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Statistics Canada provides us a full RSS feed of statistical goodness! November 20, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, food for thought, public policy issues, random thoughts, sustainability, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Hat tips to Greg Andrews (TechVibes) and Darren Barefoot (Capulet) for pointing me out to Statistics Canada’s RSS data feeds. You’ll see – even though I’m a chemical engineer, during my Masters and PhD degrees, and in my post-graduate work I have done quite a lot of qualitative research.

My personality traits work to my advantage when using qualitative research methods. I am pretty good at interviewing people, analyzing textual data, coding using Strauss and Corbin’s axial coding methods, undertaking ethnography, etc. I am considered a specialist in institutional analysis because, well, I know how to study rules and routines. And the majority of these studies are undertaken by observing and interviewing.

The thing is, during the course of my PhD, I became REALLY quantitative. Since my advisor’s training was quantitative, he impressed it upon me. I’m quite grateful to him for doing that because thanks to his sage advice and training, I have examined wastewater governance and policy using quantitative methods (something that is rather atypical in this body of literature). And of course, there’s my love of game theory and econometric methods. WOWSA.

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I drooled (just as Greg tweeted earlier this morning) when I saw StatsCan’s RSS feeds. Given the kind of research I do, economic, government, population and environmental indicators are the RSS feeds I grabbed. You can grab any others as you may see fit.

Unfortunately, and this is quite sad, I can’t get any quantitative data on water through those RSS feeds (or at least I haven’t been able to get any so far). I do know where to find some water-related statistics in Canada, but the state of the art in regards to accurate water stats in Canada is (as mentioned in Karen Bakker’s edited book) rather appalling.

If I manage to get my hands on some good data, you’ll see some pretty graphs here sometime soon.

The International Year of Sanitation was 2008 – how much progress have we made? November 12, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Stuck in Customs

Credit: Stuck in Customs

When I see how little do people think about wastewater and the right of humans to clean water, sometimes I wish I didn’t do research on wastewater governance. Admittedly, I was entirely thrilled at the beginning of the year, as the UN had announced that 2008 would be the International Year of Sanitation.

However, as time has gone by, I have begun to wonder (and a recent tweet by my friend Nadia Nascimento) made me dig a bit deeper in my archives.

Well, I can’t say that there’s been much progress. The “culture of flushing” still seems quite prevalent, and the only recent local news story about water pollution that I read was related to a Langley mushroom farm. Um, do people in Vancouver really think that we have made great strides in the way we manage our wastewater. I sure hope they don’t. Because if they do, they’re in for a big surprise.

I’m going to embark in doing some serious research on local (Metro Vancouver) wastewater governance and I’ll report back with some of my results. In the mean time, I should just say that if you want to be more environmentally conscious, you should make efforts in reducing the amount of wastewater you generate.

Upcoming environmental events in Vancouver – September 2008 September 9, 2008

Posted by Raul in blogosphere, Brew 2.0, climate change, drinks, environment, friends, Gastown, Green Drinks, Launch Party Vancouver, link love, local events, random thoughts, social networking, sustainability, upcoming events, Vancouver, wastewater, water, water policy, Web 2.0.
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Two upcoming events are rather relevant to me and both fall on the same day.

About the Community Sustainability Breakfast [Metro Vancouver’s website]:

Sustainability Community Breakfasts – Nature’s Health Drink – Always on Tap
Wednesday, 17 September, 2008
from 7:30 AM to 9:00 AM
British Columbia Institute of Technology
555 Seymour Street, Vancouver

About Green Drinks Vancouver Sep 2008 [Green Drinks Website]

WHEN the next regular Green Drinks is: Every 3rd Wednesday of the month (except in Dec and July) Our next event is on Sept 17th, 2008
WHERE: Steamworks pub at 375 Water Street on the edge of Gastown near Waterfront Station.
Please be aware that due to changing space availability we cannot guarantee we’ll be in the same room each month – if you can’t find us just ask Steamworks staff which room we are in.
TIME:5:45pm-until?

