Tse-Hui Teh

Tse-Hui's background is in architecture and urban design. She is currently
completing PhD research at the University College London. Her research is
titled "Hydro-Urbanism: Reconfiguring the Urban Water-cycle". She is a
Fulbright scholar with a masters degree from Columbia University and first
class honors from University of Technology Sydney. She has 10 years of
professional experience in both private and government sectors.

RE: URGENT - You in the Water-cycle

Dear Fellow Contemporary Human Beings,
The terrestrial water-cycle needs to be transformed. It is not a magic stream. It is running dry. Your role in the water-cycle is the cause and the solution.

There are a tremendous amount of water molecules on earth. It is a molecule that seems to permeate everything. You could say the whole earth is just different densities of water. It circulates around, passing from one medium to another: solid, liquid, gas, in rocks, in bodies, in vegetation. It changes state in response to variations in landform and temperature. Most life forms use, contain and dispose water molecules in some way. As such, living beings including humans form a part of the water-cycle as the molecule moves from one medium to another. Every physical interaction and exchange of water, is a part of the water-cycle, therefore we qualify as water transfer devices in the water-cycle as much as aquifers, plants, clouds, or lakes.

Unlike other living beings, humans have invented additional ways of capturing and transferring more water from place to place than our own bodies can store. Technologies such as aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, ponds, canals, pumps, pipes, irrigation channels, sprinklers, tanks, toilets, hoses, washing machines, showers, barrels and buckets divert water from streams, soils, aquifers and other species. This changes water-cycles and subsequently transforms ecosystems. It also modifies our perception of which water resources are available for human use. Suddenly we seem to have a magic stream that never runs dry.

Before the ubiquity of large-scale water transfer technologies human water use was regulated by the amount of water in the landscape from rivers, springs and rain. This kept human water use in check with local water-cycles and ecosystems, but the awkwardness of obtaining water would prohibit the large population we have today.

Over the millennia humans have continued to develop technologies to make it easier to obtain this essential resource to our lives. None of these technologies give any indication of when our water use has exceeded the renewal of our supplies. Nor was this technology designed to share water resources with other ecosystems. The overall effect of these interventions has been to simplify terrestrial water-cycles, thereby hastening the flow of fresh-water from the land to the sea.

Speeding the flow of fresh-water to salt-water is detrimental to us. We consume fresh-water. How can we add to our existing suite of technologies so that more land based fresh-water cycles can be established to slow the flow of terrestrial fresh-water? This can be achieved by modifying how we use water; changing land use patterns for water retention; reusing water multiple times; tuning technologies to integrate with water paths and ecosystems; and creating landscapes that attract and retain rainfall. This is an alteration of water technologies, ecosystems, institutions and management. However, these steps can only partially solve our water problem. This is because the water-cycle is more than water molecules moving around and through the earth. It is also about the interactions with every medium it passes through. Water dissolves and deposits minerals, chemicals and particles, as well as transports bacteria and other living beings. Therefore wastes we produce from our own metabolic, production, or consumption processes, and derivatives from their decomposition, are often purposefully or accidentally transported in water. This distributes our wastes to unexpected places and contaminates land, water and food resources for people and ecosystems. The two simplest ways of preventing this dispersed pollution is to reduce waste and practice methods of metabolising our wastes into harmless and potentially useful products. For ecosystems to emerge in which peaceful human societies reside, clean fresh-water sources need to be shared amongst people and other living beings. The water-cycle does not conform to the administrative boundaries around which people currently organise themselves. Water is in constant motion. It flows through boundaries, above and below ground, and surges as ice melts or in heavy rainfall. This inconstant resource can only be shared fairly if we collectively and individually know our responsibilities in the water-cycle and how to read and respond to the conditions around them.

For example, in the future we would know when it is an acceptable day to take a luxurious bath because this water comes from a burgeoning aquifer that needs be drawn on in order to prevent the flooding of homes near a wetland. This bath water will then be filtered for dirt, which will go to a compost heap and the water will be used to irrigate vegetables that store water for human consumption at a later date. Parts of the water will evaporate into the atmosphere, other portions will enter the soil matrix to be used by other living beings and filtered as it flows back to the aquifer. The flow of fresh-water remains in the terrestrial water-cycle. The use of this water was related to maintaining favourable ecosystems for humans as well as serving personal needs. To be effective, this role needs to be as habitual as the choice of clothing most suitable for the weather. This individual water-cycle understanding also needs to be applied to agreements for large water transfers, which share water over borders and to ecosystems. Knowing our role individually and collectively in assembling water-cycles and ecosystems will compel the design of new material configurations, boundaries, social values and administrative systems. Comprehending every material exchange in a water-cycle is complicated. However it is possible for us to know three exchanges preceding our role and three exchanges following. We can then judge our actions in the water-cycle by the effects of these six exchanges. Did each exchange fulfil: an equitable share with other humans and other living beings; slow the flow of water from land to sea; and contribute to ecosystems that support humans? If each individual judged their role in the water-cycle with this criteria we would mutually influence ecosystems that support other humans and living beings.

We are no longer a minor species living in diverse ecosystems. We are now a dominant species that has homogenised ecosystems. Whilst we face the same requirements to live – air, water, terrestrial space, food, and the correct temperature range – our domination dictates that our ways of achieving these needs must change. The elements we depend on are degrading. We have two choices. We can learn to develop social, technological and ecological systems that support our vast numbers. Or we can allow our vast numbers to exhaust resources and thus give rise to new ecological systems that favour other species.

Favouring Other Species
Today we behave as if we are exceptional from natural systems and operate by controlling and excluding nature. For example, where does your poop go, when you use a flying or flushing toilet? Yes, the human system of disposal means it disappeared from having a direct presence in your life. It may have moved away from your area of habitation, but it hasn’t really disappeared, no matter how much you wish it to be so. It has merely moved to another place on earth. Your poop is still present in the world, and its presence has effects in the world that you created. Yet we persist in pretending that the poop really is no longer our concern. We don’t think about its cumulative effect until it bursts through into what we consider the human system, with direct and detrimental consequences to our lives.  
This behaviour is not a new phenomenon. Historians have documented the fall of human civilisations based on the depletion of the resources for survival. This is parallel with other species and past civilisations that have also exhausted resources to death.

Favouring Humans
The obvious solution is to alter our effects and interactions with the earth so as to co-create ecosystems that continue supporting us. Our actions need to be prioritised by the knowledge that humans are not exceptional to nature. The totality of our individual day-to-day behaviours has extensive effects co-creating the ecosystem in which we inhabit and so will our descendents, with no exemption.
Four key questions to help find a path for this future are:
- How do we change our behaviours in order to ensure the greatest number of us alive now at this moment, will also be alive in the future to see our grandchildren grow old?
- How do we make these future human lives better than our present lives because their behaviour is responsive to the material exchanges on earth that supports the existence of peaceful human societies in perpetuity?
- How do we answer these questions together so that we mutually have a fair chance of living our lives to potentials as part of our ecosystems?
- How do we generate respect for each other so that innovations can continually occur to the mutual benefit of ourselves, and ecologies we co-evolve?
To answer any of these questions requires systemic change of how we organise ourselves, and new concepts of the human role in ecosystems. How might this apply to the critical resources for people?
I think our ways of interacting with water-cycles and creating new ecosystems will be a continual co-evolution. It can begin today. How could you transform your water-cycle?


Tse-Hui Teh