Of all the pressing issues facing cities around the world today, water scarcity is one that still has surprisingly little traction globally. Perhaps this is due in part to the localized nature of the issue. While, say, the gas, oil, or coal that keeps many of our city systems running is a product of the global market, and may be shipped to us from the other side of the world, most cities today still rely on local water sources. When Saudi Arabia runs out of oil, all of us will feel the heat, but when Los Angeles runs out of water, Tokyo’s taps—or even nearby Portland’s—still flow.
But the reality is that thousands of cities around the world do face water scarcity. According to a 2012 study by the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at the University of Columbia, half of all cities in the world with a population 100,000 or greater exist within water-scarce basins. Twenty-five percent experience water depletions of greater than 50 percent at least one month out of the year, and thanks to ever-increasing use of irrigation in agriculture (accounting for over 90 percent of global water consumption), this number is only getting larger.
This means two things. First, of course, it means that cities are reaching out further and further or drilling deeper and deeper to expand their local watersheds. Instead of focusing on conservation efforts within the agricultural sector, they are draining sources from ever-greater distances, with often catastrophic social and environmental consequences (be sure to see Edward Burtynsky’s haunting images of the dry Colorado River delta in his book Water, or his film Watermark, for more on this). But it also means that the effects of water scarcity are felt acutely by local citizens, and often disproportionately by the poor. Already the urban poor in many urban areas spend up to a quarter of their income on water, and poor neighborhoods tend to be the first to have their water supplies cut off for public space irrigation, cleaning, or even sewage.
It was with the latter issue in mind that the Water Bench was born during the Lab’s time in Mumbai. Noticing a painful divide between the parched public spaces of the city’s poorer northern suburbs and the lush green parks of the affluent south, architect and Lab Team member Neville Mars developed a bench that would provide much-needed public seating while harvesting and storing rainwater that could be used for irrigation during the dry season. With three different storage capacities—500, 1,000, and 1,800 liters—the bench’s bounty could easily be adapted to fill any needs of a particular community, whether for agriculture, cleaning, or light industry.
In conjunction with Participatory City: 100 Urban Trends from the BMW Guggenheim Lab, Mars will present the Water Bench and his vision for its place in cities around the world at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this Sunday, December 1, at 6:30 pm. Tickets to the event are $7, $5 for museum members, and free for students with RSVP. Be sure to check it out!