It’s lucky that both of these events fall on the same day, and that I’ll be back in Vancouver by then! And again, I’ve got a full week booked (Brew 2.0, Green Drinks, Launch Party AND a special day!). Can someone please clone me? Thanks.

Adaptation and vulnerability to floods and climatic events in Mexico September 1, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, climate change, environment, Focus on Vancouver, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, Vancouver, vulnerability and adaptation, wastewater, water, water policy.
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This post is worthy of much more in-depth content, but I just wanted to show that the municipality where my parents live is really unprepared for extreme rain. The photos and video shown below show the local river almost entirely flooded (and rather polluted, as you can see).

River overflow 2

River overflow 3

As you can see, cars are at serious risk of being taken by the river. The local authorities are rather unprepared for these extreme rain events. But the funny thing is, I wonder how prepared are the Metro Vancouver municipalities. I will be doing some research on this topic upon my return to Vancouver.

Water footprint: A new tool to examine water scarcity and use August 24, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, public policy issues, wastewater, water, water policy.
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Lighthouse Park West Vancouver

Water is a topic that I’m actually rather passionate about (and I’ve previously written about it, like my discussion of the culture of flushing and the concept of water governance). I love researching it and writing about it, particularly because a professor whom I really respect a lot (part of my doctoral committe) told me that the two issues he saw were going to be the most important in the future were water and energy issues. I came across the concept of water footprint via the Max Gladwell blog (actually their twitter account – Hat tips to Max Gladwell!).

What is the water footprint? Well, I am guessing it is modelled after the ecological footprint that Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees coined in 1992. The website WaterFootprint.org defines:

The water footprint is an indicator of water use that looks at both direct and indirect water use of a consumer or producer. The water footprint of an individual, community or business is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the goods and services consumed by the individual or community or produced by the business. Water use is measured in terms of water volumes consumed (evaporated) and/or polluted per unit of time. A water footprint can be calculated for any well-defined group of consumers (e.g. an individual, family, village, city, province, state or nation) or producers (e.g. a public organization, private enterprise or economic sector). The water footprint is a geographically explicit indicator, not only showing volumes of water use and pollution, but also the locations.[Water Footprint.Org]

It’s an interesting concept, particularly when we apply it to our day-to-day staples, like a cup of coffee (that according to calculations by Hoekstra and Chapagain is about 140 litres of water per cup). As indicated by the Environmental News Network, the concept of water footprint gaining adepts. I was kind of pleased to find that the writer of the ENN article was associated with the World Resources Institute (WRI). One of my very best and closest friends is also associated with WRI as he did a post-doc there, and their datasets on water are some of the finest that I have encountered. Truly speaking, I would not mind doing a post-doc there.

I would like to know if any of my readers actually thinks much about his/her water consumption patterns. Do you ever think about your water footprint or your ecological footprint?

Car washing and sustainability August 19, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, wastewater, water.
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While covering EPIC 2008 as a FrogSquadder for HappyFrog (you can read all my content on HappyFrog here), I came across an eco-friendly carwash in North Vancouver, Easywash . Rebecca helped me set up an interview with Geoff Baker, the CEO of Easywash, around mid-July but unfortunately, I couldn’t interview him as I’ve been in Mexico (and under a lot of stress).

This weekend, I went to wash Mom’s car, and I used the same carwash she’s been using for years. I was reading some books on water while I was waiting for the car to be washed but I didn’t see a lot of environmentally-friendly features.

However, the funny thing is that I saw a sign that said “At this carwash, we don’t waste water, we recycle it”. But I couldn’t see where they recycled it, nor any type of water treatment. I didn’t ask, but I’ll be back to investigate.

In the meantime, I just thought I’d include a couple of photos and some video of the process (sorry if the music is too loud, but I was bored inside the car).

I also plan to interview Geoff Baker upon my return, once I get all my other interviews out of the way (I still haven’t interviewed Al Pasternak about Bokashi composting, and we’ve been trying to talk about this for months!).

