TED Conversations

Sabin Muntean

Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

TEDCRED 50+

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What are the best ways to stop wasting water?

I stumbled upon a GOOD graph on this topic entitled "Every drop counts" (http://awesome.good.is/transparency/web/1108/water-usage/flat.html). According to the graph a family of four needs about 3 gallons of water per day, whereas US families can use up to 400 gallons.

It is a fact that water is becoming an increasingly precious resource and that we cannot afford to waste it. The graph already provides some good tips on how to reduce the wastage, but I was wondering what other things can help save water, and by this I mean not only direct methods such as repairing your dripping faucet, but also indirect ones such as eating less meat as 1 kilogram of meat needs a lot more gallons of water to actually produce.

I am looking forward to your answers!

Topics: waste water
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    Aug 27 2011: harvest rain water, reuse grey water for toilets, and gardens, compost toilets, and of course shower with your friends.
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      Aug 27 2011: All socially positive suggestions Anthony!

      However, in my municipality, old rules and laws made in another era make the use of grey water illegal. Perhaps we need to have magazines and seminars write articles and report the facts before it is too late.
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        Aug 27 2011: Debra might have posted this somewhere; http://www.naturalnews.com/029286_rainwater_collection_water.html amazing this madness. The air is next as we all have seen the film "total recall" :)

        On eating meat weekday vegitarian; this is great I want to apply; http://blog.ted.com/2010/05/18/why_im_a_weekda/
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          Aug 27 2011: Thank you Paul for posting these!
          The next question is: how do we ensure that information like this makes it into the main stream conscousness? The major share of mind is dominated by entertainment and fear. How can this be reversed so that people feel that their actions can actually make a difference?
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        Aug 27 2011: Carissima Debra in the water issues always is too late.
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          Aug 29 2011: Luigi! I was wondering where you had gotten to and i missed you and your colleagues!

          How can it be too late when human beings and everything else on the planet need water? We must find a solution, don't you think?
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        Aug 27 2011: If I would be a preacher, I would start the survival church ;) Preaching all day getting the basics right, physically and mentally. Water is one part, very simple; We need water for drinking and cleaning. The optimist in me says using rainwater for flushing toilets would be the first common sense soon.

        Than again, I am no preacher more than too my son, I will try to tell him the water story right as schools only tell about water molecules, water cycle and water pressure.

        (Sorry if a little primary school frustration drips through)
        • Aug 27 2011: why do we think about flushing toilets. we can collect poo and it becomes compost our pee deluted in water is a plant fertiliser.
          the 2 flushed in water pullutes all our water.
          than we need expensive cleaning systems to clean the water.
          it comes out separate and shuold kept separate.
          in china they still have poop collectors
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          Aug 29 2011: I like the Sesame Street Model of teaching children about many fundamentals. 25 years ago when my eldest son was a little boy the muppets on that show taught him (and me) to turn the tap off when we were brushing our teeth rather than let it run. We just never considered the consequences of our actions before. In one friendly, well presented song, we both changed and that changed my way of teaching my other children as well!
        • Sep 1 2011: @casa food grown with human excrement is toxic to humans - or is that just an old wives tale?
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        Aug 27 2011: True about flushing casa mandala. Also for cities? For how many people on 1 km2 can survive with poop collectors? Why did the Romans build flushing systems to get rid of poop and pee than.... In the meantime until we can convince cities to give up on flushing, a big bucket on everybodies roof would save quite some drinking water.
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          Aug 29 2011: Casa's point is quite a good one. Until commercial recyclers found the profit motive in collecting formerly abandoned cardboard and plastic and tin cans our landfill sites were overwhelming us.
          Perhaps we need to extol the profit motive in urine and feces! We have to stop soiling our water supplies and if the refuse becomes a resource (fertilizer is expensive to dig out of the ground, or harvest from the ocean, shipping it is expensive too) perhaps we can think differently about it.
          Additionally, I have often wondered how long it will take for companies to realize that some of the substances which have defiled and polluted our river and lake beds are actually marketable chemical substances. Again that profit motive might be what is required to clean up the greatest sources of fresh water that we have - like the Great lakes.
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        Aug 27 2011: Well it might be time for a bit of civil disobedience. I would love to see the legal (over) reaction to a couple of hundred citizens breaking the law by putting buckets under their gutters, or running their shower water to a garden.. It would be really difficult to to justify these laws hence exposer of them is needed.
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          Aug 29 2011: I have rainbarrels but in this day of specialization I would not know how to redirect my shower water into my garden (even though i have read that soapy water is excellent for plants). No licensed plumber would risk his license to violate municipal laws. I guess the answer is to educate our differing levels of government.
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        Aug 31 2011: 'Let the polluter pay' is a big thing in Europe, law enforcement is quite strong as national companies are not wired well (yet) with european law making to influence/lobby. Hope it will stay.

