How An Umbrella Provides Symbolic Insight Into The Importance Of Water Management
As climate change sparks water shortages, World Umbrella Day reminds us to bring an upside down umbrella perspective to water management.
The umbrella dates back thousands of years. It was first used by civilizations like Egypt and Persia to guard against sunlight.
It wasn’t until much later that umbrellas became popular to shield against another natural assailant: rain. In the 17th century, upper-class women across Europe carried silk umbrellas that proved minimal protection against rain. It wasn’t until around 1750 when an Englishman named Jonas Hanway carried a fashionable rain umbrella on the streets of London that the umbrella transcended genders. The materials have since evolved to make umbrellas more waterproof and portable, but the basic form and function haven’t changed in hundreds of years.
Many of us carry umbrellas on rainy days. When the rain comes, we lament its presence and invoke the mighty umbrella to protect ourselves from the elements.
At times, we don’t want water anywhere near us. I love a good umbrella. But as the world warms and human civilization grows, it’s increasingly clear that water is far from our enemy. Water is the lifeblood of civilization.
As we celebrate World Umbrella Day, I think it’s worth reflecting on the sanctity of water and the wave of global water shortages brought about both by human-caused climate change and unsustainable water management practices that threaten humanity’s future.
Why Water And Cities Go Hand-In-Hand
Water is key for civilization. Pick any major city and it’s far more likely than not that it’s on a big body of water.
Why is this the case? Water makes commerce much easier. Even today, moving people and things over water is often faster and cheaper than doing so over land.
But more so than its economic utility, water is key for two key aspects of human civilization: growing food and providing fresh water for drinking. Without food and water, sustaining life is impossible. Water management allowed humans to transition from hunter-gatherer nomads to sedentary agriculturalists who could establish cities and civilizations with growing populations.
Since the dawn of civilization, water management has undergirded every major civilization. Perhaps the most famous example of ancient water management still exists: the robust aqueducts of the Roman Empire, many of which still stand as testaments to Roman ingenuity.
And yet despite our historical preoccupation with procuring and managing water supplies, we’ve done a terrible job of late.
Water management is especially key in areas with major variability in water availability. Many of the world’s foremost cities experience high seasonal variability in water availability.
Much of this is natural. But much of the recent spate of water shortages has little to do with nature and much more to do with poor water management that is increasingly unsustainable.
A useful example to examine in this context is a recent water shortage in Brazil’s biggest city: Sao Paulo.
How Sao Paulo’s Water Crisis Reflects A Misguided Approach To Water Management
Sao Paulo is the most populous city in Latin America and has the largest economy by GDP in both Latin America and the Southern Hemisphere. It abuts the Atlantic Ocean, receiving more than 60 inches (150 centimeters) of annual rainfall. In sum, you wouldn’t expect Sao Paulo to lack water. But a few years ago, Sao Paulo underwent one of the worst water crises in recent memory.
What happened? Here’s some key context:
Brazilian cities are highly water-stressed even in normal times due to demands from agriculture, domestic, and industrial users, who withdraw up to 80% of available water depending on the location.
Inter-annual seasonal water variability is likely rising in Brazil. Even in wetter climates like Sao Paulo’s, extended dry periods can offset the benefits of ample precipitation at certain times of the year.
Deforestation has altered Brazil’s water cycle, exacerbating the worsening seasonal water variability driven by the same factor that is worsened by deforestation: climate change.
Sao Paulo’s central reservoirs, Billings and Guarapiranga, are too polluted for use.
The city loses 31% of its water to leaks and theft.
Clearly, even in normal times, water management is an issue in Sao Paulo. Then, in 2014–2015, the city suffered its worst drought in a century. Given the headwinds listed above, that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Like other water-stressed cities, Sao Paulo has worked to mitigate future water shortages. Jason Kelman, the president of Sabesp (the state-operated water and waste management company at the center of Sao Paulo’s water management issues), claims to have learned four key lessons from the 2014–15 crisis: “good supply-side engineering, sensible demand-management through pricing mechanisms, transparency so that the public are on the side of the government in saving water, and accepting that past data was no longer a reliable guide as a result of climate change and land-use change.”
But Kelman’s comments reflect a misguided approach to water management. His mentality is akin to plugging a gaping wound with a BandAid. Instead of speaking in the short-sighted language of quick engineering and business-related fixes, both Sabesp and Brazil would be better served thinking more holistically about the causes and effects of water shortages.
The umbrella itself provides a useful mental model for such holistic thinking — turn it upside down and the umbrella is a perfect vessel to capture rainwater rather than repel it. But if recent environmental developments provide any clues, Brazil is far from properly managing its precious natural assets. If the country that carries 12–16% of the world’s freshwater can’t manage its water, what does that say for the rest of the world?
Like COVID-19 and climate change, a widespread lack of water often doesn’t gain attention until it’s too late. Humans tend to ignore longer-term, less visible threats, even when they directly imperil their survival.
So the next time you’re stuck in a rainstorm, don’t curse the raindrops falling on your head. Welcome them. Water is a gift. And if you’re too cool to have your outfit ruined by a few drops of water, pull out a handy umbrella.
Remember how lucky we are to live on a planet full of water and how invaluable all of that water is for all life on Earth, not just yours and mine.
Happy World Umbrella Day!