Sustaining water: No water, no life

Flooding and drought are no longer seen as ‘third world problems’. As engineers we need to factor in water sustainability into all our projects if we have any hope of coping with climate change.

Do we only notice, appreciate and manage water sustainably when there’s a drought?
Do we only notice, appreciate and manage water sustainably when there’s a drought?

It's become a truism that if the world temperature increases then the result is greater evaporation from the oceans followed by increased rainfall and flood events on land. In addition climate change would alter rainfall patterns and change water resource availability.

All of these matters impact upon our environment and the potential for damage to our planet and all of its remarkable and diverse surviving, and struggling, species – including humans. For that reason it is vital that we keep sustainable water management at the heart of planning across the world.

So how do we do that?

As a fourth generation water engineer I found many instances when the management of water, and the land, was not properly sustainable. For example, the over pumping of the groundwater of the north China Plain, reported as about 60m down and dropping a metre annually, for irrigation, where the black sewage effluent from one city was discharged to a dry river bed.

In Nigeria I saw the population growth rate in certain areas outstripping readily available water resources.

In Palembang, Indonesia, there were places where over half the water put into supply never reached the end user.

In the Sahel, Africa the over exploitation of the land for cattle resulted in vegetation that bound the top soil togethe being eaten and the top soil blowing away. The area was then no longer able to maintain normal rainfall patterns or sustain traditional agriculture.

I have seen the melting Siberian permafrost (which would result in methane emission, much stronger than CO2 as a climate change factor), and the loss of Arctic sea ice resulting in the sun's energy being absorbed rather than reflected.

The recent stronger hurricanes resulted in severe storm damage and flood in the Gulf of Mexico.

The list goes on.

What can we do to really make a difference?

No water no life. In the examples I have given, I would hope anyone can see that greater thought and planning would have avoided those local environmental calamities. So what can we as water engineers, civil engineers, and planners do to ensure humanity can survive?

Perhaps it's to do with respect for our natural resources where better water management has to be top of the list.

To encourage this I established the Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management. This is now one of the annual ICE Awards which are being presented this Friday 6 October.