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ASU anthropologist talks about water insecurity, solutions in an ever-changing environment

Recent article looks at alternatives to the piped water systems most Americans use

Hand turning on a faucet, out of which water pours into a glass.

Photo by Jacek Dylag/Unsplash

August 09, 2022

Amber Wutich has researched water for decades, especially how humans handle shortages and unpredictable water situations. Her job is to think about the worst-case scenarios and then find ways to cope, improve and update systems. 

“I care a lot about humans and about saving human lives and making our lives better,” said Wutich, President’s Professor of anthropology at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and director of the Center for Global Health at Arizona State University.

“The problems that I work on are our most basic challenges, especially things like water and food, and how organizing them in better ways can improve our lives.”

Wutich recently wrote an article with other scientists about developing alternatives to the piped water systems most Americans use today. “Modular, adaptive, and decentralised water infrastructure: Promises and perils for water justice” examines ways people can access clean, safe water — other than pipes running to a home. 

There are people in Arizona on all economic levels who can’t turn on their tap and get clean, safe water, said Wutich. 

“This is an incredible luxury when we look through the lens of human history,” she said. “Humans have not generally been afforded this kind of reliability and safety in the water supply. And it’s something that many people have gotten used to. They’ve gotten used to not needing to participate actively in water management.”

Wutich believes this situation may not last, as aging infrastructure is hit by more extreme weather. 

People living in poverty have long suffered with water problems, but that is changing and spreading to more groups. Wutich says she has started studying water insecurity in middle- to higher-income populations. She points to a recent article in The New Yorker that talks about a lack of centralized water and a boom in new homebuilding across Arizona. 

Even for those homes that currently have centralized water systems, Wutich says it is important to explore alternative water resources. Droughts, disasters and climate change are why she and other scientists are looking at MAD (modular, adaptive and decentralized) water systems. People may be using MAD systems in their home and not even realize it. 

“A reverse osmosis system would be an example of a MAD system,” Wutich said. “At ASU, there are engineers currently working on nanotechnology-enabled water treatment units. Another example is bottled water; if there was a water shutoff, bottled water is this mobile, adaptive, decentralized solution.”

She explained bottled water has its own challenges to the environment and shouldn’t be overused. In Tucson, rainwater harvesting has become a common alternative water resource. 

Wutich praises Arizona water managers — with whom she has worked throughout her career — for their planning and vision. She said they’ve been planning for droughts and looking ahead to the possibility that the cost of water could increase while the availability decreases for decades. 

“We don’t need to change a lot of what humans are doing; we need to fully appreciate the range of water solutions that already exist,” Wutich said. “And everyone can get involved in doing that.”

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