This is Dubai. I include this photo of a toilet because every drop of water in the entire city comes from desalinated sea water. I thought a lot about the cost – in money and fuel – involved in mechanically creating that fresh water from the salty Persian Gulf – and how it is then flushed away. This is possible in a region where energy is plentiful and heavily subsidized by the government. And let’s face it. There is no other source of water. No Plan B.
This is Hong Kong which has had a critical water shortage for a century. The Chinese have taken a different approach than the Arabs. Every toilet in the city is plumbed with sea water, but they skip the desalination part and just operate two plumbing systems for every building. One set of pipes carries scarce and expensive fresh water for drinking and washing, and the other delivers free salt water for toilets. A fresh water surcharge pays for the subsidized salt water infrastructure. In a hyper capitalist society with serious physical constraints a market rate mechanism for conservation and self-rationing makes sense.
This is California’s water supply system. Melted snow from inland mountains is collected and channeled across the desert to thirsty coastal cities. Then the water is flushed away and sent out to the ocean.
What do all these systems have in common? They’re big, complex, expensive, and highly vulnerable to disruption. And let’s be clear. Disruption means no running water in cities with millions of people who have no recourse to other sources of something as critical and essential as water. There’s no slack in the system. Nothing to fall back on.
Back in July of 2003 there was a failure of a chunk of pipeline that delivered gasoline from Texas to the greater Phoenix metroplex. It took three weeks to patch it. That supply disruption caused mayhem as gas stations went dry, prices rose, and normal life became difficult in the car dependent city. Oddly, the pipeline that failed only delivered one third of Phoenix’s gas. The other two thirds came from a second pipeline from Los Angeles. Yet cutting off one third of Phoenix’s supply resulted in two thirds of local gas stations shutting down.
In a finely tuned supply chain any gap ripples out and quickly magnifies in a disproportionate manner. Tucson and Los Angeles were physically unaffected by the pipeline rupture, but refineries and fleets of tanker trucks were mobilized to deliver gas to the empty stations in Phoenix with predictable price hikes across both Arizona and California.
Now let’s imagine how things might play out if an entire refinery or tank farm in Louisiana, New Jersey, or California became disabled by an industrial accident, earthquake, or terrorism. The resulting fuel crunch would drag on for months across a much larger area. We’d be looking at a critical shortage of diesel for all the eighteen wheelers on the interstate, jet fuel for commercial aviation… the entire just-in-time supply chain for all goods and services would get very funky very fast with price hikes for just about everything.
As a society we have no interest in thinking about these things. Nor are we even remotely prepared to adjust to what is probably inevitable.