Crater at death valley

California on the wagon

Posted on 17 February 2015.

Water here is in short supply so people save it as much as possible – we are not in an African desert, but a small town of 7,300 souls near Los Angeles in California.

"It’s the kind of thing we’re able to predict”.

Welcome to East Porterville. You want to take a shower? You have three options: either you are among the lucky few that still have water in their homes, or you can fetch it from a recently installed emergency tank, or... don’t wash. It isn’t science fiction, just the day to day life of the people in this small California town over the last few years.

Not a drop left

According to the Los Angeles Times, the drought has lasted more than 4 years and is the worst that California has seen for 1,200 years. And looking at how things stand in East Porterville, which symbolizes the problem it is easy to believe - 400 dry wells; water tables that will soon dry up; the high cost of personal water tanks; farmers having to abandon some of their land because it is now impossible to cultivate - and having to distribute bottled water to more than 1,000 of the 7,300 residents because they have no running water and are having to drink a brackish liquid... These figures reflect the gravity of the situation.

Antique Truck Frame Rusting in Desert
Antique Truck Frame Rusting in Desert

When the impossible happens

This phenomenon is not an isolated case. In general, non-drinking water consumption is already a major public health problem - when there is any... And when there isn’t, the consequences start building up: agricultural land deteriorates and there is poverty, hunger, conflict, and of course, massive migration. By 2020, nearly 60 million people are likely to have had to leave the deserts in sub-Saharan Africa for countries in Northern Africa and Europe because of the drought (a situation known as water stress. It isn’t anything new. But when it happens somewhere like the United States, the drought takes on a differently spectacular character. In fact in this part of the world you wouldn’t think it would be as severe and would be swiftly overcome. Not at all. In East Porterville, the people who can take a shower every day are the lucky ones... It reminds us that today, no country – north or south - is immune. Water shortage is an issue that concerns us all.

'Serious Drought Help Save Water' sign
'Serious Drought Help Save Water' sign

The blue gold rush

Fortunately solutions are emerging both in California and elsewhere. In the north of the state, SCWA (Sonoma County Water Agency), has partnered with IBM to collect and analyze essential real-time data: water consumption, quality, temperature, climate and environmental indicators. In New York, the CWC (Columbia Water Center), supported by the Veolia Foundation, has mapped the risk of water shortage at the county level using the rainfall data from the last sixty years, and daily water consumption. Initiatives such as these make it possible to manage available resources more efficiently, and address drought problems upstream.

In Mexico in 2012, engineer Sergio Rico revealed his solid rain invention, an extremely simple chemical process for trapping rainwater in arid areas.

There is another solution for agriculture reported in the newspaper 20 minutes in an interview with Rémi Hemeryck, Chief Executive of the NGO SOS Sahel. Anti erosion diking and the "zai” technique, which consists of breaking the crust on very eroded soil to a depth of 20-30 cm in order to incorporate organic materials, planting seeds that will grow to provide new ground cover.

Whether traditional or innovative, there is no shortage of techniques. That said, simplifying the decision making process at government level is essential. In East Porterville, in parallel to local issues, the communities rely heavily on the state to solve the problem. Delegating responsibility in this way could be risky. As Daniel Griffin, assistant professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota has said, drought "is the kind of thing we’re able to predict." Or in other words, avoid.

Find out more:

- The official web site of the NGO SOS Sahel
- A documentary on reintroducing zaï in Africa
- The official web site of SCWA