Here is the full transcript of Lana Mazahreh’s talk: 3 Thoughtful Ways to Conserve Water at TED conference.
Lana Mazahreh – Environmentalist
In March 2017, the mayor of Cape Town officially declared Cape Town a local disaster, as it had less than four months left of usable water. Residents were restricted to 100 liters of water per person, per day.
But what does that really mean? With 100 liters of water per day, you can take a five-minute shower, wash your face twice and probably flush the toilet about five times. You still didn’t brush your teeth, you didn’t do laundry, and you definitely didn’t water your plants. You, unfortunately, didn’t wash your hands after those five toilet flushes. And you didn’t even take a sip of water. The mayor described this as that it means a new relationship with water.
Today, seven months later, I can share two things about my second home with you. First: Cape Town hasn’t run out of water just yet. But as of September 3rd, the hundred-liter limit dropped to 87 liters. The mayor defined the city’s new normal as one of permanent drought.
Second: what’s happening in Cape Town is pretty much coming to many other cities and countries in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, excluding countries that we don’t have data for, less than five percent of the world’s population is living in a country that has more water today than it did 20 years ago.
Everyone else is living in a country that has less water today. And nearly one out of three are living in a country that is facing a water crisis. I grew up in Jordan, a water-poor country that has experienced absolute water scarcity since 1973. And still, in 2017, only 10 countries in the world have less water than Jordan.
So dealing with a lack of water is quite ingrained in my soul. As soon as I was old enough to learn how to write my name, I also learned that I need to conserve water. My parents would constantly remind my siblings and I to close the tap when we brushed our teeth. We used to fill balloons with flour instead of water when we played. It’s just as much fun, though.
And a few years ago, when my friends and I were dared to do the Ice Bucket Challenge, we did that with sand. And you might think that, you know, that’s easy, sand is not ice cold I promise you, sand goes everywhere, and it took ages to get rid of it. But what perhaps I didn’t realize as I played with flour balloons as a child, and as I poured sand on my head as an adult, is that some of the techniques that seem second nature to me and to others who live in dry countries might help us all address what is fast becoming a global crisis.
I wish to share three lessons today, three lessons from water-poor countries and how they survived and even thrived despite their water crisis.
Lesson one: tell people how much water they really have. In order to solve a problem, we need to acknowledge that we have one. And when it comes to water, people can easily turn a blind eye, pretending that since water is coming out of the tap now, everything will be fine forever. But some smart, drought-affected countries have adopted simple, innovative measures to make sure their citizens, their communities and their companies know just how dry their countries are.
When I was in Cape Town earlier this year, I saw this electronic billboard on the freeway, indicating how much water the city had left. This is an idea they may well have borrowed from Australia when it faced one of the worst droughts of the country’s history from 1997 to 2009.
Water levels in Melbourne dropped to a very low capacity of almost 26 percent. But the city didn’t yell at people. It didn’t plead with them not to use water. They used electronic billboards to flash available levels of water to all citizens across the city.
They were honestly telling people how much water they really have, and letting them take responsibility for themselves. By the end of the drought, this created such a sense of urgency as well as a sense of community. Nearly one out of three citizens in Melbourne had invested in installing rainwater holding tanks for their own households. Actions that citizens took didn’t stop at installing those tanks. With help from the city, they were able to do something even more impactful.
Taking me to lesson two: empower people to save water. Melbourne wanted people to spend less water in their homes. And one way to do that is to spend less time in the shower. However, interviews revealed that some people, women in particular, weren’t keen on saving water that way. Some of them honestly said, “The shower is not just to clean up. It’s my sanctuary. It’s a space I go to relax, not just clean up.”
So the city started offering water-efficient showerheads for free. And then, now some people complained that the showerheads looked ugly or didn’t suit their bathrooms. So what I like to call “The Showerhead Team” developed a small water-flow regulator that can be fitted into existing showerheads.
And although showerhead beauty doesn’t matter much to me, I loved how the team didn’t give up and instead came up with a simple, unique solution to empower people to save water. Within a span of four years, more than 460,000 showerheads were replaced. When the small regulator was introduced, more than 100,000 orders of that were done. Melbourne succeeded in reducing the water demands per capita by 50 percent.
In the United Arab Emirates, the second-most water-scarce country in the world, officials designed what they called the “Business Heroes Toolkit” in 2010. The aim was to motivate and empower businesses to reduce water and energy consumption. The toolkit practically taught companies how to measure their existing water-consumption levels and consisted of tips to help them reduce those levels. And it worked.
Hundreds of organizations downloaded the toolkit. And several of them joined what they called the “Corporate Heroes Network,” where companies can voluntarily take on a challenge to reduce their water-consumption levels to preset targets within a period of one year.
Companies which completed the challenge saved on average 35 percent of water. And one company, for example, implemented as many water-saving tips as they could in their office space. They replaced their toilet-flushing techniques, taps, showerheads — you name it. If it saved water, they replaced it, eventually reducing their employees’ water consumption by half. Empowering individuals and companies to save water is so critical, yet not sufficient.
Countries need to look beyond the status quo and implement country-level actions to save water. Taking me to lesson three: look below the surface. Water savings can come from unexpected places. Singapore is the eighth most water-scarce country in the world. It depends on imported water for almost 60 percent of its water needs. It’s also a very small island. As such, it needs to make use of as much space as possible to catch rainfall.
So in 2008, they built the Marina Barrage. It’s the first-ever urban water reservoir built in the middle of the city-state. It’s the largest water catchment in the country, almost one-sixth the size of Singapore. What’s so amazing about the Marina Barrage is that it has been built to make the maximum use of its large size and its unexpected yet important location.
It brings three valuable benefits to the country: it has boosted Singapore’s water supply by 10 percent; it protects low areas around it from floods because of its connection to the sea; and, as you can see, it acts as a beautiful lifestyle attraction, hosting several events, from art exhibitions to music festivals, attracting joggers, bikers, tourists all around that area.
Now, not all initiatives need to be stunning or even visible. My first home, Jordan, realized that agriculture is consuming the majority of its fresh water. They really wanted to encourage farmers to focus on growing low water-intensive crops.
To achieve that, the local agriculture is increasing its focus on date palms and grapevines. Those two are much more tolerant to drought conditions than many other fruits and vegetables, and at the same time, they are considered high-value crops, both locally and internationally.
Locals in Namibia, one of the most arid countries in Southern Africa, have been drinking recycled water since 1968. Now, you may tell me many countries recycle water I would say yes. But very few use it for drinking purposes, mostly because people don’t like the thought of water that was in their toilets going to their taps.
But Namibia could not afford to think that way. They looked below the surface to save water. They are now a great example of how, when countries purify waste water to drinking standards, they can ease their water shortages, and in Namibia’s case, provide drinking water for more than 300,000 citizens in its capital city. As more countries which used to be more water rich are becoming water scarce, I say we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
If we just look at what water-poor countries have done, the solutions are out there. Now it’s really just up to all of us to take action. Thank you.