those with the least means.
Yesterday, on March 22, the U.N. celebrated World Water Day, and this year’s theme is Water and Sustainable Development. On this World Water Day, let us give thanks to God, our creator, for the gift of water, but also pray that our communities take the time to think about how to manage this precious gift sustainably and equitably so that it continues to bless our communities well into the future.