Water is life. We all need it, plants and animals alike. A human being can last weeks without food but only a couple of days without water. Something so critical to sustaining life should be treated as a precious resource like gold or silver, right? Sadly, it’s not.
Because of its abundance, many view water as an inexhaustible resource. In the last century, water use increased at nearly double the rate of population growth. There is no global water scarcity currently, but an increasing number of regions have chronic water shortages. Many places suffer the consequences of unmet demand due to infrastructure or institutional inadequacies.
Water scarcity isn’t the only issue. Where there is water, there is water pollution. Water pollution kills around 10,000 people around the world EVERY DAY. The Earth contains an estimated 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water, but only 0.003% of this vast amount are “freshwater resources” that could be used for hygiene, drinking, agriculture, and industry. Yet humans treat Earth's oceans, lakes, and rivers organisms as a dispensable commodity. Why? Well, water is uniquely vulnerable to pollution. Known as the “universal solvent,” water can dissolve more substances than any other liquid on earth. This is the reason we have Alka-Seltzer and the Salton Sea. It’s also why water is so easily polluted. Toxic substances from cities, farms, and factories readily dissolve into and pollute water.
One of the biggest culprits of water waste and pollution is agriculture. On average, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater withdrawals. The FAO estimates that about 60 percent more food will be needed by 2050 to meet the food requirements of a growing global population, and subsequently water demand will also increase. The FAO also projects that irrigated food production will increase by more than 50 percent by 2050, but the amount of water withdrawn by agriculture can increase by only 10 percent, assuming that irrigation practices improve and yields increase.
So… how can we protect our precious H2O? You may have guessed it – we look to nature for inspiration.
To accommodate the growing demand for food, we need more water. Agricultural infrastructure must evolve to utilize water more efficiently, especially in water stressed regions and rapidly growing cities. To increase water conservation and efficiency, Team Nexloop borrowed design advice from nature and created the AquaWeb, a solution that helps urban local food producers collect, filter, store, and distribute atmospheric moisture with a modular, all-in-one water sourcing and management system. AquaWeb harnesses available rain and fog and uses passive strategies to distribute this water so urban farms, including greenhouses, indoor vertical farms, and container farms, can save resources.
Each aspect of AquaWeb’s design was inspired by living systems. In structure and function, their avant-garde system employs a host of biomimetic strategies, including: how a spider web captures water, how ice plants use a distributive water storage technique, how mycelium transport water to plant roots, and how bees build structural support with their honeycomb.
Modern agriculture relies heavily on natural and synthetic fertilizers to boost crop yields. While application methods are fairly efficient, harmful nutrients from fertilizers enter the surrounding water system through runoff. This process leads to nutrient accumulation in lakes and streams that eventually concentrates in river deltas, causing harmful eutrophication and algal blooms that deplete biodiversity.
To mitigate this issue, a team from The University of Oregon looked to the filtration, sequestration, and symbiotic abilities of earthworms (and the villi in their small intestines in particular) for a solution. They developed The Living Filtration System (LFS), a closed-loop drainage system that uses soil micro-organisms to retain nutrients in the soil so they can be absorbed by plants rather than leaving fields as runoff. This greatly reduces nutrient input into surrounding bodies of water and eliminates a major cause of eutrophication. Implementing this solution on a large-scale could drastically improve the health of lakes, rivers, and deltas around the world.
A key factor in water waste and pollution is humans’ disconnect from our natural world. Nature has strict boundaries when it comes to resources, but cities (and the humans living there) do not. Especially when it comes to water, organisms have specific methods for dealing with water conservation during times of scarcity within their ecosystem. When there is a draught, grass goes dormant and birds conserve food for the good of the group. Animals and plants have the intrinsic ability to monitor and self-regulate, but humans are so far removed from this cycle that we only pay attention once it’s too late and resources have been critically depleted.
To combat this disconnect, a team at Smart Design devised MicroParks – tiny greenspaces in New York City that could be manipulated to reflect a community’s water supply. A lush, beautiful MicroPark communicates a healthy water supply, while a withering MicroPark alerts residents that water conservation is critical. The greenspaces give residents a tangible way to observe resource usage and adapt accordingly, much like any plant or animal does within its respective ecosystem. Solutions like these are essential. If humans can see the direct effect of our resource usage, we can hold ourselves more accountable and heighten conservation efforts in our daily lives.
The 2050 Connection
The FAO estimates that between 2,000 and 5,000 liters of water are needed to produce a person’s daily food. If we reduce our food waste, then we intrinsically reduce our water waste. The 2050 Smoothie was created specifically to reduce waste throughout the supply chain – from farm to fork. So, every time you drink The 2050 Smoothie, not only are you reducing food waste… you’re preventing all the water used to make fresh fruits and vegetables from being wasted too!
This has been the fourth installation of The 2050 Company’s “The Invention of Waste” blog. Each month, we will take a look at a resource used in the production of the world’s food. We will compare our current system’s use of these resources to the systems in place in the natural world, and explore how we can shift our perceptions and habits to reduce waste, improve lives, and ensure a prosperous future by the year 2050. To follow along with us on this exploration, please subscribe to The 2050 Newsletter here!