Feeding Cities: New World Water

As the 2013 Feeding Cities conference unfolds this week in Philadelphia, Next City, a media partner for the event, will feature regular updates from bloggers covering its talks and workshops. Click here to see a rundown of our coverage.

“I can’t tell you how disappointed I am to see you drinking from bottled water at this session on sustainable water systems,” I said as the opportunity for questions arrived.

Earlier in the day, I was eating perfectly fresh pineapple for breakfast and I wondered, did the team behind Feeding Cities discuss the ethics of hosting an event like this? Will food be sourced locally as much as possible? The pineapple was delicious. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t grown in Pennsylvania. Just as I’m pretty sure that the Dasani bottled water being consumed by our three panelists and moderator was not bottled locally, with food miles kept to a minimum (or water miles, in this instance).

Though I spent the entire session distracted by those four plastic bottles, some interesting ideas were discussed.

Olufunke Cofie from the International Water Management Institute informed the audience that one-third of the world’s population live in regions with water scarcity, whether physical economic. That said, Cofie went on to explain that “the issue is not so much about water scarcity, but of management of available resources,” with developing-world countries suffering the most as a result of having the lowest per-capita water storage facilities.

Marcus Moench, president of the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition, spoke of his experiences in Nepal where, in some ares, the ground has essentially been sucked dry of drinking water, resulting in the emergence of a brand new marketplace — yes, drinking water. Water pipes have got narrower and pumps have got stronger, sucking every inch of available water out of surrounding land and into trucks, where it’s driven to nearby communities and sold.

Howard Neukrug, water commissioner for the City of Philadelphia, took to the podium last, giving a point of view from the developed world, which was, in some ways, entirely different. The fact that the U.S. experiences one main water pipe breakage every two minutes is obviously not ideal, but heck, at least the pipes exist in the first place. But while drinking water flows freely around much of the country, citizens and organisations still choose to get their drinking water trucked in, just like the Nepali citizens in Moench’s example. The only difference is, they don’t need to do it.

“For the same cost as this one bottle of water, I could supply water to this entire building,” Neukrug added, as unimpressed as I by the inappropriateness of the Dasani at the conference. “In South Asia, bottled water is part of the solution,” Moench argued, citing locally bottled water as potentially less wasteful and much safer.

In some contexts, Moench is right. Unsanitary water can kill, and when drinkable water can be bottled and sold locally, it’s totally justifiable. When you’re at a conference about sustainable urban systems in a country with some of the cleanest drinking water on earth, the opportunity has just presented itself for you to walk the walk. What we saw at Feeding Cities yesterday was a lot of talk, not so much walk.

Tags: water, feeding cities, developing world