The Eden Project Magazine: Water, water, everywhere

Article first published in The Eden Project Magazine, Summer 2106. Read the original article here

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If you take a wander through our Mediterranean Biome this summer, you might spy Reiner Rockel’s tiny greenhouses nestled amongst the vines.

A knitwear engineer by trade, Reiner is studying for a PhD at the London College of Fashion. But Reiner is more interested in climate change than catwalks. He is using his textiles skills to create prototype fabrics from glass, basalt and bamboo. These fabrics are used to create double-skinned greenhouses for parts of the world where water – and therefore food – is scarce. A photosensitive outer layer protects crops from being scorched by the sun, whilst the inner layer harvests moisture from the air for watering the crops. ‘It is like a sweater,’ Reiner explains. ‘If you leave it outside overnight, in the morning it will feel damp. It has absorbed the moisture from the air. As the sun warms it up, that moisture evaporates, and the sweater becomes dry again. The water-harvesting fabric works by allowing this water to be collected instead so that it can be used to water the crops inside the greenhouse.’

Why? Imagine that the entire planet’s water could fit in a bucket. Out of all that water, the amount available to meet the needs of the human race (clean, accessible, not salty, nor trapped in an ice-cap) would fit into a teaspoon: 0.01% of earth’s water. We already use half of this available freshwater for drinking, washing, cooking, growing our food, in manufacturing and the production of energy.

Ours is an ever-increasingly interconnected world. More than half of our food is imported from other countries, so the impact of water, whether too little, too much, or too dirty – wherever it might be – affects us too. But here at Eden, where the Biomes are 15 metres below the water table and our pumps run every day to keep us dry, it can be hard to imagine a lack of water. Nonetheless, it was Eden which came to mind when Reiner was searching for somewhere suitable to test his fabrics. ‘Eden’s Mediterranean Biome is probably the only dryland environment in the country!’ he said. And the Eden team were only too pleased to help. ‘It’s a great opportunity to be involved in cutting-edge research,’ said Catherine Cutler, who heads up the Mediterranean Biome horticulturists. ‘It’s also really special to be able to do this not in a laboratory, but as part of an exhibit, where people can see it and learn about the research that is going on.’ With data collected from his time at Eden, Reiner plans to head out into the field and trial his greenhouses on a larger scale in Ghana, Africa.

As the number of people on the planet continues to grow, pressure on our water supply is mounting. Climate change is making weather patterns increasingly erratic, meaning some countries – such as India and China – are regularly facing devastating floods in one part of the country whilst searing drought ravages another. UN sources predict that by 2025, water withdrawals will rise by 68%, leaving 1.8 billion people living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world population under stress conditions caused by water scarcity. It’s one of the reasons why projects like Eden China are so important to us. Facing the ocean and flanked by mighty rivers, it is the perfect location to create China’s first international environmental visitor destination. The Qingdao site perfectly reflects the Eden Project mission; after centuries of use as a saltpan and shrimp farm, the land and water have been heavily damaged by human activity, much like our own Bodelva site some 15 years ago.

Meeting the challenges posed by too much, too little or impure water has always brought out the best of humanity’s inventive genius, and Eden Qingdao offers not only the opportunity to heal a broken wetland, but to create a symbol of best practice regeneration, water management and water efficiency, relevant not only to China but to the world. Eden Qingdao will explore water in its many forms: rain, streams, torrents, waterfalls, ponds, canals, irrigation channels, aquifers and springs. It will go from micro to macro: from a drop of water to a storm cloud. It will show the extraordinary ways that plant ecosystems resist, influence, depend on, capture, and filter water. By affirming the relationship between the ocean and wetland, it will encourage the development of coastal and tidal environments, such as wetlands and mangroves, that are vital in mitigating the effects of rising sea levels, as well as increased tidal and storm surges. All while creating – in true Eden spirit – the most stunning water gardens ever seen on earth, an awe-inspiring temple to the beauty, power, mystery and the life force that is water.

Closer to home, we are also taking a fresh look at water on site, as part of The Crunch, the Wellcome Trust’s ongoing conversation about food, health and the planet. Every weekend throughout the summer and autumn, you will find our team of narrators talking about what we eat and drink, and the impact this has on our own health as well as the environment around us – including water. ‘Did you know chocolate takes more water to produce than any other food?’ smiles Jake, one of our Narrator Team. ‘Up to 24,000 litres for every kilogramme – that’s water that the plant needs to grow, as well as the water used in the production, processing, packaging, transportation and storage.’ Jake loves talking about water, mainly because of the element of surprise it entails. ‘People are often shocked to find out just how much water is needed not only to grow the food that we eat, but also to get it to our plates. We’re used to talking about food miles and the impact this has on climate change, but not so much about the amount of water it takes to produce food and get it to us. But when you can visualise it, it makes you value it more.’

The virtual water content of our foods is not something we’re likely to find on a food label anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to understand more about this precious resource. It might not feel like it during a typically British summer when it’s more downpour than dog days, but clean, fresh, usable water is a globally limited resource that we will increasingly need to value and protect. So whether it’s turning off the tap, recycling your grey water in the garden, or changing your shopping habits to buy more local and seasonal produce, we can all make small changes that reflect how vital those precious drops of life-giving water really are.

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