Building the World

July 28, 2020
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WATER: How much do you use?

How much water do you use? Image: “Blue question mark,” wikimedia commons.

Only 1% of water on Earth is drinkable (actually, it’s 2.5% but only 1% is readily accessible). The rest of the water on the planet rests in the sea, but it is salty and therefore requires desalination to use for drinking or agriculture.

New River, a fresh water supply and a fresh idea. Image: wikimedia.

Ever since the most ancient times, humans have invented ways to find, distribute, use, and power with water. From the Roman Aqueducts and the New River of England that brought fresh water to the growing cities of Rome and London, respectively, to the water use agreements of the Colorado River of the USA and Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric of Australia, the story of civilization is the story of water.

With populations growing and climate changing, water will become more scarce and more important for uses for drinking, agriculture, industry, and energy. While macro systems that deliver water to our taps are large in scale, each of us can do something to protect and conserve water.

 

Take this quiz to calculate your WATER USE.

Attenborough, Sir David. “Fresh Water.” Episode 3. Our Planet. BBC One/Netflix. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2DU85qLfJQ/

Jacobsen, Rowan. “Israel Proves the Desalination Era is Here,” 29 July 2016. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/israel-proves-the-desalination-era-is-here/

Spang, E., E. R, K.S. Gallagher, P.H. Kirshen, D.H. Marks. 2014 “The Water Consumption of Energy Production: An International Comparison.” Environmental Research Letters, Volume 9, 105002. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/9/10/105002/meta/

Water Calculator. https://www.watercalculator.org/wfc2/q/household/

Water Footprint Calculator. “Water Websites for Kids.” 13 November 2019. https://www.watercalculator.org/resource/water-websites-for-kids/.

Thanks to Sierra C. Lusk for research and inspiration.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unp

June 17, 2020
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ENERGY: Old wells, new problems, emerging solutions

Could biogas drive the future? Image: wikimedia.

Could the next vehicle you drive be powered not by gas from a drilled well but by a cleaner form of energy known as biogas or biomethane? Climate improvement may be encouraged by a solving a problem.

Oil well pump, Midland, Texas. Image: wikimedia.

Oil wells – part of the 20th century landscape – are not only becoming a relic of the past, they are now a menace to the future. Old wells, once dry of oil, continue to emit pollution. More recently, other kinds of wells have been opened for hydraulic fracturing, sometimes called fracking, uses water to power invasive drilling to release oil and gas locked in rock formations. Drillers use underground water, promising to seal off the well. But what happens when the fracking site is no longer productive? Millions of older fracking wells are now starting to leak pollutants. And now, with the renewable energy becoming competitive in price and superior in environmental quality, wells are becoming antiquated. Moreover, the fossil fuel energy industry is stressed by dropping oil prices due to the 2020 viral pandemic: people are driving less; planes are parked in airports. Energy company bankruptcies are growing. Sometimes companies sell the wells to a new owner who then resells, and finally when it is no longer productive, the well is abandoned. No one is responsible for clean-up, since the original builder of the well has long since moved on.

Methane, a dangerous and long-lived pollutant in the atmosphere, is one of the greenhouse gases regulated by the Kyoto Protocol. Image: wikimedia.

According to the Groundwater Protection Council, “orphaned wells” are beginning to leak methane. Recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) flagged methane from abandoned oil and gas wells as an emerging global risk, in an April 2020 report. Worldwide, there may be 29 million abandoned gas and oil wells. Canada, where oil sands mining prevails, reported 313,000 abandoned wells emitting 10 kilotons of methane. The United States has 2 million abandoned wells: most were never properly sealed. China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia (the three other large oil and gas producers, along with Canada and USA) have not revealed their methane leakage from wells. Even small amounts of methane pose dangers. The United States reports methane as the cause of 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, but methane is 84 times more damaging than carbon dioxide in the first two decades of release, and 28 times over a century’s timeframe. Methane is one of the seven greenhouse gases regulated under the Kyoto Protocol: the list includes carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (JFCs), per fluorocarbons (PFCs), sulphurhexaflouride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NFc). These gases are dangerous because they are stable, meaning they stay in the atmosphere once released. Methane has been identified as responsible for 25% of global warming.