        I still thought on word of mouth on the issue 'illegal rain water collecting'; A fake campaign a government wants to make air conditioning illegal. Even airco in the car. "You are not allowed to take air from the air to cool it for personal or corporate use. Opening two windows at the same time? If we catch you, we close one window forever." ;)
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          Sep 2 2011: I wonder why no one has ever suggested going back to all the old corporate tax returns for all of the years when companies are known to have polluted rivers, lakes and ground water and demanding that any tax exeptions, rebates, returns be refunded to the relevant government to pay for the reclamation of water resources? In general, it should be pretty darned easy to attribute blame to the sources. Are companies just too powerful with governements to be held accountable. They profited from the destruction of our national resources upon which everyone's life depends. Why should they not have to consider the reclamation or undoing of their willful acts a cost of doing business. After all the profit they made then allows those companies to make even greater profit now.
    • Sep 3 2011: Water is more important than independence; and I totally agree with Anthony; in addition, I would like to suggest that:

      There should be finally a maximum limit for water usage; only the bill will not work.
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      Sep 3 2011: I do all of those, except the last. Indeed, water saving in the simplest ways.
  • Aug 28 2011: It's important to recognize that minimizing water use is not necessarily the most helpful thing for the environment. The key thing, from an environmental point of view, is that we draw our water from sources that integrate with the natural water cycle and do not poison or deplete it. Water is not necessarily "used up"; in a decently-designed system, it is cycled.

    For instance, if you live in a rainy country, have a good rainwater catchment system, and your runoff goes into the ocean, then you should go ahead and take long showers. Long showers are nice!

    Conserving water is a good idea for most people, of course. I'm not trying to discount that, but I do think the environmentalist movement sometimes focuses on accounting-style equations at the expense of a sensible understanding of the actual cycles and processes of nature.
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    Aug 27 2011: Get rid of taps.

    Hauling water from a well would force people away from convenience and towards conservation.
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      Aug 27 2011: This was what I was thinking too. I have stayed in my life for short and longer durations in various villages without running water only a well. Having to queue, pump, carry that water made you realize how precious it was. You use it sparingly as you know what is involved in collecting it. Water is way too conveniently obtained.
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      Aug 27 2011: About 20 years ago I lived "off-grid" where I had to supply my own electricity, heat, and water (filtered rainwater to be specific). What I learned was that you gain a tremendous appreciation for any resource -- and consequently learn to manage it wisely -- if you are directly responsible for its collection/production.

      The unprecedented level of convenience those of us in industrialized cultures enjoy is a serious impediment to frugal resource management.
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        Aug 27 2011: Wow! What interesting insight you have on this topic. There is something impactful in hearing from people who have been there and done that. Thanks Sharon and Tony!
        • Aug 27 2011: we live of grid and collect rainwater. with the right setup 1 rainfall can give a long term supply.
          it also reduces our monthly bills
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      Aug 28 2011: I agree that having to haul water from a well teaches you an important lesson on its real worth. I remember that I had to do such chores as a kid in my grandmother's home village in Southern Romania. In the meantime they have running water 24/7, but back then they still depended on wells.

