Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #243: Water: Scarcity and Conservation

On The Digital Life this week, we chat about water scarcity, natural resources, and design.

In Cape Town, South Africa, the current water shortage has reached crisis level. Residents are cutting water usage in every way possible— using water collected from showers to water plants and flush toilets. The authorities warn that Cape Town is just a few months away from having to shut off its taps: “Day Zero”. To prevent this from happening, starting Feb. 1, residents will be required to use no more than 13.2 gallons of drinking water a day. By way of comparison, the average American uses about 100 gallons of water per day.

If climate change is causing extreme weather events, like droughts, to become more common, humanity will have to adjust to using less of that most important resource, water. Design of water conservation products and services, along with technological solutions for obtaining more potable water, like desalination, will become increasingly important. Join us as we discuss.
Water crisis grips Cape Town, South Africa, after drought stretching years

Jon: Welcome to episode 243 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and cohost, Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk: Greetings, listeners.

Jon: For our podcast this week, we’re gonna chat about water scarcity, natural resources, and design. Now the reason why we’re particularly interested about this topic, which of course is rising in importance as climate change makes potable water more difficult to come by for some regions, but in particular, Cape Town, South Africa is undergoing some real difficulty in terms of having a water shortage, which is getting very close to a crisis level.
So, as far as I understand it, Cape Town’s been going through a drought for the past couple of years, and this has coincided with a … This climate event, this drought, which is more like a hundred year drought, right? It’s not supposed to happen in the same duration and sort of time as it does. So this extreme event, which is the equivalent of a hundred year drought, is going on for multiple years now, just as an example of how climate change is making extreme events, extreme weather events happen more frequently. So, just as an aside.
The drought that’s affecting Cape Town is a causing severe water shortage, as you might expect, and residents there are of course cutting water usage in every way they possibly can. So as you might expect, they’re reusing water. So, water that’s initially used in the shower might be used to water plants, or to flush toilets, or to do things like that. And authorities in Cape Town have warned that the city’s just a few months away from having to shut off its taps completely, which has been titled … This event has been titled Day Zero. So on Day Zero, Cape Town is going to shut off its public water supply, its taps. And in order to prevent this, the authorities have told residents they can use 13.2 gallons of drinking water a day. This is so they can prevent this Day Zero from happening.
So as a way of comparison, in America, the average consumer uses about 100 gallons of water a day.

Dirk: Wow. Wow.

Jon: Yeah. So, this is, in comparison to we’re used to using, this 13.2 gallons is a massive, massive cut. And the plan at Day Zero, if it does arrive, is that people would have to go to special collection points, which would have security, and they would be rationed about half of that. So it would go down to 6.6 gallons.

Dirk: So we’re sort of on the edge of a Kevin Costner movie here, right?

Jon: Yeah. Yeah, I would think so. It’s surprising because Cape Town would … If this does happen, I think if it does happen, it will be in April some time. This is I think the second largest city in South Africa, and it’s … This is a major problem, and this is a major city. So, they’re not going to have running water, which is sort of one of the staples of modern life. And I think it raises the specter of this water shortage happening elsewhere. So we have some water shortages here in the northeast, in Massachusetts for instance, and we have certain water restrictions, but certainly nothing of the order of magnitude that we’re describing here for Cape Town.
So I’m raising all of this because this is sorta the new reality of water scarcity. And there have been lots of interesting articles written about how water is sorta the next most important commodity that people are going to be struggling to get more of. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I do know that there are all kinds of design considerations that we’re really gonna have to start taking seriously, as we try to limit our use of this precious resource. ‘Cause after all, our bodies are, what, two thirds water? It’s something that we can’t live without.

Dirk: Yeah, I know there’s a Star Trek episode where we were referred to as giant bags of water, so, yeah.

Jon: Yes, I love that. Is that the original Star Trek? I think it might be.

Dirk: I think it was Next Gen. I think it was an early episode of Next Gen [inaudible 00:06:35]. Funky.

Jon: Okay. Yeah, I remember that. That’s a classic line, I think. But yeah, it’s … Dirk, how does this strike you? I mean, here’s a major city in South Africa that is likely not to have running water in April. How does that strike you?

Dirk: Well it strikes me in a lotta ways. I mean, one, of course, is it’s a tragedy. There will be people almost certainly, if this comes to pass, who will die as a result. There certainly will be a lot of people whose quality of like will be severely diminished, perhaps for a long period of time. I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for the people in Cape Town. That’s part of how it strikes me.
Another way is, is really sort of reaffirms what bad planners humans are in general, how short term we are in our thinking, and how we can’t see catastrophe until it’s basically too late. This is a problem that technology can address. Israel, for a number of years, has invested significantly in desalination. They have developed technology … Or I don’t know if it was actually Israeli developed technology; it may have been, but may not have been; to desalinate seawater. As of today, more than half of the water, the fresh water used in the nation of Israel is water that is seawater that was desalinated.
So, the technology exists, and it’s existed for some years. The Sorek desalination plant, which is the primary one in Israel that’s making this happen, has been around since 2013. So, it’s recent, but it’s not this is just new 2017, 2018 technology. It’s something that, as a country, that they’ve attempted to address, and they’ve done it in a way that works. It’s an interesting model. It’s one that can actually make money, at least for how they’re doing it in Israel, which makes it a real success because it’s not just something that’s subsidized. It’s something that, in the context of what water costs, this is a replacement. It’s a viable financial replacement that can make sense.
Now, I wish we had an expert on the show to talk about this. I’m not an expert in these spaces. Given that Sorek’s been around for five years now, and operational, there must be even newer technology. So, water scarcity is today one of the biggest things facing … One of the biggest threats to individual human life on our planet, in the decades ahead. But most of the earth is seawater, which through processes that we already understand and have been able to harness, can be converted into the water that is potable. Or, you said potable. I don’t know what the right pronunciation is. I’ve only seen it written, not spoken, so one of us is wrong and I don’t care.