Capturing methane in a biogas sytem. Image: wikimedia

Yet methane is a valuable energy source, when harnessed. One possible solution: biogas (biomethane). Biomethane is formed by decomposing organic substances like agricultural or animal waste, even sewage. With upgrades, biogas can achieve an energy productivity equal to natural gas. Biogas can be recovered from waste treatment plants and refined to renewable natural gas (RNG) to generate electricity or even power car. Another method: fuel cell technology using waste; there is no combustion, so no exhaust and related pollution. A sample project using biogas to power fuel cells can be found in Fountain Valley, California; Apple uses fuel cell energy from Bloom Energy.

As the world emerges from the coronona virus pandemic, countries are funding re-entry for businesses, cities, and states. Is 2020 the time to seize the opportunity to capture methane from old wells as the energy sector rebuilds?

Dlouhy Jennifer A “EPA Seeks to Abandon Regulation of Methane Leaks From Oil Wells.” 29 August 2019. Bloomberg News. TransportTopics. https://www.ttnews.com/articles/epa-seeks-abandon-regulation-methane-leaks-oil-wells.

Groom, Nichola. “Millions of abandoned oil wells are leaking methane, a climate menace.” 16 June 2020. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-drilling-abandoned-specialreport/special-report-millions-of-abandoned-oil-wells-are-leaking-methane-a-climate-menace-idUSKBN23N1NL

Kyoto Pr

The World Energy Foundation. “Methane Capture and Use as a Clean Energy Source.” 16 June 2015. https://theworldenergyfoundation.org/methane-capture-and-use-as-clean-energy-source/.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unp

January 17, 2020
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WATER: How an idea for Mt. Everest could help 4 billion people

Mt. Everest: could an idea conceived on the summit improve the health of 4 billion people? Image: wikimedia.

Mt. Everest – a mountain so legendary that everyone wants to climb it. But mountaineers bring more than gear: they leave  28,000 pounds of human waste. Some is dumped in open pits, threatening water supply safety. That’s when Zuraina Zaharin, Everest climber and environmentalist, came up with an innovative idea. Partnering with Imad Agi, inventor of a waterless sanitation system using microbes to turn human waste into fertilizer so safe it can be used as fertilizer in organic farming, the duo launched EcoLoo. The system could be a solution for the 4 billion people worldwide who do not have in-house sanitation. And as water grows scarce in climate change, cutting consumption (we use 141 billion liters of fresh water daily just to flush toilets), EcoLoo could provide an alternative. Bill Gates sponsors a prize to reinvent the toilet, saving 432,000 lives lost each year to disease caused by inadequate sanitation. Water and sanitation have been linked to many advances in civilization, from the Roman Aqueducts to the New River. EcoLoo is now installing systems in remote locations like mountain environments, island vacation retreats; there are several at UNESCO World Heritage site Petra, and the company is planning to make units available for disaster response.

Al-Aidroos, Amani and Tom Page. “How a poop on Everest inspired a toilet that could save lives.” 4 December 2019. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/04/health/ecoloo-waterless-toilet/index.html

EcoLoo. http://www.ecoloogroup.com

World Health Organization. “Sanitation for All by 2030.” https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/01-10-2018-who-calls-for-increased-investment-to-reach-the-goal-of-a-toilet-for-all

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unpor

May 31, 2019
by buildingtheworld
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WATER: antibiotics on tap

Pills of antibiotic cefalexin. Photographer: Sage Ross, 2014. Image: wikimedia commons.

Feeling sick? It may the drugs you just took when you drank a sip of coffee or a glass of water. Affecting not just humans but aquatic life, medications are entering the water as fast as plastic – they’re just harder to see.

Antibiotics have been found in 65% of over 70 world waterways tested. For example, a site in Bangladesh showed Metronidazole present at levels 300 times the safe limits (20,000 to 32,000 nanogram per liter (ng/l) guidelines set by AMR Industry Alliance). The most frequent contaminant? trimethoprim found at 301 of 711 river testing sites. Most prevalent antibiotic found at dangerous levels: Ciprofloxacin, in 51 of the 72 countries tested.

Chao Phraya River Drainage Basin. Image: wikimedia.

Rivers all over the world show similar results: Chao Phraya, Danube, Seine, Thames.  Some areas of the world suffer infected water more: Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, and Pakistan ranked highest of sites monitored. In general, Asia and Africa frequently exceeded safety limits for antibiotics but problems were also found in Europe, North and South America. In other words, it’s global.

