Item number one on the Science Museum’s snazzy website* says “New Exhibition. Water Wars: fight the food crisis”. It takes a huge amount of fresh water to grow food. Supplies are dwindling because of poor water management, increasing demand and our changing climate. As the world’s population explodes, we have to ask… do we fight for fresh water now or wait for a global food crisis?”
This sounds pretty interesting, no? My first attempt to visit the exhibition was thwarted when the trip was vetoed in favour of the the Natural History Museum, fair play. Take two, I was more successful (vetoing a trip to the V&A).
We wandered in with high hopes. We asked where the water exhibition was and were motioned towards the back of a seemingly never-ending hall. Having walked past countless types of transport machinery (from the lovely bicycle, to the snowmobile, to the spaceship) we finally reached the back of the hall. I looked around bewildered, there must be more, the exhibition can’t just be 10m long? Oh no, I’d lured my friends away from dressing up at the V&A under false pretences of scientific interest.
The exhibition apparently wanted to tackle a really important issue, but besides a brief video beginning to explore the problem at hand, the entire (albeit very small) display was limited to technological innovations to desalinise water that currently only work on an incredibly minute scale.
The video does make mention of virtual/embedded water in the context of food production. (This is a good website if you want to know more about water footprints.) But the video essentially makes an argument along these lines: it rains loads in the UK, so lots of people can’t see the problem with water issues — other countries have droughts — lots of our food comes from other countries — oh no! they might keep all the food they grow for themselves and what will we eat?
There are so many issues with the argument itself, but one thing I find particularly damaging is what they leave out. The video only talks about the water usage in food, it doesn’t consider the vast quantities of water that go into producing some raw materials like cotton, and certainly doesn’t look at any manufactured products. Taking just the outlook on food, there is no exploration of the injustice involved – take a look at this little map of the UK’s external agricultural water footprint to see why questions of justice in resource use should be addressed.
A few little projects about desalinisation might grow and be useful in the future – but right now there are a million things we could all do to have a positive impact. The issue is global, but the water companies are already predicting droughts in the UK for next year, so there’s plenty of local action we can take too: from thinking about re-using grey water in the home (this link’s good too!), to consuming less new stuff, to choosing less water-intensive foods that are more locally grown.
*It’s no longer item 1…it’s slipped down to about number 4!