By Cindy Moffett
Water is a precious resource and perhaps the most basic human need. Yet because of population growth, urbanization, and climate change, it has become extremely scarce in many places around the world.
In Baguio City, Philippines, water flows from the tap only a few hours a day. Household managers—usually women—are responsible for monitoring the supply and rationing it carefully. They use recycled household water, also called greywater, in toilets and for cleaning and gardening. Clean water storage drums or tanks stand outside every house, but when they run dry, some residents must carry buckets down the steep hillside to public springs then haul the heavy, sloshing load back home.
Lisa Reyes Mason, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work, was standing on a balcony with her aunt in Baguio City when she saw women and children lugging buckets to an urban spring. She recalls a similar experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Guinea. Baguio City, however, has a population of 300,000.
“I was surprised to see the same kind of water hardship and water carrying going on in this very urban and densely populated city,” Mason said.
Baguio City was designed in the early 1900s as a mountain resort for 25,000 people. Now its population is twelve times that size and the city’s water system struggles to keep up with demand.
“My interest was in learning how people cope and adapt, because we know that worldwide, water is a growing problem,” Mason said. “People have different physical, financial, and social assets; how do those matter? What are the inequities, what causes those inequities, and how can we better distribute or provide more opportunities to get water?”
To answer these questions, Mason gathered information in one Baguio City neighborhood during a six-month dry season.
She learned that the Baguio Water District (BWD) public supply is directly available to about 50 percent of the neighborhood, far less than the 80 percent often suggested by BWD or heard around town. Even that supply is rationed; at best, it’s available three times a week for four hours a day.
Therefore, everyone stores water, but income affects how much. Wealthy people may have a tank that holds 500 gallons, enough to keep a family of four going for five days. Poor families may have just two small drums that hold fifty gallons each, enough for only one day. For these people, as well as for the half that has no water connection to start with, “Where will I get water?” is a chronic concern.
One alternative is to purchase water from private tanker trucks, but delivery times are uncertain and the buyer must be present to pay in cash. Water can also be borrowed or purchased from neighbors, but the rate is sometimes four times higher than what the BWD charges. During the rainy season 80 percent of households harvest rainwater, reducing some water bills from 10 percent of the total family income to zero. The dry season, though, may mean constant trips to the public springs.
“You see this real disparity between who has water and who doesn’t,” Mason said. Once her initial study was complete, she recommended program and policy interventions to make water more easily available for all.
One idea, increased conservation, was already under way because the government had begun protecting a nearby previously logged watershed. Second, she suggested improving relations between BWD and its customers, who complain about faulty meters and being charged for water that does not arrive. Could BWD notify its customers of supply interruptions, perhaps via text?
Third, Mason pointed out the need for more evenly distributed water storage. What social or economic programs could make it possible for every family to have enough storage capacity to last several days? Could local authorities provide rainwater collection for the community as a whole? Fourth, could local activism, such as lobbying for extended infrastructure, actually make a difference?
Programs and policies do not change overnight, but BWD is working to improve its customer relations, and its infrastructure continues to expand to new areas. Furthermore, building on Mason’s work, the University of the Philippines has received a grant from the International Institute for Environment and Development to study water issues throughout Baguio City.
Climate change and population growth are also affecting water availability in the United States. Many California cities are facing another year of drought, with reservoirs at half their usual levels. Mason hopes that coping strategies from developing countries, such as the rainwater collection in Baguio City, may help inform programs and policies here at home.
In 2013, Mason was introduced to some new UT faculty members with similar interests: Kelsey Ellis, assistant professor of geography, and Jon Hathaway, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. Ellis’s climatology specialty and Hathaway’s focus on ecosystems and hydrology meshed well with Mason’s study of climate issues and adaptation.
“We started meeting at a coffee shop to see where this might take us,” she said. Since decades of warnings about climate change have failed to significantly change people’s actions, the trio decided to take a local approach.
Funded by UT’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, Mason, Ellis, and Hathaway began a study of microenvironments in four economically diverse Knoxville neighborhoods. Two sensors in each neighborhood measure air temperature, wind speed, and soil moisture. The team uses the data to analyze climate effects such as the urban heat islands that occur where pavement and buildings replace green space. Mason and her students also interview residents, learning how the environment affects them.
In the next phase, sensors will integrate air quality and other parameters into the data, and the social workers will tackle how to make the resulting information useful to the residents.
“The idea is to create usable science,” Mason said. “We’re also in good communication with the city, the sustainability office, and neighborhood offices. We want to include them as participants in the research and find out how this data could be useful in informing sustainability-related programs or policies in the city,” she added.
“How do we make sure that climate adaptation policies and programs are inclusive, that they’re accounting for the needs of lots of different groups of people, that they’re participatory?” Mason asked. As the group tackles these questions, long-needed changes may finally start to fall into place.