Governing water, governing ourselves July 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, environment, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, water, water policy.
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Continuing on my research-related posts, I have previously talked about my research on wastewater governance, on environmental NGO mobilization, and now I’ll briefly talk about what I have studied on water supply governance.

False Creek (the Yaletown side)

I was going to leave this post all the way until Blogathon, but Arieanna’s recent post on “Canada, the water” reminded me of the relevance of understanding how water supplies and water management works (great post Arieanna by the way). Arieanna’s post calls attention to the fact that the bottled water being sold at Whole Foods was pretty much targeted towards tourist buyers.

Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

Photo credit: Ianiv and Arieanna on Flickr

What worries me a bit more is not so much the privatization and commodification of water, but the misconceptions of water availability on this planet. According to the 2nd. United Nations Word Water Report, between 25 and 40% of the world’s drinking water comes from ground sources (groundwater).

This fact should be scary to people, but I’m not sure that people who live in Canada and particularly British Columbia (since we are so well served by our watersheds and local reservoirs) realize the degree of water scarcity that pervades the world, even if there is a generalized perception that . Therefore, it’s not hard to think that many people have a reason to be rightfully annoyed by the increasing privatization of water supplies.

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Given the investment and capital costs that need to be covered in order to provide groundwater for drinking purposes, I would imagine that people would be cognizant of water scarcity and avoid increasing demand on water reserves, both by conserving water and by recycling grey water. In one of my research projects, I have looked at the use of common pool resource (CPR) theory to try and understand the conflicts amongst two communities who share and access the same aquifer (in Mexico).

The nature of public accessibility of aquifers makes them an excellent laboratory to study the behavior of communities who have to share a common resource that can be depleted if inappropriately managed. The purpose of my post was (as subtly suggested in the header) to indicate that in order to appropriately manage or govern water, we need to first learn to govern ourselves and control our natural consumptive instinct, in order to avoid depletion of our water reserves. Will we be able to do that? And how can we increase the visibility of the challenges of governing water when we can clearly see that other issues (such as climate change) are so high up in the environmental agenda in Canada?

More resources and materials for reading:

– The World Water Assessment Project page – Provides lots of information and good statistics. The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme is currently putting together the 3rd World Water Report.

CBC Series on Water – While I am VERY weary of pointing people out to media sources instead of academic sources, I kind of liked this series.

– The National Water Research Institute of Environment Canada – Basically focuses on freshwater, but a good resource nonetheless.

– The International Water Resources Association (IWRA).

Environmental groups mobilization and protests: More than meets the eye July 18, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, climate change, environment, environmental NGOs, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, water.
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Ever wonder what drives environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) to undertake campaigns to protect the oceans, protest forests’ clear-cutting and fight to have bis-phenol A banned from all plastic bottles? This is one of the questions that has driven another side research project I have conducted throughout the past decade.

I’ve always been puzzled as to why would numerous individuals of different backgrounds decide to come together and volunteer their time to engage in environmental activism. Putting pressure on government is an activity that has taken place for a long time, and with the recent increase in media exposure to problems such as climate change and pollution, we have witnessed a spiraling growth of ENGO mobilizations.

Pembleton on Flickr)

Global warming protest outside Washington Park (Photo: Pembleton/Flickr)

You may or may not know that one of the most famous environmental groups (Greenpeace International) was initially founded in 1971 here in Vancouver.

In 1971, motivated by their vision of a green and peaceful world, a small team of activists set sail from Vancouver, Canada, in an old fishing boat. These activists, the founders of Greenpeace, believed a few individuals could make a difference.

Their mission was to “bear witness” to US underground nuclear testing at Amchitka, a tiny island off the West Coast of Alaska, which is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone regions.[Greenpeace website]

My research on ENGOs has focused less on understanding the motivations behind environmental groups’ (a topic that, while interesting, provides in my opinion less insight on potential public policy options) and more on the strategies that ENGOs use to put pressure both on industrial polluters and on governments at different scales (local, regional, transnational).

