Peter Gleick: Water Emergencies — Time for New Plans and Technology

The world faces a wide range of serious, complex, and long-term water challenges, from shortages to contamination to local and regional disputes over water to long-term climate changes. But there are other challenges that are short-term, emergency situations that could also be addressed by some new thinking and new technology.

Peter Gleick
Dr. Peter Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, an internationally recognized water expert and a MacArthur Fellow.

We’ve seen the headlines recently: Earthquakes have destroyed the water systems of Haiti and part of Japan. Typhoons or hurricanes have contaminated or destroy water delivery capabilities, as in New Orleans andelsewhere. Droughts are, as we speak, leading to serious water emergencies inTuvalu and Tokelau and Texas. When water is short, people and economies suffer.

Yet we always seem surprised, and our responses are typically hurried, ill-considered, and very expensive. We airlift bottled water to disasters, which permits bottled water companies to claim great humanitarian benefits, but is an extraordinarily expensive and unsustainable response. We send in small-scale desalination equipment, which is also costly, technically complex, and limited in capacity. These kinds of responses are sometimes necessary, but it is time to add to our arsenal of options.

First, we need to take water disaster planning seriously. In California, for example, it has long been understood that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (the “Delta”) region, with major water infrastructure, is vulnerable to earthquakes, levee failure, and sea-level rise, among other threats.  [Indeed, most of the state and its water systems are vulnerable to earthquakes.] A large fraction of California’s water deliveries originate in the Delta. Despite this understanding, there is still no serious emergency response plan in place. For example, a recent draft Delta Plan stated,

“Despite the risks of levee failure, no published emergency action plan exists that addresses the consequences to federal and State water supply deliveries in the event of catastrophic levee failure in the Delta… failures are inevitable and will require the implementation of well-coordinated and carefully developed emergency-response planning efforts.”

Given the current risks of disasters, the growing threat to water systems from climatic changes, and the high stakes of water-system failures, innovative emergency response plans should be aggressively pursued. The old saying applies: “Seeing the future is good, but planning for it is better.”

One possibility is the widespread advance deployment of fabric bags capable of storing and moving bulk water supplies. These bags have been tested in the past, and even used for a time to tow bulk water through the Mediterranean to water-short areas. For a few years, a company called Nordic Water Supply from Oslo, Norway, transported water in bags 200 meters long from Turkey to the northern coast of Cyprus. In the late 1990s, another company, Aquarius Water Trading and Transportation, towed water in bags in the Aegean Sea.

And an American entrepreneur, Terry Spragg, has pushed this idea for many years and has developed innovative fabrics and connections systems, including what may be the world’s largest zipper. While there has been some talk about using these bags on a regular basis for long-distance bulk water deliveries, they seem to have a clear role to play in emergencies. Why not preposition hundreds of these “Spragg bags,” carefully folded and stored in regional stockpiles, so that they can be immediately deployed, filled with freshwater, and towed to nearby coastal areas in disasters. Or these bags can be flown to disaster sites and used as on-the-ground storage reservoirs where water can be appropriately produced and treated to provide high-quality water (see the photo below). Recently, Spragg has proposed that these fabrics can be used to produce a “flexible fabric pipeline” as a key component of an emergency response plan to move water moderate distances in a disaster.

This idea has been proposed to the State of California as a way to temporarily and quickly address water disruptions caused by a disaster that affects the water-delivery systems of the Delta, such as an earthquake that destroys levees, disrupts flow patterns, or damages pumping systems. Yet state agencies have not even conducted the basic analyses or field tests to determine how effective or useful these options would be. Indeed, at the moment, California’s emergency response plans seem to be to pre-position piles of rocks so that levees can be repaired, along with a lot of handwaving and moaning about risks.

The “fabric pipeline” and “water bag” ideas have several possible advantages, including

  • Relatively low cost.
  • The environmentally benign nature of the system (as compared to semi-permanent rearrangement of channels and flow or more major construction projects.)
  • The speed with which the system could be deployed.
  • The modular nature of the system, so that it can be progressively expanded.
  • The resilience of such a system, which could be rapidly repairable and movable.

This is a novel idea, but we need new ideas and new actions. At a minimum, significant tests of the abilities of water bags should be conducted quickly and comprehensive, to evaluate their strengths, weaknesses, and costs, and develop strategies for their use. Emergency planners take note. FEMA, or state agencies, or international emergency response groups should test these systems immediately and if appropriate, deploy them widely as a new tool in our arsenal for addressing inevitable future water emergencies.

Peter Gleick

Originally published by Forbes on October 6, 2011.