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Siphoning the Globe: Water Exhibit Exposes Worldwide Crisis

The exhibit, now at NYC's American Museum of Natural History and headed to San Diego and St. Paul, explores the depth of our global water crisis.
 
 
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Editor's Note:
Water is an architect of the natural world, a building block of our bodies, and the lifeblood of our communities. It is, in short, our most important resource. And yet, each day, we squander it through pollution, mismanagement, neglect, and greed. As regions across Africa, the Middle East, Australia, Asia, and North America, face worsening drought, it is time to increase our understanding of the role of water in sustaining life for all creatures on this planet.

An amazing crew of individuals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, led by Dr. Eleanor J. Sterling, the museum's Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation have made an important contribution to halting the water crisis with their new a ground-breaking exhibit that will change how you think about water. The exhibit was also organized by the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, in collaboration with Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland; The Field Museum, Chicago; Instituto Sangari, São Paulo, Brazil; National Museum of Australia, Canberra; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada; San Diego Natural History Museum; and Singapore Science Centre with PUB Singapore.

The exhibit covers a huge amount of ground, including information about how other life forms interact with water, the hydrologic cycle, the history of water use across the world, virtual water facts, the effect of dams, maps of water availability and use, and a whole lot more. Presented with incredible interactive displays, you can feel, taste, hear, and see the affect of water on our lives and how important it is to protect this resource.

Sometimes my shower head drips -- I can hear the steady beat as I try to fall asleep at night. And sometimes, instead of tinkering with the temperamental shower knobs, I'll close the bathroom door to block out the noise.

Entering the new exhibition, Water: H20 = Life, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, I was struck by a similar scene. One drop at a time, water falls from the ceiling, splashing into the others that have fallen before it. It's a hypnotic reminder that every drop is worth contemplating.

The exhibit underscores that all life on earth is founded upon water. Climate change may dominate today's environmental news, but in fact the world's supply of fresh, clean water is becoming scarce.

The World Water Council predicts that a shortage of potable water will become the next environmental crisis. Already more than 1 billion people don't have access to enough safe drinking water to remain healthy -- and the problem is expected to spread beyond Africa and Southeast Asia.

With recent reports of water troubles in industrialized nations -- from a recent oil spill off South Korea's coast to the heaps of disposable water bottles accumulating in American landfills -- the exhibit's message is timely. Interactive displays encourage participation, making the some of the more complex material both informational and fun.

The wide-ranging show is scheduled to travel worldwide after it ends its run in New York on May 26, hitting cities such as San Diego, Cleveland, Chicago, São Paulo, Canberra, Ontario and Singapore. The exhibit is intended to educate people around the world on water use and inspire them to make a difference in their communities.

In most places in the United States, we can simply turn on the tap and have immediate access to clean water. Currently, we have enough of the stuff to establish verdant golf courses in the Arizona desert and fill swimming pools in Palm Springs. Because water has historically been abundant in our country -- or at least it appears to be -- the show faces the challenge of convincing visitors that they need to be more vigilant about their personal water use.

Beginning with a section covering plant and animal life, the exhibit describes some of the remarkable ways that different species have adapted to water shortages in harsh environments. Living in arid conditions, the Texas horned lizard has ridges on its back that funnel water to its mouth. The seafaring albatross drinks salt water to survive, but it filters the salt into special glands that empty from its beak. As humans, we don't have these kinds of tricks and must rely on fresh water to survive.

Interactive displays are the exhibition's strongest element. In an appealing, hands-on demonstration of water's miraculous shape-shifting abilities, a (solid) block of ice melts into (liquid) water, which is then converted into a billowing gas (vapor).

In another display, a short movie is projected onto a large globe to illustrate water availability on earth. In the film, our "blue planet" first seems to be flush with water; however, more than 97 percent of the blue stuff is nonpotable sea water. Two-thirds of the rest is confined in ice floes and glaciers, or trapped deep underground. What's left, we learn, needs to be divvied up to nourish plants, animals and more than 6 billion people. With an ever-increasing population, the world is producing more commodities and growing more food -- and that takes more water.

Some water statistics are illustrated by a virtual bar graph made up of clear pipes that fill with blue-tinted liquid. According to the show, people in the United States use an average of 151 gallons of water a day (compared to the average Ethiopian's three gallons). We learn that Europeans use much less water than we do in the United States -- people in the United Kingdom use just 31 gallons every day. We also learn how much of the world's fresh water supply is devoted to agricultural (70 percent), industrial (22 percent) and domestic uses (8 percent).

Producing the food we eat, it turns out, takes a lot of water. That hamburger you ate for dinner last night? Try 600 gallons of water, most of which is devoted to growing the corn that feeds much of the cattle raised in the United States. Your average cup of coffee? You're actually guzzling about 74 gallons of water.

Yikes. What's a meat-eating, caffeine-loving human to do, and why should we change? Making educated choices about the foods we eat and the clothes we wear can empower us to reduce our reliance on wasteful agricultural processes. The show tries to connect the dots between our individual water choices and the problem of clean water availability worldwide, but with such a broad swath of material to cover, it's difficult to make the problem a personal one.

The show devotes a large chunk of space to promoting tap water over expensive, wasteful bottled water, but in general, I left this section of the exhibit thirsty for more ideas about how to adjust my lifestyle to save water.

There's a case study examining the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest hydroelectric dam, which chokes off the Yangtze River in China. Water flowing through the turbines of this Great Wall of concrete is expected to generate about 10 percent of China's electricity, but at what cost? The exhibit hits on several key points. The government displaced more than 1 million people to clear out a proper flood zone. And, though the power companies tout hydroelectric power as atmospherically "clean," trees and other plants decompose in the floodwaters and release methane -- a greenhouse gas that's 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming.

In addition to learning about water problems around the world, we hear about solutions. Communities in dry parts of the world collect water in several ingenious ways: fog-catching nets, cisterns that collect rainwater, even a merry-go-round invention that pumps groundwater while children play. One group in South Africa goes to the root of water shortages by removing invasive plant species that steal water from native plants. Here in the United States, some cities have found ways to prevent sewage from polluting waterways during rainstorms.

The exhibit concludes with profiles of local people who are working to conserve area water supplies and a quiz that gives helpful ideas for trimming household water use.

After spending two hours at the exhibit, I left feeling inspired about water conservation. Now I just need to get my shower fixed.

Kelly Stewart is a writer and editor living in New York City.

 
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