Moreover, I have been interested in gathering empirical evidence of the formation of transnational coalitions of ENGOs and how these coalitions use their collective knowledge to engage in strategic behavior and put pressure on national governments. Interestingly enough, there are many cases where ENGOs have been successful in pressuring polluters and shaming governments.

However, one of the most interesting insights that I have found in my research is that, for an issue to really galvanize public opinion, it has to be notorious and affect the population in a deep way (that is, it must be scary enough to make people put words into action). As I mentioned in my previous post on the governance of wastewater, it irks me to know that other pressing problems, such as dwindling supplies of water and increasing wasteful behavior on the part of urban populations are being overlooked in favor of climate change.

While it appears as though environment (and climate change) are two of the issues that Canadians indicate as public policy priorities, I am still surprised that there are not more environmental group protests on issues of pollution, and still place so much emphasis on climatic change issues.

Deer Lake Park

My hope is that, in the coming years, people will continue to mobilize and try to change how environmental policy is shaped and implemented, but hopefully by then, we’ll have a much more holistic view and not only one shaped by excessive press coverage of environmental issues that, while pressing, are not the only ones we need to look at.

The governance of wastewater and the culture of flushing July 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in academic life, food for thought, public policy issues, sustainability, urbanization, wastewater, water.
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One of the things that has struck me a lot throughout the past five years that I have studied water policy is the absolute disconnect that exists between our understanding of the different elements of the hydrological cycle and their interconnectedness. The social sciences literature has examined in great detail issues of water scarcity, but water quality and wastewater treatment are, for the most part, absent from the discussion.

The Joy of the Mundane

Photo credit: The Joy of the Mundane

I know that I have always chosen difficult and non-explored questions for my own research, and in this regard, I have created some sort of a niche because very few people study the governance of wastewater. Amongst those very few Canadian scholars who have done work in wastewater and that I know of are Dr. Arn Keeling (whose PhD dissertation was an environmental history of wastewater in Vancouver) and Dr. Jaimie Benidickson (whose book, “The Culture of Flushing“, is a great environmental and social history of flushing in Canada, the United States and Great Britain).

My own work hasn’t dealt with Canadian wastewater, but I do have a fairly solid understanding of the way things work here. I am sure you’ll find it appalling that the city of Victoria, the capital of the province of British Columbia, does NOT have a wastewater treatment plant. The effluent comes straight into the ocean (with some preliminary screening).

Burnaby Lake Park

A recent post by Matt Collinge about water quality in False Creek reminded me of how little do people in Vancouver AND in Canada think about wastewater. This is something that is prevalent at the larger scale. Professor Dickinson indicates that this is part of “the culture of flushing”, or what I often call, the OOSOOM phenomenon (out of sight, out of mind).

One of my personal pet peeves is that both scholars and non-academics in Canada are SO focused on climate change issues that sometimes they forget other environmental problems that have NOT been solved, including solid waste management (Vancouver’s landfill is about to be entirely full) and wastewater management (we are nowhere near some of the developing countries’ technologies for wastewater treatment, hard to believe as that may be).

My research focus in the area of water policy (I’ve done research in other areas) has examined primarily the role of institutions and the types of rules found in wastewater governance, and the role of watershed councils in strengthening sanitation policy. I found, after that presentation, and having had discussions with other scholars, that I will have to pursue two separate agendas in the future: one on wastewater governance itself and one on watershed councils, and I am very excited about this.

I am curious to know if my readers do think about water scarcity more than they think about what happens once they flush the toilet. Or does even water come into their minds, with so much focus on climate change issues? What do you think?

Unappreciated beauty in North Vancouver June 16, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, Focus on Vancouver, North Shore, random thoughts, urbanization, Vancouver, water.
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It’s a fact: human beings take things for granted. Canadians and Vancouverites are not exempted from this. Why on Earth would people choose to voluntarily pollute their environment is beyond me. Do you want to guess what I found on this gorgeous park, right besides Lonsdale Quay (after having hung out with Arieanna for a bit at Waves on 1st. St. and Lonsdale)?

