Water. The most basic condition for life on this planet. Without it, nothing we know is possible.
The understanding and management of water is a defining characteristic of human civilization. From the individual dwelling to the megacity, any place where people live is shaped by its relationship with water. Water to drink, water to move people and goods, water to grow our food. Water to clean ourselves and wash our most essential waste away.
Water can be an adversary as well, when it surges in from the sea in storms or pours down from the sky in torrential rains. Water can consume our homes and streets with even more destructive force than fire.
Water deserves our respect. In traditional human cultures, it got that respect. Water was made manifest in deities who controlled oceans and rivers, who caused floods and brought rain and made springs rise from the earth.
But in modern societies, we can turn on the faucet to a seemingly endless supply of pure, fresh water. Colossal engineering projects, which remain a mystery to most citizens, determine the flow of rivers. Because of this, water is often taken for granted. We have allowed ourselves to hold water cheap.
But as our climate changes, a time of reckoning is coming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that as many as half a billion people will live in “water-stressed” nations by the 2020s. Even in countries such as the United States, where the water supply has been abundant and of high quality, climate change is already affecting our water and weather patterns in ways we are only just beginning to understand.
The Midwest and Southwest have been ravaged by drought. Flooding has plagued the Northeast. The West has seen record wildfires. Rising sea levels increasingly threaten the heavily concentrated populations on our coasts. Agricultural runoff and industrial contamination poses an ongoing and increasing threat to our fragile freshwater sources and to our coastal waters.
At the same time, the water infrastructure of the United States is aging badly, and governmental resources to upgrade or even maintain it are scarce and contested.
In the brand new Watermark series, Next City will examine all aspects of the growing water problem, from flood mitigation to farming practices to sewage treatment, and look for innovative, comprehensive solutions that can serve as models for communities around the U.S. and the world.
According to the UN-Water group, “Adaptation to climate change is mainly about better water management.” With Watermark, we will examine just how that challenge is being met — and what the prospects are for a future in which we no longer take water for granted.
Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. She’s also on Twitter.