      The thing is that the overall development is going the other way around with more communities gaining access to tap water and then perhaps becoming more wasteful. Not sure how a reverse development could by achieved.
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    Sep 1 2011: Water is a rather stable molecule. It is a peculiarly human perception that once having passed through one's body (or one's lawn or one's vegetable garden) it somehow loses value. It's the same molecule. The problem is not one of 'wasting water' but of having too much of it in a place (aka a flood) or too little of it in a place (aka a drought) or having it contaminated by chemicals (including sodium chloride!). Water is totally recyclable and has been circulating for hundreds of millions of years..... We can cleanse water of parasites or bacteria or viruses -- or we can drink or use contaminated water. Humans can turn salt water into fresh water if they want (some places, not blessed with fresh water do!). It's really irrelevant how much water passes through our lives... the water remains after we've taken temporary possession of it. The real issue is whether we're willing to cleanse it and reuse it over and over and over.... or whether we choose to sit amid contaminated water and complain that it's not to our liking....
    • Sep 4 2011: Eloquently put! I've been telling everyone for years that we are drinking the same water as stone age man. If not where's it coming from?
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    Aug 31 2011: To stop wasting is the best solution. Because, any increase in availability of water will result in more wastage. Just imagine, if there was infinite amount of water available we would be wasting infinitely. This is fundamental human logic which is hard to change, especially on planet with billions of people on it.
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    • Aug 29 2011: that is the best idea i've heard for a long time. Genius.
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    Aug 27 2011: there is no such thing as wasting water in the western world. in europe for example the climate is such that clean water is highly accessible and abundant. in israel and the US, water can be a problem at places, but they are solving it nicely with technology and the price system. water is problem only at those places where water and technology are both lacking. usually people don't waste water these places. and from the talk it is quite clear that technology is the solution.
    • Aug 28 2011: Krisztian, the more of your comments I read, the less convinced I am that you live in the same world I do. Can 'there is no such things as wasting water in the western world' be a serious comment? Just because we have an abundance of it, does that mean excessive use is not wastage? I grant you that the water you don't put down your drain won't help a farmer in africa to grow his crops, but given your tendency to seize on semantics, I feel duty bound to tell you that waste is waste, whether you can afford it or not.
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        Aug 28 2011: if you have a lot of it, you can use a lot of it. where is the problem here?
        • Aug 28 2011: you may have a lot of it, but SHOULD you use a lot of it? Is it not wastage to use more than you need because you can? Thats vulgar, Krisztian. Vulgar, and indulgent, no?
        • Aug 29 2011: Waste is waste, the water we waste gets processed (when wasted, needlessly) which takes it's toll on the ecosystem, no mater how minute.

          Stephen is right, it is vulgar to flaunt or excuse wasting in the face of those who need.
        • Aug 29 2011: the majority of us live in towns and cities too. Paved areas create large amounts of run off, the majority of which goes into drains rather than soaking into the earth. This cannot be separated from the waste that you put down YOUR drain, and it all goes to the same treatment plants. In some parts of London, there is so much water to be treated that they have to use external holding tanks to store it until it can be treated. This causes problems for the people that live in the area i.e sewage smells etc. While it isn't life or death to us in the west, there are still huge implications to our excessive water usage, and we should do what we can to reduce it or recycle it.
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        Aug 28 2011: again, why not? we have a lot of it. nobody is in need. who i am hurting if i use a lot of water? what do you think, stephen? it is rational, no?
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          Aug 29 2011: I agree krisztian but only if it is sustainable and what you use in not polluting in any way we should be concentrating more on water quality than how much we use as long as its sustainable
        • Aug 30 2011: when you use waterly freely ,do u think of others who have no water to use ! No water for using is not their fault ,but what 's the reason to lead to the drought!
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        • Aug 28 2011: i say that because you said there is no such thing as wastage, and then that you use exactly as much as you need, no more no less. You can justify any amount of usage that way Krisztian...
  • Sep 1 2011: The best ways to conserve water I know of were all covered in the novel: Dune, stillsuits to collect and filter expended moisture, wind collectors, underground reservoirs, ect - it's like a howto for desert survival (though if I ever actually lived in the desert my song may change :D)
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      Sep 1 2011: But does your bodys water get returned to the tribe i don,t like the sound of drinking dead people or knife fighting for other peoples water :) . But i agree for such an old novel it has great concepts that we could learn from
      • Sep 1 2011: well hopefully water will never be that rare on earth... although I've seen documentaries from remote parts of Ethiopia where they drink cows blood for the water content.
  • Aug 31 2011: I think the biggest waste is rain water. It rains uselessly on cities all over the world and gets washed into the sea with a bucket load of pollution. Although this is a far flung idea, but if you really want to avoid waste in a novel manner then we should dome all the cities. The rain water would run down the sides into an underground holding tank where the water can be filtered and pumped into the cities water supply. The dome can be partially covered with solar panels to reduce the intensity of sunlight thus requiring less energy to run air conditioners. It would also be quite easy to dehumidify city air which would also produce water and reduce air conditioner usage. Less water would be washed away to the sea and weather would no longer be a problem for residents. They could go out for a picnic in a storm.
  • Aug 29 2011: I guess I would need a better definition of what wasting water really is.