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Yeah… I found THIS…

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

And THIS…

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Does this upset me? YES. IT DOES. The mere reason why I traveled all the way from Mount Pleasant to the North Shore was to enjoy the scenic beauty (which I did), to have a chance to hang out with friends (which I did). However, I was not prepared to be taken aback by the lack of environmental awareness of what is touted as “the most environmentally-friendly city in Canada”. Well… somebody needs to remind its citizens about better environmental behavior.

/end rant.

And here is a gorgeous view that may give you a hint on why I travel to North Van for comfort.

North Vancouver Lower Lonsdale

Media accreditation and the Projecting Change Film Festival May 6, 2008

Posted by Raul in climate change, environment, movies, Projecting Change Film Festival, sustainability, upcoming events, Vancouver, water.
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This year has been a year of first-ever’s. It was the first time ever I guest-live-blogged (for Miss604.com, the Michael Geist lecture at SJC). The first time ever I podcasted (as a guest blogger for HappyFrog FrogBlog, covering EPIC ’08). The first time ever I received free admission to sustainability events (the Sustainable Living Show). And now, it’s the first time ever I’ve received a media pass for a film festival, and I’m SUPER EXCITED! I just heard from the Projecting Change Film Festival organizers, and they’ve arranged to have a media pass for me. WOWZA!

In addition to having reviewed lots of “less than awesome” movies on my blog, I’ve also taken the time to write detailed movie reviews for films that have been part of locally-run film festivals. For example, I reviewed “Mount Pleasant”, the 2006 Ross Weber film that depicts my neighborhood as the land of ‘women of the trade’, drug-addicts and derelict streets. This movie premiered in the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival. I have also reviewed “Super-Amigos” and “The Portrait of Dorian Gray“, two movies that showed unexplored aspects of queer life. Both movies premiered in the 2007 Vancouver Queer Film Festival. In the case of Super-Amigos, a superhero-themed Canada-Mexico co-production, the movie examines the day-to-day life of five real-life masked wrestlers/superheroes, one of which is Super-Gay, a gay man who fights for the rights of the queer community in Mexico City. Of course, there is an environmental superhero, Ecologista Universal.

So, as you can read, I’m also a movie fiend. You may ask yourselves… what movies am I excited about and wanting to see in the upcoming days? Well, if you are a close friend of mine, or have read about my day-job and my research, this is the film that I’m waiting with baited breath (I’m also excited about others, but this one is just… SO appropriate for me): Flow: For Love of Water

Flow: For Love of Water is Irena Salina’s cautionary documentary that is determined to stir things up. Water, the quintessence of life, sustains every creature on Earth. The time has come when we can no longer take this precious resource for granted. Unless we effect global change, impoverished nations could be wiped from the planet.[Projecting Change website preview of the movie]

Lighthouse Park
Water, water everywhere… Photo credit: Raul on Flickr (originally taken by JT)

For those of you who don’t know, I am very interested in water issues and I’ve done extensive research in the field. I have a feeling that the movie will be VERY interesting. For the trailer, click here.

Since I’m hyper busy all week, I guess I won’t be able to make the opening night but I’ll be at the 10am showing on Sunday morning. I also will do my best to check other films. If you notice, in the schedule you can find that theme days (e.g. food and agriculture, sustainability, focus on the family, etc.) … strongly recommended.

If you want to check all my coverage of the Projecting Change Film Festival, my posts will be tagged with the category “Projecting Change Film Festival”.

