Water is a finite resource. Read that again, I’ll wait.
As the global population increases and climate change worsens, water scarcity is quickly becoming one of the world’s largest issues today. Late last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor revealed that nearly 82% of the country is facing at least abnormally dry conditions — the highest percentage since the drought monitor launched in 2000. Historically, the West has been battling drought for hundreds of years, now, however, unusual dryness is continuing in parts of the Northeast and expanding extreme drought conditions into the Midwest. And this problem isn’t just limited to the United States.
According to the United Nations, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries. Today, 1.42 billion people — including 450 million children — live in areas of high or extremely high water vulnerability per UNICEF.
When you think about water scarcity, most think about the people living in those regions as it pertains to having access to clean and reliable water for domestic use. We all need water to survive. With the water supply dwindling in these water-stressed areas, this is a recipe for disaster. Poor and marginalized groups, including women and girls, are among the hardest hit, impacting their ability to maintain good health and hygiene.
However, what most people don’t realize is that water scarcity has broader implications, particularly for the built environment. One example is fire protection systems.
The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) Foundation released a research report in December studying water supply, climate change and the impact of water stress on fire protection systems. The research was conducted by Virginia R. Charter, Ph.D., P.E., FSFPE and Justin Paul Fletcher of Oklahoma State University. Given the fact that water-based fire protection systems rely on having an adequate water supply to suppress a fire, this is a potential powder keg of a problem. That’s not even taking into account that local fire departments also rely on the availability of water when they respond to a fire.
“There is no research available on the implications of water shortages on fire protection systems, whether those protection systems are devices such as sprinklers or a more active role in suppression due to firefighting,” the report states. “This gap in the research is concerning because unreliable water supply systems will drastically decrea2se the effectiveness of fire protection systems in buildings and hinder the active suppression efforts of firefighters when they do not have the required water to combat a fire emergency.”
The report also contains several case studies, but the most interesting, in my opinion, is the one on the Texas winter storm of 2021 that caused massive infrastructure failures. The unprecedented storm battered the state and surrounding region with frigid temperatures, overwhelming the state’s electricity grid and causing massive power outages for millions of Texans. Once temperatures warmed, residents found themselves without access to water due to cracked, broken pipes and busted water heaters.
“During the crisis, water supplies were very limited to all Texans and house fires increased,” the report indicates. “As discussed previously, lack of water and low water system pressure affected the entirety of the fire protection systems that were dependent on that water supply. Without these systems in operation, the risk of not being able to control and suppress a fire was greatly increased across the state.”
Additional case studies from Spain, South Africa and Australia are also included in the report. The report is available as a free download through SFPE at sfpe.org/foundation. It’s definitely worth a read.
I’d love to hear thoughts or feedback on the topic from any fire protection engineers. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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