Of course, antibiotics save lives. But that’s just the problem: growing global resistance to antibiotics, anti fungals, antivirals caused 700,000 deaths yearly due to drug-resistant diseases, among them tuberculosis. The United Nations’ Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance predicts that by 2030, over one million people will die every year due drug-resistant diseases.

PROBLEMS: Individuals are in no small part responsible: a study in California revealed half of all medications are discarded, often into the water supply. Another problem: even if we don’t intend to, individuals deposit drugs into the water supply.  People take a lot of drugs, both prescription and over-the-counter; our bodies metabolize only a percentage of the intake, excreting the rest into wastewater systems. And then there are the larger systemic depositors: hospitals try to return unused drugs to manufacturers obtaining a credit or at least assured safe disposal, but care and nursing facilities may not have such arrangements. Certainly drug manufacturers generate highly concentrated waste; downstream of a New York State pharmaceutical manufacturing plant, antibiotic concentrations showed levels 1,000 times higher than normal. And then there’s agriculture: poultry and livestock farming are responsible for two trillion pounds of animal waste filled with the hormones and antibiotics fed to the animals to optimize growth and marketability.

Antibiotics harm fish and aquatic life. Image: Giant Group, Georgia Aquarium, Wikimedia.

Other ways animals are affected? Aquatic life itself is changing: so much estrogen has entered rivers and ponds that male fish are showing genetic changes including the development of intersex fish, especially downstream of wastewater treatment plants: notable is Washington’s Potomac River.

Filters are one approach: water treatment plants have been successful at filtering out ibuprofen but couldn’t catch diclofenax, another pain reliever. Chlorine used in drinking water treatment does reduce bacteria and also degrades acetaminophen and the antibiotic sulfathiazole, and also carbamazepine (by 75%). Still, chemicals are getting into our bodies simply by turning on the tap: Southern Nevada Water Authority found antibiotics, antipsychotics, beta blockers, and tranquilizers in the drinking water as far back as 2010. It is only getting worse.

SOLUTIONS

Pharmaceutical systems include manufacturing, distribution, consumption, disposal, and waste treatment: each step of the process offers opportunities for intervention and innovation. Regulations, at a national, local, or global level, can be effective: compliance is now an industry with consultants like Stericycle with programs “designed to meet regulatory requirements.” Of course, pharmaceutical businesses have in-house programs and systems, including segregating hazardous waste pharmaceuticals that are then sent to a Treatment, Storage, and Disposal Facility (TSDF). It’s a big business: UBS and Vanguard are investors, along with 500 other financial funds. Stericycle has 22,000 employees: competitors include Republic Services with 36,000 and Waste Management with 42,000 employees. It’s a business of the future: pharmaceutical use shows no sign of decreasing, although there is a movement to encourage safer drugs.

Jardine Water Purification Plant, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Image: wikimedia.

Nations and cities can take action. Water facilities such as the Jardine Water Purification Plant in Chicago, Illinois, world’s largest by volume, draws water from the American Great Lakes for distribution to 390 million urban residents. Research and innovation here could lead the way. In Europe, Germany invested one billion euro in the last two decades to water infrastructure including wastewater collection and treatment, in some ways advancing beyond the EU’s Council Directive 98/83/EC.1

Waterways themselves can innovate. When the Roman Aqueducts were built, it was due to an increasingly polluted Tiber River. When London’s water supply from the Thames became problematic, a public-private system was developed: the New River. Will the Grand Canal of China, part of the Belt and Road Initiative, lead research and action to improve the aquatic environment ? Might Inland Waterways International champion ways to improve the health of rivers and other created waterways?

SOLUTION: YOU – What can you do?

Don’t purchase bulk or volume packaging, avoiding accumulation of unused or expired chemical formulations.

Never flush unused medications, vitamins, or supplements down the drain.

When you must dispose, trash/landfill is preferable to flush/water. First, remove pills from container (recycle container),  then crush the pills, add a bit of water, and seal the result in a strong plastic bag before placing in trash.

MORE

Boxall, Alistair. York Environmental Sustainability Institute, and SETAC Helsinki 2019: https://helsinki.setac.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/SETAC-Helsinki-programme-book.pdf; and .https://www.york.ac.uk/yesi/news/pharmaceuticals/

Craft. “Stericycle Competitors and Alternatives.” https://craft.co/stericycle/competitors/

Fox, Kara. “The world’s rivers are contaminated with antibiotics, new study shows.” 27 May 2019, CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/27/health/antibiotics-contaminate-worlds-rivers-intl-scli/index.html.