April 22nd 2008 – Earth Day April 22, 2008

Posted by Raul in climate change, environment, EPIC 08, epic08, epic2008, sustainability, upcoming events, urbanization, Vancouver, water.
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Lynn Canyon Park (North Vancouver)
Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

Earth Day is celebrated in many countries on April 22nd. Many people offer varied stories, but the most widely accepted is that April 22nd is the anniversary of the modern American environmental movement (although some people would argue that it was the worldwide environmentalism that was born that year). Other milestones, such as the 1972 United Nations Summit on the Human Environment (Stockholm 1972) are so close to the year 1970 mark it as the birth year of environmentalism.

Earth Day Links offers a slight variation of the story with Senator Gaylord Nelson touted as the organizer of Earth Day. I’m not going to debate or dispute this, I just want to point out that environmental awareness increased between the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Although my specialization is environmental issues, and I do celebrate Earth Day, there have been some sombre developments in the lives of very close friends that really prevent me from being overly excited about Earth Day. So, instead I offer some link love for you. Have a good Earth Day!

Lynn Canyon Park (North Vancouver)
Photo credit: Raul on Flickr.

– Earth Day Canada offers 10 small steps you can take to reduce your impact on the environment. Check their suggestions here.

– Evergreen’s Earth Day Vancouver celebration will take place on Saturday April 26th at Jericho Beach from 11 am to 5 pm. Most likely, I’ll be there. More info can be found here.

– To celebrate Earth Day, make sure to check the recently completed Vancouver Sun Sustainable Living EPIC Expo 2008, and look for the HappyFrog FrogBlog coverage (I got a few posts there too!).

– If you are located elsewhere on the Lower Mainland you can look here for various listings of events. It does include some Vancouver-based events!.

Vanity Fair: The Green Issue April 4, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, water.
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My good friend Debra McN is a fervent reader of Vanity Fair. She loves the magazine, and I must say, she has good reasons to do so. The photography, some of the articles, the content, there’s some good stuff there. I love their Hollywood Issue. I just got wind about their May 2008 issue, which will be “The Green Issue”. I looked for some online stuff that I could link to, and here it is!

I will be talking in more detail about my opinion of this Vanity Fair Green Issue, but for now, I can say – good for you, VF! Finally, fashion mainstream media is catching up to the need to raise awareness about being fashionable *and* being green. I used to be a model for an Italian firm in previous incarnations of my life (e.g. when I was *much* younger) and love to be fashionable (and green).

Happy Belated World Water Day 2008 March 27, 2008

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, Vancouver, water.
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A cascade in the Baden Powell Trail in Deep Cove

Photo credit:Raul on Flickr

I am ashamed, embarrassed, feeling guilty, and the whole plethora of adjectives that can apply to someone who actually does research on the governance of wastewater and sanitation. I *should* have remembered that March 20th was World Water Day 2008. I *should* have remembered that this 2008 is the International Year of Sanitation. I *should* have remembered to post something. And I forgot.

Admittedly, up until this past Monday, I was really sick and trying to just nurse myself back to health. But this is way too important a topic for me to forget. So if you are a close friend of mine, feel free to scold me. Ok, with that out of the way, I’d like to just remind my readers (particularly those who live in Canada, but also in other parts of the world) that the more water you use, the more water you end up polluting. So, think twice before having long showers, repeatedly flushing the toilet and leaving the tap running while you wash your hands.

While a vast majority of Canadians enjoy access to municipal sewage systems, lack of access to sanitation is still a problem in the developing world.

Nearly 75% of Canadians are serviced by municipal sewer systems. In 1999, 97% of the Canadian population on sewers received some form of wastewater treatment. The remaining 3% of Canadians served by sewage collection systems were not connected to wastewater treatment facilities in 1999 and discharged their untreated sewage directly into receiving water bodies.[Environment Canada]

Water quality is just as important as water quantity, particularly because of the intricate linkages between ecosystem health, water pollution and human health.

Unsafe water and the lack of basic sanitation and adequate hygiene contribute to the leading killers of children under five, including diarrhoeal diseases, pneumonia and undernutrition, and have implications for whether children, especially girls, attend school. This means that achieving Millennium Development Goal 7 and its 2015 targets of reducing by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation are of vital relevance for children and for improving nutrition, education and women’s status.[UNICEF, Water, Environment and Sanitation]

Thus, please think twice before letting the water run. And happy belated World Water Day!

