Living With Water

When Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti in October 2016 it left a thousand people dead. Some areas suffered 80-90 percent demolished buildings as well as destruction of bridges, roads, and schools. Adding to the misery, sources of livelihood were lost as banana and cocoa plantations were flattened and fishing boats were damaged or destroyed. Damage to water supplies and sanitation systems have increased the risk of disease.

In the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana, as much as 31 inches of rain fell between August 8 and 14, 2016. Flooding killed 13 people, and damaged or destroyed 146,000 homes, displacing tens of thousands of people, at a cost estimated at $8.7 billion. Flood water covered farmland deep enough and long enough to destroy crops.

At the same time, parts of northern Georgia and Alabama were in the midst of a six month drought that killed crops, threatened livestock, and emptied lakes to their lowest levels in years. Record numbers of days without rain became a one-in-a-hundred years event. Atlanta is building a $300 million project to store 2.4 billion gallons of water to avert future water shortages.

Where there is no water, there can be no life. So basic is this necessity that space scientists use availability of water in analyzing the potential to support life on distant planets. On our own planet, water is plentiful, but not always in quantities, or flowing at velocities, that are manageable. Water, as well as the lack of it, can destroy life, and can destroy livelihood, as it did for the people of Haiti and the farmers of Georgia and Alabama.

The on-going series of “worst ever” weather events, and “hottest ever” months, is a warning of the potential for volatility in our environment. These events should remind us of the part that human activity plays in them. Construction of higher levees that result in thousand year floods being recharacterized as five hundred or one hundred year floods is an obvious concern. Man-made causes of climate change are at last receiving international recognition.

Vulnerability to damage from water, or the lack of it, spans the globe, most notably in Africa, Bangladesh, or Haiti, but also, as demonstrated by Super Storm Sandy in 2012, in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Manhattan, New York.

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