Harvard University. “Drugs in the water.” June 2011, Harvard Health Letter. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/drugs-in-the-water.

Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). https://www.setac.org

Stericycle.com NASDAQ: SRCK

University of York. “Antibiotics found in some of the world’s rivers exceed ‘safe’ levels, global study finds.” 27 May 2019. https://www.york.ac/uk/news-and-events/news/2019/research/antibiotics-found-in-some-of-worlds-rivers/

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Licen

October 27, 2017
by buildingtheworld
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Microbeads

Microbeads: image, wikimedia commons

Tiny formulations of plastic, microbeads can be found in household cleaners, toothpaste, and cosmetics. After using such products, one might rinse the mop, expel the toothpaste, or simply wash one’s hands after applying makeup. But that is not the end; rather, it is the beginning of a journey made by a microbead into the water supply, perhaps culminating in an extra addition to your cup of tea. Microbeads have been found in every kind of water: lakes, rivers, oceans. Microbeads are part of advances in plastics, a substance just over 60 years old that has seen an increase of 560% since its inception. Cosmetic manufacturers like L’Oreal and and Colgate-Palmolive have taken steps to phase out the practice, using instead natural exfoliants such as apricot seeds and walnut shells. Legislation such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 helped. In the same year, Canada presented the Microbead Elimination and Monitoring Act.

The Thames River has come back to life, thanks to laws promoting clean water and plastic prevention. Image: wikimedia.

Can emerging and refining legislation on public water supply benefit from historic laws such as the Statutory Foundation of the New River, bringing fresh running water to the city of London, enacted in 1605? Recent efforts to clear the Thames River of plastic are promising: in 1957, the waterway was declared “biologically dead” in part due to lack of repair to Victorian sewers that were damaged by World War II bombing. As repairs began, awareness of other problems such as pesticides and fertilizers improved. There are now 125 species of fish in the Thames. But as one problem was cured, another began to emerge: plastic. In 2015, 70% of the flounder in the Thames had bits of plastic in their systems. Cleaner Thames, a campaign initiated in 2015, battles the plastic waste.

Great Lakes of the United States recently measured 446,000 micro plastic particles/km2 in locations near cities. Image: “Great Lakes from Space,” wikimedia

North American waters are in peril. Recent testing of the waters in the Great Lakes found that, while the average sample contained 43,000 micro plastic particles/km2, some areas near large cities measured more than 466,000 particles/km2. It’s not just drinking water that is polluted by microplastics, it is fish and marine animals. Aquatic life ingests not only large pieces of plastic but also microscopic bits. Next time you enjoy tea with sushi, will you also contribute to community efforts and organizations that may help to prevent microbead pollution?

Baldwin, Austin K., et al. “Plastic debris in 29 Great Lakes Tributaries: Relations to Watershed Attributes and Hydrology.” Environmental Science and Technology, 2016, 50 (19), pp. 103-77-10385. http://pub.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.6b02917.

Hardach, Sophie. “How the River Thames was brought back from the dead.” 12 November 2015. British Broadcasting Corporation. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151111-how-the-river-thames-was-brought-back-from-the-dead/

Sierra Club. “How to handle microbeads.” http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2014-4-july-august/green-life/how-handle-microbeads

United States Congress. “Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015.” H.R. 1321. https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1321.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

September 1, 2017
by buildingtheworld
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Water Crisis

September 1, 2017: Hurricane Harvey moves from Texas to Tennessee. Image: Nasa.gov. Here’s how to help.

Hurricane Harvey pelted Houston, Texas with twenty-seven trillion gallons of water. Homes, schools, hospitals, roads were damaged. But when a hurricane causes power outages, another kind of water problem occurs. Beaumont, Texas got 29 inches of rain from Harvey, knocking out the town’s water pumping station on the swollen Neches River, leaving 120,000 people without drinking water. While major beverage manufacturers switched their production lines from beer to cans of water,  to care for the thousands who had to evacuate their homes and flee to shelters, Beaumont can’t get this emergency relief: roads are flooded, making Beaumont a temporary island. Rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey might include study of post-Sandy New York, guided in part by the Netherlands. Meanwhile, here’s how to help.