World Water Day 2007 – Coping with water scarcity March 23, 2007

Posted by Raul in environment, sustainability, water.
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I thoroughly believed that World Water Day was celebrated on Wednesday March 21st, 2007 (at least in Canada, since there was an event being held here) but now I stand corrected, it was today (Thursday March 22nd, 2007).

Water is an important resource, one that has deserved lots of attention. The 10 year period from 2005 to 2015 has been marked as the International Decade for Action: Water for Life by the United Nations. Recently, UNESCO released the Second UN World Water Development Report: ‘Water, a shared responsibility

I have studied water (especially wastewater treatment, both from the natural sciences and engineering and now more recently, the social sciences) for over 14 years. I am passionate about water. My “baby steps” included collecting and sampling wastewater in several locations in Mexico, in order to test the effectiveness of activated sludge, bench-scale treatment processes. More recently, I became interested in the social aspects of wastewater management and wastewater policy. I have argued that the “scarcity discourse” can only get you so far.

Before I get bombarded with e-mails that criticize me, let me explain what I mean. If you look at the water cycle, there are several points where we can intervene to prevent environmental damages to water bodies. We could, for example:
a) Change our water consumption patterns at the individual level to reduce the amount of water used.
b) Change our processing technologies to reduce the amount of water consumed.
c) Clean up polluted streams through advanced wastewater treatment.

Shouldn’t we stop polluting water in the first place? In a conversation with a professor we discussed this topic at length, when I was informed that the city of Victoria (in British Columbia) lacked wastewater treatment plants. I would agree, but the fact is… we are still polluting water, so it should have at least some degree of treatment. The compounding factor is that building wastewater treatment plants (and operating them) can also have detrimental environmental effects (energy consumption, generation of waste). More recently, more natural treatment processes (such as constructed wetlands) have become more popular. My concern with wetlands is that they might require too much area (and with the changing land-use patterns and increased pressures for compact urbanization, I wonder – who will be able to have a constructed wetland in their backyard, when housing is only available in units of 550 square feet?)

So, are we really in a catch-22 situation that we can’t escape? I don’t think so. I think that, when examining options for adequate water management, we can apply some complex adaptive systems (CAS) thinking. Professor Donella Meadows, who worked for many years trying to create solutions for environmental problems, argued in one of her last publications that there were twelve leverage points where one could intervene and effect change in a system. She argued that the point where the most change could be effected was in paradigm change.

I concur with this notion. If we were able to shift our own consumptive paradigms and transform our behavioral patterns to reduce water pollution (and attempt to find effective and non-harmful ways to treat whatever water we’ve already polluted) then I would think that we’d be in a better position in regards to water.

A couple of years ago, I gave a talk to a group of youngsters (probably between the ages of 7-11 years old) that I entitled “Saving the planet, one drop at a time“. In this lecture I spoke about the fact that only 2% of the world’s water was drinking water and that most of it was in glaciers and other non-easily-accessible points. At the end of the talk I asked them to sign a pledge to change their own consumption patterns and to try and change those of their parents, siblings, friends, so that we could stop wasting water. I was thrilled when I heard their voices all in unison repeating the pledge. I think that we might have found another important intervention point – educating young people.

This post follows the pattern of reflections I have engaged in for the past few years, and I think I will continue along this line of work for a while… in the mean time, please think twice when you open the water tap.

Good references I found include an advocacy guide published by the World Health Organization, the website for UN Water, and of course, the very appropriately entitled Human Development Report 2006, “Beyond scarcity: Power, poverty and the water crisis”. One of my very good friends has done a lot of work on energy, poverty reduction and development. My mentor has done excellent work in this field and has strongly advocated to never forget about poverty. And if I had the time, I would go on about the links between water scarcity, pollution and poverty, but I don’t… that will be the subject of another posting.