Jon: It was probably me.

Dirk: Who the hell knows? But potable, potable … I think this is very solvable through technology. I think it’s already been solved in specific cases, and that are implemented starting with Israel. I’m not familiar with other places because I haven’t studied this area very much. But it’s doubly sad for Cape Town and for other places that, down the line, are facing these catastrophes, that there is not civic action and sort of national foresight that leads to taking steps to avoid this kind of a catastrophe.

Jon: Yeah, I think there’s some interesting factors, some interesting aspects of this problem. Number one, water is … Or at least, water availability can be a largely local problem, right, which makes a solution like desalination possible if you’re by the large body of water, ocean side, what have you, and you have access and transportation for that water. At the same time, it’s not a commodity like say oil, where you can ship it across the planet. And why would you, right? You wouldn’t desalinate-

Dirk: Why would you today, right?

Jon: You probably wouldn’t desalinate water in one spot and then ship it say to the middle of the country. At the same time, because it’s sort of a localized phenomenon, there are things that we can do to mitigate some of the water shortage through human behavior change, right? So you can see those policies go into place here in the northeast when we have particularly dry summers, say. So things like not watering your garden or your lawn, or not topping off your pool, not watering during the daytime, things like that become fineable offenses if you’re caught doing that by the town at your level one restriction. And level two means that you can’t do any of those things, and everybody’s lawns turn brown, and then you start seeing the reservoir levels go down, etc. There are things like collecting your rainwater, of course, that you can use to water your gardens or what have you, things like using less water in the shower.
These are, they seem like little things, but I mean, I know I’m guilty of just sort of standing in the shower thinking, right? So taking a fifteen minute shower when nine minutes would have done just as well. And I think that kind of behavior can be difficult to change if you don’t have some external stimulus. So there are a set of products that you can either put in your shower … There’s all those eco shower heads you can have less water usage in your shower. There’s things you can put in the drains that would measure the amount of water you’re using per shower, and sort of make you feel guilty if you’re using more than X number of gallons. Little things like this actually do add up over time.
And what strikes me as interesting is that, ultimately we are very much going to have to become more conscientious about how we’re using this resource, and I think this is sort of a vastly different attitude from the one that I grew up with, where I don’t think conservation really was on my mind at all, at least during my childhood years. It feels to me like there’s been a huge shift in just the attitude towards how we’re using natural resources, whether or not this shift in attitude has come too late. We can only sort of wait and see. But it strikes me that this is at least culturally, it’s not only becoming more acceptable now. I mean, I think we’re actually going to have to do these things if we think we’re going to have a sort of modern lifestyle maintained going forward. Otherwise, I suspect we’re gonna run out of options sooner rather than later.

Dirk: Yeah, I mean conservation is always a good thing. But I do think … I don’t think we should be wasteful with water, but the technology already exists to address this problem and it will only become more affordable and more scalable as time passes. So sure, like rock on conservation. I try and conserve myself. And this isn’t a problem that requires conservation to solve. It can be solved in other ways as well, which is good because humans aren’t good at conservation.

Jon: Yeah, I know that, I mean just speaking from personal experience, it’s very hard to change the way you use water. In fact, if there’s a power outage or some reason that the regular water supply is not available for some reason, I always suddenly feel like I’m camping or something. Like if I have to, I don’t know, flush a toilet using a bucket of water instead of the flush, or if I’m heating up water in a pot on the stove as opposed to just having it come out of the tap. I think we really sort of take these modern conveniences for granted. And it always, at least to me, it always seems like some kind of hardship if I’m doing these things, when in fact I’m probably being more responsible with my water usage in those moments.
So, back to what you were saying, Dirk, about water desalination being pioneered by countries in the middle east, especially Israel. I think that Kuwait in fact, 100% of their water usage in that country is desalinated water.

Dirk: Wow.

Jon: Yeah, to-

Dirk: Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Jon: So, I do think that, that’s probably going to be the solution, at least to part of the water shortage crisis that is only developing more and more. To sort of wrap this point up, and to get back to the original topic, I think that we’ll have to keep an eye on the crisis in Cape Town and see what the outcomes are there. But we can only hope that they’re able to make it without reaching that Day Zero where they turn off the taps in that city. I hope that doesn’t come to pass.

Dirk: Certainly.

Jon: Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening, or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play, and if you wanna follow us outside the show, you can follow me on Twitter at Jon Follett. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. And of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk.

Dirk: You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer. That’s at D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. And thanks so much for listening.

Jon: So that’s it for episode 243 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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