Post-water urbanism

[I’ve been slowly crafting this post over a few months as a possible lecture – so this is just a first draft and maybe a manifesto for a future studio.]

Peak Water is very real and probably the most dire environmental issue facing civilization. Yeah, sea level rise has catastrophic implications, but the climate weirding with projected decreases of precipitation in already arid zones is what will quickly kill or displace the most folks around the world. We’ve already seen the genocide in Darfur as the 21st century’s first water war and many more conflicts like this are likely.

Q Drum water container

The loss of snowpack in the Himalayas, Sierra Nevadas, Rocky Mountains, Andes, and Mt. Kilimanjaro is already disappearing along with glaciers around the world. Many cities in India are already on the verge of running out of water. Much of the poor societies in the Middle East (such as Yemen and the Palestinians) don’t have access to the energy (or money) for desalination.

Water Stress Map

There is an old saying in the west is ‘that water runs uphill to money’. We’re already seeing cuts in irrigation in the Central Valley of California and redistribution of that water to the cities. With the looming collapse of the Sierra (& maybe the Rockies) snowpack, there will be even less water available for irrigating traditional agricultural land in the west – the only reliable source of water will be found in the cities. Water recycling will become the new status quo and perhaps large scale agriculture will move into the cities to tap this vital resource.

Will this shift be handled through wide deployment of Haegian edible estates? or maybe the model will be more of sky vegitables placing greenhouses and roof farms above every grocery store and big box retailer?

Energy footprint of different water sources in California

There is growing awareness of the link between water and energy – the emergence of urban agriculture will only enhance our understanding of this symbiosis. Water does equal energy.

US water withdrawals in 2000


So 48% of all water used in the US in 2000 was for electricity generation. There are significant ecological impact to the discharge of warm water, the pureeing of aquatic life in turbines and pumps, and the evaporation of vast quantities of water that the power utilities try to ignore – but what will they do when there isn’t enough water for business as usual?

Over at the World Bank, they are engaging the development of climate resilient cities. their blog on this topic is worth a look.

China is building a 1000 mile water diversion project from the south up to the encroaching gobi desert and Beijing. Then there is Libya’s ‘Great Manmade River’.

The impact on cities will be significant as populations move to regions with more water, or they will go broke paying for imported water, or die. There will certainly be an elimination of irrigated ‘landscaping’ in cities as water gets scarce. There will also be impacts on energy production and building materials. There are almost no materials used in the built environment that don’t utilize vast quantities of water in their extraction, processing, and installation – so what will we build with if the rivers run dry? What will we eat and drink? Will the planet really support 9 billion people in 2050 as the UN predicts?

Check out Kazys’ nod to the emergence of urban agriculture and water shortages in his post The Decade Ahead. There is also a series in the NYtimes about the lack of potable water in India.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

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by Barry Lehrman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

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