Analysis: festival of water

E&T introduces this issue's features with a report from Expo 2008, which has just closed in the Spanish city of Zaragoza.

It was a real festival of water. In a breathtaking display of ingenuity, modern architecture and cutting-edge technology, over 100 participating countries showed different aspects of their cultural relationship with water. The pavilions competed with each other in trying to woo the maximum numbers of visitors who were prepared to queue for hours to enjoy interactive and digital shows illustrating the role of water in history and everyday lives.

The focal point and the undisputed architectural highlight of Expo 2008 was the Digital Water Pavilion.

Created by architect Carlo Ratti and voted Time magazine's Invention of the Year for 2007 (when its design was initially unveiled), it featured walls and roof made of water, and offered striking views over the Expo site and the Ebro River.

International heavy-hitters Arup provided structural and mechanical engineering for the structure - the first ever building with an external façade formed from 'water curtains' digitally controlled to create openings allowing visitors to move freely in and out.

The Pavilion's one and only solid element was its roof - an Arup-designed 400mm thick structure resting on pistons that could move it up and down (from 2.5m to 4m). In case of strong winds, it could be lowered to ground level, at which point the whole building would 'disappear'.

The Pavilion housed the exhibition entitled 'Water, a unique resource'. In it, I was taken by a set of water-sprinkled wooden panels specifying how much water it took to manufacture various everyday products:

  • One glass of orange juice takes 170 litres of water to produce;
  • One pair of jeans - 10,850l;
  • One hamburger - 1,400l;
  • One glass of milk - 200l;
  • One kilo of beef - 15,997l.

These are sobering statistics at the time when one-third of the world's population don't have enough water for their daily needs.

What are the reasons behind this major water crisis and what are the ways of tackling it? We will try to answer these questions in this issue's selection of specially commissioned features. And although Phil Chamberlain's 'The Stuff of Life' and 'A Force of Nature' by William Houston do not always agree about the causes of global water shortages, they both offer some interesting solutions to the problem.

Solutions was what Expo 2008, behind the splashy displays, was all about. Branded "an expo with no expiry date", it ran parallel with the so-called 'Water Tribune' - a collection of conferences uniting the world's leading experts in water supplies and sustainable development. These conferences will continue after the exhibition's closure.

The latest Tribune was subtitled 'Water and Energy: water for energy and energy for water and non-conventional energy sources'. It was opened by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who noted with satisfaction that 1.2 billion people had gained access to an improved source of drinking water since 1990. But he went on to point out that there are still more than a billion people lacking access to safe drinking water and 2.5 billion lacking access to basic sanitation facilities, and that many challenges remain.

"Water is life," he said. "I am confident that the millions of visitors to this expo will leave not only with a deeper understanding of the issues and opportunities at hand, but with a strengthened resolve to do something about them."

A passionate keynote address on water and the future of the renewable energies was delivered by Jeremy Rifkin - economist, writer, current president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and an E&T contributor. He stressed that the existing crisis arose not due to the scarcity of water on the planet, but due to our inability to manage it: "The good news is that 75 per cent of the planet is water; the bad news is that only 2 per cent of it is fresh and much of that 2 per cent is ice. We have seven to ten years left to resolve the issue of adequate water supplies."

"There is nothing more important therefore than educating fellow humans about water crisis and climate change," he said.

That is exactly what we've tried to do in this issue. One of Expo's biggest revelations - the fact that matters of water supply were of equal concern to both developed and developing world - has been reflected in all our three main features, and most particularly in 'London Water Wars', which shows that even such a major world metropolis as the British capital is not immune to water crises and shortages.

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