    My definition wouldn't be someone taking excessively long showers, as that water that goes down the drain doesn't leave the planet. Yes it does have to make its way through a wastewater treatment plant but eventually either collect into rivers and lakes or evaporate and fall as rain.

    I would consider wasting water any act that leaves it in an unusable conditions. For example, industrial manufacturing that contaminates water in it's processes. Another waste would be ethanal, that not only uses food for fuel, but it takes a lot of water to create that food.
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      Aug 29 2011: just a very brief side note: ethanol combustion results in water vapor.

      the remark about polluting the water is spot on though.
  • Aug 28 2011: Water is very precious. However, we are talking about about a very spoiled majority of people who will not do the simple things to conserve. I have read thru the comments and there are quite a few of excellent ideas. I am afraid, that the majority of people that take water for granted would laugh in our faces. These spoiled humans need to start in baby steps. As was posted in the comments, turn the water off when brushing teeth. Do not use a dish washer. Etc., etc., etc., even this would help in the struggle for the most precious resource we have. I am afraid, some humans are just too spoiled to do even the baby steps. Excellent Topic!!!
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      Aug 28 2011: tell me something. if i start to use less water, how will it help to the people in central india?
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        Aug 28 2011: by giving positive example to other communities. When planning to make a change in the world, we need to start by changing ourselves. Cliché, however still actual.
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          Aug 28 2011: which communities need my positive example? other communities that have abundance of water, or other communities that already use less water as it is very scarce?
      • Aug 29 2011: That is a good question. I am afraid, you will not like my answer. I am not a globalist. I take care of my backyard first. I have a family, parents, that I take care of. Should I move to India? Should I break my budget and to a charity? This is not an option, I live pay check to pay check. So,,, back at the farm, I do what will help my community, by conserving water. May I ask how you are helping India? It is just a fair question. I am helping my community. That is my response. With respect to you.
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          Aug 29 2011: i didn't ask how do you help indians. my question was: if you use less water, what good that does to them. they won't have any more water. it is not like mineral oil, which is transported all around the globe. water is local.

          how i do help indians to get water? well, not much. i support the acumen fund with 2% of my income.
      • Sep 1 2011: quite simply by allowing less pollution into the water cycle... the water you pollute will travel around the globe, I realize that water and landfills are different, but I bet there's at least one wrapper in the great pacific garbage patch with your name on it, polluted water is no different, it all goes into the ocean and carried abroad.
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        Sep 1 2011: I believe it not the resource your wasting but the extra load you may put on the infrastructures by doing so. What happens when that sewage pond is full because you flush more than you should?
        sewage over flow into rivers helps no one.
  • Aug 27 2011: For domestic use, setting up some sort of rainwater harvesting system is probably the single biggest thing you can do.

    But the responsibility to save water is really on the world's farmers - 70% of water use is agricultural. Judicious use of agroforestry, earthworks and practises that build soil structure could cut humanity's water use in half, even while the population grows.
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      Aug 28 2011: Good point about agriculture, Conor!
      • Aug 29 2011: There are ways to reduce the amount of water (and fertilizer) which is used in and runs off from agriculture. One that was used for golf courses and parks when I was younger was a naturally-occurring soil of bonded volcanic ash and diatomaceous earth called Waterlok or something similar. The one-time application cost made sense for urban environment irrigation of large areas, but water and fertilizer costs have not yet increased to the point in rural North America where agricultural applications make financial sense. Also, there is the issue of water-rights in the Western US actually discouraging conservation (i.e. if you don't use your full allotment, the excess can be assigned elsewhere making it difficult to reacquire if you need it in the future).

