Living with water scarcity; an astronaut’s experience

As the World Water Week 2017 opened in Stockholm, astronaut Professor Christer Fuglesang’s image swallowing a bubble of purified urine at the space station may have been amusing, but it brought home the sobering reality of water scarcity plaguing communities on earth.

Urine drink is now commonplace at the International Space Station (ISS) where extreme water scarcity dictates life.

With a glass of water said to cost about $3,000 (Ksh.300,000) at the station, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, contended that astronauts can just drink their own urine.

Speaking at the opening plenary, Fuglesang, a member of the Royal Academy of Science, said that before leaving the station for the last time, he and the crew made a farewell toast with purified urine.

His speech, providing a perspective that very few people have experienced, emphasized why we must safeguard and value our water resources, after all, water is life.

“We must take care of our planet, our home here in the universe”, said Fuglesang.

Describing the astronaut’s perspective as striking, the 2017 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate Proffesor Stephen McCafferey said the unique experience brought home the fact that you can live with scarcity, but you really have to plan carefully to do that.

Just as they recycle water in space, the Laureate noted, we increasingly have to do that here on earth.

“This idea of capturing waste water, treating and re-using it, would have been unacceptable. It would even make people sick just the thought of it, 20 years ago but today, I’m sorry, there isn’t much of an alternative to doing that,” said McCaffery.

“Of course, you don’t advertise the fact that the water coming out of your tap now went down someone’s toilet maybe a month ago,” he added modestly.

Fuglesang’s presentation aptly captured the theme of the World Water Week 2017 “water and waste: reduce and reuse”. Scientists believe the water we have today, has been around for billions of years.

“The water used to boil last night’s potatoes, could have been our communities bath water and that’s kind of a disgusting thought but when you think about it, it’s true because water circulates endlessly in the hydrologic cycle,” observed McCaffrey.

The unique experience of looking at the earth from space Fuglesang admitted, was deeply humbling. Our planet, he said, is a tiny corner of the universe and it is striking how frail the Earth and the atmosphere look from the space and how the causes of so many conflicts are completely invisible.

“You never see borders between countries, coming over conflict zone areas it is natural to reflect over why we fight over this imaginary lines,” said Fuglesang.

Water, being a shared resource has been at the center of several inter-state disputes including Argentina and Uruguay, Pakistan and India, and Slovakia and Hungary, and inter-clan fights at the community level.

The drought situation in Kenya touched off deadly conflicts in the North Eastern region, where nearly half the livestock population was wiped out between December 2016 and May 2017.

At the height of the drought, merely jumping the queue at watering points was recipe for fierce fights.

Justifying their impatience after trekking for days and nights, some herders would claim that their goats, cows or camels were thirstier, a situation that often led to a mix-up of the livestock.

A week before Adan Omar Enow, the Director of the Water Sector Trust Fund travelled to the World Water Week in Stockholm this month, two people died following one such conflict at Tullu Roba village on the Marsabit-Wajir border, his rural home.

Many more incidents go unreported.

Prof. McCaffery, an expert in International Water Law observed that law is crucial in the world of water, without which, there would be no ground rules for sharing the important resource.

“It is like playing football without rules,” he said, “you can imagine, it would be mayhem.”

The Laureate believes that rather than a catalyst for conflict, water is a catalyst for co-operation, of peace and prosperity.

Cooperation, he said, gives a party that is facing water scarcity, a chance to reach out to the one with plenty but lacks a trade route for their produce.

“If you just look at water alone, it becomes a zero-sum game,” McCaffery said, “enlarge the pie to include other things, examine what you’re using that water for, you just have to kind of lift your eyes,” said Fuglesang.


Sylvia Chebet, Stockholm


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