Boulder, Michael. “The entire city of Beaumont, Texas, has lost access to clean water.” 31 August 2017, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/entire-city-beaumont-texas-lost-access-clean-water/

Tillman, Claire. “Anheuser-Busch repurposes its brewery to make drinking water for Harvey victims.” 30 Augut, 2017. Fortune. http://fortune.com/2017/08/30/hurricane-harvey-houston-water-anheuser-busch/

Building the World. “A river runs through it.” http://blogs.umb.edu/buildingtheworld/2017/06/16/a-river-runs-through-it/

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

May 13, 2016
by buildingtheworld
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Water and Power

Gateway of India at night; will electric power continue during India’s drought? Image: wikimedia commons.

Climate change threatens the world’s water, not only for drinking and sanitation, not only for agriculture and industry, but for power. Tehri hydroelectric dam, tallest in India, is running dry, and Maharastra’s 1,130MW Parli had to be shut down due to lack of water needed to operate. Australia, most arid country on earth, addressed rapid population growth through Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric, providing over 100, 000 jobs. India has responded to the water crisis by truck and train; 10 of India’s 29 states are suffering severe drought. In 1951, India’s population was 350 million, and each person had access to 5,200 cubic meters of water per annum; in 2016, water availability dropped to 1,400 cubic meters, as the population rose to 1.3 billion. Water may be one of the most severe results of climate change. Safe drinking water and sanitation are offered to 11 states in India through grant and WaterCredit programs by Water.org. How can the world pursue further improvements and access, for all, to water?

Mallet, Victor. “India’s power stations are hit as big dams run dry.” 5 May 2016. The Financial Times.

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

June 3, 2015
by buildingtheworld
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Water for the World

Water innovation may help solve the world’s water crisis: now, how to standardize and distribute Askwar Hilonga’s invention? Image: furman.edu.

World water is in crisis. For example, 70% of Tanzanian households lack clean drinking water: now Askwar Hilonga, of the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, is about to change that. Growing up in rural Tanzania, the chemical engineer recalls family and friends suffering from water-borne illnesses, motivating an innovation combining one of the world’s oldest filters, sand, with one of the newest: nanotechnology. The Roman aqueducts were similarly resultant of a combination of both new and traditional technologies. Askwar Hilonga’s success may soon benefit the rest of the world: 1 in 9 people lack clean drinking water, globally. How can new technologies, supported by industry, governance and global agreements, improve water for the world?

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32973591

http://environmentalgovernance.org/featured/2014/08/united-nations-watercourses-convention-enters-force/

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

November 30, 2013
by buildingtheworld
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Water: How Much is Enough?

Neptune Fountain. Image: wikimedia.org.

Ancient Rome had more fresh water available to its people than present-day New York: about 200 gallons (750 liters) per person per day, compared to average per capita consumption in the United States of 150 gallons (563 liters). Rome’s fountains, over 1000 gracing the city, were evidence of abundance of aqua vitae, water of life overflowing. Originally dependent upon the Tiber River for all things aquatic, from drinking to sanitation, Rome quickly encountered limits to growth. Answers lay beneath the ground in the form of springs, channeled by the famed Roman Aqueducts built by a peacetime Roman army. Without abundant water, ancient Rome could not have grown to its population of over one million. The same is true for cities today: water is a limiting factor, made more precious by demands upon its availability for industry, agriculture, and of course drinking. By 2025, half of the world’s people will suffer water deprivation. What can, and should, we do about the destiny of water?

Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

March 27, 2012
by zoequinn001
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Let’s Take a Walk

“The River Lea at Ware” from Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies, at hertsmemories.org.uk.

Walking along riverbanks is a beloved English pastime, and in a country with so many rivers compared to its size, why shouldn’t it be? While it may not be a true (or new) river, the New River attracts its fair share of strollers as well. The Ramblers, a group dedicated to creating and/or maintaining walking routes in Britain, have created a path along the New River, as well as many of its source rivers, like the River Lea shown above.

Other sites worth visiting if you’re an avid walker include:The Long Distance Walkers Association, The UK Rivers Network, The Walking Englishman, and many, many more!

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Building the World Blog by Kathleen Lusk Brooke and Zoe G. Quinn is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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