        It would be nice to see 30-40% of US's water returned for original uses (SWAG extrapolation that 40-50% of the 80% agricultural water usage in US could be conserved from the grass and trees experience in sandy soils of 50% savings). I enjoy kayaking and fishing and would love to see the tension between agricultural use and conservation uses of water be reduced. Also, I would be happy to see less agricultural runoff into the waterways, but farmers are not likely to act contrary to current practice unless the economics make sense for them. Producing a life-staple for much of the world makes them somewhat resistant to other pressures.
    • Aug 29 2011: quite right. Actually, we can do a lot by buying seasonal fruit and vegetables from local sources, rather than grown out of season in hot countries. In many cases, essential water is diverted from where it is needed so that it can be grown to supply supermarkets.
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    Aug 27 2011: It would be cool to see how much water is being used in different machines around the house (dish washer etc). i was looking for that but could really find. then you can build a normal model of how much water your house consumes.
  • Sep 4 2011: why do not you try to live in somali?.
    avarage consuming of water for one person is 150liters per day according to the authorities.When it comes to americans(not for all,generally speaking) this is out of the limit they can consume also they are out of the all kind of limitation restrictations.What we are supposed to do is that if the water is the one vital right we have got to know how to share this water resources for human being.Because of our greedy that's why somali can not find any water.We must teach our children to SHARE.That might be the solution.
  • Sep 4 2011: The fertile plain of West Lancashire became a major source of food for the neighbouring city of Liverpool in the 19th century when the Leeds and Liverpool Canal allowed horse manure and human waste to be brought from the city to the adjoining farms.

    This of course has now been replaced by chemical fertilizers.
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    Sep 2 2011: I do hand wash my clothes and lol, I use the water after for cleaning the bathroom/kitchen... :'D
  • Sep 2 2011: To introduce a related topic, I encourage everyone to become familiar with biochar. It offers a medium for decontaminating polluted runoff by adsorption from places such as storm drains, providing a matrix for retaining moisture in soil, and storing and releasing soil nutrients such as phosphorus from fertilizer or urine, which would be a big water saver.

    I'm hoping to see a TED talk on biochar before long!
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      Sep 2 2011: Nice information Brian ! Can you give me more information about the Biochar ! Please give me the link !
      • Sep 2 2011: It's a many-faceted topic. Start with the Wikipedia article on Biochar and you'll find many good links there.
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    Sep 1 2011: Rainwater harvesting is good, but I'm thinking of turning desert land into year round agriculture.
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    Aug 31 2011: France generates 70% of its energy via nuclear power. An accident like Fukushima can go two ways- it can cause a flight response which equates to abandoning nuclear power, or it can cause a fight response which equates to engineering future plants to be more bullet proof against natural disasters. There are no viable alternatives to oil and coal fired power plants that can deliver energy at current costs. Solar, wind, geothermal, are all inflationary and wind farms are a maintenance nightmare. Energy requirements are growing with the industrialization of the 3rd World which is long over due and happening at a geometrically accellerating rate. Transportation of coal and oil to nations without their own reserves is inflationary and leaves them economically less autonomous than modern modular nuclear power stations.

    Large scale aqueducts would be like an irrigation system on steroids. You simply take snow melt from regions that produce a surplus that drains into the ocean unused and pipe it to where it is needed, such as desert areas which can be developed to the point where we could feed 100 times the world's present population and create modern, ergonomic cities and move populations from overcrowded urban centers. We need to open up the Buckminster Fuller manual and create a design science revolution.
    • Sep 1 2011: I'm normally the first to cheerlead for hi-tech solutions and I'll enthuse about the ideas of Saint Buckminster Fuller to anyone who'll listen. However, in the case of ensuring a good water supply it seems to me that lo-tech solutions are more powerful. Gigantic aqueducts etc would be overkill. Here's why -

      Nearly every house can supply its water needs with a simple rainwater cistern plus slow sand filter. There are plenty of local studies proving this is viable in most parts of the world, even the dry 'n' dusty ones. Example: this UN report on rainwater harvesting in Africa - http://www.unep.org/documents.multilingual/default.asp?DocumentID=485&ArticleID=5420&l=en - or the 'Million Cisterns' project in Bahia. The bottom line is: even dry places can get most of their water from their rooves. Why build gigantic aqueducts and nuclear desalination plants when you have distilled water falling on your head?

      Anyway, the big fish for water conserving efforts has got to be agriculture. Why? Because 70% of human water use is agricultural. So how do we decrease this draw? Make agriculture as water-efficient as possible; maximize 'crop per drop'. Again, case studies show that very simple methods in very dry places will do the job nicely. I'm talking about trees, mulch, swales and other earthworks. Another UN report - http://www.fao.org/nr/clim/docs/clim_080901_en.pdf - says this, "Since the beginning of the 1980s, in Niger, 250,000 hectares of severely degraded land were recuperated by using simple techniques such as zai, half-moon and retaining walls."

      250,000 hectares of desert were turned into productive farmland! If that doesn't excite you, you have no soul. And it can be done with just stone walls, pits and that sort of thing.
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    Aug 31 2011: I'd be more inclined to find ways of producing more water either via nuclear powered desalinization or large scale aqueduct projects. The reason we have a scientific civilization is because we have been able to engineer greater efficiencies out of this Leggo kit of a planet. There really is no limit to the efficiencies we can produce because in doing so we are, in fact, mimicking the laws of the Universe which are maximally efficient.
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      Aug 31 2011: Are you really sure that nuclear powered desalinization would be a good idea?
      Nuclear power is controversial as it is, but placing the plants right next to the sea would basically mean asking for trouble, look at Japan.

      What do you have in mind by large scale aqueducts? Sounds interesting.
  • Aug 30 2011: From your thinking,i also note the same fact.1 thing is to be spread that water is a resourse that can not be recyled after use.If we try to contain our day2day wasted water then only this thing can be cured.

    Water is going to be precious in the near future.In India,most developed agricultural states like Punjab,Haryana,West bengal,this scarcity of water is in alarming state.Not only scarcity of not getting drinking water,another major problem is to get afected by diseases like gangrene due to presense of Arsenic.

    Another thing is the drinking water we take is above its permitted pH value.In most cases villagers get nothing but this,that are acidic in nature.

    So 1 thing is sure.We have to stop it.From my short memory I have seen the best way to stop ths wastage is to provide tht and that only water to the people by the corporation.In rural areas,where awareness is the only cure.they have the vast amount of unused drinking water.This water should be preserved.Then that preserved water must be kept in control.

    Another natural source is Rain.In a recent research,it reveals if we make this whole amount of rainwater count in suitable manner,then this headache may be relieved in many countries.

    Now, we can only hope people understand the need of it and take their responsibility to stop this wastage immediately.
  • Aug 30 2011: I am sorry, I was under the impression you were going off the introduction comment in the debate? So,,, to answer your question, what I do to conserve water, will not help India in no way, what so ever. Does this help? With respect to you.
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    Aug 30 2011: Perhaps this is branching too far off the original topic, but I don't believe that fresh water is going to be a long term problem. If we eventually move to 100% renewable energy (I know it's probably a long time away, but I'm assuming we will get there eventually) then won't we be able to just stick a hot metal rod into some sea water, and collect the evaporation? Desalination plants have been running in Australia now for a while, and although the salt redistribution can be harmful to the environment, won't a clean energy world alleviate most of the negative externalities? I'll be interested to hear thoughts on this.
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      Aug 30 2011: water is not a problem if you have resources. the problem arises when there are too few resources in a given area, that is, they are poor.
  • Aug 29 2011: get a gym membership at the Y and take showers there as long as you want to
    • Sep 1 2011: lets assume that there are some people with no such access, or if not, that because of the wastage of people around, "The Y" (for those of you who don't know I believe she is referencing the YMCA/YWCA) could not give it out freely... what then would you do to limit your wastage?